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A tale of two museums

A natural history museum in Washington offers Darwinism with no room for doubts, but one in New York offers a dose of refreshing honesty on what science cannot tell us about the past. Could that lead to bigger strides in intellectual honesty later?


National Museum of Natural History Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

A tale of two museums
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WASHINGTON and NEW YORK—Most big cities have natural history museums that display dinosaur bones and sometimes much more. Christians, and particularly homeschooling Christians looking for an educational field trip, tend to view those museums in two ways: Stay away from them because they often offer up propaganda for Darwinism, or visit them and hope the kids ignore that teaching.

And yet, all such museums are not the same. I visited America’s two most famous ones, the National Museum of Natural History (I’ll refer to it as the Smithsonian) on the mall in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) adjacent to Central Park in New York City. They provide opposing senses of what scientists know and don’t know. Both provide teachable moments for parents who have done a little boning up on ancient bones. We can find better alternatives than avoidance or ignoring. This article shows how.

FIRST, LET’S EXAMINE SOME SPECIFIC DETAIL concerning the problem, which becomes apparent on a placard a few steps into the Smithsonian: “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 voilá, 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?”

THE SMITHSONIAN IN RECENT YEARS has clearly invested millions in creating light, bright rooms in which children can roam. A kindergarten teacher asks her young charges, “Imagine you’re right here and the dinosaur looks at you. What does the dinosaur want to do?” Kids squeal, “Eat you.” Middle-school children let their imaginations race as exhibits transport them to faraway places, fostering a yearning for plane takeoffs, train whistles, and caravans among some sick of their ABCs—alone, bored, or coddled.

But in exhibit after exhibit, the Smithsonian insists: “Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. There is no scientific controversy about whether evolution occurred or whether it explains the history of life on earth.” That’s just wrong. At DissentfromDarwin.org, over 900 Ph.D. scientists have signed a statement agreeing that “we are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.”

Many museum placards are propagandistic: “Since Darwin died in 1882, findings from many fields have confirmed and expanded on his ideas. We learned that Earth is old enough for all known species to have evolved.” That ignores all the research showing that even 4.5 billion years is not enough, given the multi-mutation features that require multiple components to kick in to provide some survival advantage.

According to Smithsonian sleight of hand, mankind has a clear line of descent from our ape ancestors. But two scientists recently writing in a prestigious 2015 Springer-Verlag book on Macroevolution lamented “the dearth of unambiguous evidence for ancestor-descendant lineages” within the hominin fossil record. The famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr acknowledged a “large, unbridged gap” between humanlike species in the fossil record and our supposed apelike australopithecine ancestors.

The Smithsonian notes that “societies worldwide tell diverse stories about how humans came into being,” but the museum claims immunity to that temptation: It “presents research and findings based on scientific methods that are distinct from these stories.” The Smithsonian refuses to admit that scientists engage in speculation and storytelling all the time—especially when it comes to human origins. As Mayr said, “Not having any fossils that can serve as missing links, we have to fall back on the time-honored method of historical science, the construction of a historical narrative.”

NEW YORK’S AMNH FACILITY, by comparison, seems old-fashioned. The darkness of the enormous diorama room focuses attention on brightly lit cabinets containing scenes from the Libyan desert, the Upper Nile region, and other exotic locales. The exhibits of taxidermied lions, buffalo, okapi, giant sables, giant elands, and more big game have changed little over the past six decades, according to an elderly volunteer, Terry. She stood in her red vest showing schoolchildren models of skulls, and explained that she comes once each week because her parents took her in the 1950s: “I loved the museum. When I retired, I wanted to come here and help these children to love it. We have kids who can name every dinosaur.”

The upper-floor dinosaur exhibits show some humility: “Because we cannot observe how carnosaurs searched for food, we cannot be sure whether they were hunters or scavengers.” One placard presents theories about the eye placement and skull bones of carnosaurs, and then states, “All these ideas are controversial, because they are based on scientists’ interpretations of fossil bones that are often incomplete, or that have become distorted over millions of years. We may never have all the evidence needed to support these ideas.”

AMNH shows a willingness to admit mistakes: “Bones thought to be those of juvenile Coelophysis were found inside the body cavities of some of the larger animals. They were used as evidence that Coelophysis was cannibalistic. However, these bones have been shown to be those of primitive crocodiles.” The museum acknowledges changes:

“Pterosaurs, or ‘flying reptiles,’ … were originally thought to be mammals related to bats. Today, pterosaurs are interpreted as archosaurs related to crocodiles.” AMNH is willing to admit disagreements: “How plesiosaurs and their relatives swam is in some dispute because their locomotion is not clearly similar to that of any living animal.”

When AMNH is sure that a particular dinosaur feature existed, it still admits our lack of knowledge. Regarding the horns on some dinosaurs, “Paleontologists have speculated that they may have provided a small measure of protection against large carnivorous enemies. Or they may have been used for sexual display, or in combat between competing males during the mating season.” They may also have been used to break off large pieces of vegetation, “but since no specimens of horned dinosaurs have been found that preserve the stomach contents, we can’t test this hypothesis.”

Contra numerous books with illustrations purporting to show dinosaur life, a typical AMNH exhibit asks, “What can the fossils really tell us, and what mysteries remain unsolved? Unfortunately, fossils of Barosaurus don’t tell us what color the animal was, what noises it made, or many other details about how it behaved. We can’t even be certain whether Barosaurus could really rear up on its hind legs to feed in the tops of trees or defend its young.”

G.K. Chesterton a century ago explained that he had “never read a line of Christian apologetics” on his road to belief in Christ, but agnostic evolutionists “sowed in my mind my first wild doubts of doubt.” AMNH exhibits could function that way regarding faith in Darwin. We learn about stegosaurs, “The vertical plates may have been used for defense, species identification, or radiation of heat, but these are guesses.” Some exhibits make universal statements that undercut pretensions: “We cannot be sure how pachycephalosaurs used their skull caps, because theories about the behavior of extinct animals cannot be tested.”

OF COURSE, AMNH DOES AN OBLIGATORY CURTSY TO THE RELIGION OF DARWINISM. One screen at AMNH runs a continuous loop with confessions of evolutionary faith from Francis Collins (“Without the framework of evolution to understand what we look at every day, it would make no sense”), biologist Kenneth Miller (“Without evolution to tie it together, biology is little more than stamp collecting”), and National Center for Science Education head Eugenie Scott (“Evolution is the glue that makes biology make sense”). Those views contrast strongly with the Bible’s proclamation that in Christ all things hold together.

AMNH also has life-size, lifelike statues of an ape-man and ape-woman. One Queens-accented mom stood before them with her two fourth-graders and said, “They’re your great-grandparents.” The kids laughed. “Want me to take a picture of you with the naked people?” The children were uncertain. The mom insisted: “Kids, this is part of life.” They reluctantly moved in for the photograph, but the mom seemed to change her mind: “What a memory. Lovely. That’s what they want pictures of? Imagine.” The kids moved away, at which point the mom started insisting again: “You want a picture with the naked people or not?” The kids got into position. The mom said, “Say cheese!”

Still, many AMNH exhibits display one small step for museum honesty today, and that could lead to one large leap for intellectual honesty tomorrow. Jane Goodall, now an 81-year-old Darwinist considered the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, said, “I was brought up to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution. I spent hours and hours in the Natural History Museum in London.” But what if the AMNH admission that we don’t have all the answers could lead children to understand what God tells Job: “Do you give the horse his might?… Do you clothe his neck with a mane? Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south?”

Museums have consequences, and the New York and Washington giants do have one trait in common: They like to scare children. Parts of the Smithsonian are a horror film. One poster about oceans blares, “Pollution. Climate change. Invasive species. Overfishing. Habitat Destruction. Ocean Acidification.” Another placard shouts, “Global Vanishing Acts. Life can be relatively stable for ages and then—Wham! Mass extinction hits.” A third includes scare headlines: “Are We In ANOTHER MASS EXTINCTION?”

AMNH’s continuous loop of a film, The Evolution of Vertebrates, combines Darwinism with warnings of disaster. Narrator Meryl Streep intones, “Just one species of vertebrates, humans, has the ability to cause extinction perhaps on a scale greater than that of dinosaurs.” Cue the dramatic, threatening music. One woman with preschoolers sat down with them in three of the 150 seats, promising, “If you don’t like we don’t have to watch the whole thing.” Two minutes later they left: She told a waiting friend, “It was a little too intense for them.”

PARENTS VISITING NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUMS should make sure their children understand what AMNH admits in its display of Allosaurus bones: “Re-creating the behavior of extinct animals is very difficult, and can only be done by accepting certain assumptions.” Many exhibits offer speculation and then conclude, “These are all intriguing hypotheses, but the fossils do not give us enough evidence to test whether any of them are correct. The mystery remains unresolved.”

AMNH’s placard on a Hadrosaurus exhibit should flash on the computer screen of every Darwinist: “While it is important to make intelligent speculations about extinct animals, we are overstating the strength of the fossil evidence if we present these ideas as truth.”

Smithsonian visitors peruse skulls said to represent the various stages of human development.

Become a WORLD museum scout

Journalists say a dog biting a person is not much of a story, but man-bites-dog is. Darwinist dominance in museums is sad and worth documenting, but unsurprising. What’s new and positive is the dash of humility evident at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

An intern and I looked at websites of many natural history museums across the country to see whether arrogance or humility dominated, but that was asking for more subtlety than the internet could provide. Clearly, Darwin is still a god, but are dissident curators raising insubordinate questions as hundreds of scientists are?

Want to be a WORLD scout? I took the photograph above on the fourth floor of AMNH. If you go to a big natural history museum near you, do you see any admission like that? Or do you see only exhibits like the one below at the Smithsonian, which cheerily welcomes us to minimize our humanity? —M.O.

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss “A tale of two museums” on The World and Everything in It.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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