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Kansas museum opens evolution exhibit

Upstairs from the Natural Selections gift shop is what directors of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas believe will be the latest word in an ongoing ruckus over evolution.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Upstairs from the Natural Selections gift shop is what directors of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas believe will be the latest word in an ongoing ruckus over evolution.

The "Explore Evolution" exhibit is part of a six-university program to educate the public about evolution and its role in explaining the natural world.  The exhibit opens to the public Nov. 1, with the money coming from a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant.

Although planning for the project has taken four years, it is debuting as evolution's place in science classrooms is being debated in Kansas, a federal trial in Pennsylvania and even at the White House.

Leonard Krishtalka, director of the university's biodiversity institute, described evolution Tuesday as the "single-most unifying concept" in evolutionary biology.  The exhibit demonstrates that evolutionary concepts are woven into numerous scientific disciplines.

"It's not a textbook on evolution," Krishtalka said, during a museum preview for reporters.  "This exhibit isn't designed to convert anyone."

The exhibit fills a display gallery in Dyche Hall on the Lawrence campus.  Hanging across the entry for the exhibit is a giant mosasaur, a lizard that lived in the inland sea that covered Kansas 65 million to 90 million years ago.

Seven stations describe scientists' research around the globe and the importance of evolution in understanding the mutation of diseases, such as HIV, and the relationship between humans and chimpanzees.

Exhibits also are planned for or have opened at the universities of Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as Minnesota Science Museum in Minneapolis.

Krishtalka said all visitors are welcome, though he expects that some, including advocates of intelligent design, will come looking to debate evolution.  Intelligent design — a concept Krishtalka calls "creationism in a cheap tuxedo" — says some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause.

"If there are any debates, I'm sure they will be done informally," he said, adding he expects intelligent design advocates to leave literature at the exhibit criticizing evolution.

Earlier this month, John Calvert, a retired Lake Quivira attorney who helped found the Intelligent Design Network, called the exhibit "in-your-face evangelism," designed to promote evolution as a creed.

Krishtalka said he had no trouble with a discussion of evolution among educators but added that science seeks natural explanations for the history and development of the universe.  He said religion seeks to give humans a sense of purpose in that universe.  "One is science; one is not," he said.

Next month, the State Board of Education is expected to adopt revised science standards reflecting skepticism of evolutionary theory. Its conservative majority contends it's promoting a balanced view of evolution.

But Krishtalka said the conservatives are wrong to let their religious and political leanings interfere with good science for the second time in six years.

In 1999, a conservative-led board removed most references to evolution from the state's science standards — a decision reversed two years later.

"Much of science has many unanswered questions.  But that's no reason to throw up your hands and say some supernatural force must be at work," he said.

A poll in August suggested a majority of Americans believe creationism should be taught with evolution in schools.  Krishtalka said such views show that science has failed to properly educate students.

President Bush has endorsed teaching intelligent design alongside evolution.  But in Pennsylvania, a trial is underway in a federal lawsuit filed by parents against a school district that required teachers to read a brief statement referring students to an intelligent-design textbook for information about "gaps" in evolutionary theory.

Kansas Board of Education Chairman Steve Abrams, said he's not worried about whether the exhibit will be slanted and is not sure it will influence the debate.

"I think anytime that you can combine history and a little bit of education, I think it's a great opportunity," said Abrams, an Arkansas City veterinarian.  "I've been to exhibits like that many times in the past.  I've enjoyed them."