Science - February 12, 2009

DARWIN AMONG THE TULIPS

‘With the compliments of the author’ in Darwin’s own hand – enough to make a collector hyperventilate! But it leaves Forum library curator Liesbeth Missel cold; she’d swap the book any day for a copy of The Zoology of the voyage of the H.M.S Beagle.

Books about evolution in the Forum library.
This is the only work by the great man that is still missing from the library’s Darwin collection, which holds early editions of many of his books in several different languages. Completeness is more important to a scientific library than possession of a curiosity. ‘That’s the difference between a curator and a collector’, Missel explains. ‘Here every book just gets stamped like any other. What matters to us is the contents.’ Although she would of course have liked to have a first edition of On the Origin of Species. The earliest edition of this work at Wageningen UR is an 1863 Dutch translation.

Darwin’s books are the centerpiece of the exhibition on ‘The evolution of Darwin’ that opened today in the library at the Forum. And there are quite a few of them. Darwin wrote a lot and on a wide range of subjects. About evolution, of course, and the origins of the human race. But also about orchids, barnacles, domestic pets, houseplants, fossils, the movement of plants, worms, coral reefs… even a book about facial expressions. ‘A book about human and animal emotions. Actually a very un-Darwinian subject.’

But the exhibition is not just of Darwin’s books. Which is just as well, as they consist of lots of text and very few pictures. Visually more attractive are the books by scientists to whom Darwin was indebted in one way or another. There’s a whole cabinet full of them. ‘Darwin’s ideas didn’t just spring from nowhere. So we are also explicitly interested in what was going on around him’, explains Missel.

There was a Dutchman among Darwin’s contemporaries too. Natural historian Johan Nieuhof is represented by a beautifully illustrated 1682 copy of his Memorable Brazilian sea and land journey. Darwin’s journey on the Beagle was part of a long tradition of voyages ofdiscovery with a natural science element.

The exhibition also pays attention to the time since Darwin. For this, Missel enlisted the help of information specialist and evolutionary biologist Marco van Veller, who created a display on what has happened to Darwin’s evolution theory since his death. These books come from the library’s general collection, and the last in the row is the course book Evolution, an introduction, by Wageningen professor Rolf Hoekstra.

But who received those compliments from Darwin, then? That was Haarlem tulip farmer Jacob Heinrich Krelage. Missel says they probably met in 1866 at a conference in London. Krelage gave a lecture there, and Darwin was on the organizing committee. The compliments grace the cover of The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species, which Darwin published in 1877. Krelage returned the compliment and expressed his admiration for the great man by naming a tulip after him in 1889, six years after Darwin’s death. / Roelof Kleis

‘The evolution of Darwin’ can be viewed in the Special Collections section of the Forum library until the end of May. Opening times: Mon- Fri, 09.00 – 17.00 hours. A talk about the exhibition will be given every Friday from 12.30 to 13.30.

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