and in a museum

If you didn't know better, you'd have been forgiven for being suspicious of the timing of the opening of the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH) exhibit on Darwin in the middle of last month.

By | December 5, 2005

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If you didn't know better, you'd have been forgiven for being suspicious of the timing of the opening of the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH) exhibit on Darwin in the middle of last month. After all, it was just two weeks after the end of arguments in the high-profile Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School Board case, in which parents sued a school board for trying to introduce intelligent design into science class – an echo of the Scopes Monkey Trial that had put Darwin on trial in 1925.

But the exhibit – the third in a series highlighting scientists following Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci – isn't a reaction to the recent controversy, says the museum's provost of science, Michael Novacek. Work began three years ago. "We were well along when a lot of this controversy seems to have stepped up again," he says.

Still, that hasn't kept critics from questioning the exhibit's motives. Steve Fuller, who defended intelligent design as an expert witness in the Dover case, argues that the choice for the museum's latest exhibit has motivations that are undeniably political. "There's a kind of mythology that has been built around Darwin," says Fuller, who teaches sociology of science at the University of Warwick, UK. The lesson of Darwin's life, he says, is that he started out religious, he discovered science, and then he lost his faith. "Darwin becomes a microcosm for a certain secular view of science," he says. "The symbolism ... is very important."

Instead of subscribing to the "Darwin-mongering that ... is sending a cultural message that science and religion are separate," Fuller suggests, why not feature scientists who remained religious, such as Gregor Mendel, the monk who was largely responsible for developing the genetic basis for evolution. Or perhaps Theodosius Dobzhansky, the early 20th-century author of Genetics and the Origin of Species, who is credited with the now widely used quote: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the context of evolution." But for Dobzhansky, says Fuller, "Evolution was the unfolding of God's plan."

While these issues are not the museum's concern, says dean of science for education and exhibition Chris Raxworthy, the exhibit does tackle the recent furor over religion veiled as science. One section shows videotapes of "unscripted, conversational interviews" with contemporary scientists such as Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, and Francis Collins ("who is also, by the way, a devout Christian," says Novacek), which address intelligent design, the definition of a scientific theory, and "why ID is another manifestation of creationism." Raxworthy hopes to show "that science and religion are such different realms, [that there's] no problem reconciling them" – or at least there shouldn't be. Other displays include a timeline of social reactions to Darwin and a textbook from Cobb County, Georgia, with a sticker that states evolution is just a theory.

The exhibit may draw the attention of other challenges, as similar exhibits on evolutionary science have around the country. (Such exhibits have also convinced a Cincinnati ministry to develop a Creation Museum, scheduled to open in 2007.) B.C. (Biblically Correct) Tours, which offers a creationist perspective on the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, doesn't "have anything in the works for [the AMNH exhibit] right now," says B.C. Tours guide Tyson Thorne, but "may do something like a worksheet [so that] people can do a self-guided tour." Novacek says the museum is ready: They've trained regular museum workers as "volunteer explainers on the science behind its exhibitions."

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