Pick of the Day: Darwin’s Nose

Curated by Dunlop Gallery director Curtis Collins, this show of drawings and sculpture by Trevor Gould is inspired by the taxonomic process  scientists use to class animals and plants into different families, genera and species.

The exhibition title is derived from an anecdote  Charles Darwin related once about how he almost didn’t get to travel on his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle during which he gathered data that led him to  formulate his theory of natural selection.

Anxious to avoid loneliness during a long sea voyage, the Beagle’s captain Robert FitzRoy had asked his military superiors for permission to have an unpaid naturalist tag along with whom he could share companionship. The candidate that was recommended to him was Darwin.

Although Darwin and FitzRoy apparently got along well, the former learned later that he almost didn’t make the grade. Here’s how Darwin put it in a book of selected letters published in 1902.

“Afterwards on becoming very intimate with FitzRoy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected [as the Beagle’s naturalist], on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent desciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”

The moral of that story is that while scientific classification is a necessary part of understanding the natural world, we should always be wary about making unfounded assumptions about people (both individually and collectively) and other lifeforms based on superficial characteristics because the complexity of our (and their) behaviour generally defies easy categorization.

In addition to taxonomy, another subject Gould explores is the allegorical convention of 19th century Western painters placing animals in human contexts. Which brings us to the origins of the dogs playing poker image that I posed in the 14 Days Top Six in our Feb. 23 print edition. It was the creation of New York artist/illustrator C.M. Coolidge, who was commissioned by a Minnesota ad agency in 1903 to do 16 paintings of dogs doing typical human activities for a campaign advertising cigars. Aside from nine poker paintings, Coolidge also depicted dogs ballroom dancing, opening mail and participating in a Masonic initiation. Fun stuff.

There’s an opening reception for Darwin’s Nose tonight at 7 p.m., and the show runs until April 15.

Author: Gregory Beatty

Greg Beatty is a crime-fighting shapeshifter who hatched from a mutagenic egg many decades ago. He likes sunny days, puppies and antique shoes. His favourite colour is not visible to your puny human eyes. He refuses to write a bio for this website and if that means Whitworth writes one for him, so be it.

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