Aimless Progress

Grigoriy Revzin about the Darwin Museum
The Weekend Magazine, No 8 (154), 5 March 2010

Every area has a role model. The Darwin Museum is a role model in the museum industry. No other museum in Moscow is as advanced, not even the Tretyakov Gallery or the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. It's a top-notch modern European museum, which suggests the richest collection, the highest degree of academic expertise, well-developed social technologies … (work with children, retirees, people with disabilities and students), constantly renewed displays, incredible designer virtuosity, skillful use of multimedia and computer technologies and what not. In other words, if you want to get an idea of what a modern museum should look like, make your way to the Darwin. It plays the role of the leading cultural institution so confidently that we take it for granted, and it never occurs to us how unlikely all this is. Come to think of it, this museum opened back in 1995, the most unfavourable time for museums, when the idea of the evolution of man from apes had no appeal either for the public at large or the authorities. The museum is run by the city, and at the time Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov was busy building Christ the Savior Cathedral, where a different version of the descent of man is favoured. This miracle is rooted in the time of empty pockets and disdain for science, which defies understanding.

It seems to be a case of some delayed passionarity. The museum was thought up in 1907 by Alexander Kotz, who established the Department of Darwinism at the Higher Courses for Women. Since then Darwinism has been enforced like potatoes in Catherine the Great's reign. All sorts of museums of zoology, paleontology and mineralogy built their exhibitions around the evolution theory. What's more, any local history display was based on the idea of evolution from a mammoth tusk to the first cell of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. Darwinism morphed into rows of dusty stuffed animals used by dusty lecturers to prove that God doesn't exist. Most natural history museums of Moscow are still showing signs of some confusion that they no longer have to do that. And this one gives a feeling that the spirit of 1907 survived intact till the present day, that Darwin's theory is a recent development and you are dazzled by his smart ideas.

It's indeed amazing. Darwin explained how progress can be aimless. Ever since Aristotle came up with the concept of progress, which implied that everything contains the idea of its virtue and seeks to attain it, all other thinkers have developed more or less the same idea. Progress means advancing toward a goal (a heaven on earth, a thorough self-knowledge of the world spirit, a kingdom of free workers); if there is no goal, there is no progress - only a chaos of random changes and a meaningless succession of births and deaths. Not a single ape in Darwin's theory aspired to become a human - no aim whatsoever. Males compete for females; males and females together produce offspring and compete for food trying not to become food. This results in the emergence of increasingly more perfect, complex and sophisticated forms of life; everyone is getting smarter, more beautiful, dangerous and elaborate - progress is obvious. In fact, this theory is beautiful in its minimalism.

It was probably in the Natural History Museum in London where I understood the significance of Darwinism. The thing is that that museum looks like an enormous gothic cathedral. You enter through a huge portal, which is far more magnificent than that of St. Paul's Cathedral, and realize that Darwinism lies at the heart of London. His view on natural history is an epitome of the capitalist age, a view of the world that offers a comprehensive explanation for it. While the medieval Summa Theologica contain something of an explanation of why God created animals, in this theory no one pursues any goals; no one creates anyone or wants anything; the queen reigns but doesn't rule; the prime-minister rules but doesn't reign; everyone competes with everyone, which makes life ever more perfect. Somebody gets eaten, of course, but somebody else gets fed, and this results in an increasingly more perfect world. Aimless progress as a social ideology.

There's only one problem here - it's hard to understand what's so attractive about it. Back in the museum, there is a hall of human evolution from the Australopithecus to the average Muscovite, The latter species emerges from statistics: it's a blonde man of middle height, blue-eyed; over 50, wearing jeans, a shirt and a vest, watching TV in the kitchen - a picture of an average resident of Moscow. Now you look at him and it occurs to you that, of course, he is better than the Australopithecus but not that much. I mean in comparison with apes the progress is obvious; other than that there's nothing appealing.

Darwin's theory was inspired by Galapagos Finches. I did the entire museum and was about to call it a day when I suddenly realized that I clean forgot about the finches. It took me quite a while to find them - so small and plain they are, just like sparrows, though their beaks are different as a result of adaptation to the varied Galapagos environment. Later, when Darwin returned from his journeys aboard the Beagle, he made experiments on the artificial selection of pigeons, and the museum even displays parts of the pigeon loft's tiled roof so naturally covered in birds' poop. It's funny that Darwin was a pigeon fancier just like present-day parking lot watchmen. And that such a great theory is based on limited data - sparrows and pigeons. I mean, they can certainly be admired, but the divine plan or a great aim is one thing, and those birds, who are not exactly intellectuals, are a different story.

We are living at a time when we don't often come up with something positive, as living without a goal in life is not that easy. On the other hand, it gives an opportunity to relish the process itself. And I'd say the Museum addresses the issue in the best possible way. After all, while traditional Soviet museums of evolution had a different mission (they sought to prove the absence of God), this one takes delight in life itself. What does it mean? It means scrutinizing life through cutting edge technologies; always finding something new; it means employing video and computers. Let stuffed birds sing, frogs croak, beetles buzz, and dinosaurs move in the displays. Let it be entertainment and life-fest. Up-to-date, state-of-the-art and diverse world. Everyone competes with everyone else. Someone's horns are longer; someone's muzzle looks more intellectual, and someone else is no less than the biggest roach in the world. There is no aim here. Just life.