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Intelligently done Darwin

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DARWINAmerican Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street; (212) 769-5800. Through May 29.

IT is a fair guess that most of the visitors to the new exhibit about Charles Darwin already accept its premise, that he was a great man and that his theory of evolution through natural selection is correct.

At the same time, the curators seem somewhat on the defensive. Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have heard all the hemming and hawing, all the exertions to accommodate the feelings of those who might believe otherwise. Nor would you have seen the parade of eminent scientists who, in film loops, line up in support of evolution.

Most of the exhibit is interesting, if tame. It's the "Masterpiece Theatre" version of Darwin (1809-1882), as gleaned from his books and the letters he wrote in a fine, 19th-century hand.

You will also examine the botanical samples he collected in South America and an uncannily accurate re-creation of his study in the English countryside. The theatrical element extends to dramatically lit cases that contain the skeletal remains of horses, apes and human beings. There are even a few discreetly chosen terrariums in which live frogs will be found.

The exhibit tells the story of a young Englishman who originally trained for the clergy, and became a naturalist only after being invited to travel for five years around South America on the HMS Beagle.

On his return, Darwin kept his great theory secret for almost 20 years, fearing the controversy it would provoke. He unleashed it upon the world only in 1859, when a rival scientist was about to go to press with a similar theory.

Darwin comes across in this exhibition as a profoundly decent and self-effacing man who resisted the prejudices of his age and who, through observation and a genius for conjecture, formulated the theory that guides the natural sciences to this day.

For those devotees of "intelligent design," the show will not change anyone's mind, nor will it teach most visitors - except for children - a great deal that they did not already know.

Rather, it is like one of the 19th-century contraptions that takes a black-and- white photograph and appears to tease it into three-dimensionality. Almost certainly, you will come away sensing that what had previously been only knowledge, has been transformed into an understanding and a feeling.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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