Darwin in Rome: Burden of Diversity, Mystery of Time

As part of the worldwide bicentennial for Charles Darwin, the Comune of Rome, along with extensive private sponsorship, offers a brilliant new show in the large Exhibition Hall (literally a palace), centrally located near the Termini train station, and the old Roman Forum. On the Saturday afternoon of my visit, the exhibit was crammed with mostly Italian spectators, including schoolchildren on tour with teachers. The place was abuzz with activity and close crowds. The younger children were drawn to the terrariums full of turtles, snakes, and other curiosities; adults were partial to both the reproduction of Darwin’s private study, where the book that rocked the world was written, and the final room in which the uncannily similar fetal development of fishes, reptiles, and mammals (but no humans) was displayed.

I was mostly drawn to the photograph of the man, which graces the cover of the exhibition guide as well as most of advertising one sees all over the city. Why, I wonder, is the standard depiction of Darwin of him as an old man with a thick white beard, an endearingly modest hat, and wizened, world-weary eyes? Is it done to make him seem harmless, this domesticated naturalist who comes off more like Santa Claus than the man who drove a wedge between many Christians and the book of Genesis? Why not a young Darwin, as he appeared when he set off on his spontaneous five-year voyage around the world?

The show itself offered an intriguing answer to that question. What struck one most about the show was the overwhelming weight, even the burden, of time. Special attention was paid to Darwin’s early bouts of seasickness aboard the HMS Beagle, to his later bouts of homesickness, and then to the sudden decision by the captain—after rounding the southern coast of Africa—to return to South America for further longitudinal readings before heading home.

Things moved with maddening slowness, at much the same pace as the theories that quietly blossomed in the mind of this bright young collector. A significant event came well before his time in the Galapagos Islands, when Darwin witnessed an earthquake on the western coast of South America, then noted that ground levels had risen considerably afterwards. Mountains, he began to muse, may be the patient product of such events accumulated over millions of years. Everything about his theories hinged on the long view, the overwhelming span of terrestrial time.

The show also made a point of defending Darwin, the man, by highlighting the primary political implications of his theories. This is perhaps the other reason for the choice of the picture of the elder statesman of evolutionary theory: his liberalism and his humanism. Darwin’s abolitionist sentiments were due in no small part to his conviction that the entire human family derived from a common ancestry. In this, the botanist and the Bible were in agreement.

Where they seemed to diverge was on this fundamental question of time. If most Protestants in Darwin’s day believed, with the early Protestant philologist James Ussher, that the Genesis-event could be dated precisely to October 23, 4004 BCE—making the world just 6,000 years old—then Darwin speculated a world of astonishing antiquity, a world whose very diversity was directly due to its great age.

Disappearing the Etruscans

A second show was housed in the Exhibition Palace of Rome, this one was dedicated to the Etruscans. Here was the second great mystery on display. We know very little about the Etruscans, who provide an elusive counterpoint to the early history of the Roman Republic. The nearest northern neighbors to Rome, Etruscans are associated with the mountainous interior of the storied western coast of Italy, up to what is still called Tuscany today. Some of the earliest Roman kings were Etruscan, and yet later, when Rome undertook her great campaigns that resulted in the peninsula, she singled out the Etruscans for special censure. Threatened by the sheer vitality of Etruscan culture as by no other, the Romans quite literally erased the language and the people and destroyed most of the monuments, thereby making Etruria, alone of all her conquered native territories, a fragment, a memory, and a cautionary tale.

The show offered an inspiring glimpse of what Rome may have feared. The art in all forms—but especially the temples and the funerary art—offers images of great delicacy and gentleness. Much of it seems altogether Greek, raising still further questions about who these mysterious people, with their impenetrable language, really were. Most of the ceramic and stone figures display the elusive “Archaic smile,” even in death, and almost everything that survives from Etruria displays this same joyous frenzy for life, even in the face of mortality. Among the Etruscans, the humans smile every bit as much as the immortals do. Perhaps more so, as their popular celebrations of the rites of Adonis suggest.

This second show thus subtly underscored the fundamental point of the first: the burdens of diversity, and the mystery of time. In the human world—the world of culture—diversity is the product of decades and centuries, and it is often violent. The Etruscan difference inspired Roman wars and conquest. At some point, quite early on it would seem, peaceful coexistence became impossible. And in destroying Etruria, the great Roman adventure could begin.

This is the disturbing subtext of Darwin’s theories, too. Life is a great warfare, a competitive quest for food and reproduction that generated the staggering species diversity of Planet Earth. Natural diversity, even more than cultural diversity, is the product of an enormous span of years, and repeated violent destructions. The engine driving the machine is violence and death: earthquakes, volcanoes, transmutations, mass extinctions. The ancients often depicted Time as the great Devourer; modern science speaks in surprisingly similar terms.

It is easy to see how religious voices might have been raised in protest when Darwin first suggested his theories about the origin of species. It is unsurprising that the forces of religious reaction in the United States turned to the schools and to the teaching of evolutionary theory even before they turned to distilleries and the Prohibition amendment. What is more surprising is that these stunning views about time and about struggle have been so very well domesticated in most mainstream Christian communities today.

But what of Rome? Much has been made of the anti-modern posture of the current papacy. It is no more than a fifteen minute walk from the Exhibition Palace to St Peter’s Basilica. What, I wonder, does the current Pope make of such exhibitions?

It is hard to speculate, but in general, the answer seems clear. Evolutionary biology and the archaeology of pagan antiquity are no longer the sciences that trouble the anti-Modern Christian community. The Vatican sponsors its own excavations of pagan cemeteries underneath the precinct of Vatican City itself, after all. If this kind of modernism ever presented a problem to the papacy, it no longer does.

What counts as the main modern challenges now lie elsewhere, and have more to do with what the Vatican deems an ideology of secularism, and a cultural disposition toward death. Perhaps this is where the theories first articulated by the man with the gentle eyes don’t turn out to be very gentle at all. Death is the engine driving the train of evolution; animal species, very much like human civilizations, die. So often so that now they serve as little more than material for display in the cases of the museums that punctuate the modern landscape in this lovely city, better perhaps than in any other.

Yet just down the road, the Vatican has its own museums as well. And here too the Etruscans enjoy a prominent place of honor.