Archive for February, 2009

On really striking out and (sometimes) striking el oro

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

About luck. The notion has been irritating me for the past few days. I’ve always been interested in how chance operates in my own life. Like most people, I usually construct a nice satisfying retrospective narrative about my life. But chance has always played an unsettling starring role, throwing a wrench in the aesthetics of that erstwhile smooth story arc—you know, the one where I make wise conscious decisions and directly control the events of my own existence?

My sense of the importance of chance has only been heightened in my dissertation research, in observing its importance in the lives of pretty prominent scientists. This is not just the historian’s impartial eye, observing how life deals different hands to different players. This is the witness borne by those players themselves! Renowned biologists—known for their brilliance and not, typically, for their humility—have repeatedly credited chance with the paths of their careers. Paul Ehrlich. Dan Janzen. These guys have taken unusual and sometimes unpopular stances on ecological issues—in other words, they give the impression of deliberately charting their own courses. And yet, Janzen loves the words “serendipity” and “serendipitous,” and applies them liberally to the story of his own career.

Of course, when Janzen speaks of “serendipitously” stumbling upon an ant acacia while roving across Costa Rica in the early 1960s, he is not talking about pure chance. He is talking about the convergence of luck and preparation; the effect of a particular experience upon a mind primed with just the right kind of knowledge and previous experiences. The true luck is almost always in the timing of that critical experience.

Like Janzen, we’ve been doing some roving across the Costa Rican landscape, hoping for such a lucky convergence. We have no concrete information directing our mushroom search at the moment; only a knowledge of the general rainfall patterns for the season and a sense of where oak trees might be found.

Walking along a forest trail during the dry season might remind you of autumn in North America. Deciduous trees lose their leaves here just as they do in the temperate zone—it just happens to be during the “summer,” the drier and sunnier time of year. According to the Costa Rican bird Bible, Skutch and Stiles’  Birds of Costa Rica, it was the Spanish that declared the dry season summer, arriving with their memories of a hot and dry verano and cool and wet invierno.

If you’re lucky enough to have made it to an oak-dominated forest, however, you might still look up and see a truly regal canopy above your head. These oaks are closely related to the evergreen live oaks of the Southern U.S. And while “regal” might seem a cliché, under the circumstances, it’s spot-on. The oaks we have seen here are hundreds of years old, many feet in diameter, and verdantly populated with mosses, lichens, and bromeliads. There’s something so vital about the silhouette of an oak tree. The leaves burst so densely from the awkward joints of its branches. Its body looks haphazardly assembled and, at the same time, absolutely coherent. Coherence is a concept, but I would even say that an oak tree is cohesive, in a purely physical sense, as if it is gathering its deep green pigmentation along with moisture and light and a body of cool air, directly from the air around it. When each branch supports a dozen bromeliads, and their bright fuchsia and maroon and yellow-green leaves glowing translucently from above, this sense of pure organic gravity, of substance and sustenance, is intensified.

Rhapsodies over the beauty of oak trees, however, do not a successful collecting trip make! Oak trees are also mycorrhizal symbionts, living in intimate collusion with fungi, whose hair-like mycelia connect with their roots underground, sharing nutrients and minerals in an exchange that sustains both tree and fungus. Finding an oak means finding its fungal symbionts, which, if we’re lucky, have fruited above ground, producing those reproductive organs that my dear husband so desperately seeks: mushrooms.

This is where serendipity comes in. There are thousands of acres of forest reserve and national park in Costa Rica. Most of this is completely inaccessible, or else only moderately accessible, especially for people that need to collect mushrooms, photograph them immaculately, in situ and against a gray background with an herbarium collection number, take DNA samples (because this is, after all, part of a DNA barcoding project), and then dry them completely in a food dehydrator. So, via various points of entry, public, private, and otherwise (meaning, we’re not quite sure who owns the land or the road by which we reach it), we try to get at this inaccessible core of forest.

For our purposes then, these roads and trails are essentially random cuts in the forest. We can steer ourselves toward higher altitudes, where oaks and other mycorrhizal tree species are more common, or toward the rainiest provinces, but the decisions made decades ago to build a trail along this ridgeline or blast a switchback for the road into that hillside, may or may not take us precisely where the mushrooms just happen to be fruiting today. As much we have prepared for this trip, there will always be the discomfiting suspicion that somewhere—maybe even just a measly kilometer to the east or the south—the mother lode of mushrooms is elbowing its way up through soil and detritus, where we will never find it.

Anyway, that’s how it feels today. Fieldwork, especially when the task is opportunistic collecting in an attempt to document fungal diversity in the region, can sometimes boil down completely to luck. And luck is not with us in other ways, as well. We are three days into this collecting trip and have yet to see the collection and export permits for the mushrooms we are supposed to be collecting. Bryn started the process of applying for these permits more than two months ago, at the moment he knew that his teaching trip would be extended into a collecting trip. Unfortunately however, the term “process” implies that there is a straightforward method for obtaining such permisos. In reality, successfully scoring a permit turns mostly upon finding a reliable contact on the ground, a contact who also has a functional working relationship with the relevant bureaucratic body. It’s not entirely clear what went wrong, but it seems to be a little bit of a failure in both aspects (maybe more heavily the former than the later, I might add).

In any case, we have not yet been able to collect in Parque Nacional Tapantí-Macizo de la Muerte, as we do not have the relevant permits. So, we are reduced to making even more random forays into the landscape, in hopes of finding mushrooms on land where park rangers are not likely to be breathing down our necks. This morning, over weak coffee (Costa Rica is a coffee-producing nation that reserves its most drinkable beans for export and tends to disappoint the palate with weak and bitter brews in person.), Bryn identified a small “protection zone” called Cuenca Rio Tuis, perhaps a couple of hours drive from our hotel in the small village of Orosi. It seemed a little far away, but also unlikely to be heavily monitored, and according to our topographical map, it reaches a peak elevation of 1963 meters and may even have oaks.

It was a lovely drive, on a fantastically sunny day, over mountainside roads that rapidly drop and fall while they and around Lake Cachí. Everywhere that we drove, a brief wave or a “Buenas!” out the window of our car transformed that standard hard-edged impersonal glance you turn toward a strange car into smiles—people are incredibly nice to strange gringos blowing unexpectedly through their tiny little hamlets.

coffee plantation

At first, at the higher elevations, we drove through coffee plantations. Coffee is Costa Rica’s grano de oro, “grain of gold,” which brought prosperity to this nation named “rich coast.” Workers alongside the road were spraying the beans with a pesticide. These workers are, reportedly, mostly Nicaraguans, since Costa Ricans are no longer willing to lower themselves to earning something like $1/bushel for picking el grano de oro. The shade-grown varieties actually appear to receive a good deal of sunlight, especially since many of the scattered trees planted to give them shade are deciduous, with only bare branches remaining, which cast crooked shadows (if not actual shade) over the coffee. Other plots are stocked with imported eucalyptus, trees that at least retain their leaves during the dry season.

dscn0249Halfway through the drive we made delicious tomate, aguacate, y queso fresco sandwiches for ourselves at the roadside. At lower elevations we began to see the sugarcane fields, where men with machetes hacked away at their stalks. Near the end of the day we passed a plant where trucks full of sugarcane stalks pulled in for processing. The men trailed down the roads slowly in the wake of the trucks, looking exhausted, machetes still in hand, while a smoggy burnt-caramel smoke filled the Orosi valley.sugarcane truck

Finally we reached our little forest reserve. Or…..we’re pretty sure that we did. After all, most of the roads are not signed and the GPS is often little help in finding our position on what seems to be a pretty imperfect map (it’s missing an entire huge lake?!). Driving into the reserve on the potholed dirt road through increasingly tiny villages (where people seemed even friendlier, in inverse proportion to the size of their towns), we started to get excited about the wooded hills that we could see ahead. When a road winds around so much, you really just have to keep faith that eventually you will reach that mirage of forest on the horizon.

abandoned houseWe passed a couple of abandoned house, one with half-collapsed porticoes and arches and windows that still contained shards of glass. We’ve tried to decipher graffiti from the side of the building, but it’s hard to read from my passing photograph: Aqui es solamente / No se aqui que / porque aqui.” Bryn says I’m wasting my time trying to read this nonsense, like a bathroom wall in the basement of some bar in Toronto. It’s something like: “Here is only / I don’t know here what / why here.” Indeed.

Anyway, eventually, we had to turn on the 4-wheel drive to cross a little river with steep embankments on either side and a little catarata (waterfall) in the center. But we never got much higher, and we never got much closer to that elusive deep core of forest. We drove as far as we could on the road, to a place where the mud was ridged so deeply in a sharp turn that we couldn’t imagine the car handling both challenges simultaneously. So we did a little bit on foot. And it was disappointing mycologically.

But for me, with the mud on my boots, and the humidity that layered my face in sweat the moment I started to climb the steep trail along the hillside, and my first glimpse of something as common as a bird-of-paradise flower—all of these started to melt that icy nucleus of Torontonian slush and snow at my center. Running my hand along a mossy boulder, I had a tempting moment of synesthesia, and I was certain that I could taste the deep green in the blade of a bromeliad just above my head. So, although we struck out mycological today, I feel finally that I have really arrived in Costa Rica, and I’m excited to try our luck again tomorrow.sunset drive back to Orosi

Striking out! or The Daunting Unknown of a Foreign Language

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

view from the Hotel CactsWhen I walked into my San Jose hotel today, it was with a totally overblown sense of pride. I had just, amazingly, completed…the simplest task. I had gotten myself from the airport to a downtown hotel, completely alone, speaking only en Español. A first sentence to the cabbie, “Sabe donde está el Hotel Cacts?” Then, later, as we were driving, “Como se dice ‘el metro’ en Costa Rica? I thought that I remembered that Costa Rican taxi meters have their own affectionate nickname. And was rewarded with the answer: “La María.”

This may not be the most impressive conversation that you’ve ever heard in Spanish, but it was a major coup for me. I am fluent in one language alone—and you are reading it. Purportedly, I have reading proficiency in both French and German. My graduate transcript attests to this far-fetched notion with a nice round pair of “A”s. In reality, if ever I were faced with a German or French text that I actually needed to, ahem, understand, well, there is no doubt that I would have to hire a translator.

I am not proud of this. In fact, I am so deeply embarrassed about it, that it actively conflicts with my ability to rectify the situation. On my flight from Toronto to San Jose, I had a layover in San Salvador. On the first leg of my trip, I sat next to an El Salvadoran ex-pat, living in Ottawa, who told me how impressed he is with people from the United States, with how “aggressively” they pursue foreign languages, unashamed of the flaws in their grammar or accent. We’re so different from Latin Americans, he told me, who are too cautious about making mistakes, crippling their ability to practice using another language.

Let’s just set aside how surprising this generalization is, how much it completely contradicts what I would otherwise have assumed to be an almost global opinion on Americans’ xenophobic ignorance of other languages and cultures. Upon accepting this extremely flattering take on American aggression, I immediately had to confess to this very sweet (and very fluent en Inglés, I should note) man that I, an otherwise aggressive American (to say the least, my Canadian friends might assert) am deeply, painfully diffident in this respect.

Given that background, you can probably see why I am so absurdly proud of my grade-school-worthy conversation with a taxi driver. It seemed like a pretty solid start to my two weeks in Costa Rica, so I decided to reward myself with una cerveza. When in Costa Rica, drink like a Tica, so now I am sitting on the hotel’s rooftop patio, drinking a bottle of Imperial, waiting for my husband Bryn’s arrival.

For the previous week, Bryn has been one of the instructors of a tropical ecology field course, leading a group of University of Toronto undergraduates around Costa Rica in what has been, for most of them, a first exposure to hot tropical rainforests and frigid cloudforests. From what I’ve heard so far, these students have been extremely lucky. They have seen a sloth, crocodiles, quetzals, an eyelash viper, a mother humpback whale nursing its baby, and much, much more.

Already I know that I am never going to get quite this lucky during my two weeks in Costa Rica. After the students leave, Bryn and I are heading off to collect mushrooms. Yeah, it’s a mycological collecting trip during the dry season. It’s a little strange, since mushrooms thrive in wet conditions. But sometimes field biologists must take what they can get. The course created an opportunity (read: plane ticket to Central America) that simply could not be refused, despite the lack of rain.

And, after all, even in the dry season, rainforests and cloudforests can hardly be parched. The Eastern slopes of central Costa Rica, descending from the Talamanca mountains down to the sea, meet gusts of warm, wet Caribbean air during the dry season, making the East the wettest side of the country at the moment. So we are heading to Tapantí-Macizo National Park, a place that receives something like 800 cm of rain annually. Only about 80 cm of that impressive total fall during the months of February and March. But—with luck—it will be just enough!

looking south over San Jose

On the Osa

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

This is compressed due to the amount of catching up that needed to happen, but that’s probably preferable to reading about every blister and chigger I encountered. So here it goes:

Corcovado Eco Lodge is inland and to the south of Drake Bay on the Pacific side of the Osa Peninsula. The lodge is officially part of the hamlet of Los Planes, which consists of a handful of rural dwellings and various forms of agriculture (cattle, mahogany, pineapple). There is some tourist development here, especially in Drake Bay, which is sort of a beach bum town though it looked to me like it wasn’t much of a destination anymore. The lodge is owned and operated by a Canadian-Costa Rican couple — the Canadian woman lives in Toronto and has a few kids, while the Costa Rican man lives at the lodge. The property was smallish, but manicured and had all of the typical tropical flora you expect to see, and some you don’t. Cashews were abundant again (btw, they can induce a bad rash like poison ivy, as they are also in the same family and produce the same noxious oils).

Our first casualty of the trip got sick when we arrived, but this didn’t seem too serious. The bunkhouse supported the students in some pretty basic quarters, including tents for some of the men. We had cabins that were connected to each other by wooden walkways suspended over a small depression in the land and nestled in forest, which had a Swiss Family Robinson feel. Chris and I shared a cabin while Christina and Peter had their own individual cabins. I slept in the top bunk while Chris got the matrimonio, or double bed. It was hot and fairly humid and a cold shower felt unbelievably refreshing. We all crashed a little early after the exhausting travel day.

The next morning we learned that two students had been sick, one having been up all night vomiting. Our plan was to hike in the morning to a river in Corcovado park, which Chris had been to before and leads to a small waterfall. Because the trail entrance was a short distance away and would require walking in full tropical sun, we decided to get a ride from the lodge. But they took us somewhere else, only Chris couldn’t say anything until we got there (because he was in the back of a truck). We were dropped off at the Los Planes ranger station and were able to get a ranger to help us find a path to the river. We started hiking slowly, looking and explaining. After a few hours and1.3 kilometers, we stopped for a breather. Chris wasn’t sure we should continue on because he didn’t know where the trail led and was becoming suspicious that it didn’t lead to the river at all. That’s when Chris got sick on the trail.

We set the students loose to “observe something” for 30 minutes (as convenient as that sounds, this was a premeditated exercise to get them to think for themselves instead of just looking to us to explain things, and the timing coincided well). During the exercise, I went looking for fungus-farming ant nests that are built on the undersides of largel eaves (palms, heliconias) and I found one! I kept it in a vial that I still have–they should be fine so long as they have oxygen, water, and their fungus to eat. One of the students also spotted an eyelash pitviper hanging out on a large leaf next to the trail and I got some great photos of it–from a healthy distance.

This could go on and on if I let it, so I’ll sum up the next few days here. Illness has bounced around slowly.  Chris was pretty sick the next evening and now Peter (the other prof) is currently sick, but recovering. I’ve lucked out, as have most people actually, but I live in fear of contracting whatever it is. We did some night hikes, some batnetting, some insect lighting, all with moderate success. The weather is extremely dry here, normal for this time of year, but this is an abnormally dry year. This seems to have reduced the insect diversity and there are almost no fungi (but there are some, surprisingly). On our night hike we saw three snakes: a venomous hog-nosed viper, the infamous fer-de-lance, and a snake-eating mussurana. The mussurana actually eats fer-de-lance and is immune to viper venom. I have good pictures of all of them. As for birds, toucans have been fairly common and a mot-mot slunk around the garden every morning. I saw a nice trogon in the forest and we also discovered that a slaty-tailed trogon was nesting in a termite nest right next to our cabin.  We hadn’t noticed it for three days! The insects were amazing, including some incredible red-striped white aphids with Crematogaster ants tending them in exchange for honeydew.

The day before we left we took an hour-long boat ride to Isla del Caño, a national park about 20 km off the mainland in the Pacific.  Between the lodge and the beach we saw a three-toed sloth, which was a harbinger for an amazing day of wildlife viewing. During the boat ride we saw a yellow-bellied sea snake (wow!), an extremely venomous elapid related to coral snakes and cobras, soon after followed by a mother humpback whale nursing her infant! It was an incredible and unexpected sight. Only a few minutes after the whale sighting we saw a swordfish leaping out of the water. I have photos of all of these.

Finally we landed on Isla del Caño to do some marine ecology (a.k.a. snorkeling) and beach-bumming. Our snorkeling adventure included a run-in with the coast guard, who gave our captain a ticket for improper paperwork and no insurance, and a face-mask fiasco, but we eventually saw a green sea turtle and many fish. My favorite sighting was watching for several minutes a snake eel swim with two fish chaperones (sorry, I don’t know what kind) that were either waiting for the right time to take down the eel or (more likely) steal its food. We also witnessed some dolphins chasing a school of flying fish and a frigate bird swooping down to snatch the flying fish when they leaped into the air.  What a sight! Other birds of interest here were brown boobies and a black mangrove hawk (that apparently swooped down and grabbed a sandwich presented to it by our lodge manager).

Now that we are at the Osa Biodiversity Center, it reminds me of how special a place the Osa is. The area around the Corcovado Eco Lodge was heavily disturbed and degenerated, which cast a disappointing light on the already dismal accommodations (unpotable water, scorpions, bad food). Here we have eco-consciousness (100% sustainable architecture and solar power) and high standards of accommodation (satellite internet, comfortable beds with mosquito netting, UV-sterilized water throughout the campus, open-air showers) coupled with a refined sense of nature and biology.  In fact, this station, run by Friends of the Osa, is closely connected to Adrian Forsyth, a conservationist and author of the well-known and excellent book Tropical Nature. I didn’t know this before now, but it turns out Chris Darling, the main instructor for this course, is an old friend of Adrian’s. In any case, this is the Tiputini of the Osa.

Here scarlet macaws and toucans are as common as crows. Last night we saw another fer-de-lance in a pond near our cabins. Today the students were set loose to come up with an independent while we had our first free time to pursue our own interests. Chris baited euglossine bees (males visit orchids to collect floral fragrances used in attracting female mates) and dung beetles (I provided the bait), Peter slept off his night of food-poisoning-like symptoms, and I went looking for fungus-farming ant nests. I was unsuccessful, but I did play with some ant lions by attempting to feed them ants (they aren’t very adept at capturing large leaf-cutter workers), saw a stunning bare-throated tiger heron and white ibises, and happened on a tree in fruit that had attracted a troop of spider monkeys, a troop of white-faced capuchins, and a marauding group of coatimundis. The coatimundis came within six feet of me before they realized I was there, and obviously couldn’t see me.  I also saw an aggregated group of hairy caterpillars with a huge pile of moldy frass below them. I collected the moldy frass and we returned to where I found them tonight only to find that they had left (probably to go feed). On our way back we saw amazing, huge caterpillars on heliconia leaves, which we have figured out are morphos caterpillars.

So far the sighting that tops the list this trip so far was when Petersaw a mountain lion with a tinamou in its mouth this afternoon. It’s like we’re living in a PBS nature documentary.

The dryness here is really impressive and I much prefer the rainy season. Snakes seem to be a lot more abundant and we’ve now seen three fer-de-lance (but then again, the number of pairs of eyes on the trail is also a lot more abundant). We sleep from 10 to 6 and I’m already looking forward to the strong coffee, guanabana juice, and the possibility of a jaguar or a harpy eagle sighting in the morning. Considering what we’ve seen this trip, I wouldn’t really be surprised if we saw both.

First legs

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

OK, here’s the short of the long of the past several days: We left San Jose on a tourist bus driven by Reinier with our luggage strapped onto the roof and covered with a tarp, and cruised into the cloud forest, at 2400 m. We stayed at a small “hotel,” which was pretty rustic and not very well cared for (we didn’t have enough blankets or a space heater, though the temperature plummets at night). We hiked their trails and saw lots of a quetzals (I think I have at least one respectable photo), but not much else. I got a photo of a nightjar, but then accidentally deleted it later (!). Our night hike there was strenuous and we didn’t see much, but it was a good initiation for the students (we got theme xpecting to do hard work, so that haven’t complained a whole lot).  The forest at this place was heavily disturbed and had some oaks, but also a lot of large Podocarpus trees (a gymnosperm). I hadn’t seen Podocarpus trees before (or didn’t know it) and at a glance they look like redwoods, but not nearly as tall and have smooth bark (instead of having deep vertical furrows).

When we left the Albergue de Quetzales, we drove south along the  Inter-American Highway, first climbing nearly 1000m while passing through elfin forest into paramo. We stopped at the summit of Cerro de la Muerte to hike through the shrubby paramo. Everyone enjoyed it and we got some nice vistas into clouds on the Pacific side (I’ve been there before and had better views, but it’s still impressive). Our route dropped us quickly from the Talamancas on the western slopes into San Isidro, a grungy tropical town with a large church and a few misguided tourists, and finally into Palmar Norte and Sierpe, on the river that leads into the Pacific. We arrived later than expected, so we had to grab a quick bite at a restaurant before we screamed down the mangrove-lined Sierpe river and out on the Pacific to Drake Bay.  We unloaded the boats on the beach at Drake Bay, only to load them back onto a bus for the short 20-minute ride inland to the Corcovado Eco Lodge.

[Bryn didn’t write anything about the Corcovado Eco Lodge until 18 February—the narrative from the 17th just skips to the day they left it.]

We had a late breakfast (8am) with our estimated departure time of 9am. It’s always later that expected when you’re trying to coordinate 19 undergrads. And especially when you’re trying to coordinate 19 undergrads in Latin America.  But we got off around 9:30. We drove a Blue Bird short school bus (white and red, unfortunately) from Los Planes (the official town where the Corcovado Eco Lodge is) across the peninsula to Palmar Sur, up and down two small mountain ranges and winding through agricultural valleys with lots of cattle. The roads are lined with cashews (in flower and some in fruit right now) and mangoes (not in flower or fruit…:-( ), among other, lesser plants.  The dirt roads are extremely dry and dust flies everywhere. We inhaled a lot of particulates and diesel fuel.

When we reached La Palma (2.5 hours later), we reconnected with our bus driver from San Jose, reloaded the touring bus with our luggage, and set off on the hour ride to Puerto Jimenez on the coast of the gulf. Along the way we learned that our driver had arranged for us to change vehicles again in Puerto Jimenez, for the last 45 minutes to the station. Of course, this isn’t what had been planned beforehand, but such is life when you’re traveling in Latin America. Negotiation ensued (luckily, we have two native Spanish speakers in our crew and then the station director appeared), and after the dust settled (we have inferred that the complicated nature of this arrangement was largely a consequence of machismo — saving face by out intrepid driver from San Jose who didn’t want to take his bus on the potentially damaging road to the field station) we had two hours to kill in the tiny gulf town. Guido, the station director, brought the four instructors to a marisqueria (seafood restaurant) right on the promenade along a picturesque bay overlooking anchored fishing and sailing boats and the hazy, forested southern Talamancas framing the ocean on the horizon as far as you could see, north and south. I ate ceviche (good, but not remarkable) and a taco with chicken, and downed two cold beers. Then we stocked upon essentials (beer, Coke for our rum, snacks, and Cipro), loaded into the new truck (a small commercial delivery truck converted into a passenger taxi with benches along the sides and a canvas covering) and finally got to our destination.

We’re a 20 minute walk from the beach, surrounded by excellent primary forest and a handful of rich landowners (probably mostly from the U.S.), and have satellite internet access and beer. The facilities are excellent. Everyone has a bed with a mosquito net, though the rooms sleep at least four in two bunk beds, which will make for some less-than-private accommodations.  Oh yeah, we saw two coatimundis on the way here (pisote in Spanish, apparently, which seems odd because its not like coatimundi is an English word!).

I’ll have to take up the rest later, as now it’s dinnertime. The next installment will include anecdotes of some amazing animals sighting! (whales!!!)

Darwin’s dirty little secret

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

An otherwise inspired tribute to natural history buries the fossils of Darwin’s theological ancestry and misses its chance to challenge Intelligent Design.

10-pound bill

When “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” first opened at New York’s American Museum of Natural History in 2005, creationist critics were among its first visitors.  Reviews on Intelligent Design blogs found the show “biased” and “dogmatic,” and, even worse, burning with a “Darwinian fundamentalist” zeal.

What gives?  Thousands of visitors have already enjoyed this exhibit in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Toronto.  It’s currently on display at the Natural History Museum in London, as Britain gears up for the 200th anniversary celebration of Darwin’s birthday on the 12th of February.  Will hordes of visitors look back on the exhibit and remember what a hard time those doctrinaire Darwinians gave God?

I doubt it.  In fact, Intelligent Design will be the last thing on visitors’ minds as they reflect back on “Darwin.”  And frankly, I think that’s a shame.  If an exhibit about Darwin’s legacy is not the perfect place for biologists to face the Intelligent Design movement, then where will they do so?

This exhibit promises to unpack the wild and woolly head of one Charles Robert Darwin and, to a large extent, it delivers.  We meet Darwin in his privileged early-19th-century childhood, where he picked up the compulsive habit that would haunt him his entire life: Collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the English countryside when he should have been studying, making him a “scapegrace” according to his physician father.   But Darwin turned his disgrace into a virtue, learning to “look closely” at all of nature, mastering the ultimate “simple tools” of an authentic biologist, his own eyes.

These two themes of the exhibit, “Looking Closely” and “Simple Tools,” are put to elegant use, connecting visitors with the lived experiences of Darwin.  We peer through Darwin’s magnifying glass and stand in a replica of the study where he wrote the great tomes of his adulthood.  The exhibit shares iconic Darwinian stories, like his mad questing for beetles, which drove him once to “collect” a beetle in his mouth, for want of a free hand.  The beetle spewed an acrid repellant, an effective way to avoid being eaten, whether by a hungry bird or a desperate naturalist.  Paired with historical artifacts—in this case, beetles collected by Darwin himself—these stories bring him to life and reveal an intimate contact with nature, cultivated from childhood onward.

When I caught the exhibit last year at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, I had a chance to speak with its local curator, entomologist Chris Darling, who shares more than just a passion for insects with Darwin.  As a child, he too spent a lot of time outdoors, laying the experiential foundation for his life as a biologist.  According to Dr. Darling, an urgent concern addressed by the exhibit is “the demise of the naturalist,” the disappearance of biologists who concentrate as intensely as Darwin (who spent nearly a decade becoming the world’s expert on barnacles) while maintaining a broad base of knowledge and experience, observing and cross-referencing information from diverse sources.

And the exhibit certainly samples from many of these diverse sources, bringing home the enormity of Darwin’s accomplishment. That is, the synthesis of such a swarm of biological and textual information that most people would simply give up and go home.  In this exhibit you may catch African spurred tortoises mating, touch a replica of the giant extinct armadillo fossil that Darwin found in South America, and witness moments of startling insight, recorded in Darwin’s own hand, in an original research notebook.

Visitors to the ROM on opening day were dazzled by the dual quality of breadth and depth on display.  “How could you not be impressed by a man who acquired so much scientific knowledge during his life?” commented a young woman, an American tourist who proudly informed me of her Christian faith.  Another visitor, an aging Torontonian schoolteacher, struck by Darwin’s wealthy background, saw the exhibit as a demonstration of what can be accomplished by specialist scientists when they have sufficient resources to delve deeply into a topic. Natural history museums worldwide should applaud this exhibit for the case it makes in support of “Darwinian” science: Visitors see the value of collection and careful observation, and the ever-expanding catalogue of life that is the backbone of modern biology.

By contrast, the molecular tools that many of today’s evolutionary biologists use in their daily work merit no more than a cameo.  For this omission we can hardly blame the creators of the exhibit.  After all, “Darwin” is already packed with artifacts and ideas, and its creation must have been an excruciating surgery, where the organs excised seemed just as vital and vibrant as what remained.  Pride of place is rightly given to the specimens, tools, and documents of a Victorian naturalist.  Yet, despite the success of this central theme, the curators’ scalpels went astray when they carved away the history of Darwin’s theological education. What seemed like a vestigial organ to them—a useless bit left over from our ancient ancestors, like your appendix or coccyx—was more like Darwin’s carotid artery, the wellspring of some of his most important observations.

At the risk of sounding a lot like those complaining creationists, I protest: there wasn’t enough Intelligent Design in the exhibit!  And I’m not talking about bringing in the masterminds behind the Big Valley Creation Science Museum in Alberta to give “Darwin” a facelift.  Instead, I’m talking about the very heart of Darwin’s scientific training at Cambridge, natural theology, which took his love of “looking closely” at organisms and turned it into a scientific skill.

Instead, Darwin’s deepest scientific insights seem to arise de novo.  In its effort to depict Darwin as a revolutionary, the exhibit text implies that he was the first person to critically examine similarities between different species.  In “The World Before Darwin,” we are told that all species were considered “unconnected and unrelated.” The text asks, “Why didn’t more people grasp that similarities in skeletal structures—so clearly visible—were a clue that species are related?”

Why?  Because the best comparative anatomists of the day, Darwin’s own mentors and colleagues, saw the shared skeletal structures of different species, known as homologies, as evidence of God’s design, his master plan for the living world.  Darwin was able to challenge this view only because he had assimilated its lessons so fully.

When the young Darwin looked closely at the world, he saw those homologies just as clearly as his colleagues did, as evidence of design.  But like other good observers of his day, Darwin began to see the flaws in this approach.  If God were so intelligent, why would he give a bat’s wing, a human’s hand, and a whale’s flipper the same skeletal structure?  Didn’t he have the basic engineering chops to devise specialized designs, better suited to the job that each type of limb does?

As Darwin learned more about anatomy, collecting animals both extinct and extant, he came to see homology as evidence for evolution.  And he had no trouble convincing his colleagues, also students of natural theology, of the same. Today, homology still stands as one of the most vivid demonstrations of our evolutionary heritage.  Our human hands share a skeletal structure with a bat’s wings and a whale’s flipper because we all share an ancestor in the distant past.

Because of the visual power of homology, the exhibit relies on it as evidence for evolution more than once, making the absence of natural theology that much more regrettable.  In leaving out this part of Darwin’s story, the creators didn’t ditch a pesky detail only a historian could love.  They missed an opportunity to explain the early prehistory of Intelligent Design, which is basically, “Been there, done that.”

How can we explain this oversight?  It may be, as ROM CEO William Thorsell commented at a media preview, that “Darwin is still too hot to handle.”  After all, “even in Canada,” it was impossible to find corporate sponsorship to support the exhibit until nearly a week after its opening.  In seeing the controversial content on their hands, perhaps the exhibit’s creators decided that Darwin’s training in 19th-century “Intelligent Design” was better left unmentioned.

In portraying his religious sentiments as nearly nonexistent, they sanitized the exhibit of Darwin’s dirty little secret, his theological education. We learn that Darwin, who was trained as a clergyman at Cambridge, brought a swanky engraved German Bible on his five-year voyage around the world, along with his more practical pistol and “peacemaker” club.  Anyone who has studied Darwin’s letters could tell you that he was, in his own words, “a very poor German scholar,” an insight that confirms what is implied by this display case: the Bible was just an accoutrement of travel, perhaps more effective as a weapon than as a source of inspiration.

And how do today’s biologists deal with God?  In answer, a human-sized video screen simulates conversation with a number of prestigious biologists, a valiant attempt to create some kind of dialogue. But the conversation is one-sided. And guess who’s talking?  God-fearing head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins (not an evolutionary biologist), blandly assures us that faith and science are “complementary.” A nattily dressed engineering student described the video as “interesting” but hardly enlightening.  “It still leaves a lot of questions for me.  I don’t think I understand anything more about the controversy.”

Nearby, a biology textbook is displayed, branded with the kind of disclaimer sticker disseminated by the Intelligent Design movement, claiming that evolution is “only a theory.”  Another video tries to answer this challenge: scientists stand again in a featureless room, talking at the visitor, explaining that a “theory” in science is not merely a guess, but a critical “framework” within which facts are understood.

But these videos are all just talk.  Visitors have been told time and again, before they even arrived at the “Darwin” exhibit, that science is dynamic, self-correcting, allowing its most treasured principles to be toppled in the face of solid evidence.

Ironically, the story of natural theology, so carefully avoided in this exhibit, is a real-life account of just how such foundational concepts in science may be challenged. Though it is neither biased nor fundamentalist, as creationists claim, in overlooking the “Intelligent Design” in Darwin’s own intellectual history, this exhibit misses an authentic demonstration of the ideals it professes.  Worse, it sidesteps a meaningful discussion of Intelligent Design and why—as science—it just doesn’t cut it.