The architecture of the Natural History Museum in London exudes enormous enthusiasm for the study of life. Fantastical sculptures of animals, both living and extinct, perch on ledges and cling to arches, while intricate paintings of plants cover the ceilings, reflecting the wonder with which the Victorians beheld the natural world. It is the philosophy underlying the enthusiasm of the Victorians, and the scientific breakthroughs that this philosophy precipitated, that inspired me to study biology.
Prior to Charles Darwin, naturalists understood their studies within the framework of ‘natural theology’, studying organisms in order to glory in God’s creation – a mindset reflected by the cathedral-like size and grandeur of the Natural History Museum. Richard Owen, who applied for the museum to be built, studied its collections in great depth, hitting upon the idea of ‘homologies’ and ‘analogies’ – ‘genuine’ and ‘superficial’ similarities between organisms respectively.
For example, the beak of a sparrow is homologous to the beak of a crow, an eagle or any other bird, representing a genuine similarity between these organisms. Conversely, a sparrow’s bill is only superficially similar to that of a platypus, so these characters are defined as analogous. Owen wished for specimens in the Museum to be grouped on the basis of homology, thus reflecting the place of these organisms in God’s great plan.
However, the very attempt to rejoice in God’s creation though the study of natural theology led to Darwin’s proposal of natural selection – precluding the need for God in explaining the adaptations of organisms, and solving the illusion of ‘design’. In this context, homology provided clear evidence for the common ancestry of different species, while analogy provided evidence for convergent evolution – ideas which Owen, as a creationist, had certainly not intended these terms to facilitate.
The architecture and collections of the Natural History Museum reflect how the study of biology, while initially motivated by religion, served to remove God from natural history. The museum stands as a cathedral to human inquiry and knowledge, and the power of the scientific method, but expresses this with an enthusiasm and pride in such endeavour that is seldom seen today. It is therefore unsurprising that students leave the Natural History Museum inspired, while school biology lessons – where evolution is taught as a single topic, rather than as a unifying principle – leave them unimpressed.