Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara
"Science exists whether humans exist or not."
For a long time the cultural war over evolution was relegated to courtrooms and classrooms. But increasingly the battle is being waged on an unexpected front — the natural history museum. Traditional museums continue with their business of explaining evolution, but have become a bit more explicit in their support of the theory than in the past. After putting its Darwin exhibit on the road to Boston, New York’s American Museum of Natural History opened a new Hall of Human Origins in April. The Texas Memorial Museum will soon be the latest home of the traveling “Explore Evolution” exhibit. And in Chicago, the Field Museum’s “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” runs through September, “Darwin” until January. Meanwhile, this year also saw the opening of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Among other claims, the museum proffers that the Earth is just 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs walked with humans.
One who might disagree is Kenneth J. Lacovara, an associate professor in Drexel University’s Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology. His work in remote locations around the globe has resulted in noteworthy paleontological discoveries. He co-led expeditions in the Sahara Desert that uncovered and named a new dinosaur species, Paralittian stromeri — the second largest land animal known. He was part of a team that discovered the remains of 115 million-year-old birds in western China. He has excavated a 65 million-year-old crocodile fossil from marine deposits in Southern New Jersey, close to where scientists found North America’s first complete dinosaur skeleton in the mid 1800s. His current work is in southern Patagonia, where his team is uncovering large sauropod dinosaurs. Lacovara’s reconstruction of Mesozoic Era environments — including sea level, temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide — are particularly valuable in anticipating the effects of global warming. Lacovara is also an elected fellow of the Explorers Club.
The Smart Set spoke with Lacovara about the new museum, science education, and creationists’ claims that scientists like him lack a moral code.
The Smart Set: I’m sure you have some pretty strong thoughts on the Creation Museum.
I think it’s a travesty. Scientifically it’s the same as having an anti-gravity museum or a flat Earth museum. Evolution is the fundamental tenet of natural sciences, and in their case it’s not just evolution but also the antiquity of the Earth. If you don’t believe that the Earth is old and if you don’t believe that organisms change through time then you essentially don’t believe in the disciplines of geology, biology, medicine, or astronomy. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that they’re taking a medieval view on some of the most important topics in science.
There’s a display at the museum with two wax paleontologists, one who uses the Bible as a jumping off point, and the other, a “secular scientist,” who doesn’t. Different people, different worldviews. Is their approach just a different way of interpreting the same information?
The Bible is not a scientific method. I view it as a work of philosophy, and certainly that’s the realm in which it’s appropriate. There is only one way that humanity has developed that allows us to understand and interpret the natural world, and that is the scientific method. Opinion doesn’t really come into play. People don’t get to have an opinion on Newton’s gravitational equation. It simply is what it is. It was out there long before we were around and Newton came by one day and discovered it. Science exists whether humans exist or not.
It’s got to make you, and other scientists as well, bristle at creationists’ idea that evolutionists are approaching the evidence with the idea that there isn’t a creator, that there is no God.
I personally know many devoutly religious paleontologists. It’s wrong to characterize the study of evolution and natural selection and the acceptance of deep time as anathema to religious beliefs. It’s not. Some scientists do not find the two paradigms compatible and others do. One of the problems is that the general thinking in this country has fallen prey to sort of a he said/she said mentality. When you see reports on scientific topics in the media they almost always include sort of a contrarian view. It’s not really appropriate to give maybe half of the story to the dissenting point of view when it may represent 0.1 percent of scientists. That’s the case with evolution, and you see that over and over in media reports.
You really can’t find a serious scientist who debates the fact that organisms change through time and that the Earth is old. There isn’t a single example of a peer-reviewed article in a journal that disputes the fact that evolution occurs. These creationist-type museums and institutes, they’ll trot out a few names with PhDs behind them. If you look closely, most of those Ph.D.s are not geologists or paleontologists or biologists. Usually they’re a civil engineer or somebody like that, but if you look their academic record they don’t publish any papers in peer-reviewed journals on this topic. They might publish in their specialty and then they have opinions about evolution, but these opinions have never been through the scientific process.
Do you think that’s more because of journalistic conventions, or is it a response to a larger culture war, where opinions on issues like global warming and evolution often fall along political and religious lines?
It seems to be a convention in journalism, but good science reporters don’t do this. If you’re ignorant about the topic then I guess the easiest way to report the story is, ‘I’ll take a little bit of this, I’ll take a little bit of this. I don’t know what the truth is but I’m just going to throw it out there."
It’s important for scientists, particularly science professors, to really try as best we can to instill scientific education into the non-majors. I teach a big introductory course on dinosaurs. Most of the students in there are not going to be scientists, but this is one of the few chances that they’ll have in their academic careers to encounter a scientist. I try to teach them about parsimony and falsifiability, so that when they’re out there in the world they have a little bit of armor, so they can defend themselves against these spurious ideas.
Do you ever feel that in teaching evolution and these areas there needs to be a defense of them at the same time?
No, I don’t think we’re in a position to be defensive about evolution. But I think that students need to have their minds inoculated with the scientific method and with the history of science so that they’re not susceptible to the sort the infections that are almost like thought viruses.
Is this something that ever comes up in class?
If I have a class of 100 students, I will generally have one or two that will sit in the back with their arms crossed the entire term and look disconcerted by the whole topic. I have had cases in my teaching history where those people have completely changed their mind. In other cases they are not going to believe anything they hear, and they entered that way and they leave that way. That’s unfortunate because, as I said, many people do not find religious beliefs and the acceptance of scientific fact incompatible. It doesn’t have to be that way for them, but some people choose that route, I suppose.
Do you see it becoming a bigger issue with things like the Creation Museum and the 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, court case over evolution in schools? There was the presidential debate where three of the candidates said they didn’t believe in evolution.
There have been ebbs and floods of these kinds of thoughts, and we appear to be at a more contentious point currently. It’s greatly disconcerting. Here we have three men that are putting themselves in front of the country telling us that they’re qualified to be the president of the United States and the leader of the free world, and they neither understand nor accept the fundamental tenets of a large portion of science. These people are going to make decisions about genetic research and stem cell funding, and it’s ludicrous. And as I’ve said, scientifically it’s no different than saying you don’t believe in gravity or you don’t believe in cell theory or the heliocentric model of the solar system or something like that. It’s a very fundamental idea.
One of the interesting things about the opening of the museum was that the majority of protesters were there under the banner of atheism. Is that what people like the presidential candidates are responding to, the idea of religion versus non-religion?
I think many people feel threatened by the idea of evolution. The literal account of creation in the book of Genesis does not fit the evidence that we’ve seen in the natural world. Some people get around that by looking at Genesis metaphorically, and you can stretch it and then you can sort of make it fit. But if you want to say the Bible is inerrant and 100 percent literal, it certainly doesn’t fit. But I also think that for some people it undermines their ego. If you understand that the universe is approximately 13 billion years old and the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and if you understand what the tree of life looks like on our planet and that Homo sapiens occupy the tiniest little twig you can imagine out on an insignificant little branch, then our little twig has only existed for 150,000 years out of 4.6 billion years. It’s pretty hard then to think of yourself as really what it’s all about. Humans, our species, have been here for a very short amount of time and are not particularly special biologically. That can be tough on the ego for some.
That was one of the big components of the museum, the idea that without a literal interpretation of Genesis, there’s no Christianity, and without Christianity, there’s no meaning to life, no moral code.
I think that you can look in news accounts and you can look in historical accounts, and I think you can make a case that morality is not linked to religiosity. I think that if you sort of have the freedom to actually look at the scientific evidence and the freedom to really understand humanity’s place in this world, then I think it gives you, or gives me, more degrees of freedom to make my own way in the world. If I don’t know how my life is going to end up, then it’s kind of all up to me to make it a good life. I think it maybe takes an element of adult responsibility to look at some stark facts and make your way through them. I always say to my students I’d rather know an ugly truth than a beautiful lie.
- Interview by Jesse Smith • 6 August 2007