Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Darwin Appreciation

On two recent separate visits, I stopped in at two museums in San Diego's magnificent museum-botanical complex at Balboa Park. The permanent displays in both the Museum of Man and the Natural History Museum attest to the genius of Darwin and his theory of evolution, which is the only credible explanation to connect all the apparently random cool stuff in both buildings - from dinosaur skeletons to mysterious fossils to evidence of lost civilizations.

In celebration of the bicentenary of his birth (the same day as Lincoln) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal "On the Origin of the Species," the Natural History Museum is featuring a special Darwin exhibit. 

This photo essay - taken on my iPhone - is drawn from my museum trips.

These guys ruled. You are looking at the fossils of ammonites, which superficially resembled the nautilus but were closer in relation to the octopus and squid. They survived two major earth-shaking catastrophes eons apart only to succumb to apparently the same disaster that did in the dinosaurs.

Speaking of dinosaurs, smile for the camera, and thanks for the memories.

For many thousands of years, mastodons thrived in Southern CA. Then global warming happened. Sayonara, big fellow.

Speaking of disappearances, these reproductions of stellae stand as silent testimony to the lost civilization of the Maya. Their descendants live on, but their society went the way of the mastodon, perhaps for similar climactic reasons, such as drought.

Do you perceive a certain common theme, such as adaptive failure? Sometimes, the slightest genetic tweak can spell the difference between life and death, species-wise.

This is me on a bad hair day. Unfortunately this prototype of modern man failed to make the final cut.

Here's a reproduction of a fossil skull, zinjanthropus, dating back 1.75 million years, found in Tanzania's Olduvai gorge by Mary Leakey. Sadly, when it came to natural selection, the little guy lacked the right stuff.

Out of Africa. Zinjanthropus was not our distant ancestor, but this unmistakable DNA trail shows that everyone of us on the planet is linked to a common male and female ancestor from 60,000 years ago.

Get over it. We're all related.

The letter that started it all: An invitation from JS Henslow to Charles Darwin to serve as naturalist on the HMS Beagle.

Further reading from Knowledge is Necessity:  Darwin and the Psychiatric Advantage

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