Biology and Museums, 2009

An Essay by Michael Ruse

Biology-and-Museums-2009.jpg
Faculty and students at the Creation Museum in Kentucky

A couple of days ago, together with fifteen grad students and a young colleague, I visited the Creationist museum in Kentucky. It was the final stop on a week-long tour of museums and part of a course-credit-earning grad course on the presentation of science in museums. (This was a follow-up on a very successful course we gave last fall on social constructivism.) Earlier in Chicago we visited the Field Museum (natural history) and the Museum of Science and Industry (very kid oriented) and as a contrast the Art Institute (to explore such issues as the different audiences a science museum and an art gallery expect and cater to).

The most obvious contrast with the Creationist museum was the evolution display or exhibit at the Field museum. Frankly, I expected the Creationists to be very high tech, but this turned out not to be – most of the big creationist display was models with very limited movement, some videos (which took a lot of watching – I sat, the only person doing this, to watch a series of 17 short 2 minute videos of such topics as laws of nature, homology, and more), and a huge amount of labels that required a lot of reading. I guess these people take Sola Scriptura very seriously and expect everyone from about the age of three to be literate. There was not in fact a huge amount of stuff geared specifically to kids, although comparatively there were as many kids as the Field Museum, far fewer than the Museum of S and I , and many more than the Art Institute. One thing (which living in the South I did expect) was that the Creationist museum had an audience (it was a Friday but the place was packed) that was a third black. There were few black people at the Field Museum (certainly no more than 5%) and not much more at the M of S and I – the Art Institute was lily white. There is really important work out there for someone on fundamentalism and the black churches, especially given the way that the Southern white population in the 19th C were attracted to literalism because of the way that it could be used to justify slavery (see Mark Noll’s America’s God on this subject).

I thought that the Field Museum did a much better job on the presentation of evolution – you could say I am prejudiced, but as noted I did not expect this, so I really don’t think I am. The Field Museum was simply more exciting, it really was – more engaging, more interactive, more fun quite frankly. There was some interesting overlap. The dino displays at the two institutions were in respects identical (true the Field Museum expectedly had more and better specimens, including Sue the T rex, but the Creationist museum was good and full with models) – reading the labels on Stegosaurus for instance, both institutions explained that today we think the plates on the back are for heat regulation rather than fighting. Ron Numbers points out that Creationists believe in a huge amount of evolution and is this ever true. The Ark contained only kinds and after that (in other words in the past 4000 years) there has been a huge amount of natural selection fueled change – the dog type for instance gives rise to the wolves and foxes and domestic dogs and so forth. I thought incidentally that the discussion of natural selection in the Creationist museum was pretty good – the finches get a pride of place – although of course it was not explained exactly how so much change can take place in so short a time.

The mention of natural selection raises what I found really fascinating – the extent to which the Creationist museum uses modern science to its own ends, melding it in seamlessly with its own Creationist message. Continental drift for instance is endorsed, but as an effect of the waters of the Flood. Mitochondrial Eve is right there proving the Genesis story as is the Big Bang. Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit (I am atypical, I took about three hours to go through but judging from my students most people don’t read the material as obsessively as I and take about an hour) I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true – it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people. (It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false – eating turds is good for you is false but generally people don’t want to do this – a lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.)
And so to the theology. Ed Wilson used to joke that when the Red Revolution comes it would be people – true believers -- like Gould and Lewontin who would be killed off first whereas he would be sent to a farm for reeducation. There may be truth in this – Ed has been consulted on ant problems in Cuba. Certainly I would not give much hope for Intelligent Design Supporters if this gang gets into control – there was no nonsense about organized complexity or anything of that sort. In respects, there was more comfort for a hardline Darwinian like myself. IDT gets no mention at all nor is there anything on it in the bookstore. (There were books on what a good Christian should say to heretics like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses – I think Romney is kidding himself if he thinks he is ever going to be elected president.)

It is Young Earth Creationism all of the way – 6000 years, 6 days of Creation, universal Flood. The dinos were vegetarian before the fall and so forth. (Some fuzziness about whether God then gave them meat eating teeth and stomachs or whether this was built in from the first by God – if the latter, I would have thought that this is a bit tough on free will, but then Protestants have always been a bit tough on free will.) Expectedly, the Flood gets a lot of treatment given its eschatological importance – the first big dispensation of which the last will be Armageddon. The Scofield Bible gets negative treatment because of its endorsement of Gap theory. I was interested to note the selective discussion – nothing on Noah getting drunk after the Flood or the curse on one branch of his offspring. (Even by 1961 in Genesis Flood the Creationists were explaining very carefully that we are all one kind and that racial prejudice has no biblical justification – note what I said above about black Christianity and literalism – there is a terrific story here for an eager researcher.)

What I did find fascinating was the obsession with sacrifice. There was one truly horrific display (with life size models) of Adam and Eve in bloody animal skins about to burn two sheep who had been skinned and that looked like they came from a Polanski movie. It was explained – I read everything! – that God was not satisfied with Adam and Eve wearing fig leaves but demanded skins. It turns out that the sin of Adam can only be mitigated by the sacrifice of innocent life (plants it was explained don’t count) -- but lambs are only a temporary expedient. For ever-lasting salvation one needs the ultimate lamb, Jesus.

There was the usual stuff about how Cain could marry his sister because there were no deleterious mutations back then – expectedly this was not used as the foundation of an argument about how marriage laws can change and that gays can now marry. Actually, I was struck by how little moralizing there was – there was a comment about marriage being between a man and a woman and there was a comment about abortion being wrong, but generally this was not the theme. (However, in a short film, which featured an evolutionist teacher being taken apart by his students, although he was dressed like a prof from the fifties – tweed jacket with patches etc, his pattern of speech labeled him as clearly gay.)
There was, as is usual with Creationism, a far dose of philosophy of science. Again and again it was stressed that the facts are the same for Creationists and evolutionists – it is all a question of interpretation. And only Creationism starts with the bible. There was explicit attack on the claim that the present is a guide to the past – at least, a guide without the study of the divine word.Overall the place was pretty slick – cops dressed like Smoky the Bear, photos taken when you enter (for sale later at five bucks a shot), eager attendants dressed as though on a safari, good clean lavatories (this is a tip that the Chicago people might want to follow), and book/gift store with lots of stuff. I am now happily wearing a t shirt that tells you that it is time to believe, although I was a bit disappointed in the mugs – I do have a good one from the Field Museum and our house is well stocked with mugs from earlier visits to the Art Institute. I was pleased to pick up a book by the late Henry Morris that goes after me with a ferocity that would make the God of the Old Testament truly proud – I don’t think that anyone has ever read me with quite so much care and understanding. He didn’t think I was the Neville Chamberlain of the Darwinian movement!!

Only in America? Well, I believe the founder of the Museum Ken Ham is Australian! Again as Ron Numbers points out we should be careful about being smug that Creationism today is just an American phenomenon.

I should say that although there was no attempt to conceal the biblical foundation of the Creationist position – anything but – there was stuff on the atheistic nature of Darwinism and how this has no more right to be taught in schools, given the constitutional separation of church and state. I think the basic aim was to have the facts (or “facts”) taught with the two interpretations (Creation and evolution). I suppose we all go into these things with our beliefs or prejudices and ultimately rarely is it that we get our minds changed. This was certainly the case for me. I believed before and I believe now that the most important need in the fight against fundamentalism is a well articulated position that, while it is absolutely resolutely set against the stuff at the Museum (both the science so called and the theology) nevertheless lets moderate believers continue confidently as believers in the face of (perhaps even because of) modern science. You don’t have to be a believer – I am not and somewhat to my surprise as I approach my 69th birthday I find a gentle agnosticism very comforting (paradoxically, despite my Quaker childhood, my non-existent God has always been a Presbyterian who, as soon as he created the universe and humans, regretted it bitterly and is determined to make me suffer for his mistake) – but most Americans are believers and I really think that hard-line atheism (the uncompromising kind that labels believers as stupid etc etc) simply plays into the hands of the Creationists.

But this is a topic for another letter. The Museum is just south of Cincinnati and if you get the chance do go – but to twist the motto of my new t shirt – go and please please do not prepare to believe!!

Michael Ruse, June 2009