Friday, April 2, 2010

politicizing the past

I saw this movie on Matthew Yglesias' blog:

Basically, they're arguing that the Smithsonian Institute's new Hall of Human Origins, which is funded by a major conservative and fossil-fuel millionaire named David Koch, is "right-wing propaganda" aimed at confusing visitors about the science of recent climate change.

I have some serious problems with the allegations in this video. Nothing shown in the video seems to me to be particularly "right-wing". The exhibit makes the claim that our genus evolved during a period of rapid climate change, and that our flexible behavior, cultural abilities, and intelligence are responses to rapid environmental shifts. Well...yeah. That seems pretty non-controversial to me. It's a stretch to argue that the underlying message is that we'll be able to evolve to meet any challenges posed by future climate changes, so we don't need to worry about capping emissions.

The video's makers are also upset about an interactive exhibit at the end of the Hall that I'm guessing is aimed at teaching children the concept of adaptation. For example, by suggesting that communication through texting over many generations could lead to longer fingers. Again, it seems a stretch to suggest that the message really is that we can burn all the fossil fuels we want, because no matter how badly we pollute the Earth, we can always evolve to the new ecosystem we've created.

The narrator of the video mentions that the exhibit downplays how stable the environment has been for the last 10kya, since the oxygen isotope curves they are showing suggest that we're still in a period of rapid climate change. Well, when you show a curve that covers the last 10 million years, then the Pleistocene is going to look dramatically different, and the Holocene will barely be a blip at that scale. Again, a bit of a stretch to suggest it's all a nefarious plot.

That said, I'm sure that Koch's foundation would have vetoed any addition to the exhibit that talked about the rapidity of modern climate change vs. Pleistocene climate change, or that mentioned that the rapid adaptation of 7 billion people to a radically new environment would occur through the deaths of many millions (or billions) of people. But, listen folks, it's not an exhibit about modern climate change! Got it?

The deeper problem here, of course, is that studies of human evolution are prone to politicization. It's inevitable that a subject so close to the bone (if you'll forgive the pun) will be loaded down with all kinds of cultural and political baggage. I spend several days in my BioAnth class talking about how our assumptions about basic human nature, gender, race, and age color our interpretations of our hominin ancestors. We can't help but politicize the past, but in this case, I honestly believe the problem is in the video maker's interpretation, not in the original exhibit.

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