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Two Museums, Two Revealingly Different Ways of Communicating about Evolution


The current cover story in World Magazine has editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky reflecting on visits he paid to two world-class natural history museums, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. In visiting both I’ve noticed some, but not all, of the things that Olasky describes.

What’s interesting is that the Smithsonian makes a big, heavy-handed, tub-thumping push for Darwinian evolution, directed especially at children, while New York’s more old-fashioned AMNH does not, or at least not to nearly the same extent, opting instead for a more tentative, sober, and honest approach. Good for them. That’s not to say the AMNH casts evolutionary theory itself into doubt, but it refreshingly admits where important details about the history of life, revealed by the fossil record, are uncertain.

Olasky is a terrific reporter. He read the signs on exhibits carefully, which most visitors probably do not, and he recounts some priceless overheard conversations among the museum patrons around him. The problem with the Smithsonian

becomes apparent on a placard a few steps into the [museum]: “EVOLUTION TRAIL….Shaped by natural selection, some species diverge from their ancestors and adapt to environmental change…. Evolution is at the heart of this museum. Follow the evolution trail to learn how, and let Iggy the Iguana be your guide along the way.” Soon, bright lights announce, “Welcome to the Mammal Family Reunion! Come meet your relatives.”

The evolution trail takes us by an exhibit celebrating Morganucodon oehleri, only four inches long: “A close relative of this tiny creature was the first mammal on earth. Its DNA was passed on to billions of descendants — including you.” The trail leads to the Evolution Theater, which features a film starring “Great-grandma Morgie, only four inches long….A dragonfly for dinner. Mmm, mmm. Tasty….The dinosaurs towered over our mammal family for a long time, until those dinosaurs had a really bad day.”

Yup, that’s when a meteorite slammed into earth, leading to a dust storm that shrouded the planet. All the dinosaurs died, “but not our family, no. We mammals survived…the meteorite was just the lucky break we needed.” The film’s avuncular narrator then gives one example of how mammal species evolved: The brown fur on brown bears works well as camouflage in the forest, but 150,000 years ago some brown bears became stranded in Alaska, and bears that survived “became lighter and lighter and lighter until voil�, a brand-new species, the polar bear.”

(If you’re familiar with the difference between macroevolution and microevolution, you may be noting that the film cheats. It purports to explain how one kind of animal gave way — via time plus chance — to other kinds. That’s the controversial theory of macroevolution, but the film’s one specific example is a micro one that both evolutionists and creationists accept: Sure, bear hair color can become lighter and bird beaks longer, but those changes prove nothing about the macro questions.)

The film concludes by stating that humans are a recent addition to the mammal family, yet we think we are “the life of the party. Truth is, we just arrived….Life is constantly changing and evolving. Always has, always will….We all belong to a family that is constantly changing and adapting….If we’ve evolved this far from mammals like Morgie, what new mammals will Morgie find at the next reunion?”

Leaving aside the the museum’s cheating conflation of micro- with macroevolution and the cloying references to “Iggy the Iguana” and “Great-grandma Morgie,” I wonder, don’t the curators at the Smithsonian realize how transparent and off-putting their chirpy triumphalism is? That’s the way with triumphalism on any subject. I can’t imagine it convincing anyone. It’s poor salesmanship, surely, if selling an idea like evolution is understood to be the point of the exercise.

And the irony — do they miss that as well? On one hand, the Smithsonian bashes you over the head with the Darwinian insistence that a human being is nothing more than an unexceptional member of the extended animal family. On the other hand, this lowly animal has got everything absolutely all figured out about biological origins — to the extent, furthermore, that any humans not on board with the approved origins story are mocked, silenced, and expelled.

That corollary is not stated in the museum exhibits, but the Smithsonian is the same national institution that drummed out evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg for admitting that doubts about Darwinian theory could have some merit.

Oh, and “human unexceptionalism”? I offer that phrase to our colleague Wesley Smith. No charge.

Image: National Museum of Natural History, by Melizabethi123 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.