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Looking the truth right in the eye

Confronting visitors as they enter the Natural History Museum's bicentennial bi·cen·ten·ni·al  
1. Happening once every 200 years.

2. Lasting for 200 years.

3. Relating to a 200th anniversary.

A 200th anniversary or its celebration. Also called bicentenary.
 tribute to Charles Darwin is a plinth with a plush purple cushion on top. Two pale-coloured mockingbirds rest there in elegant repose, their labelled claws pointing upwards. Caught by Darwin in the Galapagos in 1835, the birds - previously stored in the museum's vaults - are being displayed in public for the first time.

These are no mere historical curios, however. Although at first glance they look similar, a closer examination reveals key differences. One bird - from the island of Floreana - is darker and has wing bands and a relatively large beak, features that surprised Darwin at the time. Until then, the young naturalist had thought all mockingbirds would be light-coloured like the second specimen (from San Cristóbal island) on the plinth. Such differences - in creatures supposedly from the same species - intrigued Darwin and set him thinking about how animals might change and then evolve into new creatures. 'Such facts undermine the stability of species,' he wrote of his mockingbirds in a notebook, also displayed here.

The revelation of the birds' role as triggers for Darwin's thinking is unexpected. Most versions of the story of his theorising have suggested it can be traced to his observations of variations in the Galapagos's more glamorous creatures: its giant tortoises Giant tortoises
Three living groups of tortoise can be considered 'giants':

Galapagos tortoises Chelonoidis (nigra) species Seychelles giant tortoises Dipsochelys species African spurred tortoise Centrochelys sulcata
 and its finches. Until now the mockingbird mockingbird: see mimic thrush.

Any of several New World birds of a family (Mimidae) known for their mimicry of birdsong. The common, or northern, mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) can imitate the songs of 20 or more species within 10
 has not had a look in. If nothing else, its newly discovered importance puts right a biological injustice. More importantly, it shows that much fresh thinking has gone into this insightful and occasionally exhilarating exhibition.

Thus we are taken on a journey that follows the intellectual route of one of our greatest thinkers as he worked on his theory of natural selection which would, in the end, depose To make a deposition; to give evidence in the shape of a deposition; to make statements that are written down and sworn to; to give testimony that is reduced to writing by a duly qualified officer and sworn to by the deponent.  God as creator of man and reclassify Verb 1. reclassify - classify anew, change the previous classification; "The zoologists had to reclassify the mollusks after they found new species"
class, classify, sort out, assort, sort, separate - arrange or order by classes or categories; "How would you
 humans as mere members of the animal kingdom. Peppering this trip is a variety of personal artefacts, digital displays, reconstructions, and historical documents as well as the odd living creature - Charlie the Green Iguana, and an Ornate Horned Frog, a mouth on legs - that have been included to demonstrate key Darwinian ideas and to bring some immediacy to proceedings. We also get to see the instruments Darwin took on his voyage on the Beagle, including a tiny toylike pistol to ward off robbers; hairs from his beard; letters from his father warning that joining the Beagle would make him seem 'a disreputable dis·rep·u·ta·ble  
Lacking respectability, as in character, behavior, or appearance.

 character' unsuitable for the clergy; and Darwin's list outlining the pros and cons pros and cons
Noun, pl

the advantages and disadvantages of a situation [Latin pro for + con(tra) against]
 of marriage. This last, intriguing document was written when Darwin returned from his great voyage, as he prepared to settle down to become a gentleman scientist, and which balanced 'loss of money to buy books' against the prospect of 'a companion in old age', the latter winning out. (In fact, Darwin turned out to be a doting dote  
intr.v. dot·ed, dot·ing, dotes
To show excessive fondness or love: parents who dote on their only child.

[Middle English doten.
 husband and parent.)

The exhibition is also at pains to confront the implications of Darwin's theory and to face down those who argue that it is 'merely a theory'. The roots of this latter misapprehension mis·ap·pre·hend  
tr.v. mis·ap·pre·hend·ed, mis·ap·pre·hend·ing, mis·ap·pre·hends
To apprehend incorrectly; misunderstand.

 - explained through video presentations by several leading US biologists, including Francis Collins and Niles Eldredge - can be traced to the common use of the word 'theory' as another word for a hunch. To a scientist, however, a theory is an explanation substantiated by fact, a category into which natural selection now fits like a glove.

Following Darwin's lead we have since learnt how our species emerged from the savannahs of Africa to colonise Verb 1. colonise - settle as a colony; of countries in the developing world; "Europeans colonized Africa in the 17th century"

annex - take (territory) as if by conquest; "Hitler annexed Lithuania"
 every corner of the planet. And it is this last act of evolutionary history which provides the Darwin exhibition with its own sad coda. Those mockingbirds from Floreana, so crucial to Darwin's thinking, are now hovering at the edge of extinction thanks to habitat loss. Although ubiquitous 170 years ago, the Floreana mockingbird is now one of the world's rarest birds and the subject of a desperate rescue breeding programme set up by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is a conservation organisation with a mission to save species from extinction.

Gerald Durrell founded the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust as a charitable institution in 1963 with the Dodo as its symbol.
. Much depends on this project, for if it should fail, we will have lost a species whose importance we have only just come to appreciate and whose role in scientific history earns it a special iconic status.
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Date:Nov 16, 2008
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