Darwin at the Natural History Museum: the original of the species

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Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species shattered a vast collection of cherished myths. The truths he showed us are so difficult to consider that we still haven't got round to taking them on board. Instead, we have created a new mythology to cover up the gaping hole Darwin has left in our species-pride.

It was Freud who suggested that history had given three insupportable blows to human self-esteem. The first was the revelation that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe after all. The second was Darwin's: that humans are just one more species of animal. The third, Freud modestly suggested, was his own work, which robbed humans even of the consolation that we at least possess rational minds.

It is precisely because of our less than fully rational natures that we have created the false Darwinian myth. Yes, all right, evolution exists, but it is a ladder, a form of progression in which good leads to better, while better, with serene inevitability, leads to best. The myth is best explained visually: the creeping monkey, the knuckle-walking ape, the stooping proto-hominid and at last, wondrously, triumphantly, fully erect Man. (Fully erect Woman is never shown on this diagram; no doubt she fails the test of perfection.)...

The Natural History Museum is one of London's and the world's great buildings, and, in the place of honour, looking down across the great Central Hall, Darwin offers his mild gaze in stone across to the prancing dinosaur Diplodocus. On Friday the museum is opening an exhibition on Darwin that will take in his 200th birthday, February 12, and end on the 127th anniversary of his death. Next year is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin, the book that shook the world - and is still shaking it.

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