(CNSNews.com) Washington – A new exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History unveiled on Wednesday chronicles what Smithsonian officials said are the origins of man 6 million years ago in Africa, the evolution of several now-extinct human ancestors and the effects of climate on human survival and evolution.
The stages of human development also are highlighted, but visitors will not find any references to God, creationism, or pre-natal existence. The exhibit’s Web site says fossils “provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.”
The “What Does it Mean to Be Human?” exhibit was mostly funded by a $15 million gift to the museum by David H. Koch, a billionaire and one-time vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian party. Located in a hall named after Koch, it includes almost 300 objects, including 75 skulls, a “time tunnel,” and realistic busts of seven ancestors of Homo sapiens by artist John Gurche.
In remarks at a press preview on Wednesday, Richard Potts, curator and director of Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, said the Smithsonian Institution has a “deep commitment to the study of evolution” and that the new permanent exhibit will answer “profound questions” about human origins.
When asked by CNSNews.com why the exhibit does not include any reference to God or address the debate – even in scientific circles – about Darwinian evolution, Potts replied that the Natural History Museum “is a science museum, and all the objects that a museum can possibly display about the origins of humans have been uncovered in the context of doing the science of evolution.”
Nothing in the exhibit has “come about as the result of reflection and commitment to a particular religious belief,” he added. “The Smithsonian cannot really be involved in picking which aspect of which religion to represent to the American public or the international public.”
Potts said that he and others involved in the exhibit have worked to create a “welcoming place.”
“We’ve titled this all ‘What Does It Mean to Be Human’ out of respect for the fact the people bring a whole variety of perspectives on that subject – about the meaning of humanness,” Potts told CNSNews.com. “And what we want is to make sure that there is a respectful and welcoming place in the Smithsonian for people to come, including people who may be averse to the topic of evolution, and let them see what science has uncovered.”
Potts said the project includes a “broader social impacts committee,” which is not part of the exhibit but is named on the Web site that was launched in conjunction with the exhibit. “They are all very excited about providing the American public, including their own religious communities, with an opportunity to see what the science says,” Potts said.
Potts wrote about the committee’s work on the Web site: “The strongest conflicts develop when either science or religion asserts a standard of truth to which the other must adhere or otherwise be dismissed. An alternative approach sees interaction or engagement as positive.
“Engagement takes many forms, including personal efforts by individuals to integrate scientific and religious understandings, statements by religious organizations that affirm and even celebrate the scientific findings, and constructive interactions between theologians and scientists seeking common ground, respect, and shared insight into how the science of human evolution contributes to an awareness of what it means to be human,” Potts wrote.
Religion also is addressed in the Frequently Asked Questions portion of the Website, which makes a distinction between religious “stories” and scientific fact.
“Societies worldwide express their beliefs through a wide diversity of stories about how humans came into being. These stories reflect the universal curiosity people have about our origins. For millennia, they have played a vital role in helping people develop an identity and an understanding of themselves as well as of their community. This exhibit presents research and findings based on scientific methods that are distinct from these stories.”
CNSNews.com asked Potts why an exhibit on human origins does not include any references to human beings as they develop from conception to birth in the womb, given the exhibit’s emphasis on human development after birth as part of man’s evolution, including child rearing, the forming of social groups and physiological changes, such as increasing brain size over thousands of years.
“Well this is not exactly a hall of human biology – a hall of human biology or physiology would certainly talk about the reproductive cycle that exists in human beings today,” Potts said. “Instead, what we wanted to do as we pick and choose among the things that we need to present in a hall about human origins -- I believe the artifacts and the fossils, the stone tools and the art objects that illuminate where we have come from and the process of becoming human as opposed to the process of an individual becoming human in utero.”
A film shown continuously to introduce the exhibit states that the first Homo sapiens came into being in Africa some 200,000 years ago during “challenging” times that included extreme weather.
The script of the film also says that at one point, humans faced extinction and numbered only 10,000.
The differences between people around the globe are “only skin deep,” the film says – the result of evolving differences “as we adapted to different environments.”
“You are part of this 6-million-year epic story of adaptation and survival,” the film tells visitors. “With the billions of other humans living today, you can say: ‘We are all one species.’”
The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours beginning on March 19.
In conjunction with the exhibit, a panel discussion entitled "Religious Perspectives on the Science of Human Origins" will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday, March 21, in the museum's Baird Auditorium.