New human evolution exhibit to open at the USNM

by Greg Mayer

The Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History (known to biologists as the USNM) has announced that its new Hall of Human Origins, first announced in 2006 and originally slated to open this year,will open in March of next year. Normally this would be unadulterated good news; WEIT readers will recall the ‘thumbs up’ I gave the USNM’s exhibits in August. But a New York Times article [update 20.iii.2010: link now dead] says that

The museum also is establishing an advisory group called the Broader Social Impacts Committee to foster discussion on how scientific and religious perspectives on human origins can be compatible.

This is a cause of concern. Scientific institutions should not have an official theology. This sure sounds like they want to endorse Catholicism (at least of the John Paul II kind) or mainline Protestantism or some other religion that doesn’t object to science (much). I don’t see any problem in having it pointed out that, “Look, there’s a scientist who’s religious” (e.g. Ken Miller). [Added later: or pointing out, “Look, there’s a religious leader who accepts evolution” (e.g. John Paul II).] But to foster the claim they are “compatible” beyond that simple empirical point is not a scientific endeavor.

Curator Rick Potts is a little more reassuring as quoted in the Times, stressing the evidence of human evolution, saying that the exhibit will be a

place to look at the fossil evidence, to explore the fossil evidence and the archaeological evidence that informs about human evolution.


  1. Brian English
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    MooneyBaum will be having a paroxysm of joy about now methinks.

  2. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear. This is not only a scientific organization, it’s a US GOVERNMENT scientific organization, and our government is not supposed to be in the business of endorsing any religion, much less religion in general. This sounds like a violation of the Constitution to me–unless they include discussions of how science and religion are NOT compatible.

    And I don’t find Potts’s comment very reassuring. How could the exhibit NOT stress the evidence, unless it’s completely moronic?

    • Posted October 15, 2009 at 3:10 am | Permalink

      It’s certainly a difficult line for them to walk. In the US I would suspect that most religions explicitly reject evolution (seeing as, in terms of pure numbers, the vast majority of individual religions are splinters of fundamentalist protestantism).
      In that case you cannot say that most religions endorse evolution.
      Stating that the major religions officially accept evolution – Roman Catholic or Episcopalians – is a problem if you ignore the many large groups that do not.
      Even in terms of total numbers it is unlikely that most religious people in the US support evolution. It will be interesting to see how they approach this issue.

  3. abb3w
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    As an empirical datum, fostering discussion often tends to effectively reduce homicidal effort.

    A case might be made (but is left as Exercise For Students) that such reduction is the entire point of “government”.

    • Posted October 15, 2009 at 3:18 am | Permalink

      There’s nothing wrong with a discussion about WHETHER religious and scientific accounts of human origins are compatible. But it is more appropriate for a philosophy department to facilitate discussion of such an issue, and in any event it’s begging the question to replace WHETHER with HOW.

  4. Geoff
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Weird. It’s like Homer Simpson has taken over the Museum.

    Bart: According to creationism, there are no more cavemen.

    Homer: Good riddance, their drawings suck and they look like hippies.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted October 15, 2009 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      It’s a bit premature to say Homer Simpson has taken over. In fact, there’s no chance that the exhibit will be creationist. The question is will the exhibit adopt some explicit theology. We’ll have to see the exhibit first.

  5. Posted October 15, 2009 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand their insistence in preemptive appeasing the religious fundamentalist that would be upset by this. No one worries about ticking off white-supremacists with a civil rights exhibit. Its history! Its science! You report the facts and let the people make up their minds on which conclusion to make. If it pisses people off, then good! That would at least start a dialog in this country. Fostering “…discussion on how scientific and religious perspectives on human origins can be compatible” is the wrong conversation to be having. “IF” they are compatible is a question people should be answering for themselves. Asking “how” already implies that they are compatible.

  6. Posted October 15, 2009 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Unless certain reason-friendly religions are favoured over others, there is little or no compatibility between science and “religion” in general.

    This selection and favouritism is what makes it unconstitutional, besides its other shortcomings.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Lets start an email protest:

    about the unconstitutional issue.

  8. Michael K Gray
    Posted October 15, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear.
    Another strategy that is bound for failure, unless its objectives include giving anti-science frauds free ammunition.
    NOMA should have been strangled at birth as a crippled monstrosity.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] also raises an issue that concerned me when the opening was announced last fall: that the exhibit might adopt some theological viewpoint: […]

%d bloggers like this: