Evolutionary Theory and the Florence Paleontological Collections
© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
Published: 14 April 2012
Florence has a tradition of Natural Philosophy, and since as early as the sixteenth century fossils were collected by the Granduke. The Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence houses today collections that belonged to Nicolas Steno, when fossils were for the first time used as documents to reconstruct Earth history. Natural philosophers and geologists, both Italian and foreigners, continued to study fossils collected in Tertiary strata of Tuscany until the nineteenth century, when the first speculations on the origin of species were proposed. Charles Darwin himself mentions fossil vertebrates that are today on show in our museum. In the last years, this part of the history of science has been proposed to the public. The aim was to foster an understanding of the centrality of fossils in two cultural revolutions, the discovery of deep time and the birth of evolutionary theory–connected among themselves and with the emergence of geology. Dedicated volumes, public conferences, guided visits to the collections, and field trips to paleontological sites have attracted an attentive and responsive public, showing that the history of science can help deliver modern evolutionary thinking. Other activities aimed at students of all ages have also shown that the interaction between schools, university teachers, and museum personnel is vital to form the mind of future generations on the reality of the evolution of natural systems.
Collections of fossils existed and were exhibited as separate objects of natural history already some decades before the theory of transmutation by natural selection formulated by Charles Darwin was published in 1859. As a matter of fact, starting with Lamarck and well into Darwin’s early work, fossils were the main source of evolutionary thinking (Rudwick 2005, 2008; Dominici and Eldredge 2010). Yet, paleontological exhibits do not inherently speak about the evolution of one species into another, as the majority of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century geologists daily dealt with fossils without feeling pushed to conceive evolution. As a further proof, in creationist hands, fossils are used today to exactly the opposite effect (Princehouse 2009). What the public can learn about evolution when walking through a paleontological exhibit thus comes from the way fossils are arranged and from the words and graphics mounted to explain them. In addition to this, historical European collections have a particular story of their own to tell about the precursors of modern evolutionary thinking. This is the case with fossils housed in the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence, including seventeenth to nineteenth century collections and fossils mentioned by natural philosophers like Steno and Buffon, and geologists like Cuvier and Darwin (Rudwick 2005, 2008; Dominici 2010; Cioppi and Dominici 2010). In Florence, as in Paris or London, paleontological exhibitions can be thus walked along two tracks, one focusing on taxonomy or stratigraphy, another considering that some of these very same objects represent the history of geology. Florence fossils were used (1) to discover and explore the depths of geological time, (2) to realize that some species have become extinct, and—last in historical order, but not least, given the title of this paper—(3) to conceive that species have had origins within the realm of natural phenomena. This added value of historical collections facilitates the process of learning, inasmuch as the visitor is brought to empathize with those who, starting from scratch and in a stepwise fashion, discovered the geological and paleontological facts that were directly seminal to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, finally leading to modern evolutionary theory.
The Rediscovery of Deep Time
The multifaceted nature of time, both cyclical and irreversible, and the many ways time regulates natural phenomena were approached in our museum during the exhibition “Time of nature,” from October 4, 2003 to March 7, 2004. A conference held on the 9th of February, 2009 with the title “Deep Time: From Steno to Darwin” was expressly dedicated to connecting time with evolutionary theory and to celebrating Charles Darwin’s bicentennial (1809–1877). This aimed at establishing a historical connection between the Tuscan geological and paleontological heritage, a large part of which is stored in Florence, with the emergence of the British school of geology in which young Charles Darwin was trained. At the time Darwin published The Origin of Species, the Florence paleontological collections, albeit not central to his theory, were still well known to some of his peer geologists. The conference, mainly aimed at a public of high school students and their teachers, was less a celebration than a debate among philosophers and geologists committed to reconstructing and understanding precise passages in the history of geology. Since the latter is a sector of the history of science that has only recently started to loosen the fetters of traditional Anglocentric accounts (Baker 2008), the conference turned out to be a lively meeting, full of discoveries for the conveners themselves.
To Nicolas Steno (1638–1686), who enriched and ordered the granducal collection of those objects today we call fossils, then called petrifactions, and wrote in Florence his seminal works of 1667 and 1669, the history of our planet was limited to little more than 6,000 years. In Tuscany, Steno saw how to use sedimentary strata to reconstruct history by geometric relationships, freeing it from textual accounts (Cutler 2003). Steno’s stratigraphic principles (“the lowest is the oldest” and others) and his role in demonstrating the organic origin of fossils are still taught today in Earth science courses (Cutler 2003), but what a thrill to come out of the books and face the outcrops where those principles were first conceived! Leading teachers and students along Steno’s footsteps during the fieldtrip connected with the conference and again the following spring, moreover, adds a much-needed connection between the objects closed in a museum and the territory, helping to imaginarily bring fossils out of the drawers and showcases, into the open space of the outcrops where they were collected. For many participants, this resulted in a lasting impression of what geology is and proved a powerful approach to gaining personal experience with the reconstruction of time through fossils and strata. All the participants were “wearing the shoes” of one—Steno—who had not obviously learned from the manuals how to make an anatomy of the earth.
From Extinction to Origination
School Activities and Impact on Visitors
The general public of the Florence Museum of Natural History is attracted by paleontological collections and is willing to be told what lies behind the face value of fossils. Most of the fossils on show, be they remains of large vertebrate animals or small marine shells, were recovered in the territory of Tuscany. Florence and Tuscany played an important role in the history of European science in the 17th and 18th century, and some of these fossils were those used by natural philosophers such as Steno to prove that remains of ancient animals are now enclosed in rocks, or by Targioni Tozzetti to explore prehuman geohistory. The discovery of the organic nature of fossils and of deep time, a true pan-European cultural revolution, prepared the way to Darwin’s theory of evolution in the nineteenth century. In our experience, connecting the fossils to the territory and connecting both to the history of science wins the favor of the public and leads to a more natural, less theoretical way to learn about evolution.
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