Mike the Mad Biologist

The Smithsonian recently revamped its exhibit on human evolution, and the brand new Hall of Human Origins is definitely worth seeing. Unlike exhibits from the Small era, there is no equivocation here: humans evolved over millions of years from primates. Period. There’s no ambiguity, no attempt to please theopolitical conservatives. It’s also very aesthetically pleasing–the bronze statues of various hominid ancestors are amazing. If the rest of the planned renovations hit this mark, the Smithsonian will look amazing in a few years.

The exhibit also is pitched at different levels, and virtually everyone, perhaps other than hominid evolution experts, will learn something. There’s interactive displays that examine different hypotheses of hominid phylogeny (evolutionary history), and there are also some good tactile displays for children.

Most importantly, the display subtly illustrates the scientific method by demonstrating how scientists reach the conclusions they have. Likewise, where there isn’t a consensus (e.g., hominid phylogeny), those are discussed–and it’s explicitly stated that scientists do disagree about the particulars.

Finally, there’s fun stuff–there’s no reason why it should be boring. Using computer imaging, you have your photo modified to look like one of our human ancestors. (I’m now convinced that the Mad Biologist’s Butt Ugly Hypothesis of Hominid Extinction explains why various hominid groups went extinct…). And a couple of the bronze replicas of hominid ancestors are interactive: you can sit next to one, such that it looks like he’s offering you food.

Finally, the ‘wall of skulls’ not only gives you a good perspective on hominid variation, but it reinforces the overwhelming evidence for hominid evolution, without being heavy-handed.

Overall, this is exceptionally well done.

Comments

  1. #2 mutantbuzzard
    April 2, 2010

    when are the gaint human skulls going to be displaed?

  2. #3 strange gods
    February 7, 2011

    It’s not at all apparent that the Koch brothers believe in evidence-based science. They have an ideological spin on evolution. And their Smithsonian exhibit has been designed to promote their agenda; they’re not promoting facts.

    The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is a multimedia exploration of the theory that mankind evolved in response to climate change. At the main entrance, viewers are confronted with a giant graph charting the Earth’s temperature over the past ten million years, which notes that it is far cooler now than it was ten thousand years ago. Overhead, the text reads, “HUMANS EVOLVED IN RESPONSE TO A CHANGING WORLD.” The message, as amplified by the exhibit’s Web site, is that “key human adaptations evolved in response to environmental instability.” Only at the end of the exhibit, under the headline “OUR SURVIVAL CHALLENGE,” is it noted that levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been, and that they are projected to increase dramatically in the next century. No cause is given for this development; no mention is made of any possible role played by fossil fuels. The exhibit makes it seem part of a natural continuum. The accompanying text says, “During the period in which humans evolved, Earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuated together.” An interactive game in the exhibit suggests that humans will continue to adapt to climate change in the future. People may build “underground cities,” developing “short, compact bodies” or “curved spines,” so that “moving around in tight spaces will be no problem.”

    The exhibit’s main theme is that extreme climate change in the past made humans very adaptable, an interesting theory based on limited data and lots of speculation. But its huge flaw is that it it leaves visitors with the distinct impression that human-caused global warming is no big deal — even though our understanding of the grave threat posed by that warming is based on far, far more research and data.

    The exhibit’s major intellectual failing is that it does not distinguish between 1) the evolution of small populations of tens (to perhaps hundreds) of thousands of humans and pre-humans over hundreds of thousands of years to relatively slow, natural climate changes and 2) the completely different challenge we have today: The ability of modern civilization — nearly 7 billion people, going up to 10 billion — to deal with rapid, human-caused climate change over a period of several decades (and ultimately much longer).

    The exhibit fails to make clear that while small populations of homo “sapiens” evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of fluctuating climate, the rapid population growth of human civilization occurred during a time of relatively stable climate.

    The exhibit did have a couple of displays aimed at future climate change, but none of them lays out the threat posed by the rapid climate change we now face. The single strongest statement is one panel that said:

    The level of CO2 today is the highest since our species evolved. The projected increase over the next century is more than twice that of any time in the past 6 million years and suggests a long-term sea level rise of 6.4 m (21 ft).

    The Smithsonian never gives a time frame for sea level rise, and, of course, the key fact in that sentence is not accurate. The projected increase of CO2 emissions just in the first half of this century suggests a long-term sea level rise of 75 to 120 feet, as a major 2009 Science article explains.

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