Given that I have my biology 102 exam next Sunday (is just the Rutgers biology department that perpetrates this?), I decided to take my birthday trip to the American Museum of Natural History early. It was the absolute worst time I’ve ever had there.
The story actually starts on Friday, when my wife’s car got stuck at the public library on a sheet of ice. We ventured to Target to get some salt, and upon applying said salt I slipped and fell flat onto my shoulderblades, giving me a horrendous heacahce, arm ache, and making it very painful to move my neck. Most of the pain had abated by Sunday morning, but I still was not a very happy camper. Most Sundays that I’ve visited the AMNH it hasn’t been terribly crowded, but yesterday was nearly as bad as Disney World, screaming children and parents using strollers as battering rams ubiquitous throughout the 4 floors. I am glad that these people wanted to go the museum and I hope they learned something there, but I have to say that my experience yesterday tested my patience. Nevertheless, I did get to see the new Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, the updated version of the “Hall of the Age of Man” (and other monikers) on the first floor of the museum.
The exhibit was certainly integrative and high tech, the area that opens up right when you step in being most impressive (at least to me). A beautiful mural of primate evolution with corresponding casts graces the left wall, leading you to a video showing reconstruction of a hominid head and other media about the paleoanthropology. Going a little further in, you see the exhibit’s Adam and Eve, a Australopithecene couple shown recreating the Laetoli trackway. I had seen the recreation before, but it’s hard to get the right sense of scale until you see them; they’re far shorter than promotional pictures make them look! Moving past them there’s plenty of the good ol’ AMNH dioramas and skeleton casts, culminating in a maze of kiosks about intelligence and our amazing brain. Given that I just finished Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden, this was particularly interesting. If I’m being very generalized about the exhibit, I apologize; I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who want to go (and everyone should). Despite the work and care put into the exhibit, however, my wife and I tried to look at it critically and there were some mistakes/things that unsettled us.
1: The majority of the fossils are casts. I realize that hominid and primate fossil remains are rare and it would not be possible to put them on display, but to paraphrase what Stephen Jay Gould said in an essay (I think it was in Dinosaur in a Haystack), I feel a little cheated looking at replicas. Sure, they are interesting and give me a sense of the size and morphology of the animal, but it’s not the same as looking at the real thing. To look at an actual bone or remains of an animal that lived millions of years before me is something that is hard to describe, but it fills me with far more wonder than a cast or replica.
2: Turkana boy is listed as being 8 years old, definitively, even though some researchers think he might have been up to 12. The plaque accompanying the skeleton replica states firmly that the skeleton is from an 8-year old, at least one mother parroting the statement directly to her kids through “See, he was an 8 year old. Look how big he is!” This might seem like nitpicking, but wouldn’t it be more intellectually honest to leave some room for doubt about the life-age of Turkana boy if we can’t say what it was with certainty? There’s a big difference between an 8-year old and a 12-year old, and I’m sure any parent of teens could tell you all about it.
3: Even though the hall is hailed as “new,” I has faint memories of most of the dioramas in the exhibit. The last time I was in the preceding hall was 4 years ago and I wasn’t paying much attention, but much of what I saw seemed very familiar. This isn’t so much a gripe as a thought, but one thing my wife did point out was the regression of body hair along with evolution. Granted, I would imagine “Lucy” and her beau were more hairy than the first Homo sapiens, but could Neanderthals have been hairer than we think? Again, this isn’t a major point, but even in reconstructing our own lineage there is plenty of speculation and you can influence reconstructions to come out more ape-like or more human-like, perhaps without even knowing it. I think of the image of Selam on the cover of National Geographic last year, making her look more like an oranguatan than some of the other popular reconstructions I saw. In any event, especially when we are dealing with a lineage of animals where we feel sure about evolution, great care must be taken to be objective and be honest when making inferences where all the connections are not yet clear.
4: The hall makes a point of saying that human evolution was not linear and that there were various other forms of hominids that took differing evolutionary pathways, but they are not given nearly as much attention as the hominids believed to be more closely realted with us. Granted, the point of the hall is to talk about our origins, but the focus seems to undercut a clear understanding of evolution, perhaps still leaving uncritical visitors with the idea that it all just happened in a straight line.
5: One of the kiosks in the “intelligence” area compares the brains of a shark, a dog, a human, and a dolphin (and I think a chimpanzee, although I can’t remember). For the shark, they make the common mistake of saying that the shark can smell prey x number of miles away. This gives people the idea that a shark can smell blood the second it hits the water, even if the shark is miles away, but this is incorrect. The correct way to explain it would be to say the shark can smell x parts per million of blood in x amount of seawater (I don’t know the exact numbers), following the faint traces of blood up a scent corridor of increasing intensity to the prey. A scent may seem abstract to many, but it is actually made up of small, detectable molecules that leave trails, and if no trail has been made or the shark doesn’t cross it, it won’t smell the blood because the scent particle hasn’t actually entered its nose and triggered its olfactory system.
6: Off on the left wall, tucked away, there’s a video kiosk of near-life sized Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Francis Collins talking about evolution and faith. Miller and Scott come off very well, in my opinion, living up to the public interviews and presentations I’ve seen them do on the subject. Collins, on the other hand, stands up straight and is a bit robotic, and although I didn’t really disagree with what he was saying, he seemed to fit the stereotype of the non-charismatic scientist. When children are asked to draw what a scientist looks like, they often draw a character like Collins; an older white man with grey/white hair and glasses. What I also found interesting was that Collins seemed to get the most air-time (it could have just felt longer) of the three, and he also talked more in terms of his faith. While Scott and Miller primarily extoled how important evolution is and rightly explained that evolution does not dictate morality, Collins’ speech was more about how his faith didn’t hinder his scientific curiosity. I haven’t read Collins’ book yet, but from what I’ve seen & heard from him I’m not terribly impressed, especially when he was nearly duped into appearing on Darwin’s Deadly Legacy. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins apparently was not invited to weigh in on the intersection of evolution and faith as it pertains to human evolution. Next to the video screen, there’s this explanation on the wall
The theory of evolution by natural selection is the only scientific explanation for the spectacular diversity of life on earth.
But from the moment it was published by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago, the theory has been engulfed in controversies. As Darwin himself anticipated, the concepts that humans shared a common ancestry with earlier primates, and that humans and other species evolved over immense spans of time, seem incompatible with some people’s religious beliefs.
Yet many today, including prominent religious leaders and scientists, view the search for understanding as one that both embraces scientific explorations into the material world and a spiritual search for the meaning of human existence, with no inherent conflict between the two.
Social controversy over the theory of evolution is longstanding and will doubtless persist. Yet objections based on spiritual or philosophical perspectives do not undermine the theory’s scientific validity, importance, and impact. The theory of evolution persists today much as Darwin first described it.
Of course, for some conflict with faith and evolution is inherent (i.e. you believe the earth is in a fixed position and the world is about 6,000 years old), but as the explanation rightly states, such beliefs do not have any bearing on the fact of evolution. I know some people feel antsy about it, but I personally don’t like referring to evolution (the change in populations over time leading to new varieties of life) as a theory; the big idea of evolution is a fact and an observation, various theories like natural selection explaining it. Thus the importance of random mutation and natural selection to evolution have persisted, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the way evolution is viewed or understood has changed little since Darwin’s time. Since the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, there have been various discoveries (and ensuing debates) about the “tempo and mode” of evolution, biogeography, genetics, development, etc., painting a much richer picture than previously held. It is important to remember that what is regarded as Darwin’s most important work on evolution was really an abstract and generalization of the idea, and while much remains true, other parts (like Darwin’s explanation of genetics) have long been discredited. Perhaps if Darwin published the grander works on evolution that were initially planned the state of evolution today would have been different, we’ll never know of course, but I think that the initial theory for evolutionary change Darwin put forth was beautifully simple; easy to grasp but with wide-spanning implications.
Interestingly enough, just before leaving I headed upstairs to see the fossil mammals, and while viewing a bone assemblage a woman next to me spoke to her company “This is evidence for Noah’s Flood you know. Yeah… it makes sense. The world is only like 4,000 years old right?” I was in no mood to get into an argument for a stranger, but it led me to wonder why museums, colleges, and scientists in general don’t do more in terms of public outreach. I know among many there’s a feeling of “I don’t have time for the creationists” or it’s just too complicated to get tangled up in, but America is increasingly enthralled by pseudoscience and ignoring the problem won’t help. Even at the college level, taking a course on evolution or biology won’t help if you have a crummy teacher, and I think that scientists have a responsibility upon entering their field to share their understanding and knowledge with the public. For a long time science was only found in books and out of reach of the masses, the 1600’s usshering in a new age of understanding (an interest) in science. Now it seems we’ve gone back the other way again, the elite scientists conversing amongst members of their chosen field (cross-disciplinary communication is another thorny area) when so much more could be understood if time were taken to communicate with other disciplines and the common man. There are more pseudoscience and creationist books that I can shake a stick at, but I can hardly think of any one book I would give to someone to help them understand evolution. Even books that are suppossed to be for the layman, like Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is are more boring than they are useful, sometimes even confusing or conflating old issues (i.e. the idea that thecodonts gave rise to birds, not theropod dinosaurs). How many pizza delivery boys, eletricians, cubicle-bound office workers, policemen, grocery-store checkout clerks, Target sales reps, or gas station attendants are going to make a full time effort of reading the hundreds of books necessary to get a good understanding of evolution? While I acknowledge that no one book can cover it all and the reader needs to have a thirst for knowledge, it is a tragedy that the current literature about evolution still seems ivory-tower constrained (although people like Ken Miller have done an admirable job with their popular works about evolution and combating intelligent design). While there will always be people who are creationists and deny evolution, there are many more people who are confused on the issue and can use enlightenment. Even among people who accept evolution, how many really can explain it well or understand it? At least from what I’ve seen given the attitudes of some of my peers, there are many who blindly accept evolution for one reason or another, making it all the easier for creationism to potentially trip them up later. There has been some movement towards educating the public about evolution, but I still feel that for the most part, unless people are already interested/invested they’re not checking The Panda’s Thumb on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong, science blogging is a great start and a wonderful way to utilize a new internet tool, but it should not be the extent of what scientists must do to educate the public.