Madonna and Bon Jovi are no match for Hawaiian flies when it comes to karaoke hits at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln. In a popular exhibit activity, visitors attempt to mimic the unique courtship calls of different species of Hawaiian Drosophila, a group of 800 different flies that may have evolved from a single species.
Fly karaoke is part of "Explore Evolution," a permanent exhibit currently at Nebraska and five other museums in the Midwest and Southwest (the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the Exhibit Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan and the University of Kansas Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center, plus an October opening at the Texas Memorial Museum) that explores evolutionary concepts in new ways. Such an activity is a far cry from the traditional way science museums have presented evolution, which usually included charts called phylogenies depicting ancestral relationships or a static set of fossils arranged chronologically. "Explore Evolution'' has those, too—and then some, because museum curators came to realize that they needed better ways to counter growing attacks on their integrity.
The theory of evolution has always been denounced by creationists, who contend that the biblical story of "Genesis" is an accurate account of Earth's geologic and paleontological history and that The Origin of Species is blasphemous. The intelligent design (ID) movement that sprang from creationism in the 1990s gives an even more vague but equally unscientific explanation for natural history, claiming that nature is so complex that only an intelligent being or force could have been responsible for creating it. They, like creationists, argue that humans were never apelike and that children should learn about alternatives to evolution like ID in public school science classes. (No matter that their claims have no scientific basis or that the U.S. Constitution mandates a separation of church and state.)
Under pressure from these kinds of groups, the Kansas State Board of Education in 2005 approved a curriculum that allowed the public schools to include completely unfounded challenges to the theory of evolution.
In an effort to make their case to the public, creationists raised $26 million in private donations to build the 50,000-square-foot Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which opened in late May. The institution presents the biblical history of the universe. Visitors learn that biblically, dinosaurs are best explained as creatures that roamed Earth with humans. In its first month of existence, the museum drew over 49,000 visitors, according to its Web site.
"Explore Evolution," funded by a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is one of many recent efforts by science museums to counter such resistance to evolution. Curators like Judy Diamond, a professor and curator at the University of Nebraska State Museum, decided the traditional methods of presenting scientific evidence were not working to convince the public of evolution¿s validity, and came up with a new plan to lure visitors: interactive activities about evolution and lessons on how scientists ply their trade.
"The idea was to teach evolution by meeting real scientists, getting to understand what they do in their work, and then being introduced to evolution through the process of understanding their research," says Diamond, who designed the "Explore Evolution'' exhibit.
Each of the exhibit's seven displays focuses on a specific organism, relates it to evolution, and introduces the scientists who researched them. A giant wall of nucleotides compares the DNA of humans with that of their closer relatives, chimpanzees. And, in a Where's Waldo–type game, visitors are challenged to find small figures representing famous evolutionary scientist Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, to illustrate the 1 percent difference between human and chimp genomes.
Diamond and E. Margaret Evans, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, surveyed visitors on their views of evolution and found that they seemed to think through problems in more evolutionary terms after viewing the exhibit—even if they were self-identified Creationists. "Whenever someone starts, they move a little bit along the continuum. That's the best anyone can hope for in an exhibit," Diamond says.
Evans is also collaborating with other scientists on a new project called "Life Changes." Funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the exhibit is set to open as a traveling exhibition some time in 2009, with stops at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, the Miami Science Museum, the North Museum of Natural History & Science in Lancaster, Pa., and the Exhibit Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Life Changes" is mainly directed at children and will feature actors, who will tell stories about different birds to convey evolutionary principles. For example, an actor will describe the evolution of the kiwi, which burrows underground like a badger rather than flying, yet still belongs to the bird family. There will also be other interactive activities about bird evolution and perhaps even live birds, says cellular biochemist Martin Weiss, vice president, science at the Hall of Science. Weiss also envisions Internet discussion groups and online courses on evolution.
Although this project did not start out as a counterpoint to the Creation Museum, Weiss has come to view it that way. "In the sense that if it bolsters our understanding of the natural world, and how to look at the natural world and how to understand it," he says, "then yes, that's its purpose."
Scientists say that, among other things, an understanding of evolution is crucial when it comes to medicine and health—and an upcoming exhibit called "Surviving: The Body of Evidence" will explain why. The exhibit, set to open in April at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, will teach visitors how certain contemporary problems such as obesity may have evolved by comparing the eating habits of modern humans with their ancestors. It will point out, for example, that milk was not part of the human diet until animals were domesticated several thousand years ago, which may explain the prevalence of lactose intolerance today. The exhibit will wrap up with a film that juxtaposes scientists and children speculating on the future of human evolution.
Unlike some human evolution displays, "Surviving" will classify our ancestors according to "early," "middle" and "latest" forms, rather than by drawing treelike relationships between specific skeletons. This is meant to prevent confusion when new fossils are found and added to the display, says Janet Monge, exhibit designer and a professor of anthropology at Penn and Princeton University. "In evolution you can't necessarily draw these ancestor-descendent relationship lines, because people are always in the process of discovering new things."
Another new approach for teaching evolution is to focus on the man who made the idea famous: Charles Darwin. An exhibit dubbed "Darwin," currently showing at The Field Museum in Chicago, explores evolution through Darwin's eyes, taking viewers through his research and reasoning. It discusses some of the challenges he encountered when he first proposed his theory of evolution and displays personal artifacts such as his walking stick, geologic hammers and his Bible—the latter in an attempt to quietly bring home the fact that religion and science can coexist.
There is also a video of scientists discussing why creationism is not a viable alternative to the theory of evolution.
The exhibit originated at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2005, just weeks after 11 parents in Dover, Pa., successfully sued to bar biology teachers in public schools there from reading a four-paragraph statement about ID in class.
"Darwin" curator Niles Eldredge views the exhibit and verdict to be a "one-two punch" against creationism. "We just happened to be there as one of the first things you could point to and say, 'hey people, we're not going to take this lying down and we're going to fight back,'" he says.
In February the Natural History museum reopened its 13-year-old Hall of Human Origins, which had been updated to include interactive displays and other new information such as DNA samples to help tell the story of human evolution, curator Ian Tattersall says.
Through DNA evidence, for example, scientists now know that Neandertals are a distinct kind of hominid with their own identity. Visitors can view a vial of actual 40,000-year-old Neandertal DNA alongside vials of human and chimp DNA and learn about how, say, Homo sapiens migrated out of eastern Africa 70,000 years ago. Fossils alone have not been able to tell this story, because of gaps in the fossil record, Tattersall says.
He denounced the Creation Museum as "a waste of human talent" and energy to promote a bogus idea. "I do not see that anybody's religious beliefs are threatened by evolution, which is simply the only plausible thesis we have for explaining what we see in nature today," he says.
Colin Purrington, a biology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, says that institutions like science museums must not shy away from evolutionary topics, and should make the most of their exhibit spaces to educate the public. On his Web site (http://www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/evolk12/exhibits/intro.htm) he displays photos of various exhibit labels that misrepresent biological concepts and urged institutions displaying them to remove them. For instance, he implored the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to take down a "stop" sign that warns visitors that its exhibit on chimpanzee-human relationships "contains some things you may agree with, some you may disagree with, and others that may even trouble you."
"You don't get any of that foolishness in Europe," he says.