Whimsical Art on The Origin of Species

With great interest, I read the recent Smithsonian magazine article about Elizabeth Shapiro, a researcher of ancient DNA. Some speculate that Shapiro and her brood might bring extinct species back to life. In the article, Shapiro poses with a mummified bird—the dodo, a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius off the west coast of Africa until its extinction in the 17th Century. Today, the dodo has become a metaphor for extinction that rivals only the extinct giant moa of New Zealand in aviary fame. I always found the dodo a curious creature. Despite its morose association with death, artists’ renderings of the dodo always reminded me of a rejected Sesame Street character, with its bulbous, frowning beak and waddling cotton-swaddle body. Its odd name remains poetically chained to the fun-to-say expression, “Dead as a dodo."

Charles Darwin is dead as a dodo too. The silver-bearded author of The Origin of Species, Darwin espoused an atheistic theory of extinction and evolution that at once canonized and vilified him for the ages. Yet Darwin was more than a beacon of controversy: he was also a family man, as illumined by a precocious doodle on the back of one of only twenty-eight surviving original folios of The Origin of Species. His young son Francis drew a picture with the aplomb of Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. "The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers" shows two soldiers facing each other. One dons a flamboyant turban and blooming pants and rides a plum; the other, dressed in British attire, rides a stately carrot. Despite his precocious talent, Francis didn’t grow up to become a professional artist. Instead, the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. With his eminent father, Francis would co-author The Power of Movement in Plants. Maybe Francis kept in mind his childhood doodle, drawn on the back of a page filled with the inquisitive cursive of his father.

Photo courtesy of Denis Finnin/American Museum of Natural History.

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