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Sweeping Darwin exhibition opens amid U.S. debate on human origins

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New York (dpa) - The most in-depth exhibition of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution opens Saturday at the American Museum of National History in New York, hitting a raw nerve in a divisive U.S. debate on human origins.

But museum officials insist the display, which will run through May 29 of next year, does not seek to favour one side of the debate over the other.

Still, since his revolutionary book "On the Origin of the Species" was first published in the 1860s, Darwin (1809-1882) continues to draw admirers, as well as critics.

The New York exhibition may shed renewed light on this tension.

At a recent evening gala held at the museum, celebrities, many of them members of the media, openly said the exhibition could be seen as a rally against U.S. President George W. Bush's push for intelligent design.

"This is a time when those of us who are about science and Darwin have to take a stand," said museum patron Tom Brokaw, former NBC anchorman.

While backers of intelligent design want U.S. public schools to teach the theory in science classes, critics dismiss it as a camouflaged version of creationism. They say it would allows educators to inject the idea of an ultimate creator when teaching students about human evolution.

Other celebrities at this week's gala preferred to keep their comments to themselves, highlighting the sensitive nature of the exhibit.

They told local news reporters that they did not intend to pick a fight with Bush on the theory of creationism, members of the Republican right wing or religious groups.

Darwin, who devoted his life to the science of evolution by natural selection, used the Galapagos Islands as his living laboratory.

To set the scene, museum visitors will be greeted by two live Galapagos tortoises, as well as an iguana and horned frogs from South America.

Darwin launched the study of modern biological science after his work was made public 150 years ago, changing the perception of how humans and a myriad of other species originated.

Museum officials said visitors will experience the wonders that Darwin himself witnessed when he first travelled to the Galapagos Islands and other places in South America.

They said visitors will learn how Darwin reached the startling conclusion that life on earth is not static, but ever changing. They said the exhibition will explain how Darwin's controversial theory of national selection offers a mechanism to explain the amazing diversity of life on earth.

"At a time when American education in science and mathematics is failing dreadfully in ways that undermine this country's economy and security, and yield public confusion about major scientific issues, including the origins and diversity of life on earth, the museum is honoured to join with its collaborators in presenting this show on Darwin," said Ellen V. Fuller, president of the American Museum of National History.

Fuller said Darwin's groundbreaking theory remains the cornerstone of modern biology.

"As we seek new cures for disease and means to avert bio- terrorism, Darwin's work remains vitally important as does a new focus on improving science education in this country," she said.

The Museum of Science in Boston and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada will feature the Darwin exhibit once it leaves New York next year.

Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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