One of the Australian Museum's earliest Curators was not only an industrious man of science but one ahead of his time.
German born Gerard Krefft created a web of scientific contacts around the world in the 1860s and 70s – by prolific letter writing.
A small series of these letters with the famous father of evolution Charles Darwin - illustrate just how groundbreaking Mr Darwin’s evolutionary thinking was and how hard Krefft worked to promote it in colonial Australia.
Krefft was an energetic fieldworker interested in reptiles, mammals, fish and fossils. In 1869 he spent his honeymoon excavating the remains of an extinct giant wombat, a ‘Diprotodon’, in the Liverpool Ranges and later that year excavated at Wellington Caves in NSW.
As he scratched away in the bone encrusted soil of those limestone caves, unearthing layer upon layer of extinct fossilised marsupials, Darwin’s evolutionary theories of chance variation and survival of the fittest must have begun to take on an impressive physical reality.
Many of his colonial colleagues whom Krefft dismissed as ‘bug and beetle collectors’, saw the whole evolution theory mainly in theological terms. When Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ first appeared in Sydney in 1860, Museum trustee W.S Macleay had written, “It is far easier for me to believe in the direct and constant Government of the Creation of God, than that He should have created the world and then left it to manage itself.”
In February 1873 Darwin wrote to Krefft “I am very much obliged for your kind letter, & am much pleased that you have been interested in my Descent of Man…” In July Krefft replied complaining of “the ignorance of even well educated people” and recounting his efforts to explain Darwin’s ideas in a popular manner, “If I cut a joke or two about “protoplasm”, “simple cells” or “jelly fish” I do so to make people read my remarks…”.
But years of debate and a barrage of lively articles in the papers by Krefft, failed to sway the sceptics. Following his departure from the Museum in 1874, Krefft’s words reflect his growing disappointment. In a letter to the Editor of Nature he writes “… I have tried to make people understand what the meaning of the theory of evolution really is…I have ceased to believe in Moses and the Prophets.”
Krefft died in 1881 and wide acceptance in Australia of Darwin’s theory was still some way off. By 1959 though the Museum had embraced it and commemorated the centenary of the groundbreaking ‘Origin of Species’ with a special display.
If Krefft were still around today, I bet he’d be urging us all to remember those portentous words that sum up Darwin’s theories so neatly (even if he didn’t actually write them): “It is not the strongest of the species which survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”