An open letter to the American Museum of Natural History September 30, 2010Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion, Science.
I recently had the opportunity to revisit the wonderful AMNH. Besides returning to many of my favorite exhibits, I enjoyed touring the Hall of Human Origins for the first time, which impressively utilizes the fossil record and DNA evidence to illustrate the gradual evolution of our species (alongside other hominids) over millions of years. I was unpleasantly surprised, however, by a video display in the last part of the exhibit, featuring various scientists speaking under the heading “What Makes Us Human — The Science of Evolution.”
One of the scientists on display (I have forgotten his name) asserts that “science cannot tell us what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is the meaning or purpose of existence. That’s what philosophy is for; that’s what religion is for; that’s what moral and ethical frameworks are for.” I found this statement to be incoherent and misleading (at best). First of all, note that nearby displays in the exhibit deal with the evolution of human art, tools, music and language — and their analogs in other species — and we can likewise recognize precursors of what we would call moral behavior, like cooperation and compassion, in other social animals. Science certainly does have much to say on the subject of morality — for instance, the theory of evolution itself has had profound implications for how we treat nonhuman animals (our cousins in the tree of life) and humans of different races. In general, science can potentially tell us whether and how much a given creature might suffer in a given situation — surely the primary concern of morality. As for meaning and purpose, the theory of evolution reinforces the understanding that there is no “cosmic purpose” behind our existence; that the universe doesn’t care about us and wasn’t created with humans in mind. The meaning to be found in our lives is the meaning we provide ourselves, having recognized our part in the unique and fragile tapestry of life — as revealed by science. In any case, there is no reason to think that religion has privileged access to some transcendent source of morality and meaning, and there is no justification for uncritically accepting its extravagant claims “on faith.”
I was further disappointed to see a video of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. To realize how nonsensical and unscientific this statement is, replace the word “God” with the name of a specific deity — Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc. After all, it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on. A Muslim or Hindu scientist would hold different (often contradictory) beliefs. And yet none of these religious dogmas are supported by any good evidence, as is true for the belief that a personal God exists at all — indeed, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject the belief in such a God (according to a 1998 survey).
It seems as if the curators were worried that people would emerge from the exhibit thinking, “Well, if we evolved naturally from nonhuman animals, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to behave morally.” This is nonsense, but instead of highlighting how a scientific understanding of the world (and the theory of evolution in particular) can and should strengthen our appreciation of life’s value and our commitment to treating each other ethically, the exhibit chooses to reinforce the tiresome tripe about how science can’t address the big questions of life (while presumably religion can), and how we need to rely on a supernatural deity to give our lives meaning and tell us how we ought to behave.
Even if this particular part of the exhibit was intended to present merely personal opinions of individual scientists, it is not marked as such, and no alternative opinions are presented (though I’m sure there are many scientists who would support the position I have outlined). In any case, why is a museum of natural history invoking the supernatural at all? Religious faith represents the antithesis of scientific thinking, and the mindset portrayed in the aforementioned videos is at odds with the spirit of rigorous rational inquiry and critical thinking which is the foundation of institutions like the AMNH. There is no reason why children who come to the museum to learn about the theory of evolution should hear scientists proclaiming their belief in God. I hope the AMNH will reassess this video display, and either revise or remove it.