Friday, October 16, 2009

Libertarian Evolution

The front page of the Style section of Thursday's Washington Post had a long article on the announcement of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The article, by Jacqueline Trescott, begins:

The National Museum of Natural History announced Wednesday that it is dedicating a new hall to the story of human evolution, giving emphasis not only to how we became humans but how changes in the natural world affected human development.

The Hall of Human Origins, tracing a 6 million-year history, is scheduled to open March 17 -- 100 years to the day that the museum opened.

A news release from the Smithsonian Institution states:
The $20.7 million exhibition hall will be complemented by ongoing human origins research and education programs, which are all key components of the museum’s broader initiative, “Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?” The initiative focuses on the epic story of human evolution and how the defining characteristics of the species have evolved over 6 million years as its ancestors adapted to a changing world. The museum will launch a compelling new Smithsonian Human Origins Web site and a revolutionary virtual experience hosted on the Blue Mars 2150 virtual Web site. It will include a complete reproduction of the physical exhibition plus additional features visitors can only experience on the Web....

More than 50 U.S. and international scientific research and education organizations, such as the U.S. National Academies of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Museum of Kenya and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and more than 70 distinguished scientists and educators are collaborating with the Human Origins Initiative’s research, education and outreach programs.

Visitors to the 15,000-square-foot Hall of Human Origins will be immersed in a unique, interactive museum experience illuminating the major milestones in the origin of human beings and the drama of climate change, survival and extinction that have characterized humans’ ancient past. On entering the exhibition from the Sant Ocean Hall, visitors will travel through a dramatic time tunnel depicting life and environments over the past 6 million years. Visitors will also engage with life-size forensically reconstructed faces of early human species, all designed to provide visitors with a sense of personal connection as they look into the eyes and faces of their distant ancestors.

Other key features in the exhibition include interactive snapshots in time using the actual field sites where research is being conducted, a display of more than 75 skulls (cast reproductions) and an interactive human family tree showcasing 6 million years of evolutionary evidence from around the world, a “One Species Living Worldwide” amphitheater show and a special “Changing the World” gallery, in which visitors can address pressing questions and issues surrounding climate change and humans’ impact on the Earth.
It turns out that the new exhibition is being funded, in large part, with a donation from libertarian philanthropist David Koch -- the same David Koch who was Ed Clark's running mate on the LP presidential ticket in 1980. Trescott continues:
The 15,000-square-foot space will be named for David H. Koch, a chemical engineer and executive vice president of Koch Industries who gave $15 million for the hall's construction. The other primary donor to the project is Peter Buck, a physicist and co-founder of Subway restaurants, who gave $15 million to an endowment for research and accompanying education programs.

The total cost of the hall is $20.7 million, with $3.5 million from other private sources and $2.2 million from the Smithsonian's federal funds.

In a statement, Koch saluted the Human Origins Program, saying, it "has the power to influence the way we view our identity as humans, not only today, but for generations to come." Koch, an MIT-educated engineer, has given generously to many educational, cultural and medical institutions, as well as to conservative political groups. He was the 1980 Libertarian vice presidential candidate.
The article doesn't mention that in 1995, Koch purchased the apartment that once belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis when she lived in New York City. Koch sold the flat in 2006. (File that under "real estate trivia.")

No doubt there will be some complaints that the exhibition -- whose displays will trace back human evolution some four million years and include the recently discovered "Ardi" -- is the work of godless libertarians.

Such complaints might come from the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Those behind the Creation Museum believe -- and offer as scientific fact -- that the Earth is only about 10,000 years old, or younger, and that men and dinosaurs co-existed. Though the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum boasts that it is within a 650-mile drive for two-thirds of the U.S. population, it only attracted some 750,000 visitors in the two years after it opened in May 2007.

In contrast, the National Museum of Natural History has drawn about 6 million visitors already this year, as well as 7 million in 2008, 7.1 million in 2007, and 5.8 million in 2006.

Of course, the Natural History Museum offers more than a male porn star portraying Adam in the Garden of Eden. It also has the Hope Diamond, "Wild Ocean 3D" in on an Imax screen, and the reconstructed skeleton of a triceratops. So not everyone who wanders through the Natural History Museum's doors from the National Mall is coming for edification about evolution.

Even so, it is heartening to learn that millions more people are interested in actual science than in charlatanism.

(Illustrations credit: RPDI [Reich & Petch Design International]; courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No male porn stars playing Adam when I visited. But the Creation Museum does have a robot Methuselah.

Most creation museums have at least one replica of a T-Rex skull.