More on climate change and the Smithsonian exhibition

October 7, 2010 • 1:31 pm

Both Greg and P.Z. Myers have noted, in conjunction with others, that there may be an insidious connection between climate-change denialist David Koch, who largely funded the Smithsonian’s new human evolution exhibit, and the contents of the exhibit itself.  (Greg doesn’t buy it.)  After I learned that Koch was a denialist, I drew a connection between one or two of the displays I saw and Koch’s views.  And according to Climate Progress, I missed other exhibits showing how wonderful climate change was for our evolution.

Before I read about this kerfuffle, I was going to put up these pictures as examples of some of the wonky views on evolution on offer in the exhibit, but now I see that they may have a more insidious meaning.

At the exhibit, I noted that there was considerable unfounded speculation about the influence of climate change on evolution.  Here’s a display suggesting—and there is NO evidence for this—that adaptation to changing climate was a major force propelling the evolutionary increase in human brain size. Note, at the lower right, the two graphs showing a “coordinated” increase of human brain size with increasing variability of climate (click the picture to enlarge and read the captions). Note also that as the fluctuations in temperature increased, the average temperature also decreased, so there’s no way, at least from these data, to separate brain evolution from average temperature versus erratic temperature.  And of course there are tons of other hypotheses, not connected with climate, to explain why our brains got bigger.

This display, while not as scientifically unfounded as the one above, is still speculative, without any indication that there’s no solid proof that human body morphology reflects adaptation to climate.  It’s a good guess, but we don’t know for sure and, at any rate, since the theme of the exhibit is “how do we know what we know?”, the curators should have injected a cautionary note about the conclusion:

Smithsonian, j’accuse!  Get your curators in there and expunge all the questionable “science” tying our evolution to climate change.  And call a spade a spade: if something is just a hypothesis, label it as such rather than implying it’s settled fact.

24 thoughts on “More on climate change and the Smithsonian exhibition

  1. Much of this climate influence/change blather comes from Rick Potts, the paleoanthro expert at the SI, and his idiosyncratic ideas about the role of what he has dubbed “variability selection” in human evolution. Needless to say, “variability selection” hasn’t penetrated evolutionary bio theory very deeply outside of paleoanthropology.

  2. And call a spade a spade: if something is just a hypothesis, label it as such rather than implying it’s settled fact.

    Certainly! Count me as one who got duped into thinking the idea was more widely accepted after watching NOVA Koch-funded NOVA special “Becoming Human” about the exact same subject.

  3. I tend to be “skeptical” (heh) of these types of conspiracy theories… but I have to say, this seems fairly damning. I suppose it could just be coincidence that a Koch-funded exhibit happens to promote a controversial theory of human evolution that has to do with climate change, but…. yyyeeeaaahhhh…


  4. 1/occamseraser

    And I’m not sure exactly how far you can say “variability selection” has penetrated paleoanthropology. Rick is in an important position and has a lot of influence in the field, this exhibit being an example of that. But if you look at citation indices, you rarely see his work related to variability selection cited. It is a big idea within a limited circle, but certainly has shaped the Smithsonian exhibit.

  5. “there’s no solid proof that human body morphology reflects adaptation to climate.”

    I find that statement surprising. Perhaps there is no evidence that climate variability led to changes in brain size, but is there not solid evidence on the effect of climate differences on differences in body morphology–melanin levels and latitude, nose shapes, body hair, and other?

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely correct — there are some very well-known and plausible links between body shape and climate in human evolution (and among living people). Chris Ruff is worth a read on this subject.

      I think Koch truly is a longstanding fan of human ev, and really really liked the notion that climate change was prehistorically “natural” and essential to the human career. Money happens!

  6. What goes unsaid (assumed?) here is that even IF climate change shaped human evolution in the past, it does not follow that climate change in the future will be beneficial for us. In fact, I would take it as a stronger argument that we should stop climate change if it will influence human evolution – which means the altered climate be responsible for a significant percentage of human deaths.

  7. Sorry, it doesn’t seem to add up for me, the behavior of zealots isn’t typically so calculating and two-faced. Denying current temperature trends in one breath and attempting to paint climate change as a good thing in the next is a little too inconsistent for the typical ideologue.

    That aside, it would seem a bit silly to commission an exhibit for the sole purpose of attempting to convince people that climate change will cause humanity to win the genetic lottery.

    The more likely scenario is that he’s got a big ego and wants his name on an exhibit in the Smithsonian.

    1. <blockquote?the behavior of zealots isn’t typically so calculating and two-faced.


      You don’t know many zealots, do you?

      Heck, “lying for Jesus” is a cliche precisely because it’s an observable, repeatable phenomenon.

  8. David Koch (in denying human induced climate change)is just following that path of Exxon and other petroleum companies in wanting ‘business as usual’ for their products and continuing profits. Koch Industries is very heavy into petroleum and petroleum processing.

    1. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy nut (since I won’t name anyone), it’s not a clear case of “business as usual”. Some of the large corporations are forking out huge amounts of money (and with little to no government incentive) working out how to reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere while using oil/gas in the transitional period to other (still largely undefined) technologies. At the same time they might have a budget of less than 1% of those activities dedicated to promoting denialism. Some companies have no budget for mitigation work, only budgets for denialism. One coal company executive even said he’d take his chance with short term profits and happily allow his company to fold when CO2 regulations come in; I read that as meaning he’s confident that the lobby groups can prevent the government from doing anything significant (and he seems to be right so far). At any rate the general attitude is that they must do whatever they can to keep up the short term profits for their stakeholders. Until government introduces regulations they will spend as little as possible and also use lobbyists to derail any bills on the line. I wish the government would put up laws which will benefit the companies that have already invested billions in research on mitigation and the 100% denialist companies can go screw themselves.

  9. “Here’s a display suggesting—and there is NO evidence for this—that adaptation to changing climate was a major force propelling the evolutionary increase in human brain size.”

    I would be inclined to say that all the evidence we have so far does not support the claim. Not to mention that the claim is homocentric at best – what about the brain sizes in other contemporary species? The vast amount of already available evidence indicates that the climate change / brain size claim is nothing but monkey business.

  10. This is not really climate change denial though is it? They’re pointing out that it has happened in the past and has had an impact on human evolution. I thought that was a pretty well received idea, though not the details that they specify.

    You can’t argue that climate change is ongoing and that it is has propelled the evolution of all sorts of life, while driving others to extinction of course. In any change there will be winners and losers. It seems almost certain that Canada will be a big winner in the the warming stakes, unless you’re a polar bear that is.

    Australia (my home)on the other hand, seems unlikely to have any but negative consequences from the change. In fact from the research it seems that our climate was at its best during the last ice-age and has been going downhill ever since. Generally warming leads to wetness but in Australia it has been accompanied by increasing dryness to the point where most of the continent is now desert. I guess we’ll all have to move to Canada!

  11. I think there is at least some consensus that, on whole, historic climate changes were evolutionarily limiting in terms of biodiversity and specialization. Diverging gene pools often merged due to range movements, had their selection regimes altered, or went extinct. Also the magnitude of the recurrent climate changes was not uniform rather the changes were most intense toward the poles and quite small at the equator. This might partially explain the reduced biodiversity toward the poles and why the poleward species tend to be generalists (relative to equatorial species) with large ranges and low levels of genetic differentiation. It is a type of contingent non-adaptive sorting; a species has to occur in the right place at the right time to survive. That said I’m sure there are instances where climate change has led to specializations but they are the exception rather than the rule. Don’t know much about the human literature but if I were to speculate it would seem more likely that we were generalist and lucky enough to survive the climate shifts (and nearly didn’t say the genetics) rather than we adapted to it and subsequently flourished.

  12. I am no expert (in anything alas!) but it would I think be a mistake to underestimate the importance of climate change in evolution & to humans historically – (various ‘popular science’ books by Stanley, Calvin, Boaz & Fagan spring to mind). What exercises me is those who deny the effects & consequences of our present cehemistry experiment on the oceans & atmosphere, & that is why I am very mistrustful of people such as Koch. I suppose it will be a poor consolation to tell the tea party climate change deniers & creationists ‘I told you so’…

  13. Finally! How does human evolution get subverted to tenuously support the hazards of climate change? I’m not sugggesting it’s not true but as Jerry says, it’s a hypothesis.


  14. I wonder if an increase in human penis size could be seen as an adaptation to a changing climate? Cold climate — small penis; hot climate — gigandomundo penis. Now, that’s an exhibit I’d like to see.

  15. What I noticed when I visited the exhibit is that the graph showing changes in average temperature has lower temperatures at the top and higher temperatures at the bottom.

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