|Feature Article - July 2019|
|by Do-While Jones|
Natural history museums are propaganda machines.
This essay is a review of a book review. The review is by Ilja Nieuwland, critiquing a new book by Lukas Rieppel. Our essay tells what we think about what Nieuwland thought about Rieppel’s ideas.
The book is titled, Assembling the Dinosaur. That title might lead you to believe that the book is about how to put dinosaur bones together for a museum exhibit. It isn’t. The book review is more accurately titled, “A new history reveals how the wealthy elite helped shape modern natural history museums in America.” If Nieuwland’s review is accurate, then Rieppel believes that natural history museums are propaganda machines. Nieuwland says,
Rieppel’s focus is on the people who used dinosaur mounts to convert monetary capital into social capital and, in so doing, built the natural history museums that define the museum landscape today. … Rieppel frames America’s big natural history museums as tools for the dissemination of ideas about capitalism and society as much as they are tools for disseminating ideas about natural history. He shows how various financial and administrative mechanisms from capitalist ventures (particularly industry) shaped the operations of natural history museums and led to a strict regulation of both their internal and external relations. … In a sense, this book is a careful deconstruction of Osborn’s efforts to instrumentalize natural history for ideological ends—ideologies that usually served the agenda of the AMNH’s backers [donors to the American Museum of Natural History in New York]. A good example of this would be his advocacy of “aristogenesis,” a concept that holds that evolution proceeds in a pre-determined path that favors the “best” genes—an idea obviously attractive to patricians at the top of New York’s social order. 1
The book allegedly cites specific examples naming specific donors who pressured museum directors, as well as names of specific museum directors who had their own agendas, which affected the presentation of exhibits. The guilt or innocence of particular individuals is irrelevant to this essay. What matters to us is the notion of aristogenesis, and its connection to evolution.
Apparently Osborn believed that evolution justifies class discrimination. That is, rich people are better than poor people because they have better genes, which allowed them to be more successful than poor people. Rich men deserve their wealth because they are genetically superior as a result of being more highly evolved. This goes beyond the usual evolutionary racism which pictures apes evolving into Neanderthals, who evolved into Negroes, who evolved into white men. Rich white men are more highly evolved than poor white men. That’s a concept that I had never heard before. I can see how that might make rich white people want to believe in evolution. The false theory of evolution appears to give them scientific justification for their privileged position and pride.
The fact that museums have been used to advance hidden agendas has long been recognized; but nothing has been done about it.
Unlike the previous generation of collectors, the pressure was on new museum curators to prove themselves as the defenders of “pure” scientific interests. But, as Rieppel emphasizes, they eventually came to serve the same sociocommercial agenda because “pure” science was a highly valued ideological commodity whose aura could be made to fit more openly commercial agendas, too.
Assembling the Dinosaur is a solid entry into the growing body of literature on Gilded Age American paleontology, but it is particularly valuable for its contribution to enhancing our understanding of how science and its representation during that period were influenced by, and in turn affected, society as a whole. By incorporating cultural, economic, and scientific developments, Rieppel shines new light on the history of both American paleontology and museum exhibition practice. 2
The “Gilded Age” of American paleontology began shortly after William Parker Foulke discovered the first known American dinosaur in 1858. Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859. It was a coincidence, to be sure; but coincidences sometimes have consequences.
I like to visit railroad museums. Some railroad museums are better than others—and it isn’t because of the number or condition of the locomotives on display. The difference between a good museum and a bad museum is the story attached to each display. A good railroad museum doesn’t just tell the type of locomotive and when it was built. It tells why that locomotive was important to history. Did it open up a region for economic development, or did it play a pivotal role in a war? Every train has an interesting story that goes along with it—but bad railroad museums are boring because they don’t tell the story.
The same is true of art museums. There is a story behind every painting and sculpture. Good art museums tell you the stories about the artist and what the artist was trying to convey through the artwork. Bad art museums are nothing more than buildings with pictures on their walls.
Every good museum tells a story, and it should be obvious what that story is.
A natural history museum which is nothing more than displays of bones and minerals would be boring. It would be “pure” science. It would be great for research—but it would not be very entertaining, and few people would go. Like every other kind of museum, a natural history museum has to tell a story. It should tell a story. There is nothing wrong with telling a story.
What is wrong, is telling a story without admitting it is just a story. Natural history museums generally present their story as an unquestionable, unbiased, scientific fact. They do not admit they are using their displays to tell a story based on political or religious bias.
Last summer, I visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where many visitors are unaware that they are being told stories. There is danger there.
No, the danger isn’t that they will be eaten by a T. rex. The danger is that they will be told, unequivocally, that speculation is fact.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is full of statements which have no valid scientific basis—but are treated as scientific facts.
For example, visitors are assured that dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago, and birds descended from dinosaurs.
Visitors are told that “The fossil record shows whales evolved from land-dwelling hoofed animals related to ancestors of hippos and pigs,” despite the fact that there is no evidence that it is true.
They state flatly, in all capital letters, that “WHALES AND DOLPHINS EVOLVED FROM MAMMALS THAT WALKED ON LAND.”
These are just stories. They are part of the atheists’ creation myth.
Answers in Genesis [AIG] runs a creation museum and Noah’s Ark exhibit in Kentucky. AIG makes it perfectly clear that these attractions are designed to present, as clearly as possible, why they believe the biblical creation story. There is no deception. They are presenting the evidence as they see it, and hope to convince you they are right.
There is nothing wrong with a natural history museum presenting secular humanist agenda—if they make it clear that they are trying to make rocks and fossils fit with their atheistic beliefs, and they hope to convince you they are right.
It is wrong to present religious beliefs, such as their belief that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and whales evolved from land mammals, as if they are unquestionable scientific facts.
The next time you go to a natural history museum, ask yourself (or better yet, a museum employee) “Where’s the proof?”
What is the proof that dinosaurs “died out some 65 million years ago.” They just state it as fact. Why? Probably because if they tried to create an exhibit showing why they believe dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, it would become obvious that their reasoning is based on many unverifiable assumptions, some of which contradict scientific laws and common sense.
Yes, they show skeletons of various slightly different species, but there is no proof that one species descended from another. Where is the proof that the skeleton of a mammal that walked on land was the ancestor of a whale or dolphin? They don’t show any proof because there isn’t any. Someone might legitimately ask, “Why do you think this skeleton of a wolf-like land mammal (Pakicetus) found in Pakistan is an ancestor of a serpentine sea mammal (Basilosaurus) that died off the coast of Louisiana?” The skeletons are a few feet apart in the display cases; but they weren’t found close together. 3
Watch out for natural history museum displays that are nothing more than propaganda supporting political or religious beliefs.
Just to be clear: We don’t object to AIG’s Creation Museum using rocks and fossils as proof that the creation story in Genesis is correct; nor do we have a problem with various natural history museums using rocks and fossils as proof that the creation story told by atheists/secular humanists is correct. We object to natural history museums falsely making it appear that their story is scientific.
Natural history museums should say, “This is how some people think life evolved on Earth.” There is nothing wrong with that. Visitors should question stories told by AIG Creation Museum, and stories told by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Are the stories consistent with common sense and scientific facts?
The AIG Creation Museum’s story is that the Bible claims that certain things happened supernaturally, and they claim certain physical evidence to be consistent with that story. Most natural history museums claim certain things happened naturally, and they claim certain physical evidence to be consistent with that story.
The difference is that the AIG story depends upon a supernatural process, but the natural history museums’ story depends upon natural processes.
Science deals with natural laws, not supernatural processes. Science can’t prove whether or not a supernatural event happened because “supernatural” means “beyond natural causes.”
Since the natural history museums claim their story is based on natural processes, their story ought to be consistent with known scientific laws—but their story isn’t. Their story conflicts with the scientific fact that life only comes from life. Their story depends upon the notion that living things do not reproduce “after their kind,” despite the fact that nobody has ever seen a dinosaur give birth to a bird. Science contradicts their story.
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Ilja Nieuwland, Science, 21 June, 2019, , page 1143, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aax5532
3 Please see Disclosure, August 1999, “In a Whale of Trouble”