Smithsonian Human Origins Initiative

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has announced its new Human Origins Initiative. Their website was launched yesterday. On Wednesday March 17 they will open the new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins which features a major new exhibit on what it means to be human. As part of this initiative, the Smithsonian has convened a Broad Social Impact Committee (BSIC), acknowledging the spectrum of responses that might greet the exhibit. I have the privilege of being asked to be part of this committee which represents the wide range of religious and cultural traditions in America. The BSIC website lists the attendees but has not yet posted any of the collective input. The committee had no opportunity to influence the content of the exhibit. Rather, the objective was to help edit the FAQ section both in the exhibit and on the website. We have also been asked to help advise on the training of docents.

On Sunday March 21 from 5pm to 7pm, the committee will hold a press conference to talk about some of the reactions. Our committee met last June in a stimulating session sharing each of our representative groups’ potential reaction to the exhibit. We were able to view some of the back room activities in the museum as well as look at the exhibit construction in progress. We will meet again on March 21 and 22 and be able to view the final product. Those of you who are planning to come to the ASA meeting in Washington DC are encouraged to take the time to visit the exhibit.

To help me provide some input at the March 21-22 meeting, I’d appreciate your browsing the website and submitting your comments here.

10 comments to Smithsonian Human Origins Initiative

  • Ian Hutchinson

    Well first of all, that site is really beautiful. Well designed, attractive, and full of interesting material. I presume also that it is approachable for children and people without much science education.

  • Ian Hutchinson

    That was my first post, so I wanted to test that it worked before typing much more. But now here’s a more substantial thought for Randy and the broader impact folks. The first and by far the most content-filled topic is called “Human Evolution Evidence”. Now those of you who know me realize that I personally don’t have a problem with common descent natural selection being the mechanism by which the remarkable biological diversity and adaptation arose. So I don’t have an axe to grind in respect of biological evolution, even of Man. But look inside that first topic (tab), and what is the material there? Not biology at all, but ethnology and anthropology. 

    I do have an axe to grind, and so do many scientists, including openly atheistic or agnostic scientists like Gould and Lewontin, not just Christian scientists like me, with Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology. The case for Darwinist descriptions and explanations being useful, let alone the norm, in the analysis of human culture is in our opinion very weak. Therefore I find it remarkable that this anthropological display is called Human Evolution Evidence. It seem undeniable that human culture has evolved in the sense of growing and changing. And undoubtedly there have been selective pressures amongst cultures. But that’s a long way from having anything substantive to do with biological evolution as Darwin conceived it. I think there is danger here that this exhibit will be seen as an endorsement, even if unintended, of cultural Darwinisms, most likely in its modern garb of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. 

    By the way, this feature of the exhibit is a nice example of scientism, which is a major interest of mine, as many of you know. Peace!

  • Ward Sanford

    I find that human origins to be an area of research that conservative Christians in the US are the least likely to embrace.  Many can accept Genesis 1 as a non-literal description of creation that allows for a universe and earth billions of years old, but if you ask them to start to consider that the story of Adam and Eve and the fall, which is so fundamental to Christian Theology, as possibly only an allegory that describes truth only in terms of how man’s relationship developed with God, and not a literal account, most of them will resist nearly to the death.  And so they will reject findings of physical anthropology and believe whatever alternative explanations/discreditings may be available.  I don’t have a problem with Adam and Eve being allegorical, and so I always find the latest findings interesting, but I am an exception within otherwise conservative Christianity.

  • William Bell

    Basically a well-done informational website.  Absolute statements were common especially in the educational sections.   In most other areas of science including my own (clinical neuroscience)  we make statements that are more tentative knowing that just around the corner our current views will be proven wrong.  The constant updating and revision of science is what makes our jobs fun.  That is the part of science that I find lacking in this website. However, I have just moved to Georgetown and plan to seeing the exhibit first hand in the next few weeks; perhap I will have other comments then.

  • Buddy Marterre

    I think this exhibit is a long time coming!  I’ve enjoyed watching the recent NatGeo videos (which partnered with the Smithsonian) and reading the recent Science Magazine which was dedicated to Ardipithecus (and climate change).  The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum exhibit will be something that will reach the public (and children) with great credibility.  I recently visited this Museum after a 10 year hiatus and I was impressed by the little tiny exhibit of all the skulls from various (artificial) breeds of dog (as well as the ‘natural’ wolf).  I don’t recall, but I don’t think this little exhibit even mentioned how Darwin used artificial breeding as one of the tenets of his grand theory, which has now been proven correct a million times over.  BTW, I’m not a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist – I’m a  surgeon, who only follows these fields out of interest…  But I do believe human origins is the single biggest stumbling block to (at least Fundamentalist) Christians and science, and it is one that we as the ASA needs to address with vigor.  Personally, although I know this comment will be controversial, I think we’ve shown too much grace to closed-minded Christians regarding this issue in the past.
    How would Jesus address this issue?  How did he address wrong-thinking in the religious communities of his day?
    I think the ASA ought to fully endorse this exhibit as an organization of open-minded forward thinking scientists who are also not afraid to share their faith in God!  What  an opportunity!

  • Kenneth Van Dellen

    The exhibit is beautifully done, overall. However, I see no mention anywhere of religion. When I was teaching geology (in a secular college), I always pointed out that burial and possibly other things suggested religious ritual and a recognition of the supernatural. Of course, this may be uncomfortable for young-Earth creationists, but I think it’s of great interest to Christians, and possibly Jews and Muslims, if there are any, who recognize Earth is old, but fossil evidence is real, and our bodies actually did evolve to the present condition.

    There certainly are characteristics of humans that set us apart from other primates, but the distinction in terms of anatomy, behavior, etc., is becoming more blurred, I think. The appearance and behavior of other primates is what makes them especially fascinating animals, because they remind us of ourselves. However, tool-use and communication among them is quite a way from that of humans; talking chimps aren’t likely to form a logical sentence.

    This brings us to the concept of the image of God. It doesn’t mean we look like God, except the incarnate Son. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect the Smithsonian to go far with this, but they might have at least recognized that, as far as we can tell, only humans worship.

  • Richard Wright

    I have dealt with this topic in my book, Biology Through the Eyes of Faith, and I really haven’t seen any reason to deviate from my conclusions in Chapter 8 (Where are You, Adam?). Clearly, we have to deal with the fossil evidence for hominids, and must accept them as possible ancestors. And since Adam and Eve were Neolithic humans, there must have been earlier humans in the picture. Indeed, where did Cain get his wife, and of whom was he afraid? The approach I favor is that God chose Adam and Eve from an existing human population that could have been the outcome of human evolution, conferred on them his image, and then placed them in a garden where they received his instructions. After they sinned and were cast out, they mixed with the surrounding peoples. The problems of imputed sin and all are dealt with in this chapter of the book. This, of course, is only one possible explanation.
    The web site is well done, and the materials available to teachers are quite useful. I should think your task in this committee is to maintain the position that whatever the process whereby humans came into being, it was God’s plan. Getting it to line up with scripture is probably more than you should attempt, but you should be able to reference some Christian writers who have taken on this attempt.

  • Carlos Pinkham

    I agree that the exhibit is an excellent resource.
    I am struck by Ward Sanford’s remarks about the hiatus between us and the conservative Christian. I attend a relatively small rural, evangelical (read that as conservative) church in central Vermont where the majority of the members are farmers, blue collar workers, or white collar engineers. I am the only one with a scientific, to say nothing of biological, background. I have made it clear to all that I am an evolutionary biologist. I have also made it clear that my beliefs as a scientist inform my faith, and are part of the reason my faith is as solid as theirs, if not more solid. I do not insist that my role is to get them to think as I do, although I do want them to know there is a way to deal with the “conflicts” they perceive between faith and science and that they should at least let their children know of these options, lest they lose their faith when they go off to college and are challenged by the evidence of evolution they are bombarded with while there. In short, I am not a threat to them, I am accepted by them. If we were to take this stand as a group, I think we would have a chance of slowly eroding the misunderstanding about evolution and faith held by our brothers and sisters. If we don’t, I fear the mountains will stand for a long time.
    How does that affect the exhibit? Maybe it needs to allow some of us to offer our understanding of how evolution fits with our faith. What a great opportunity for dialogue that would present!

  • Keith Miller

    I have looked over the website and thank that it is generally very well done.  I include some specific comments and recommendations below.
    The purpose statement for the Broader Social Impacts section is well-written and concisely stated.  I think that it sets a good tone.  Related to this, I very much like the inclusion of the “What Does it Mean to be Human” query on the main page.  It is a nice touch and immediately shows that the answer cannot be constrained within the limitations of scientific inquiry.  I would like to see some explicitly religious definitions included among the posts.
    The “Featured Research” section is pretty good.  I do think that the case study of the “Hobbits” missed an opportunity to better portray the nature of science.  I would have been good to mention some of the alternative interpretations of this fossil material, and some of the (sometimes heated) disagreements within the anthropological community.  Doing this would present a more realistic picture of the scientific enterprise.  It is important for the public to know that science progresses through a rigorous process of internal debate.
    The other featured research from Kenya does a good job of briefly laying out the diversity of observations used to reconstruct ancient environments and ancient hominid behavior.  The separate video on how primitive tools are recognized makes a nice companion to this topic.  I really think that it is important that viewers get some introduction to how the scientific community goes about drawing the conclusions that it does.
    Lastly, a comment on the “For Educators and Students” section.  I thought that the discussion of the nature of science was a little lacking.  I would highly recommend additional links to the related website on “Understanding Science” at <;.

  • Charles Chaffey

    The exhibit presents sound science, showing the data that have supported hypotheses about human origins.  It does not get sidetracked onto issues like where the information content in our DNA came from.  No comments, which might be viewed negatively by believers, about the Scriptural account of creation of humans appear.  The page on the Broader Social Impacts Committee mentions two approaches to the science-religion relationship.  The second, interacti0n or engagement, is preferable to the first, that science and religion are separate domains. The last sections of the page “Humans change the world” make us think about consequences for the future informed by knowledge of the past, which people of faith should consider prayerfully when making decisions.  

March 2010
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