Survival of the Dumbest (or why evolution is still an issue): Exhibit shows how Darwinism has become ground zero in the culture war.

Arun Gupta Mar 7, 2006

In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, the late, great biologist Stephen Jay Gould reflected on the Scopes Trial and the culture war over evolution. “When I think that we are enmeshed again in the same struggle for one of the best documented, most compelling and exciting concepts in all of science, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Little has changed in the 25 years since Gould penned that passage. If anything, Darwinism has become ground zero in the culture war. Gould, who died in 2002, may well have laughed upon hearing that a 24-year-old political appointee with a phony resumé told NASA scientists that because the Big Bang was not a proven fact, it wasn’t their place to make declarations about the universe “that discount intelligent design by a creator.”

But then again, he might have cried upon realizing that the ignoranti in power are both denying the reality of global warming and blocking attempts to address it. There is no honest dispute over evolution. It is an indisputable fact, as much as the earth being four billion years old, fusion powering the sun and plate tectonics shaping land masses.

The debate is over the mechanism for evolution, whether its gradual changes over time proposed by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Gould’s theory of rapid changes followed by stasis – known as “punctuated equilibrium.”

Still, Creationists, now rebranded “Intelligent Designers,” deny evolution and by implication all science. To hold that the earth is 6,000 years old is to reject not just evolution, but geology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and even mathematics itself.

The latest strategy from the Creationist camp is “teach the controversy.” It has been struck down by the courts as a Trojan horse for religion but still has considerable backing: 64 percent of Americans want Creationism taught in the schools alongside Darwinism, according to a Pew poll.

God is not in the details

What many Christians can’t abide is the notion that there is no providence to humanity, that it owes perhaps as much to chance as adaptation. Darwinism does not rule out God, but it does rule out a supreme being whose hand is in history, one who tells former alcoholics to bomb and invade small countries as part of His grand plan.

Darwinism, however, undermines many religious concepts. Most religions presume an orderly, designed universe and man as the center of creation – ideas that shrivel under the cruel glare of nature.

Philosopher David Hull famously observed in the journal Nature in 1991, “The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.”

Sadly, some defenders of Darwinism try to paper over the conflict. Near the end of the Darwin exhibit, now showing at the American Museum of Natural History through May 29, a short video entitled “Scientists on Faith” plays on loop.

Prominent biologists discuss how Darwinism presents no conflict to their religious beliefs. The talk of faith and science is highly misleading. According to a survey published in Nature in 1998, only 7 percent of scientists expressed a personal belief in God, with biologists the most skeptical at a minuscule 5.5 percent.

The exhibit could use a dose of “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, who defended Darwin’s ideas with gusto against 19th-century zealots, or today’s bulldog, Richard Dawkins, who declares that “anyone who chooses not to believe in evolution is ignorant, stupid or insane.”

There is a do-not-offend quality to the exhibit, which glosses over battles related to Darwinism, eugenics and creationism. The fight is so fierce that the museum was unable to secure a single corporate sponsor, not even a biotech company.

Using everything from live iguanas to artifacts from the young naturalist’s voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, the curators present a detailed look at Darwin’s life and the development of his ideas. It’s an educational exhibit, leaving the visitor with a detailed understanding of Darwinism and the scientific process, but not of the social context.

Abuses of science

The only criticism made of “Intelligent-Design Creationism” is that it lies “outside the realm of scientific inquiry.” The exhibit fails to use Darwin’s own work to show how Creationists distort and misuse science to their own ends.

For example, a favorite argument of Intelligent Design (coined by 18th-century theologian William Palley) is that eyes, with a retina, lens, cones, rods, etc., are far too complex to have evolved. In The Origin of Species, Darwin tackled the question and discusses the range of sight organs, from simple sensors in some animals “that serve only to distinguish light from darkness” to insects’ eyes with numerous facets on their cornea that “form true lenses” to the structure “as perfect as an eagle’s eye.” He argued that over millions of years eyes evolved as “natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement.”

Another Creationist tactic is to dismiss Darwinism as “only a theory” – which was what school officials in Georgia tried to do by labeling biology textbooks with such warnings. The Darwin exhibit tackles this canard, explaining how in science theory is the highest form of knowledge, as opposed to everyday in which it signifies a guess. Gravity, after all, is “only a theory.” So one day soon, hopefully, the Christian right will, bible in hand, march off a cliff en masse to prove that their faith is stronger than gravity.

If the Darwin exhibit is all education, then the Bodies Exhibit at the South Street Seaport is all infotainment. It’s a veritable freak show, with 22 full-body, skinless corpses preserved through a plasticization process. Many of the corpses are set in athletic poses, with muscles, tendons and ligaments flayed to reveal anatomy. Hundreds of other preserved body parts are presented in cases, often contrasting healthy and diseased specimens.

There is no intellectual trajectory to the exhibit. The theme, if there is one, is about lifestyle choices and how that affects our bodies, whether it’s a smoker’s blackened lungs or an overeater’s fatty physique.

Trivial Display

The curators become lazy at points, throwing out bits of the digestive system – jejunum, ilium – without explaining their role. Useless trivia is painted on the walls. The average male passes 12,000 gallons of urine in a lifetime, the kidneys filter the equivalent of a large soda bottle of blood every two minutes.

The one outstanding section shows networks of blood vessels and capillaries floating in fluid. Viewers enter a darkened room filled with lit glass cases showing fine networks of glowing blood vessels including the vasculature of an entire torso.

The crowd is young and hip and giggly and juvenile, with plenty of pointing at preserved penises. Med students wander about, trying to up one another with their knowledge of anatomy.

The Bodies exhibit does a brisk business. Perhaps because so many people, incorrectly, think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, we’re eager to look at the fine machine nature has wrought. Of course, any anatomy student could explain our many physical shortcomings, from bad backs and knees to hips too narrow for childbearing and eyes that create upsidedown images so the brain has to flip them.

Humanity owes much to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Physicist John Gribbin muses that if not for that, a smallish bipedal dinosaur called Saurornithoides with four-fingered hands and a large brain-to-body mass might have evolved to rule the earth. And its descendants might then have been the ones arguing over whether the mighty dinosaurs evolved or were intelligently designed.

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