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Why We Need To Understand Evolution (and why we need a natural history museum)
With all that has been going on in the world and all the important societal problems, I have been despairing that my desire to push for a natural history museum and more evolution education seemed not as important. But it struck me today that it is perhaps one of the most important things we need to do. There are a lot of misunderstandings about evolution, even among people who accept it, that hinder our ability to get along in the world. Understanding two important truths of evolution will go a long way towards healing our societal divides. What are those truths? 1. We are all the same, and that is a good thing. 2. We are all different, and that is also a good thing. These may seem contradictory, but if you understand how they are meant, they make perfect sense.
- We are all the same, and that is a good thing.
When you start really studying life on this planet, it quickly becomes inescapable that we are all connected. We are all part of the same family. Strip off the skin from humans and we see essentially the same underneath. We all share the same skeletons, our muscles and organs are the same, there are no important differences in our brains. Sure, there are differences, but no matter what way we try to divide humans, especially by skin color or nationality, we find that the differences within the groups are greater than the differences between groups. What this means is that the dividing lines are arbitrary and have no biological basis.
When we go beyond humans and look at all vertebrates, we see the same thing. If we compare skeletons, we see the same bones over and over again. Every animal that has four limbs shares the same bone structure. They may look different, but the bones are all the same. All of our front limbs have a humerus, an ulna, and a radius. We all have the same number of fingers and toes. They may look different, they may lose some as they grow from fetus to adult, but they are all there. As we get farther and farther away from direct ancestry and relationships, the superficial differences start piling up, but the core is always the same.
Going even farther, we all share the same base code. We all use essentially the same DNA and RNA. The sequences may be different, but just as all computer programs are different, they all share the same underlying coding language. We all share metabolic pathways, from bacteria to humans.
Why do we see all these similarities? Because we all share an ancestor. Somewhere down the line, we are all related. We are one family. It may be a very extended family, but we are all together. All life on Earth is connected. Through that life, we are all connected to the very rock upon which we stand. Life has shaped the surface of the Earth. It has shaped the air we breath. We all sprang from the same roots. When you look at someone from a different culture, someone with a different skin color, you are not seeing an other, you are seeing a long separated family member. Embrace that connectedness. Now, I know that no one can get more under your skin and angry than a close family member, but at the end of the day, we don’t generally let that tear us apart. No matter how much we may disagree with our family, we still recognize they are family. Just take that feeling and extend it to recognize that every living thing on Earth is also part of your family.
2. We are all different, and that is a good thing.
So if we are all essentially the same, how can we all be different? No matter how closely we are related to someone, there are always differences. Even identical twins are not completely identical. Our DNA and life experiences mean that each and every one of us is different in some way from everyone else. While we all share the same basic body plan and organization, there are always some differences.
Those differences are important. Ask any agricultural scientist and they will tell you that one of, if not the biggest danger in our food supply is the monoculture crops we grow. When everything is the same, that means they also share all the same limitations and vulnerabilities. Monocultures only work when there is no change. But they do not handle change well. And if there is one thing we know about life, it is that change is inevitable. These days, we are pushing change faster than ever before, so this vulnerability to change is deadly.
Purity is the death of a species. We need diversity to weather changes. As new diseases crop up, as weather becomes more unpredictable and changeable, we will need the diversity to be able to handle whatever is thrown at us. The more diverse the population, the more changes we can tolerate. In a diverse population, there will always be some fraction of the population that is prepared for anything that happens. Those people will make sure that we continue. Moreover, they will help those of us unprepared for the changes make it through. When a new disease appears, those that are naturally immune will be key to developing medicines that will allow the rest of us to survive. Those that can handle climatic changes will be the ones to build the structures and infrastructure that will allow the rest of us to weather the storms. We need diversity. If we try to homogenize our culture and our people, we will die.
We need evolution education and a natural history museum.
So how do we get people to understand this? First of all, on a broad scale, we need to teach people a proper understanding of evolution and evolutionary theory. But we have to do it in a way that exemplifies its importance in our everyday lives. We need to get people to understand why they need to understand it. Evolutionary theory affects us every day. People need to understand how.
We need natural history museums for a multitude of reasons, but two very important ones apply here. First, they will stand as storage houses of information. They are a public recording of the changes that have taken place and are taking place. Secondly, they are a way to teach people who are not in school. Even if they don’t pay that much attention to the details in the museum, they will see a record of the changes. Museums can be designed to showcase the importance of evolution, the advantages of diversity, and the dangers of reducing that diversity. Museums are one of the most trusted sources of information. We need to leverage that to showcase both the interconnectedness of life on Earth and its diversity and why that has allowed its continued existence. It also can showcase what happens when that diversity is not there.
One may argue that history museums would be better at this. The advantage of history museums is that it makes it personal and easy to make it easy for people to relate to it. The disadvantage is that it makes it personal and easy for people to get defensive about it. Natural history museums can teach these lessons on a canvas that people can view and learn from more dispassionately, without it feeling like a personal assault upon their culture that can often happen in history museums.
To be sure, many people will feel that any mention of evolution is an assault upon their worldview, so I am not advocating the idea the natural history museums are inherently better. Instead, I am advocating the view that all types of museums work better when there is a diversity of museums that can tell the stories from different angles. Without a natural history museum, we lack an important viewpoint in the public arena. By building a museum network, we can spread the ideas much more effectively. A natural history museum will not hurt other local museums. It will help all of them. We don’t need just a natural history museum. We need a natural history museum, a local history museum, an international history and cultural museum, an art museum, and other museums. In Arkansas, we have some of the history, art, and culture, but we do not have a natural history museum. As such, we lack that long and broad view that can only come from an understanding of natural history.
Cabinets of Curiosities at the Old State House
Back in the old days, before the idea of museums being educational centers became commonplace, most museums were more like some rich person’s trinkets collected during vacations packed into glass cases so people could see them. They rarely had signs telling people what anything was, nor was there oftentimes any attempt at organization. Because of the rather haphazard and all-encompassing nature of the displays, they got the name Cabinets of Curiosities.
As time went on, they became more thoughtful and organized, with more attention being spent on telling people what the objects were, teaching people about them, and properly preserving the objects for posterity.
The Old State House Museum in Little Rock honors that tradition with an exhibit called “Cabinets of Curiosities: Treasure of the University of Arkansas Museum Collection.” I am sad to say that the exhibit has been up since March 11 of 2017, but I have only recently learned about it and have gone to see it. Truth be told, the only reason I found out about it was because I went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to see the Hazen Mammoth fossils and found that the lower jaw of that mammoth was on display in Little Rock.
The reason I am sad to say this is because the exhibit is well worth your time to go see. If I had known about it earlier, I would definitely have discussed it here by now. I was told it will still be at the museum for another year, so you still have time. It is free, so go. Spend a Saturday downtown and explore the exhibit. Then go see what else is down there, which is plenty to keep you busy over the weekend.
What will you see when you are there? To begin with, you might want to ask directions from their helpful and friendly staff, because the exhibit is upstairs in a side gallery that you might miss if you didn’t know it was there.
The objects are from the University of Arkansas Museum at Fayetteville, which, sadly, closed its doors in 2003. As a result, if you want to see their collections, you have to make an appointment to see the warehoused collections. Or you can see a small part of them in this exhibit. The museum had collections from all over the world covering many subjects, which the exhibit honors by having selections of a wide range. It is like a mini-museum of anthropology and natural history.
I am a fossil guy, so I am going to focus on the fossils you can see. The fossils are mostly in the first two rooms that you enter in the exhibit. In the first room, under the horns of a large cervid (the family containing deer, elk, and moose), are two cabinets of invertebrate fossils and minerals. There are some nice fossils to see. You can see a crinoid with the calyx, or body, and pinnules, or “fronds”. These are much rarer than the pieces of stalks we normally find throughout the Ozarks. There is also a starfish, ammonoids, and nice plant fossils, among others.
To the right of this display is a cabinet containing the skulls of a musk ox and Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger), a couple of large, straight-shelled nautiloids, and one of the bones of Arkansaurus, which up until very recently, was the only known dinosaur found in Arkansas.
On the other side of the room, you can see the bones of an elephant leg and a cabinet full of geology specimens, including one enormous quartz crystal that would not be allowed as a carry-on for some planes because it is too big to fit.
The next room contains case with the leg bones of a camel, lion, dog, and cat. It also contains the pieces of mammoth that I came to see. But before you get to that case, you have to pass a giant clam that could fit a child, or even a small adult if they curled up.
The other side of the room contains the skulls of a bison and rhino, a whale rib, and an entire icthyosaur from Germany. The end of the room has the skulls of a bear and walrus, complete with tusks, and the skeletons of a bat and snake.
The final part of the fossil and biology section that I was most interested in was an old display of horse evolution. If made today, it would probably look substantially different because of all the new data we have gotten since that display was made; but except for a few very minor details, the essential facts would be the same.
Of course, there is much more to the exhibit than what I have presented here, such as this cool whalebone armor and cavalry sword, so spend some time checking out the rest of the exhibit and the museum.
There is one thing that the exhibit could have capitalized on, but didn’t (mainly because they didn’t know about it, but also because they were trying to stay with the whole cabinets of curiosity motif), was that many of the fossils and biology specimens have fossil counterparts that have been found in Arkansas. For instance, we have fossil Smilodons, musk oxen, whales, several mastodons, giant deer and giant snakes, and much more.
So here is my question to you. How many people would pay for a special tour of the exhibit that discussed all the cool Arkansas fossils that matched up with the ones on display here. How much would you pay? $10/person? More? Less?
The New Mid-America Museum
I have been going to Mid-America Museum in Hot Springs, AR for many years now. I even got married there. Nevertheless, there were a few things that always frustrated me. They had a mastodon skeleton in the entry way, which was great, but there was no real signage with it. It was just there, with no context at all. But more than anything else, I despised the sign they had next to a sauropod track next to the mastodon. Two incredible dinosaur trackways have been found in Arkansas and Mid-America is one of the few places you can see anything of the trackways. But the footprint, again, had no context and the sign had the sauropods wading around in swamps, straight out of a 1950s drawing. I repeatedly told them about the sign, I even offered to make them a new one, but to no avail.
So when I heard about the museum shutting down for several months to be completely renovated, I hoped they would fix some of these things. Mid-America Museum is now open again and I got the chance to visit it recently. My verdict? They did a great job, better than I even dared hope. Like anything else, there are still a few things they could do to improve it, but the earth science exhibits are well worth taking some time to go see them. It’s a completely new museum. You should definitely check it out.
To go along with the radical renovations, it is now the Mid-America Science Museum and Donald W. Reynolds Center. The Reynolds Foundation donated $7.9 million (most places say 7.8 million, but that is because most people don’t know how to properly round, most people just truncate, 7.88 does not round to 7.8), without which the renovations could not have been done. Many of the old exhibits the museum was known for are still there, such as the Tesla coil and moving art structures, but I am going to focus on the earth science exhibits here. There are many other places you can read about the other exhibits, such as this one.
The main exhibit focusing on earth science is called Arkansas Underfoot. It is located, appropriately enough, next to the Arkansas Underground tunnels. With this placement, the tunnel construction is thematically tied to the rest of the museum in a much better way than previously. The tunnels have been cleaned and fixed up. The frayed and broken sections of the rope bridges have been replaced with all new rope. I was disappointed to see that the skeleton of the miner has been removed, but the many appreciative comments from the kids indicates this was a good change. Apparently many kids found it frightening and disliked it. I am still not convinced the stated purpose of this exhibit to allow kids to explore and learn about life underground and what lies beneath our feet is at all effective. I enjoyed a small display of fossils embedded in the wall at one spot, but other than that, there is nothing educational inside and I seriously doubt many of the kids see it because it is situated in a spot that does not lend itself to stopping and looking. Nevertheless, kids really enjoy it and it brings people into the museum where they see other things that are truly educational, and it provides parents a bit of a respite as the kids zoom through it again and again, so it succeeds on that front. I do wish there was a bit more within it that might serve an educational purpose, particularly for the space it takes. I don’t advocate its removal, quite the opposite in fact. It should be added to in ways that enhance its educational value.
The mastodon and sauropod track are here, with the mastodon freshly painted to look more like the real bones from which the casts were made. It looks good and has more of a context with all the other exhibits nearby. The sauropod track has a new sign, which is a vast improvement over the old one. The swamp-dwelling sauropods are gone, replaced by a discussion of the Arkansas dinosaur trackways, including pictures. The trackways really are impressive, much more than they show here (in all fairness, to truly appreciate them would take an exhibit all its own, so what they accomplished here is perfectly reasonable given space constraints and exhibit balance considerations, it is quite sufficient for the intended audience without going overboard), but at least now visitors get a feel for the trackways as being more than an isolated footprint and the incorrect information from the old sign has been replaced with good information. The footprint now has that all important context. Outside still has the dinosaur dig that is popular with the kids, along with the adjacent track site, making a nice continuation of the interior exhibits.
There are several new exhibits to see which are well worth spending time to see. The exhibit that draws the most attention is an interactive 3D topographic map. Using a projector and an Xbox Kinect, they turn a simple sandbox into an endlessly changing map. As people move the sand around, they can see the colors change to match the topography, with snow-capped hills and rivers and lakes that respond to the changes in the landscape. Its draw and fascination is evident by the length of time people spend there manipulating the topography. It is a wonderful interactive display, but there are a couple of ways it could be improved. The actual topographic lines are very dim and go unnoticed by almost everyone, decreasing that educational aspect of the display. Despite a number of maps on display in the exhibit, there are no topographic maps for comparison other than the large map behind the mastodon. I discount that one because it is displayed as monotone wall art without reference to it being topographic in nature, so it runs under the radar for visitors. There is an empty wall right next to the sandbox. I think the exhibit could be improved by putting up a topographic map on that wall, along with a description of how to read it, using text that relates it back to the sandbox, thereby tying it all together.
Speaking of maps, there are several on display. A large geologic map of Arkansas adorns one wall, with explanations of how to read it, much like I suggested above for the topographic map. On the map are listed several places where mineralogical resources have been found and mined. Next to the map is a display showing some of the rocks and minerals that have been mined in the state that are shown on the map, as well as a display showing the major types of rock in the state. In addition, there is a table with several maps of various kinds. My favorite is the color map of the Mississippi river showing how it has meandered all over the area.
On the adjoining wall to the one displaying the geologic map is a series of display cases embedded into the wall showing different soil types, showing how soil changes with depth and region. One is called a Stuttgart soil, which is listed as the state soil of Arkansas. Who knew we even had an official state soil?
At the fossil station, you can look at real microfossils. There is a microscope which lets you see a variety of identified fossils such as shell fragments and echinoderm spines. The signs are good, informative without overloading visitors. The exhibit lets people see fossils that you don’t normally see in a museum and get a feel for the work involved. While I was there, several people examined the fossils and tried their hand at identifying them.
Next to the fossil station is a slice of soil that looks something like a giant ant colony display. Instead of ants and there tunnels, there is bacteria which turn the soil different colors depending on the type of bacteria and their type of metabolism. The signage is great and very informative. I have not seen a display like this before and thought it a great addition. The only criticism I would make is that the lighting is not the best. The lights shine up from the base of the display, so the lights are too bright to get a good look at the lower portion of the soil. You wind up trying to look almost directly at the bulbs between you and the bottom of the display.
Continuing on, there is a rock smasher, where people can drop a heavy weight onto rocks to see pieces break off and fall into a short series of grates separating the pieces into different sizes. I am not sure people were getting the point of the exhibit, which was explained on the adjacent sign, which talked rocks breaking up to form sand, clay, and soil. People seemed to like trying to smash the rocks, though, so hopefully some people looked over at the sign while they were doing so or waiting their turn. Curiously, the sign never actually mentions the word “erosion”, which is what the exhibit is all about.
Between the rock smasher and the dinosaur footprint is a large display of Arkansas quartz. Arkansas is famous throughout the world for its quartz, so it is fitting to see it on display here.
If I were to pick the one display that most surprised me, I would probably choose the taphonomy display. As someone professionally interested in how things decay and form fossils, I particularly loved this display. It is not something you see in museums very often. Taphonomy is the study of everything that happens to an organism between the time it dies and the time it is collected and studied. This display of course, only covers the first part of the process, showing five weeks of the decay of a freshly dead rat. I should warn people that it might be disturbing for some viewers. It is understandable they only go this far in the process, as it is the easiest to show and most relevant to active, biological processes that affect us. The touch panel next to the display allows people to go further into how the decay process fits into the function of a healthy ecosystem. Definitely worth a look. If maggots bother you, you can still learn a lot from the touch screen.
The final piece of the exhibit is a touch screen which allows you to take a virtual field trip through eight different areas of Arkansas, learning about the geology making each area unique and how the underlying rocks affect the landscape. It is well done and you can spend a lot of time going through the different trips. I didn’t have time to go through all of them, but I will definitely be spending more time at this panel the next time I go.
In conclusion, I think they did a great job on the renovation, filling in part of a huge, gaping hole in Arkansas museum coverage. There are still a few places that can be improved, like any exhibit, but what they have done is worlds better than before, providing exhibits you won’t find elsewhere in the state. Take a day out of your weekend and go see for yourself. It really is a new museum, carrying over the best of what was there before and adding in much that will fill your day.