Moar evidence for evolution

October 24, 2010 • 7:31 am

. . . as if you needed any.  I always photograph skeletons of sea mammals that show a vestigial pelvis or hindlimbs.  Here’s the skeleton of a killer whale, Orcinus orca, suspended from the ceiling of the new “northwest building” in Harvard’s science quad.  Note the vestigial pelvis dangling from wires attached to the spine (click to enlarge).

In the background is the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), home to many famous scientists since its foundation by Louis Agassiz in 1859. (These included, in my day, Ernst Mayr, Alfred Romer, and Steve Gould.) I spent many wonderful hours of my graduate student-hood in this building.  Sadly, it may be gutted to provide office space for other departments, with the collections and exhibits moved from Cambridge to Allston.  I dearly hope this doesn’t happen.

12 thoughts on “Moar evidence for evolution

  1. I really enjoyed the MCZ/HMNH as a refreshing distraction during grad school, and have come to love it even more as a parent. In accordance with the State of Massachusetts funds secured by Louis Aggasiz to found it, it opens its doors to the public for free every Sunday. It is always packed on Sunday mornings with kids and their parents venerating fossils at this cathedral of Darwin. I should be there now.

    One exhibit that deserves mention here is the HMNH’s new permanent exhibit on evolution built explicitly right at the museum’s entrance to counter any nonsense that evolution is not a well-established fact.

    As for moving to Allston, I’m not sure what insider information you’ve heard, but the financial crash certainly put the plans of developing the Allston campus across the river on indefinite hold. I’ll be happy so long as they give their wonderful collection the space it deserves, whether it remains in its charming 19th century museum home, or a modern shining glass, aluminum, and limestone palace.

  2. In the background is the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), home to many famous scientists since its foundation by Louis Agassiz in 1859.

    It is striking that an institution founded by Agassiz, orchestrator of the last great stand against evolution, has spent most of its history explaining evolution, and collecting evidence supporting it. Another reminder that there was a time when most biologists were creationists, but evidence convinced them evolution by natural selection was the truth.

    1. Didn’t Darwin have his disputes with Agassiz (as well as what Ruth says about those with Owen) over the origin of coral reefs? At least he had a lake named after him!

      1. IIRC, that may have been Agassiz’s son Alexander.

        (Isn’t there a book out on this? “Reef Madness” by David Dobbs?)

  3. I toured the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology with a community college biology class (second semester of Bio for science majors). Despite the class having just completed a chapter on evolution, I had to explain to my fellow students that no, whales did not come from ichthyosaurs or plesiosaurs, but that, as mammals, their Mesozoic ancestors were small, quadrupedal land-dwellers.

  4. Those skeletons were a much needed addition to a cold, corporate building.

    Moving the MCZ collection to Allston will destroy it–its whole charm is being a fusty old Victorian museum. Imagine all the (somewhat tatty) taxidermy in some new glass and steel thing on the stem cell campus. Who will give a shit? But Harvard administrators must have quaint offices in quaint buildings.

  5. Aren’t there enough bequests to put up another building? It would be pretty sad to move such a collection just for office space; even worse if the collection becomes less accessible to the students.

    1. Agreed. The MCZ houses a terrific collection in just the right space. They couldn’t possibly be thinking of moving the coelacanth in formaldehyde just for some more offices!

  6. FWIW, this morning I asked if anyone had heard about Harvard moving the MCZ to Allston. My three year old started running around yelling MCZ! MCZ! So what could I do but take her. I asked a docent about any rumors, but she hadn’t heard anything.

    It’s very difficult to imagine them moving that museum, both for the cost of a new one and the losing political and p.r. battle it would set off. Harvard museums along those two blocks are a major tourist draw to Cambridge, and the MCZ/HMNH is a centerpiece. Trying to move that museum would almost be as foolish as stacking your endowment with CDS.

  7. Back in my undergrad days I worked in the museum shop there, selling little science trinkets to the world. The fun part was unpacking the ants in amber deliveries to send over to EO Wilson.

    Once, though, I wore shorts to work and my boss got a call from Richard Shultes (the famous ethnobotanist) complaining I was being undignified, so I had to be neat and presentable after that. You’d think that all those years spent in the rainforests of the world researching psyschoactive plants would have mellowed him some, but no.

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