Science is not fun

Opinions personals de membres del CEHIC i alumnes de postgrau

set. 23 2009

Darwin comes to Spain

Posted in General |

 

At the moment there is a well done exhibition in the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid to commemorate the Darwin year 2009 entitled “La evolución de Darwin“. I was pleased to see that the curators had picked up on some of the context of Darwin’s work. For example that Darwin spent most of his budget in the year 1866 on postage. This is a memorable fact that reminds the visitor just how important letters were for Charles Darwin and how much he profited from the British postal system that literally connected him with the rest of the world. Hence he could gather information from remote corners and also receive specimens of certain pigeons or some exotic animal from South-East-Asia.

The exhibition also tries to make a connection to 19th century Spain and its naturalists. In one of the cases we see one of Darwin’s works opened on a page where there is a footnote that refers to one of those Spanish naturalists. Wow! one feels inclined to exclaim. Darwin mentions a Spanish naturalist.

Another chart shows how many of the hundreds and hundreds of people Darwin corresponded with over the course of many decades come from which country. Germany beats France easily. The Spanish-speaking world is also listed but it makes up less than one percent of his correspondents.

This is one way of representing the interaction of Darwin with Spain, and it is a telling one. The result is rather meager and it might be fine for an exhibition to point out this kind of interaction, however peripheral it actually was for Darwin and his work.

Yet what should Spanish (or Catalan) historians of science do in 2009? There probably isn’t all that much to say about those few letters exchanged. Well, then we have to study the reception of his ideas. In the second part of the exhibition (El darwinismo en España) there is a nice assembly of the translation of Darwin’s works from the late 19th century through the period of the dictatorship until the early 21st century. This also includes a section of translations into Catalan as well as Basque. In a very nice case that centers on the visual representation of Darwin’s ideas apes and monkeys appear on Spanish consumer goods, works of art an so on.

This is interesting to browse and certainly a well-worth object of study. Yet again the historian of science might not feel too comfortable with this “receptionist” approach. It reminds us a little of the rather out-dated top-down-model of scientific communication. The great ideas come from above (in this case from abroad) and trickle down (in this case into Spain). It is a one-way-communication and does not allow for interaction. It also leaves little room for looking at how exactly Darwin’s ideas were appropriated. Maybe this is asking too much from a museum that has to keep the interest of the common visitor in mind. Yet it is certainly not too much to ask of a historian of science to search for more that translations and references made to Darwin in Spanish or Catalan sources. Any suggestions?


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