By William Kates
Monday, December 26, 2005
ITHACA, N.Y. -- As challenges to the theory of evolution have become more widespread -- and sometimes hostile -- some natural history museums are preparing their docents to answer questions about evolution, creationism and "intelligent design."
Warren D. Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, developed a special workshop and a 13-page guidebook to help volunteers and staff members converse with visitors about the topics.
"This is not a defensive reaction or an attempt to change anyone's mind," Allmon said. "It's just that we find most people are uninformed about evolution or have been given misinformation."
Since running the first workshop in July, Allmon said the museum has received more than 70 calls from other small museums and organizations around the country. Nearly 100 people attended the first two workshops, including members of the public.
The guide provides information on the scientific method (using observations about the natural world and the rules of logic to test hypotheses), the theory of evolution, creationism and intelligent design.
It also offers a script for how to answer frequently raised challenges, such as, "Is it true that there is lots of evidence against evolution?" Answer: "No. Essentially all available data and observations from the natural world support the hypothesis of evolution. No serious biologist or geologist today doubts whether evolution occurred."
The Wildlife Conservation Society wants to adapt the guide to better suit the needs of zoo docents, said Karen Tingley, curator of education at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. She attended a session Dec. 15.
"Zoos and aquariums have the unique opportunity to educate people about the science behind the theory of evolution and how that theory plays out right before their eyes in the variety of species in our parks," Tingley said.
Evolutionary theory holds that all organisms are connected by genealogy and have changed through time driven by several processes, including natural selection.
Creationists believe Earth and all life were created by God. Intelligent design advocates say that life is so well ordered and "irreducibly complex" that it must have been created by a higher power -- an argument evolution supporters say is merely repackaged creationism.
The issue emerged from the courts recently when a judge rejected a Pennsylvania school board's plan to teach intelligent design in high school biology classes. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design is not science but religion in disguise.
As the rift has deepened, efforts to train museum staffs on evolution and related topics have increased, said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, a group that defends teaching evolution in public schools.
Judy Diamond, curator of public programs at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, used a National Science Foundation grant to develop an evolution exhibition for display at six museums in the Midwest. The program includes training for docents and staff.
"We not only go over the kinds of questions, concerns and issues that they might face, but also some insights into how people think about these issues," Diamond said.
In Kansas -- where the debate is loudest -- museum officials said growing opposition to Charles Darwin's theory has required more staff training. At the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, museum workers find brochures left behind at least once a month promoting creationism over evolution.
John H. Calvert, a managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, said any improved dialogue is welcome because "the problem with museum exhibits is what they don't say . . . only one side of the science is presented. No other possibilities are allowed to compete."
The nation's leading natural history museums, including the Smithsonian Institution and Chicago's Field Museum, have not found it necessary to offer special training to staff and volunteers, officials said.
"People are entitled to think what they want to think. We tell our explainers they are not there to debate visitors," said Steve Reichl, a spokesman for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which has a major exhibit on Darwin that runs through May.
At the Ithaca museum, volunteers take a six-week paleontology course before working on the museum floor. The guide instructs volunteers that when they encounter evolution critics, they should emphasize that science museums live by the rules of science.
If challenged, Allmon instructs guides to listen respectfully, be firm and clear in their answers, and not to become defensive.
If a confrontation erupts, the guidebook gives docents several ways to end the conversation, including telling the visitor: "This is a place to talk about science, not philosophy, religion or politics."