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On the front lines of the evolution fight

Educated as a geologist in her native Hungary, Eniko Farkas knows, understands and firmly believes in the science behind evolution.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Educated as a geologist in her native Hungary, Eniko Farkas knows, understands and firmly believes in the science behind evolution.

Still, she was caught off guard last year when a visitor to the Museum of the Earth where she volunteers angrily confronted her, denouncing evolution and insisting the museum teach creationism instead.

"I had a difficult time getting out of the situation," said Farkas, a retired Cornell University librarian and volunteer at the museum for the past seven years. "It got personal and very negative, and I got so flustered and frustrated that I know I didn't make much sense trying to explain myself."

With challenges to the theory of evolution becoming more widespread — and sometimes hostile — museum director Warren Allmon developed a special workshop and a 13-page guide book to help volunteers and staff answer questions about evolution, creationism and intelligent design.

"This is not a defensive reaction, or an attempt to change anyone's mind," said Allmon. "It's just that we find most people are uninformed about evolution, or have been given misinformation."

Since running the first workshop in July, Allmon said the museum has received more than 70 calls from other small museums and organizations around the country. Nearly 100 people attended the first two workshops, including members of the public.

The guide provides information on the scientific method (using observations about the natural world and the rules of logic to test hypotheses), the theory of evolution, creationism and intelligent design.

It also offers a script for how to answer frequently raised challenges, such as, "Is it true that there is lots of evidence against evolution?" Answer: "No. Essentially all available data and observations from the natural world support the hypothesis of evolution. No serious biologist or geologist today doubts whether evolution occurred."

The Wildlife Conservation Society wants to adapt the guide to better suit the needs of zoo docents, said Karen Tingley, curator of education at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. She attended a session Dec. 15.

"Zoos and aquariums have the unique opportunity to educate people about the science behind the theory of evolution and how that theory plays out right before their eyes in the variety of species in our parks," Tingley said.

Evolutionary theory holds that all organisms are connected by genealogy and have changed through time driven by several processes, including natural selection.

Creationists believe the Earth and all life were created by God. Intelligent design advocates argue that that life is so well-ordered and "irreducibly complex" that it must have been created by a higher power — an argument evolution supporters say is merely repackaged creationism.

The issue erupted in the courts last week when a judge rejected a Pennsylvania school board's plan to teach intelligent design in high school biology classes. In a sharp rebuke of the school board, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones ruled that intelligent design is not science but religion in disguise.

As the rift has deepened, efforts to train museum staff on evolution and related topics have increased, said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, a group that defends teaching evolution in public schools.

Judy Diamond, curator of public programs at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, used a National Science Foundation grant to develop an evolution exhibition for display at six museums in the Midwest. The program includes training for docents and staff.

"We not only go over the kinds of questions, concerns and issues that they might face, but also some insights into how people think about these issues," Diamond said.

In Kansas — where the debate is loudest — museum officials said growing opposition to Charles Darwin's theory has required more staff training. At the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, museum workers find brochures in restrooms at least once a month promoting creationism over evolution.

John Calvert, a managing director of the Intelligent Design Network, said any improved dialogue is welcome because "the problem with museum exhibits is what they don't say ... only one side of the science is presented. No other possibilities are allowed to compete."

The nation's leading natural history museums, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and The Field Museum in Chicago, have not found it necessary to offer special training to staff and volunteers yet, officials said.

"People are entitled to think what they want to think. We tell our explainers they are not there to debate visitors," said Stephen Reichl, a spokesman for the American Natural History Museum in New York City, which is currently running a major exhibit on Darwin through May 2006.

At the Ithaca museum, volunteers take a six-week paleontology course before working the museum floor. The guide instructs volunteers that when they encounter evolution critics, they should emphasize that science museums live by the rules of science.

When talking to visitors about evolution, the guide book advises, "don't avoid using the word," and rehearse answers because "you'll be more comfortable when you sound like you know what you're talking about."

If challenged, Allmon instructs guides to listen respectfully, be firm and clear in their answers but don't get defensive.

If all else fails and a confrontation erupts, the book gives docents several ways to end the conversation, including telling the visitor: "This is a place to talk about science, not philosophy, religion or politics."

As a final note, the book tells guides that they cannot "win" against a convinced creationist.

"The most you can hope for is a respectful exchange of views," it says.