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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Taking a Gamble

Those who follow the science news as regularly as I do are undoubtedly already aware that the fossil remains known as Lucy, derived from a proto-human primate that lived 3.2 million years ago, are about to begin a six year tour of the United States. Yes, you read the right: irreplaceable remains of a truly ancient human ancestor are going to be trucked around the country for people to come and see, incidentally making them more or less unavailable for scientific research for the interim.

It goes without saying that a number of archeologists and anthropologists are up in arms about the whole thing. These are old, fragile, delicate remains of substantial scientific value. To be moving them around and propping them up for display like some sort of side show attraction is a dubious propositon at best. Paleontologist Richard Leakey has claimed that the remains will sustain damage no matter how carefully they are handled during the tour. I suspect that he is right- it's always risky to handle artifacts of such age but to move them such distances for such a long period seems almost foolhardy. And Leakey is hardly alone as numerous other U.S. scientists and institutions- including the Smithsonian Institute- have refused to house or display the fossils out of fear for their safety. As the Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer puts it:

"Quite simply, the Smithsonian position is that the fossil Lucy, one of the most important specimens of its kind, is too fragile to go on public tour,"

So, if things go well, we're risking slight damage to one of our few examples of human evolutionary history. If things go badly, we may lose that example entirely. Oddly, however, what I find myself worried about isn't just the risk of accidental damage. I find myself concerned about the safety of Lucy from extremists in this country. The U.S. has been embroiled for decades in a fierce battle between science and religious extremism. We saw it in the Scopes Trial, we saw it in Epperson vs. Arkansas, we saw it in McLean vs. Arkansas, we saw it in Edwards vs. Aguillard, and we've seen it most recently in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District. A series of court cases stretching from 1925 into the present shows the deep conflict that many Americans still feel over the issue of evolution. If that isn't enough, we have an absurd but persistent notion in this country that accepting evolution leads to genocide, drug use,* and lawlessness. For example:

The 20th century marks the triumph of secularism. Three centuries ago, all the great nations of Western Civilization were openly Christian nations. Today these same nations are openly atheistic. God and His Law have no authority. No longer is man seen as created in the Image of God. He is just a random mutation; a meaningless conglomeration of chemicals. Social customs are also seen as meaningless and arbitrary.


Followers of secularism have learned their lessons. They are not afraid to kill their families, their own children, even themselves. Drugs, sex, gangs, and alcohol bring escape from a meaningless, atheistic world.

It's also the case that some opponents of evolutionary theory are perhaps... not completely averse to using violence. Need I remind everyone of the threatening letters sent to scientists at Colorado University- Boulder? Need I remind everyone of the various abortion clinic bombings that have occurred over the years?** How about the assassinations and assaults against clinic workers? Need I remind everyone of the Army of God (trust me- don't visit that site) who lionize Paul Hill? Must we think about the stereotype of evolution promoted in some religious publications and even online at Conservapedia? I didn't think so. Does it really seem implausible to anyone that religious extremists in this country might decide it's worth it to try to blow Lucy up? It doesn't to me.

I'm not saying that all religious persons are gunning for Lucy- I don't think that's true and I am specifically concerned about the true wingnuts here, not the overwhelming majority of god fearing folks. It's just unfortunately the case that we have enough of those wingnuts that bringing Lucy here strikes me as a little like sending a boatload of holocaust artifacts to Tehran.

And that just doesn't seem like a good gamble to me.

* I always find this argument rather bizarre. I'm an atheist and I neither drink nor indulge in mind altering drugs. Why would I want to muck around with my ability to perceive and interact with the world if it's the only world I've got?

** No, you don't have to accept evolution to be pro-choice. My argument here is more that the extremists who both reject evolution and might be willing to take violent action because of it are likely also among those willing to bomb clinics or kill their staff members. Anyone want to argue that point?

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Blogger SARA said...

Ethiopians have only had the opportunity to view Lucy twice! The "Lucy" exhibit at the ENH Museum is a replica, the real remains are locked in a vault to protect them so the fragility of these bones is truly at high risk. There will undoubtably be damage.

There are those on museum boards who feel the importance of "travelling culture" to those less fortunate to view such exhibits, making the viewing of "our history" available to's walking that fine line between knowing what to do/what not to do..then there are the fiancial issues...I won't go there.
As for possible violence. I'm sure security will be in place. The real damage will be done each time they pack Lucy up and move her on.

P.S. The re-creation of the Lucy exhibit was done by a team of extremely talented artists and paleontologists (wish I could say I was one of them) No one would know the difference so I don't know why they didn't put the replicas on tour and allow Lucy to stay at home.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 5:24:00 AM  

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