American Museum of Natural History
Bill Long 9/1/05
A Saturday Visit in August
While in NYC with my daughter, after dropping my son off at college in Upstate New York, I visited the AMNH on the Upper West Side. I was there for a brief visit a few years ago, but this time I had the freedom to explore for four or five hours. Though you still can't cover much in that time, I knew I wanted to see what they had to say about human evolution. I was diappointed that the "origins of human life" exhibit was closed for remodeling. At first I wondered whether the Kansas Fundamentalists had gotten to the AMNH Board, and whether this august institution would be soon rewriting human origins from a creationist (or even "intelligent design") perspective. However, there were a few descriptive placards remaining in the boarded-up exhibition space that convinced me that it will be evolution all the way when the exhibit reopens. The basic statement still stands:
"Human evolution, like that of all other species, is the product of a unique series of interactions between our ancestors and our environment that fluctuated in a pattern which will never exactly repeat itself."
Thus, if they were to develop a bumper sticker, it might just read "Evolution Happens."* So I went on to several other exhibits. As I
[*I noted a mistake as I was going through the Hall of North American Mammals. These exhibits are quite useful, I think, because they identify typical elements of the context in which various mammals lived--from the plants and trees to the birds and lizards. However, when describing Mount Rainier in WA state, one exhibit mentioned it was the third highest peak in America. I thought that must be incorrect, and I checked it out later and discovered that, at 14,410 feet, Rainier is in fact the 5th highest peak, behind Whitney, Elbert, Massive and Harvard.]
viewed them, especially the family-friendly dinosaur exhibits, it dawned on me what the Museum could do to make their exhibits more engaging and useful for thinking people. Here are four suggestions.
1. Explain the Language
Neither nature nor natural history are static enterprises. The world changes and the language we use to describe that world also evolves. Take, for example, the language of dinosaurs. The word dinosaur wasn't first used until 1841, even though tracks of what later would be called dinosaur tracks were discovered about four decades before that in this country. And the "field" didn't come up with the basic distinction between saurischians and ornithischians until the late 1880s. The 20th century brought further complications of language, to be sure, so that one now talks about sauropodomorphs and sauropods and prosauropods etc. But exhibits get caught between the teeth of linguistic development. So, we have the five or so large groups (I don't want to give all the words here) making up the saurischians but then we have also introduced, in one exhibit, the prosauropods (apparently an earlier form of some) that make a sixth group of sauropods. I am not saying that the language is incorrect or even inconsistent; I am suggesting that it would be very helpful if the exhibits had a "history of language" part to them, so that we can see how classifications arose and how language was arrived at. The development of language to describe the dinosaurs shows the human face of science as it works. Simply giving the words that describe what things are called today gives the false sense that categories are fixed and that more questions are answered than actually are answered.
2. Tell Us What We Don't Know or Have
When you enter into the hall of dinosaurs, your eyes are naturally drawn to the huge skeletons of long-extinct creatures. What you never really learn, however, is what we really have of that dinosaur and what is created in the workshop. What you never really learn is where and how the dinosaur remains were found and what had to be done to put the nice and clean display together that evokes choruses of "ahs" today. Tell us plainly why we think that certain dinosaurs came from which era. Tell us the extent to which scientists extrapolate from their finds. For example, the earliest dinosaur artists had Tyrannosaurus Rex biting into Allosaurus' neck or chasing Stegosaurus, or something like that. I recall pictures of a heavy Brontosaurus (by the way, the field no longer uses that term. It is all "Apatosaurus") with legs in water because their legs, allegedly, could not hold up their weight-- a rather unusual notion, once you begin to think about it. But are we creating possible societies of dinosaurs from one bone?
The reason this is important for me is that there is a human tendency to try to "fill out" the missing parts with speculative thought and then build hypotheses about the rest of life as a result. For example, for years I was a biblical scholar, and was amazed how scholars tried to create the contours of ancient Israelite society from a few stray biblical references or inscriptions from other ancient cultures. We all wanted to know against whom Amos must have been speaking when he says, "I hate, I despise your feasts," but no ready candidates easily emerged. Thus, some scholars tended to "invent" Amos' opponents. My eyes glazed over quickly when I read accounts that talked about the "rich" and the "poor" in 8th century Israel. Certainly, I thought, scholarship was more than simply speculation that leads to such innocuous categories. Thus, be humble about what we know. Tell us, but don't try to stretch things too far or, if we stretch things, show us the stretch marks.
The next essay provides two additional issues.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long