November 19, 2005 — August 20, 2006


A black and white photograph of Charles Darwin in profile.

Happiest at home with his notebooks and his microscope, he shunned the public eye. Controversy made him ill. This brilliant observer of nature kept his most original and revolutionary idea under wraps for decades. Yet today, two centuries after Charles Darwin's birth, nearly everyone knows his name. What did Darwin do, and why does he still matter so much?

Keenly observing nature in all its forms–from fossil sloths to mockingbirds, primroses to children–Darwin saw that we all are related. Every living thing shares an ancestry, he concluded, and the vast diversity of life on Earth results from processes at work over millions of years and still at work today. Darwin's explanation for this great unfolding of life through time–the theory of evolution by natural selection–transformed our understanding of the living world, much as the ideas of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the physical universe.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection underlies all modern biology. It enables us to decipher our genes and fight viruses, and to understand Earth's fossil record and rich biodiversity. Simple yet at times controversial, misunderstood and misused for social goals, the theory remains unchallenged as the central concept of biology. Charles Darwin, reluctant revolutionary, profoundly altered our view of the natural world and our place in it.

Charles Darwin looked closely at life. The vast and marvelous diversity of life on Earth, from barnacles to butterflies, ostriches to orchids, made him curious. Countless species, living and extinct–why so many? Some were only slightly different from one another–what could explain that? Each organism so beautifully adapted to its environment–how could it happen?

With persistence and passion, Darwin set out to find answers. He conducted experiments. He read widely and corresponded with fellow naturalists around the world. And he studied the evidence using simple tools, at times little more than a microscope or a magnifying glass. Darwin looked closely–and we saw the world in a new way.

The American Museum of Natural History gratefully acknowledges The Howard Phipps Foundation for its leadership support. Significant support for Darwin has also been provided by Chris and Sharon Davis, Bill and Leslie Miller, the Austin Hearst Foundation, Jack and Susan Rudin, and Rosalind P. Walter. Additional funding provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Dr. Linda K. Jacobs, and The New York Community Trust—Wallace Special Projects Fund.