Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Major Australian Museum’s Disgraceful Concession to Creationism

Jan 2009: A warm welcome to those who have been directed here by John Stear's NAiG site. If you want a one-line summary of the direction I am coming from, it's as a Christian (who works at a Christian School), who loves Science and regards the non-Scientific, ideological rantings of Young Earth Creationists as deeply corrupt and damaging to our faith.

If you enjoy this article (ironically, what I regard as my thinnest on the topic of Creationism), then please feel free to explore my other posts on the same subject which carry the tag of "Creationism"


Young Earth Creationists suffer from a humiliating lack of credibility, and rightly so, among the mainstream scientific community. Hence, if any “secular” institution appears to slip and confirm any tenet of the Creationist worldview, you can count on them to crow about it. Of course, the context or intent of the reference is rarely of interest to them.

Our major museum of natural history in Sydney, the Australian Museum, has very recently opened its long awaited and overdue Dinosaur exhibit. It’s impressive, and I attended today with my five year old son (pictured above) to check it out.
Being the School holidays, I was surprised (and delighted, and then surprised that I was delighted) to be standing in a long queue that stretched out the door and around the corner. The queue was full of families and kids, all in high spirits. A large banner outside the grand old Victorian sandstone museum portrayed an archetype carnivore, rampant, and the words “Can’t wait to meet you”. The “m” in meet was slashed out with claw marks. Cute. The museum had languished for many years and this exhibit is the first proper Dinosaur exhibit it has probably ever had, and a major shot in the arm. I harbour fond and dim memories of the “Dinosaurs from China” exhibit at the same museum when I was a kid, and here I was, my rambunctious, blond, paleontologically encyclopaedic offspring in tow, passing the dino-mania on to a very willing next generation.

Of course, one of the cardinal assumptions in palaeontology is that Homo Sapiens and the Dinosauria occupied far removed and mutually exclusive epochs in the Earth’s history. Any admission that men and dinosaurs co-existed would be a major gaffe, right? Something so crazy and stupid, you would only expect that from, say a pretend museum that corrupts and prostitutes the very concept of a museum, yes?

Well. Oooboy, are the Creationists going to be cock-a-hoop over this one. This was part of the exhibit.
OK. OK. I can’t keep this up. I’ve been stringing you along. Of course the Australian Museum aren’t being serious. When I read this, if I’d been drinking milk, it would have come out my nose, if you know what I mean. It tickled my fancy, being a huge fan of The Far Side. The Thagomizer. I love that. And while they aren't serious about cavemen and dinosaurs co-existing, scientists do actually use this term. Here's my photo of one.

And now I feel guilty. If you’ve read this far, suckered by my claim of a Creationist gaffe at a respectable public institution and angry, let me make amends: This is how a museum should be- full of questioning and the joy of engaging young minds, rather than full of tawdry appeals to ideology and Flintstones-level fantasy. Differing views are presented in the exhibit, such as the debate between catastrophists and gradualists concerning the end of the Mesozoic era; Care was taken to represent Archaeopteryx as an offshoot of bird development rather than as linear antecedents of Aves, and each of the many transitional features marking the difference between reptiles and birds were mentioned (and supported by examples). The evolution of snakes was explained with an Australian example of sand swimming skinks, which are living illustrations of the varying stages of limb loss. I was impressed at the degree to which propositions made about Dinosaurs, their lives, behavior and evolution were backed up by so much evidence from the fossil record. Some might say that the degree of explanation might put people off, but I thought it was all very accessible. Obviously the authors of the exhibit had an eye to the criticism that many statements about Dinosaurs are made without qualification, and then accepted because of an "appeal to authority". I felt sure that if the exhibit said something factually incorrect about Dinosaurs, one of those bright eyed 5 year olds like mine might be the one to correct it in the years to come, and that no one at the Museum would be unhappy about that.

I only had one gripe. One Velociraptor was portrayed with hairy feathers.
I don’t care what the science says. It looked silly, like some cast off carnival haunted house prop. Many of the displays were hands-on, and there were palaeontologists exhuming fossils from real rocks as part of the exhibit.

As I was walking through the exhibition, one of the things I couldn’t keep out of my mind was how any Creationist viewing the exhibit would find the visit ruined for them. Of course, I use the term "Creationist" here as shorthand for Young Earth Creationist- I regard myself as a "Creationist" by definition as a Christian, but I'm poles apart from being a Young Earther. Never mind the hordes of young people being sparked to an interest in science and learning, or the quality of the multimedia and static displays. I can just imagine these people, indoctrinated into hating science in a kind of sick, pavlovian response, as they would fume and rail at the references to deep time and evolutionary processes scattered throughout the exhibit. It reminded me of just how embarassing Young Earth Creationist organisations like CMI and AiG should be regarded as by Christians of all creeds.

People who know me know that I get a bit knotty when people eject their brains in matters of Faith. If people go to museums like this one and lose their faith in God because the sign says “millions of years ago”, then I’d have to doubt their faith was very grounded to begin with. However, when people start teaching that you can’t believe in Jesus without regarding the presentation of such a wonderful Dinosaur exhibit as a monstrous atheistic conspiracy then, well, perhaps the kindest thing I could say about such people (alas, even as a Christian) is that they should be publicly ridiculed. And then flogged. And then fed to Velociraptors. With lasers on their heads.

2 comments:

Eccles said...

Nathan,
Did you know that at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science there is a "Guide" in the Dinosaur exhibit telling kids about Genesis and the "Theories" of the YEC and why evolution is all bullshit. I sent an e-mail to the museum for confirmation, but got no reply.

Divine_Contemplative said...

Very interesting post -- and the last part made me laugh!

I used to be a [Young Earth] Creationist myself. I read the books and just assumed they were intellectually honest. Now that I've had a biblical education, however...

There are still some very hard-to-believe things that really are hard to explain from a viewpoint of [unguided] evolution.

If cats hate water so much, why do they love fish? This makes no sense.

I'm definitely with you on the not-ejecting-brains-on-faith-matters thing! Science is not evil. Without science, we wouldn't have sci-fi!