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Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins chronicles human evolution

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Richard Potts
Director, Human Origins Program
Friday, March 19, 2010; 11:00 AM

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has opened a new 15,000-square-foot exhibition hall in honor of its 100th anniversary. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins chronicles human evolution over the past 6 million years.

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Richard Potts, a paleoanthropologist and curator of anthropology at the museum was online Friday, March 19 at 11 a.m. ET to take questions and comments about the exhibit.

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Richard Potts: Hi everyone, I'm Dr. Rick Potts, the curator of the new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. I'm happy to be online and will try to answer as many questions as I can over the next hour.

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Alexandria, Va.: As a lifelong Washingtonian, I've been anticipating the opening of this new hall for a very long time. It didn't disappoint! I enjoyed seeing the new exhibit, and my only disappointment was with the ratio of artifacts to models and casts. It seemed that actual artifacts were few and far between. I didn't see this addressed in the exhibit text anywhere, could you tell us a little about why you chose to use so many casts and models?

Richard Potts: In putting the exhibition together, we were able to include representations of fossils and archeological remains from 48 countries. This included fragile and invaluable objects that must be maintained and protected in the countries where they were found. We think that this exhibition contains a unique combination of many originals and also exact casts, or replicas, that help us inform the public about human evolution.

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Upper Marlboro, Md: I heard that the new exhibit is now incorporating the theory of Intelligent Design, which the majority of the scientific community thinks goes against standard scientific method. If this is true, what has led the Smithsonian to start taking social conventions or political pressures into consideration when it comes to the exhibits?

Richard Potts: No, we have not incorporated any aspect of Intelligent Design in the exhibition.

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Richard Potts: Just to give you all some more information, we've had more than 60 educational and research institutions involved in helping us develop the exhibition. Our goals is to offer unprecedented access for the public to the world's discoveries and scientific evidence about human origins. We invite everyone to come to the exhibition, and our website, HumanOrigins.si.edu, allows everyone to see more.

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Detroit, Mich.: This is sort of a side question on human evolution. There has recently been press about a study showing the origins of dogs being the Middle East. Were humans fully developed at this time?

Richard Potts: Yes - the domestication of all animals and plants has occurred while our own species has been around. Humans today were responsible for the domestication of the dog.

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Washington, D.C.: I saw the exhibit Wednesday - looks great! I'm sure you'll get a lot of questions about creationism, and I know the exhibit volunteers are prepped to answer questions about it. I'm just curious - do you have any idea what percentage of the U.S. public, or of your visitors, believes we aren't descended from apes? I'm just curious if it's a relatively common belief, and, say, 1 in 10 of your visitors is going to think you're blaspheming, or if it's actually quite a rare belief that gets blown out of proportion. Any sense of the answer? Polling data?

Richard Potts: More than one question has asked about the relationship between science and religion, especially as it pertains to human evolution. We invite the public to our event this Sunday, in Baird Auditorium, at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, which will explore this topic further.

One thing to note here is that surveys or public polls alwayas seem to present the acceptance of evolution and religious belief as two alternative answers, which means there can only be a conflict that's perceived in the survey data. Our experience is that people seek a much more nuanced view, which allows them to get excited about new scientific discoveries about human evolution, while fully maintaining the integrity of their religious beliefs. Again, this topic will be explored in our Sunday public event which is from 5pm - 7pm, right here in our museum.

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Chestertown, Md.: Hello Dr. Potts, congratulations to the Smithsonian on a great exhibit! I love the photos and can't wait to get over to D.C. to see it.

I'm hopeful that this will silence some of the (non) debate on the "validity" of ID and help educate people on the much more interesting story that real science tells!

Richard Potts: Thanks a lot for your comment - can't wait for you (and everyone) to see it!

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Chicago, Ill.: Crystal ball question -- looking ahead, what aspect of the story of human evolution do you think is most likely to change? What aspects do you think are most established? I'm wondering whether there are areas that are particularly vague or subject to major revision if/when new fossils and other evidence are discovered. Thanks.

Richard Potts: The discovery of early human fossils dated between 4 and 6 million years ago has only just begun, especially over the past 10 years. We expect this to be a real area of growth in the science. Expect to see some good debates! Also, scientists are beginning to extract DNA from Neanderthal bones, and once the genome of the Neanderthal species is sequenced, there will be a lot of interesting discussion about the ways in which Neanderthals and our own species differed genetically. These are just two of the ways in which the science of human origins is really growing.

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Washington, D.C.: I was fascinated by the lifelike reproductions, but don't really understand how we know enough about the ratio of muscle and other tissue to be able to reconstruct a face. Can you explain?

Richard Potts: It's like real CSI, as opposed to TV CSI. The reconstruction process is based on detailed knowledge of anatomy of humans and other primates, including measurement of muscle thickness, thickness of the fat pads in the face, and even of the salivary glands, all of which help fill out the face and reconstruct it accurately. The species reconstructions in the exhibition are the most life-like ones ever seen.

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Richard Potts: We'd like to remind everyone that this past Wednesday our museum turned 100 years old - that's when it's doors were first opened to the public. 100 years ago there were only a few dozen fossils of early humans known, mostly the remains of the Neanderthals. Now there are more than 6000 individuals, ranging from individual teeth to nearly complete skeletons, plus hundreds of thousands of archeological remains that inform about the emergence of our human qualities. Come to the exhibition to see what all this evidence shows.

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washingtonpost.com: See examples of the reconstructions in our photo gallery.

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Bethesda, Md.: Growing up, my favorite of the Smithsonian museums was Natural History, and I loved the anthropology exhibit (with its famous rows of skulls) in particular. Can you comment on how this new exhibit compares with the old one? I was sad to see the old one go, and am eager to see this new one! Thanks so much for your work on it.

Richard Potts: That old exhibition, for the most part, was about how modern people vary. The new hall displays the scientific discoveries that inform us about the evolutionary heritage of everyone living today. That heritage stretches back to at least 6 million years.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hello,

I cannot wait to see the new exhibit! I was wondering how many video displays there are throughout? I find in exhibits with a ton of videos, it becomes very loud, overwhelming, and hard to read any of the text. Thank you.

Richard Potts: That's a really good comment, and we thought a lot about that with our exhibition designers. We do have about 23 AV/media displays in the hall, and most of those are silent. The ones with sound are spaced out through the hall. One kind of display we are really excited about are what we call high-definition dioramas. You might wonder how a diorama can be hi-def when museum dioramas are usually still-lifes. In our dioramas, by touching the excavated evidence, the visitor activates a conversation with a scientist and ultimately an animated portrayal of 3 days in the lives of 3 different early humans, spread out over about 2 million years. We think this is a new type of museum experience, and we hope you find it exciting.

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Washington, D.C.: At one end of the exhibit there is a case showcasing the skulls of homo sapiens from around the world. There is a huge difference in size, shape, and robustness of those skulls! For us non-scientists, how different does a being have to be in order to be a different species? That'll help answer my next question, which is that if evolution is happening so slowly, over millions of years, how are the lines drawn between species?

Richard Potts: Good questions - the matter of how species are defined is something visitors can explore in two interactive displays where six million years of fossil skulls are shown. The boundaries between species are drawn based on variation between species living today, yet as you can imagine, due to change over time, scientists can debate how much variation there is in one fossil species before new discoveries lead to the defining of new species. Sometimes it can take years of even further discoveries to decide these debates.

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Bowie, Md.: Up until how recently is evolutionary change (in humans) observable as an environmental adaptation, not just things like there are more mixed-race people today due to increased contact?

Richard Potts: Environmental adaptation certainly continues today, when you think of microbes and disease as part of the environment. Our immune systems can evolve, and this has occurred in historic times during periods of epidemics, for example.

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New Market, Va.: Looking forward to seeing the exhibit and visiting the website.

I am glad to hear you didn't bend to any political/religious pressures . . . but were any exerted upon the Smithsonian as you designed the philosophical arc of the exhibit?

Finally, I liked your quote about man being "adapted to change". I've always liked the Lao-Tse -ism that "the only constant is change".

Richard Potts: It's great to remind everyone that the theme of the exhibition is a question: What does it mean to be human? This is a question informed by people's every day life experience, as well as philosophy, religion, the arts, and sciences. We have a group of external advisors who continue to work with us to understand the broader social impacts of the science of human evolution. This group includes people from diverse religious communities throughout the country, and they are interested in the "room" that can exist for accommodating scientific discoveries and religious commitments in what people understand about the world.

Finally, thanks for enjoying the quote, and I like your reference to Lao-Tse also.

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Washington, D.C.: What current research projects does the NMNH have under way that will help continue finding answers about human ancestors and their way of life?

Richard Potts: We always look forward to getting back to our field research in East Africa and Asia. We've got some great new sites to excavate in the Rift Valley of southern Kenya this summer, and even investigating in Tanzania some of the oldest footprints of Homo sapiens. One of our Smithsonian researchers is also returning to Flores, Indonesia to continue digging for evidence of Homo floresiensis, the so-called 'hobbit'. I am really eager to return to some new research in China to continue investigating the dispersal of Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, to that part of the world.

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Washington, D.C.: Much has been made of the "natural state" of the bronze statues placed throughout the exhibit. Have you had any visitor feedback or reactions to those pieces yet?

Richard Potts: People certainly seem to enjoy the bronzes, and do not seem to have issues that they also look like us in certain ways!

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Richard Potts: I sure have appreciated my time with you, please feel free to visit our website (HumanOrigins.si.edu) and we look forward to you visiting the exhibition whenever you can. Thanks very much.

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