Moar on the Smithsonian’s human evolution exhibit

October 10, 2010 • 4:47 am

In March the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. opened the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.  Last week Greg Mayer wrote a comprehensive review, pointing out the good and bad aspects of the exhibit.  I offer here a short supplement giving some highlights and lowlights. And let’s face it: any evolutionist is going to be critical of somebody else’s exhibit!

First, the entrance to the hall is, um, unprepossessing (as always, clicking on the photos will enlarge them):

A video exhibit near the entrance has both good and bad stuff. The exposition of the word “theory” is pretty good:

And so is the theme of exhibit, which is this: “how do we know what we say we know?”  This emphasis on evidence is estimable but, as Greg pointed out, the answers are provided not by the scientists who made the exhibit but by the viewer herself.  This exhibit of skulls has that postmodern fill-in-the-blanks air about it:

Close by is the hominin family tree. Note that it’s a branching bush, which is good, but it also puts the australopithecines off by themselves and not as the ancestors of Homo.  Unless there’s been some paleoanthropological advance of which I’m not aware, I think this question is unresolved, and maybe a question mark would have been better:

Here’s a life-size cast of the “hobbit,” Homo floresiensis, which may have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago.  Although its status as a species is controversial, evidence is slowly accumulating that hobbits were a genuine relict population of hominins.  And they were tiny: a bit more than three feet tall. Here I am standing next to one:

Our genetic similarity to chimps, our closest living relative, is a statistic that’s often abused.  The “99% identity” refers to the probability of identity at each nucleotide site in the DNA.  But since each gene comprises many nucleotide sites, the probability that a given gene has identical DNA sequences in humans and chimps is much lower.  In WEIT, I show that about 80% of all the proteins shared by the two species differ by at least one amino acid.  Depending on how you calculate the statistics, then, you can make humans and chimps look either 99% identical or only 20% identical.  The Smithsonian exhibit isn’t clear on this point.

For me, the most annoying part of the exhibit was this purported explanation of how evolution works.  It simply equates evolution to natural selection.  And of course natural selection is only one of several processes that can cause evolutionary change (genetic drift, the random change of gene frequencies due to sampling error, is another big one):

So, when viewers were urged to submit questions to the curators and other viewers, I typed in this one. Larry Moran is gonna love me!

All in all, I’d give the exhibit the grade of B, or even a B-. There are simply too many questionable assertions presented as fact, too many errors, and too much pandering to religion and political correctness (a video near the end asserts that human “races” don’t exist). But I’m a petulant evolutionist, and urge everyone, scientist and layperson alike, to visit this exhibit, if for no other reason than to see the remains and artifacts of our ancestors.

18 thoughts on “Moar on the Smithsonian’s human evolution exhibit

  1. The denial of typological human “races” isn’t about PC. Physical anthropologists have long championed the view that human variation is largely clinal and lacking in tidy coherent boundaries. I would return your homework with an “incomplete” and “need for improvement”.

  2. One of the interesting things that I have learned about the species concept from reading “Evolving Thoughts” by John Wilkins (the modern) is that defining species by their boundaries is an error. It makes more sense to define them by their “center,” meaning that there is no hard line of definition between similar species as has been taught.

    It is quite similar to the concept of race, which is not as easily defined as some would like. And so, there is no “political correctness” in denying the existence of distinct “races” of humans; it is a matter of fixing a long-held and inaccurate concept. When we define humans by their common traits, race is nearly meaningless. There are some traits shared by what we think of as “races” but like ring species, the boundaries that separate races are illusory.

    1. I talk about the race issue in extenso in WEIT. Yes, there aren’t a finite number of easily demarcated races, but there are genetically different populations of humans living in different places, and that’s the biological definition of “race” (also called “ecotypes”).

      Wilks is mistaken on species, I think–that’s in my other book!

      1. Good luck with substituting ecotypes for race (or even subspecies) in application to modern humans. This is well-plowed ground. “Race” is a cultural entity, a social construct. Some accessible reviews can bt found in:
        1. Matt Cartmill (1999), “The status of the race concept in physical anthropology.” American Anthropologist 100(3):651-660 (free download via Google Scholar).
        2. Smedley and Smedley (2005). “Race as biology is fiction…” Amer. Psych. (also on Google Scholar).
        3. Pat Shipman’s very readable book (2002)”The Evolution of Racism”.

        So, JC, how many human “ecotypes” do you recognize?

        1. Isn’t that like asking how many colors are in the visual spectrum? Though it is difficult to say where one color ends and the next begins, should we then claim that there are not different colors, or that color is a useless concept?

          1. Depends on what you mean with color.

            The RBG et cetera color definitions for graphics are practical conventions. (Though the choice of precisely 3 color ranges for displays has its physiological basis.)

      2. Yes, well I am not sure why this is labeled “politically correct.” If you have a disagreement with anthropologists over the concept of race, doesn’t it seem a bit like ‘poisoning the well’ to label the issue p.c.?

        I have also noticed that Larry Moran does the same thing.

        The anthropologists’ position is not to assuage any minorities or liberals but to more accurately describe humanity, which is their field of expertise.

    1. @Thanny

      Assuming you can read, who ever said/wrote that race is not a “scientific concept”? Its biological relevance to human variation is the issue.

      The color analogy fails, perfectly and ironically, when it comes to human “races”. JC invoked the
      “ecotype” alternative, so how many should we recognize?

      1. I wasn’t clear. I’m basically asking why an inability to objectively delineate human races precludes any meaningful concept of human race, especially when we know various human populations show distinctive genetic variation by virtue of their relative isolation.

  3. I just saw this exhibit for the first time last week. Overall, I’d rate a bit higher, perhaps an A-/B+ (grade scale normalized to the mean of other exhibits I’ve seen at major museums). I agree with you that the omission of evolutionary processes other than natural selection, (particularly sexual selection), was an oversight. The centerpiece of the exhibit was the reconstructed heads of the fossil hominins. These are compelling, but I would like to have seen some explanation of what aspects of these were based on evidence vs. guesswork (i.e., eyes with white sclera that give them a distinctive human look, and the fleshy parts of the nose). Also, I wondered about the use of the word “human” to include all of these fossil hominins, including the species of Australopithecus and Paranthropus. This latter genus was recognized very recently, they used to be the “robust” australopithecines. Showing these two groups as separate branches on the family tree, neither being ancestral to Homo, deviates from most informed accounts I’ve been able to find online. The term “human” may not have a formal definition, but I guess my default assumption would have been that it either applies only to Homo sapiens, or perhaps, to be more inclusive, all members of genus Homo. If we were to discover an extant population of Paranthropus boisei next week (bigfoot, yeti?) I am not sure many people would call it a human.

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