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Creationist Students Take Trip to Evolution Headquarters: The Smithsonian
At the Smithsonian, officials said they were unaware of any organized visits by avowed creationists but said they are welcome. Still, all visitors should come knowing that the museum -- like all mainstream natural history institutions -- is fundamentally Darwinian, said spokesman Randall Kremer.
"Evolution is the unifying principle for all the biology, past and present, in our halls," Kremer said. "That is the foundation of the research we conduct at the museum."
Actually, the field trippers from Liberty University didn't find much to object to at their first stop, the museum's soaring hall of fossils. DeWitt's main complaint was that the 1980s-era introductory film on the beginning of life was woefully outdated (lots of dancing amoebas, no mention of DNA).
"It's embarrassing," said DeWitt, who found himself filling in some of the latest evolutionary thinking for his students. His PhD in neuroscience is from Case Western Reserve University. "As an educator, I want them to see the most up-to-date material."
Otherwise, the 20 students listened attentively as co-leader Marcus Ross, an enthusiastic paleontologist who teaches at Liberty, expertly explained about the world-class fossil collection and told ripping tales of the towering tyrannosaurus rex that was casting skeletal shadows over the group.
"I love it here," said Ross, who has a doctorate in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. "There's something romantic about seeing the real thing."
Modern creationists don't deny the existence of dinosaurs but believe that God made them, and all animals, on the same sixth day that he created man. In fact, Ross's only real beef in the fossil hall is with the 30-foot lighted column that is a timeline marking 630 million years of geology. As a young-Earth creationist, he asserts that the vast majority of the rocks and fossils were formed during Noah's flood about 4,000 years ago. Most paleontologists date the T-Rex to 65 million years ago.
The group moved on, talking quietly among themselves. At a diorama of a hominid burial site, a Liberty student described how the famous Neanderthal brow ridge is really not that distinct from many found on modern human skulls.
"The really big difference is between human and ape skulls," said David Asfour, 28, a general biology major.
At one point, DeWitt called them together under a Nigerian proverb stenciled on a wall. "The Earth goddess fashions the human body just as the potter fashions her pot," DeWitt read. "So there is some religion here."
But in the hall of mammals, which reopened in 2003 after a $23 million renovation, evolution assumes center stage, and the Liberty students grew a bit more subdued. They openly admired the well-lighted, meticulously designed dioramas. But they lamented that the texts and videos give no credit at all to a higher power for the wondrous animal variety on display.
Near the end of the "Evolution Trail," the class showed no signs of being swayed by the polished, enthusiastic presentation of Darwin's theory. They were surprised, though, by the bronze statue of man's earliest mammalian ancestor.
"A rat?" exclaimed Amanda Runions, a 21-year-old biochemistry major, when she saw the model of a morganucodon, a rodent-like ancient mammal that curators have dubbed Grandma Morgie. "All this hype for a rat? You're expecting, like, at least an ape."
Before heading back to Lynchburg each year, DeWitt makes a point of stopping by the Jefferson Memorial. The quotes on the wall there (his favorite: "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?") make for a better ending to the trip than the secular shades of the museum, he said.