Never a Dull Moment

A coat of chain mail armor from
the Genghis Khan exhibt now on
display at HMNS. Find out more

As the Houston Museum of Natural Science prepares to show the sequel to the hugely popular Night at the Museum, I could not help but think how interesting a “day at the museum” sometimes can be as well. I am not just talking about the different exhibits we currently have at the museum, but also what is going on at the museum behind the scenes.

I have often thought that one of the taglines associated with the museum should be “never a dull moment.” Here is why I think that would be particularly appropriate: consider Tuesday, February 24, 2009. On that day, a crew of museum people as well as representatives from museums in Mongolia and Russia were busy putting the final touches to the Genghis Khan exhibit. That day, we also received the Mongolian ambassador to the US, H.E. Ambassador Khasbazaryn Bekhbat, who was traveling to Houston for the formal opening of the exhibit two days later. Accompanying him was the second secretary of the Mongolian embassy, Dawadash Sambuu. In the weeks leading up to the opening of the exhibit, he had been very busy working in Houston, helping with the set up of the show. Representing the Hermitage Museum, Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, flew in from St. Petersburg, Russia that day as well.

darwinAlso on February 24, the museum hosted a lecture as part of the year-long Darwin celebrations. Joining us that day was Dr. Francisco Ayala.  He came in to talk about his research into evolution. Dr. Ayala, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, recently published a book on this subject, entitled Darwin’s gift to science and religion. In a well-attended lecture in the museum’s IMAX movie theater, Dr. Ayala carefully explained his reasons why science and faith can go hand in hand. Dr. Ayala took time to meet with High School students from the Houston area, who are participating in the museum’s Young Scholars program. In a closed meeting preceding his talk, Dr. Ayala explained how he got interested in his field of study and what one needs to do in order to achieve what he did.

On February 24, the museum hosted Mongolian diplomats, a Russian museum official, and a Spanish-born geneticist. While this kind of line up does not happen every day, it does occur often enough to warrant what I wrote earlier: “never a dull moment at HMNS.”

The gift that keeps on giving: Darwin and the Origin of Species

In conjunction with Darwin2009 Houston, a year-long celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” HMNS will host a series of events exploring the contributions of this famous scientist.

Today’s guest blogger is Francisco J. Ayala, who shares some his findings here prior to his Feb. 24 lecture at the Museum, on “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion,” a part of HMNS’ Distinguished Lecture series.

The Origin of Species #1
Creative Commons License photo credit: gds

Darwin occupies an exalted place in the history of Western thought, deservedly receiving credit for the theory of evolution. In The Origin of Species, he laid out the evidence demonstrating the evolution of organisms.  However, Darwin accomplished something much more important than demonstrating evolution. Indeed, accumulating evidence for common descent with diversification may very well have been a subsidiary objective of Darwin’s masterpiece.  Darwin’s Origin of Species is, first and foremost, a sustained argument to solve the problem of how to account scientifically for the design of organisms. Darwin seeks to explain the design of organisms, their complexity, diversity, and marvelous contrivances as the result of natural processes. Darwin brings about the evidence for evolution because evolution is a necessary consequence of his theory of design.

The advances of physical science brought about by the Copernican Revolution had driven mankind’s conception of the universe to a split-personality state of affairs, which persisted well into the mid-nineteenth century.  Scientific explanations, derived from natural laws, dominated the world of nonliving matter, on the Earth as well as in the heavens.  Supernatural explanations, which depended on the unfathomable deeds of the Creator, were accepted as explanations of the origin and configuration of living creatures. Authors, such as William Paley in his Natural Theology of 1802, had developed the “argument from design,” the notion that the complex design of organisms could not have come about by chance, or by the mechanical laws of physics, chemistry, and astronomy, but was rather accomplished by an Omnipotent Deity, just as the complexity of a watch, designed to tell time, was accomplished by an intelligent watchmaker.

It was Darwin’s genius to resolve this conceptual schizophrenia.  Darwin completed the Copernican Revolution by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion that human reason can explain without recourse to supernatural agencies. Darwin’s greatest accomplishment was to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process—natural selection—without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.  The origin and adaptations of organisms in their profusion and wondrous variations were thus brought into the realm of science.

crab on the rocks
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela7dreams

Evolution can be seen as a two-step process. First, hereditary variation arises by mutation; second, selection occurs by which useful variations increase in frequency and those that are less useful or injurious are eliminated over the generations. “Useful” and “injurious” are terms used by Darwin in his definition of natural selection. The significant point is that individuals having useful variations “would have the best chance of surviving and procreating their kind.” As a consequence, useful variations increase in frequency over the generations, at the expense of those that are less useful or injurious.

Natural selection is much more than a “purifying” process, for it is able to generate novelty by increasing the probability of otherwise extremely improbable genetic combinations.  Natural selection in combination with mutation becomes, in this respect, a creative process.  Moreover, it is a process that has been occurring for many millions of years, in many different evolutionary lineages and a multitude of species, each consisting of a large number of individuals. Evolution by mutation and natural selection has produced the enormous diversity of the living world with its wondrous adaptations.

Francisco J. Ayala is a noted biologist and philosopher at the University of California at Irvine’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Don’t miss his lecture on Feb. 24 - or any of the other Darwin2009 events planned at HMNS this year.

Darwin speaks: NatGeo Live Blogging Event

Charles Darwin turns 200 this year – and in a neat coincidence, his book On The Origin of Species is 150 this year as well. (Very considerate of him to wait exactly 50 years to publish, so we can celebrate all at once.)

That’s one angry-looking turkey.
From National Geographic’s 
Morphed: From Dinosaur to Turkey

Darwin’s theories continue to revolutionize science – and as you might have noticed, they’re still kind of controversial, even a century and a half later.

This weekend, National Geographic is coordinating a live blogging event where you’ll have the opportunity to debate the facts and ask questions of several experts on the subject.

Check out their blog for the experts’ bios and information about the event; you can also submit questions in advance. it’s taking place this Sunday, Feb. 8 at 6 p.m. CT/7 p.m. ET in conjunction with the premiere of Morphed, a new series showing various species evolve as natural forces impact them over millions of years.

If that’s just not enough Darwin for you, come to the Museum this weekend for Darwin Day! You can see live animals, study adaptations in insects, and help create an evolutionary timeline that runs the length of the entire Museum, meet paleontologists, and explore representations of human evolution. In conjunction with Darwin2009, we’re also hosting Darwin-related lectures and classes all year long. You can also read more about Charles Darwin in anthropology curator Dirk’s post, An ‘Aha” Moment Worth Celebrating.

The draw of Darwin

Charles Darwin
Creative Commons License photo credit:
CATR *Recomiendo ver
fotos con su tamaño original

The world has been captivated by the theories of Charles Darwin for a over a century. Celebrating this legacy is what HMNS is all about!

When we introduced the concept of Darwin Day as a way to help convey the concept of evolution to children in the most fun way possible I had volunteers chomping at the bit to join in the fun.

Join us this Saturday to see live animals, study adaptations in insects, create an evolutionary timeline that runs the length of the entire Museum, meet Paleontologists, and explore representations of human evolution!

The fun is not just for kids, though, there is an entire series of events happening theough Darwin 2009 Houston - check out this page for all the happenings at HMNS. From teacher workshops and lectures to exhibits on The Origin of the Species – it’s going to be a year to remember one of the most influential scientists in recent history.

Darwin Day will be taking place at HMNS on Saturday, February 7 from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. and is FREE to the public!