Tel Aviv’s new natural history museum (built to look like Noah’s Ark) deliberately omits mentioning evolution

I’ve previously written about two natural history museums in Israel that either didn’t mention evolution or covered up the evolution exhibits with curtains when school groups of creationist Haredis (hyper-orthodox Jews) were visiting (see here and here). The two were the Museum of Natural History and the Biblical Museum of Natural History, both in Jerusalem.

Now a reader has visited a new natural history museum in Tel Aviv, the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, and again the museum omits almost all mention of evolution. The word, in fact, appears only once in the whole panoply of exhibits. Here’s what my reader reports:

I’m writing to draw your attention to something that I believe is of interest to you.

I just completed a careful tour of the new museum of natural history in Tel Aviv University. Celebrated as the only natural history museum in the Middle East [JAC: well, that’s not exactly accurate], it turned out to also be the only natural history museum in the world where the topic of evolution is deliberately avoided as to not to offend religious people.

In the whole museum I could find only one sign that included the word ‘evolved’ (or any other derivation of it) and one sign with a phylogenetic tree; neither included any further explanation. One or two signs mentioned ‘million of years’ again without any explanation. In one sign they used ‘developed’ where it should have been ‘evolved’.

Here are some of the photos, one showing the mention of evolution.

Lots of mention of process and adaptation, but nothing of evolution (click on all photos to enlarge):

“Transition” and “development” used instead of “evolution”:

Once more the word “develop” is used instead of of “evolve”. That conflation will of course be confusing, as “development” can refer to what happens during the lifetime of a single individual:

Phylogeny without any mention of evolution. How are students supposed to understand this?

 

Note how the word “evolution” is avoided in the explanation below; the euphemism used is “developed over millions of years through a process determined by heredity.” That’s bogus and even wrong: evolution isn’t determined by heredity: processes like natural selection also play a role. The avoidance of “evolution” is painfully obvious.

Finally, the only use of the word “evolution” or “evolve” that my correspondent could find in the whole museum (my emphasis):

From the Museum’s webpage, we learn that the building itself is meant to reflect in part Noah’s ark:

The museum can be found at 12 Klausner Street, Tel Aviv. The building architecture itself is a mix between a treasure chest and Noah’s arch [sic], representing the large range of biodiversity found inside.

Here’s the building, and yes, it’s boat-shaped:

Seriously? Yes, I know the statement is taken from a quip from J. B. S. Haldane, but of course he was an atheist.

It’s unbelievable that a natural history museum in one of Israel’s best universities can almost completely omit mention of evolution—the process that produced the diversity of flora and fauna on display. It’s especially embarrassing to me because I’m sure this was a deliberate omission, made to satisfy those Orthodox Jews who don’t accept evolution. As a secular nonbelieving Jew with genetic ties to these people, and as an evolutionary biologist, I find this deliberate ignorance on the part of the Museum—and the religiously based creationism of the Orthodox to which the Museum caters—appalling.

Here’s a video about the Museum (notice that they refer to it as an “ark”), again omitting all mention of evolution. Founding benefactor Michael Steinhardt (his wife Judy was co-benefactor) remarks at the end, “The natural history museum here in Israel will do more for the next generations of young people than just about any other institution I could envisage.” NOT IF THEY LEAVE OUT EVOLUTION!—the great lesson that underlies the whole exhibit.

The Museum Chair, shown in the video above, is Professor Tamar Dayan (see other officers here and the scientific staff here). The page listing donors and partners also notes that “The museum operates under the auspices of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.” SERIOUSLY? The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities? Are they aware of the quasi-creationist enterprise they’re sponsoring?

Contact information for Professor Dayan, also the Curator of Terrestrial Vertebrates and a Professor at the University of Tel Aviv, can be found here, and I have emailed her the following:

Dear Professor Dayan,

As an evolutionary biologist (and secular Jew), I’m appalled to find that Tel Aviv’s new Steinhardt Museum of Natural History omits all mention of evolution except a single time, confusingly referring to it as “development.” I firmly believe, and have heard, that this omission was deliberate, designed to avoid offending those Orthodox Jews who don’t accept evolution.

It is insupportable for a major natural history museum like yours to have a huge building and many exhibits devoted to evolution while deliberately obscuring the process that produced the organisms on display.  I was also disturbed to find that the Museum operates under the auspices of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities.

There is no credible explanation for the lack of mention of evolution in your Museum save as a concession to creationists. If you have another explanation, I will be glad to hear it. In the meantime I have posted about your museum on my website, “Why Evolution is True,” which has 56,000 readers; my post is here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/08/08/the-new-natural-history-museum-in-tel-aviv-built-to-look-like-noahs-ark-deliberately-omits-mentioning-evolution/   .

I will also contact some Israeli newspapers.

I implore you and your scientific staff to put evolution in its proper place in your museum. As Theodosius Dobzhansky (my academic grandfather) said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I hope you can fix your museum so it can make sense to the many people who visit.

Cordially,
Jerry Coyne

Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

44 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Outstanding letter. The reply will be something to see.

    • Mike
      Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      I look forward to that, providing of course she does reply.

  3. Blue
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    O ! exasperatingly and appallingly sad, Dr Coyne.

    from FFRF today:
    http://www.twitter.com/FFRF/status/1027162568794746880

    Blue

  4. Posted August 8, 2018 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Sad – & bad.
    The numskulls who wrote that were clearly tip-toeing around to avoid saying evolution. Pathetic.

    The only soft spot is between the ears of the godly.

  5. busterggi
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Reality needs a trigger warning.

  6. Milton Zmijewski
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Might have been worth having other distinguished evolutionary scientists sign the letter. Probably won’t have much of an effect but it would show that you are not alone.

    • Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      No time for that. I may email my post to other Israeli scientists who work at or with the Museum.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    A real shanda, you ask me.

  8. Hempenstein
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    The last line here is applicable.

  9. Michael Fisher
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    CORRECTION [it isn’t George S.]: “Establishment of the museum was made possible by a generous long-term donation from Judy and Michael Steinhardt, visionary philanthropists, true and loyal friends of the Natural world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, founding benefactors of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History” DONORS & PARTNERS page at the museum website

  10. Michael Fisher
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Michael Steinhardt may be unaware of what’s going on with the wording of the displays, but he must know about the Ark shape.

    WIKI says he’s an atheist & amateur botanist – he lives in New York state, he’s 77, he’s richer than god & he may be in need of a second home soon due to certain irregularities regarding antiques. His criminal dad financed him through Wharton School MBA 1960 [8 years before Donald’s degree] & gave him packets of cash for his first trading investments.

    • Diane G
      Posted August 9, 2018 at 2:10 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the link–interesting dude. 😉

      I think the Wikipedia writer who wrote the intro has a knack for the ironic:

      ” In 1995, he closed his fund stating, “I thought there must be something more virtuous, more ennobling to do with one’s life than make rich people richer,” before making a 2004 comeback to head WisdomTree Investments, a fund with nearly $43 billion USD in assets under management.[2]

  11. Gabrielle
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    On the museum’s website, under the FAQs page, there is the following question/answer displayed –

    “Why collect items from nature?-

    The National Natural History Collections are an archive of biodiversity. The items are collected in nature, sorted, identified, and in the case of new species to science, they are named. At the end of the identification process they are preserved and become part of the national and international infrastructure of scientific research. This on-going, continuous documentation is essential for understanding processes in nature, for monitoring changes in ecosystems, for strengthening research on evolution and for conserving nature and the environment.”

    So, here in the last sentence they do mention evolution, and at least imply that they (or Tel Aviv U) do research on the subject.

    Does anyone know if the New York Museum of Natural History, or if the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington have displays that mention evolution?

    • Desnes Diev
      Posted August 8, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      For the SMNH in Washington, there are mentions of evolution. For example, they illustrate whale evolution by showing skeletons of different proto-whales. The evolution of Elephants is also illustrated.

      I heard that they opened a new hall about Human origins and evolution but I didn’t see it.

      • mikeyc
        Posted August 8, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        It’s called the David H Koch Hall of Human Origins

        • Diane G
          Posted August 9, 2018 at 2:18 am | Permalink

          Now that is most interesting, to say the least!

          (No one tell him that climate change drives evolution in some spp…)

  12. Posted August 8, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    With no evolution displays they can save on curtains when the Haredi come to visit.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      I thought that pressure from the Haredim must be at the bottom of this.

  13. Posted August 8, 2018 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    The phylogeny diagram of arthropods is indeed just that– only a classification scheme drawn as a tree. But they do get it right by showing that insects are classified within the crustacea.

    The worst for me was the panel that painfully avoids referring to convergent evolution: “The relationship between form and function (??) has led to similarity among animals from genetically distant groups that contend with similar living environments.” Just say it! Say the words!

  14. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    The deliberately static, snapshot descriptions of organisms seem very common on this museum’s signs and elsewhere as well.

    That is why I believe – not able to read the original – that “long-distance movement and the development of speed on the ground” and “transition from walking to running” is referring to how an individual mammal increase stride length et cetera as the sign details. Maybe there is even less mentioning of evolution than a hopeful biologist may read into it?

    I am at loss why this happens in a secular democracy.

    • Posted August 8, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I would suppose the motivations are mainly for fear of losing attendance. Religion is strong in the society of this secular democracy.

      • Eli
        Posted August 8, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        “Religion is strong in the society of this secular democracy”?

        Israel is among the least religious countries in the world: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-china-among-least-religious-nations-1.5350737.

        Unlike most of the Middle East where 82 percent of people consider themselves religious, in Israel “just 30 percent say they are religious and 65 percent say they are either not religious or convinced atheists”. It is about equal with the level of religiosity in England and Scandinavia, the poll found, which are among the least religious areas in the world. And that’s including Arab citizens of Israel who are more religious than Jewish. (55% of Israeli Arabs are very religious or religious while only 20% of Israeli Jews are haredi (ultra-Orthodox) or religious, https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3890330,00.html).

        • mikeyc
          Posted August 8, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          Hmmmm I was wondering about this. TMYK.

          So why, if they are such a secular society, would this museum feel the need to bend to a crazier kind of religion?

          • Eli
            Posted August 8, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

            IDK about the museum. Here is the named benefactor of this museum, Michael Steinhardt, explicitly stating that “Tel Aviv University, the natural history museum, are truly modern, secular institutions.” https://www.jta.org/2017/06/09/news-opinion/united-states/michael-steinhardt-thinks-american-jews-need-to-stop-focusing-on-religion

          • busterggi
            Posted August 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            Because the only reason modern Israel exists is due to crazy religionists and their book of crazy claims.

            • Nicolaas Stempels
              Posted August 8, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              I doubt that, I think a stronger reason was to find a safe area for jews, so often the scapegoats, victims of pogroms and other types of persecution throughout history

            • Malgorzata
              Posted August 8, 2018 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

              Obviously the post is about something else but this very ill informed (and, I suspect, ill-willed) comment requires and answer:

              The modern Zionist movement, inspired by Revolutions of 1848 and the drive of nations to self-determination, as well as by persecutions of Jews in all countries they lived in, was a secular movement whose purpose waas to give the Jewish nation a homeland and national self-determination. Israel was the only place on the planet where Jews had (thousands of years ago) a state from which they were expelled. Since the Romans expelled Jews, there was never any state on this territory – it was always a (neglected) province of one or other Empire. At the same time, through these thousands years, Jews retained their language, culture, religion and yearning to return and again be independent. It’s also relevant that in spite of repeated expulsions by diverse occupiers for all these thousands of years, there was always a Jewish presence in Eretz Israel.

        • Posted August 8, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          I am glad to stand corrected.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 8, 2018 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

          So why this pandering to religion?

          Oh yeah, I know: ‘Democracy’, politics, and pressure groups. No?

          cr

  15. loren russell
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I suppose they should be commended for being lily-livered in three languages. [As opposed to saying “evolution” in English, but not in Hebrew or Arabic..]

  16. Bob
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Another fine letter, PCCE. It will be most interesting to read the reply from Prof. Dayan, if such a reply is received.

  17. jaxkayaker
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Very disappointing on many levels. The Dr. Tamar Dayan that I’m aware of is a top ecologist. I hope she will rectify the matter.

  18. Posted August 8, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  19. CAS
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Religion and ignorance entwined in mutual support!

  20. Mark R.
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad someone brought this to your attention; this is a battle worth fighting. Your letter is impossible to refute; hopefully they take heed.

    The displays that I could see look well done (I hate the architecture); it shouldn’t be too difficult or expensive to change the placards.

  21. James
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    By this logic, Darwin’s most famous book would be considered anti-evolution.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      No, it would just be considered unfit to teach evolution to today’s students, which it is.

  22. Posted August 8, 2018 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The differential survival of natural history museum populations is solely dependent on the truth, truth intermated or omitted is not good enough, without this, we have no evolution of progress, only regress and in lies, extinction of natural history to fairytales.

  23. eric
    Posted August 8, 2018 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Amazing how some folks will volunteer to become a STEM underclass. More spots in the top university science programs for mainstreamers.

  24. Wunold
    Posted August 9, 2018 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I never understood what problems religious people have with evolution, since they could explain it away as a tool of their god(s) like everything else in this world. In fact, many modern believers do exactly that, but countless others still don’t.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Some religious leaders took an early stance against evolution, and their successors never had the courage to issue the correction.
      Also, some scientists, including Prof. Coyne, think that evolution theory is incompatible with religion. When presented with such a choice, some religious people will abandon religion, but others will be up in arms against evolution.

  25. Diane G
    Posted August 9, 2018 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    I suspect the problem with the Haredim is thornier than we can appreciate. I do have some sympathy with the museum management who must anticipate and prepare for reactions/protests from this demanding crowd.

    While I hate to see the zealots kowtowed to, I also hate to see the creators and developers of this museum also have to deal with socio-political issues that they’re not really equipped for. Given the way the Haredim reproduce, it would seem the government must take action sooner rather than later to develop policies and programs to bring these people out of the stone age.

    • Posted October 6, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      “The future belongs to those who show up.”


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