22 July 2005

At the NMNH, Old Information is Disinformation

In an op-ed piece for the Sunday LA Times, David Rains Wallace draws attention to the sad fact that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is, to his surprise, not providing the public with an up-to-date view of evolution.

Wallace recalls the exhibit on the Burgess Shale that he saw in 1985. At the time, Stephen Jay Gould had proposed that the Burgess Shale showed an explosion of diversity during the Cambrian, with a wild variety of bizarre creatures exploring novel body designs. (This was the subject of Gould’s book Wonderful Life.)

Alas, later studies showed that many of the weird critters of the Burgess Shale were not so weird at all. Hallucigenia, which seemed so strange as to require a psychedelic name, turns out to be related to velvet worms still common today.

But Wallace finds that the Smithsonian’s Burgess Shale exhibit has had a surprising fate: it has remained frozen in time, left behind by advances in the science it was meant to exemplify:

“… I was disturbed when visiting the museum this year to find that the Burgess Shale exhibit presents the same "oddball" message it did in 1985. And it's not the only outdated information in the museum. Another exhibit informs visitors that fish crawled onto land with their fins and only later evolved legs, although recent fossil discoveries show that fish evolved legs while still living in the water. In other words, the nation's flagship natural history museum has it wrong.”

Museum officials told Wallace that the situation was due to reductions in Congressional funding that have limited their ability to update the displays. While he accepts that, Wallace also blames the scientific community, who seem unable to proselytize as prolifically as their counterparts at the Discovery Institute. I think that that is an unfair criticism, if only because scientists have to take the time to get things right, even works for popular consumption.

What I think has been missed, though, is an opportunity for the scientific community to “reframe the debate”, if I may use the Lakoffian expression so popular in current politics. Instead of focusing on the negative, reacting to thrusts from the ID community, we should be making a push for a positive change: getting the Congress to fund NMNH at the level needed to bring its displays up to date. Wouldn’t it be fun to be the ones charging the barricades for a change?


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