When “the missing link” was on exhibit in Cambridge

The most impressive Darwin exhibition of 2009 was at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which already had a world-class collection. It was a far cry from a traditional Darwin exhibition. In fact, Darwin was refreshingly absent from the exhibition during a year in which we heard more than enough about the man himself.

At the Fitzwilliam Museum the art was the main focus: how we have seen ourselves and the nature surrounding us reflected in art and popular culture. Nothing less than an amazing exhibition came from this concept.

Our obligation to put a stop to nonsense

The week prior to the opening of the exhibition, the world witnessed a media frenzy concerning Darwinius marsillae and the sensational celebration of the fact that we had finally found “the missing link”. From a scientific point of view, it was almost unbearable. Scientifically speaking it does not make any sense to talk about “missing links”. The concept is built on a confusing mix up of the two dominating metaphors for understanding the evolution of life, both of which had their popular as well as scientific breakthrough in the 1800s.

One shows the evolution of life as a long chain. The other shows the evolution of life as a tree. The latter we know from Darwin’s theory of evolution which formed the foundation for our current perception of the evolution of life and modern cladistics. Scientifically speaking, the first was pushed aside by the tree of life. However, it has proven itself to be remarkably persistent. It is in this context that “the missing link” should be perceived.

“The missing link” is the idea of a possible missing link in the chain of life. This story is widespread, complex, and very exciting. However, it has no place in modern science. “The missing link” is a cultural phenomenon, not a scientific issue. Nevertheless, during the Darwin Year in 2009, we have heard scientists repeatedly talk about “missing links” in an attempt to popularise and generate attention about evolution. And that is truly unfortunate, because it gives a completely false perception of our knowledge about the evolution of life.

A bizarre and equally unfortunate consequence has been that some feel that we must not criticise each other on this issue. That will give the impression of insecurity within the scientific community and thereby open the door for creationistic critique. This is particularly feared in the United States where according to a Gallup survey 2/3 of the population believe that God created man in approximately its present form less than 10.000 years ago. However, that is a pointless approach. We as scholars have an obligation to stop nonsense – not least when it takes place within our own ranks.

“The missing link” at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Therefore, if you wanted to see “the missing link” in 2009 – and that was possible – you would not have to make your way to the Natural History Museum in Oslo to see the darwinius marsillae. Instead, you would make the journey to Cambridge and visit the exhibition Endless Forms at the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Because here, you would find “the missing link”, which is a very real cultural phenomenon.

From an expedition to Laos, the Danish born Carl Alfred Bock brought back a girl suffering from the condition hypertrichosis which can cause an abnormal amount of hair growth on parts of the body where most people have barely noticeable fine hairs. “Krao” who had hair all over her body attracted a lot of attention when she was presented to the stunned audience in London in 1883. It was the year after Darwin’s death. The big international commemorative fundraiser was in full swing and the interest in his ideas, particularly the ones relating to ourselves, had never been greater. American William Leonard Hunt, who was known by the name Signor Farini, immediately saw the potential and with great success marketed the girl as “The missing link”: living proof of Darwin’s theory on the descent of man.

At the Fitzwilliam Museum you could see the sensational – and of course manipulated – images of “Krao”, “the missing link” and her two furry parents. However, that is just one very small story out of the many that were told through artefacts such as anthropological calling cards, drawings, sketches, photographs, prints, a grim silverback gorilla kidnapping a naked woman, a beautiful volière of stuffed hummingbirds, and an array of fantastic paintings which portray how we saw ourselves in the 1800s better than any book.  

However, you can get a sense of the exhibition in book form. As a supplement to the exhibition, the Fitzwilliam Museum in cooperation with the Yale Center for British Art has published the most impressive Darwin book of the year: Endless Forms, Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts. The exhibition is now closed but you can still get a sense of how closely Darwin, evolution, and art are connected if only you look carefully. Buy the book or borrow it from the library and let yourself be enchanted by the exciting world that will open up before you.

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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