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David Koch’s name at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (all photos by Brendan Polmer for Hyperallergic)

WASHINGTON, DC — Last month’s demonstrations outside the National Museum of Natural History might not have prompted the public outcry activists had hoped for, but the claim that David Koch’s relationship to the museum impacts the content of their Human Origins exhibition deserves consideration. It’s difficult to know what specific, subtle influences a wealthy donor and board member might hold over any given organization, but it’s not hard to examine the quality of the work they sponsor.

The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins” prominently names its $15-million sponsor and National Museum of Natural History board member throughout, lending an unfortunate air of scientific gravitas to the co-owner of energy-and-chemical conglomerate Koch Industries, a man who once claimed contemporary global warming might actually be beneficial to humans. Koch has held uncanny sway over other public institutions through donations in the past, and he, along with his brother Charles, regularly opposes environmental regulations through funding libertarian advocacy groups. (When asked about the protestors’ scientific objections last month, Linda St. Thomas, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian, denied allegations that the exhibit is misleading and pointed to the Smithsonian’s prior public statements on donors and climate change.)

A wall panel acknowledging donors to the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (click to enlarge)

But it’s the hand of Smithsonian scientist Rick Potts, the exhibition’s curator, that is most apparent. Many, many scientists and researchers contributed to the hall, but Potts, a well-known paleoanthropologist, has been the director of the Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins program since 1985. He clearly speaks for and crafts the display.

At the entrance to the exhibition, below Koch’s large-lettered name, there’s a mission statement: “Travel back 6 million years to discover how our ancestors struggled to survive dramatic climate changes and, in the process, evolved the traits that make us human.”

If you don’t recall your biology teacher talking about the role of climate change in human evolution, you’re not simply forgetting your education. A quick perusal of Wikipedia’s page on evolution or PBS’s online evolution resources won’t net you any mention of climate change as a driving factor (let alone “the” driving factor) of natural selection or human evolution. So how did it become the core tenant of the exhibit?

It turns out the evolutionary role of major shifts in climate is a fairly new topic to paleoanthropology, one that Potts made a name for himself by writing about back in 1996. Though Potts is not alone in his research, climate variability as the prime engine of evolution is not exactly a textbook-ready claim. In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a conference on the role of climate change in human evolution, but the resultant committee determined, “The intriguing possibilities regarding the role of climate in the evolutionary trajectories of our ancestral lineages can only be clarified — and causation established — with additional evidence that will require more sophisticated tools.” Other notable studies have since explored the idea, but they also admitted its limitations. Even What Does It Mean To Be Human?, the Smithsonian’s companion book to the Human Origins exhibition, openly admits, “This relatively new theme in the story of human origins is still a matter of hypothesis — an overall explanation that is tested again and again as new details come to light.”

Of course, the average museum visitor is unlikely to know all that, and it’s hard to ignore the exhibition’s constant climate-based refrain. It’s entirely possible the museum will be proven correct in all its factual assertions, but it does seem unusual for the conflict-averse Smithsonian to rely so heavily on a relatively new, less-explored hypothesis as the fundamental core of its exhibition — especially, without making any note of the lack of scientific consensus around it.

A display inside the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian’s choices become even more confusing near the end of the exhibition. A panel titled “Our Survival Challenge” points out the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the potential danger posed by them, and how human activities have contributed to the problem through deforestation and burning fossil fuels. It certainly could’ve been more prominent and more thoroughly explored, given the Smithsonian’s stated commitment to addressing climate change and the exhibition’s overall fixation on climate, but even stranger is the lack of any suggestion about how the situation might be addressed. While the climate has certainly changed in the past, scientific consensus points to the current shifts as an “exception” to previous patterns, not a continuation of them — this wasn’t obvious in the exhibition either.

The Smithsonian is obviously aware of current environmental crises and the various measures intended to stave them off. They have researchers in the field, and Smithsonian Magazine has often reported on the subject. Last November, the magazine responded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s grim reports by noting, “The situation doesn’t look great, but it’s not hopeless either.”

Oddly, Potts has expressed less concern. In a 2010 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Potts said, “I’m actually quite optimistic about our future. By virtue of our evolutionary history, we have amazing social abilities — ability to help one another, ability to innovate technologically, and the ability to change our minds and to build new understandings of the world. Those traits have never existed in any other organism, including our early ancestors.” His hope might be encouraging, but he somehow consistently avoids talking about the pragmatic reality. In a recent editorial, Potts laid out a heartfelt moral argument for responding to climate change, but he neglected to mention the details of how, and he certainly didn’t talk about the particulars of fossil fuels or their impact on the situation.

This all comes at a time when even the Pope is willing to address the details of how and why humans ought to respond to a rapidly shifting environment. In the Vatican’s latest encyclical, Pope Francis explained, “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system …. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production, and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

A display inside the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

With such clear global stakes, in an exhibition that’s explicitly about humans and climate change, the Smithsonian’s lack of urgency or detail regarding current environmental forecasts and how to respond to them is striking.

Physicist Joe Romm, who was among last month’s demonstrators, expounded further in a post on his blog ClimateProgress last March:

The exhibit’s major intellectual failing is that it does not distinguish between two things. First: the evolution of small populations of tens (to perhaps hundreds) of thousands of humans and pre-humans over hundreds of thousands of years to relatively slow, natural climate changes. And second: the completely different challenge we have today, namely, the ability of modern civilization — nearly 7 billion people, going up to 10 billion — to deal with rapid, human-caused climate change over a period of several decades (and ultimately much longer).

Elsewhere in the hall, various displays note the way humans adapted to climate changes by making tools and learning to communicate with language. Rather than elaborate on new tools, new approaches to agriculture, or new methods of mitigating CO2 levels that might constitute a proactive adaptation to climate change, the exhibition’s finale offers a simulation of how humans might physically evolve in response to a warmer planet over thousands of years. That’s all well and good, except that current projections predict radical climate shifts occurring over the span of a few decades. Mentioning current, urgent climate dilemmas and then skipping ahead by a few thousand years is jarring at best, misleading at worst.

An interactive display in the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History offers possible visualizations of how humans will adapt to climate change.

Could this simply be poor curation? Do the exhibition’s flaws have anything to do with David Koch’s $15-million donation? Maybe. Maybe not.

As Jane Mayer noted in the New Yorker, “The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing all the details about them.” There aren’t any brazen lies in Human Origins, but what could’ve been a very clear exhibition with salient points about contemporary challenges is instead clouded by a few strange choices and stamped with Koch’s approval.

Whether engineered through influence or a serendipitous coincidence, it seems Koch always sees a return on his investments.

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Ryan Little

Ryan Little is a freelance writer, musician, and filmmaker living in Washington, DC. He’s written about arts and culture for Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and WAMU.

14 replies on “Fact-Checking the Smithsonian’s Koch-Funded Climate Change Exhibition”

  1. Ironic that the folks who would go into hysterics about this wouldn’t bat an eye if Al Gore were a sponsor, despite the fact that none of his doomsday prophesies have come true. The phony outrage goes hand-in-hand with the utter hypocrisy and willful dishonesty and ignorance of the far left.

    1. “…despite the fact that none of his doomsday prophesies have come true.”

      Where do you get this notion? Where do you even get the idea that the “prophesies” belong in any way to Al Gore?

        1. Specifically.

          Which doomsday prophesies are you referring to? Show me the prophesy and when it was supposed to have happened.

          I’ll bring up one for you, just to get the ball rolling. There is the projection that Florida will be underwater. I remember the graphic from the movie. But if you know even the first thing about the science, or even if you’d listened carefully to Al Gore’s words, you’d realize he wasn’t talking about something that would occur in the early 21st century.

          We are seeing accelerating sea level rise. That much is very clear in the research. Very recent research is suggesting that we’ve likely destabilized the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to the point where we’ll unlikely be able to stop it. Greenland is less clear but much of the same process is going on there.

          But it takes a very long time to completely melt these massive ice sheets. If we melt both the WAIS and the GIS then we’re looking at, I think the figure is, 20 meters of sea level rise. But that would be a process that takes well over 500-1000 years to get that full 20 meters. In the meantime, though, we’re likely to see 2-3 meters of SLR by the end of this century.

          BUT, we have much to be concerned about with even half a meter rise relative to the US Eastern seaboard. A half a meter would contribute to significantly higher storm surges during hurricanes. Nearly all of Florida lies just a couple meters above sea level, while the whole lower portion of the state is porous rock. Thus, you can’t build sea walls to keep the sea water out of the estuaries. One good storm and the entire lower half of the state will be inundated with sea water!

          Florida is done for well before even what Gore was graphically depicting in his movie.

          Now. What other prophesies did you want to discuss?

    2. Yes, they are so dishonest, ignorant, and hypocritical!… if one accepts the straw man you present as absolutely accurate.

      Oh, and should I be the one to point out that unlike Koch, Gore doesn’t own a major business that profits greatly from misinformation? … and that Gore is actually in agreement with actual science.

      1. Are you effing kidding me? Gore is worth $300 billion and sits on the board of directors at Apple and a bunch of other companies. He has plenty of business interests. And his Current TV was such a peddler of misinformation that propaganda kings Al Jazeera decided to buy it.
        If you can’t even get those facts straight, what credibility do you have for your assertions on something as complex as geoclimatology, where, for all their best efforts, global warming scientists have yet to get the world to cooperate with their hypotheses?
        You probably don’t even know what a straw man argument is, since you appear to be using that term incorrectly. Your first sentence is actually entirely accurate. It’s a shame it goes downhill from there.
        Don’t expect another reply from me, because I am not in the business of correcting idiocy. I have better things to do than to solve your misinformation issues.

        1. Well, Sue, I never said he had no business interests. Through context you should have understood that I was talking about your comparison to Koch, who is owner of a major oil company.

          “what credibility do you have for your assertions on something as complex
          as geoclimatology, where, for all their best efforts, global warming
          scientists have yet to get the world to cooperate with their hypotheses?”

          Oh, you mean the earth isn’t actually warming, glaciers aren’t really melting, weather isn’t getting more erratic, etc.. etc.. etc..? But let me guess. You get all your information on what actual mainstream climatologists have to say from anti- global warming sources.

          Also, dear, what credibility do YOU have? Oh yeah.. all the credibility that goes along with being a science denying crank who makes up fictions to defend their assertions and deliberately takes statements out of context.

          “You probably don’t even know what a straw man argument is, since you appear to be using that term incorrectly.”

          Aww.. how cute! You present a fictional scenario as proof of your assertion.. and then you want to try to lecture me on logic.

          ” I am not in the business of correcting idiocy.”

          Well, deary, every post you have made on this board is proof you are not in the business of correcting idiocy, otherwise your own would have been corrected years ago. Clearly it wasn’t, therefore we can assume you are incapable of correcting idiocy as well as actually identifying idiocy in the first place.

          1. No strawman fictional scenario presented. I could actually point to demonstrable proof of the left going into hysterics. And your reply is a good start.

            As promised, I am not going tit-for-tat with you because doing so only diminishes me by association and raises you. Come back once you have an actual argument, are able to get your facts and research straight, and have brushed up on your rhetorical fallacies.

            In the meantime, Joshie boy, go back to designing cartoon t-shirts or whatever it is you do that actually gives meaning to your little existence.

    3. The point of the article is that the Smithsonian, a trusted name in science, has created an exhibition inferring that climate change is a natural process that humans have been adapting to for thousands of years. Al Gore and many other reasonable, educated people (even conservatives like the Pope) understand that climate change is accelerating at a rate we haven’t yet seen, due to human intervention. Maybe you don’t read much or are just a reactionary whenever a subject comes up that you don’t want to think on too hard.

      1. You seem to be talking yourself in circles a lot. Maybe you’re getting dizzy and it’s going to your head.
        You noted that the Smithsonian is a reputable, trusted name in science, and so why would the scientific research that went into the curation of this exhibit be any different?
        You imply that David Koch, who has a master’s in chemical engineering from MIT, is uneducated in science. And you suggest that a contingent of the debate that has gone so far in its vicious, nasty suppression of intellectual discourse to call its opponents “deniers” with some even suggesting that they be jailed are “reasonable” people. Not so much. They are the modern McCarthyites, and one of the chief reasons for skepticism is the fact that they seem so insecure with any challenges to their theories.
        Finally, let’s just be clear that the pope is not a conservative by our understanding of the world, and he certainly isn’t an expert in climatology, so it would probably be wise for him to stick with issues of theology.
        Whatever you claim to be reading, you’re getting bad information from it. You do not occupy the intellectual high ground here, I assure you. As Abraham Lincoln, one of our great Republican leaders, once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” You would do well to heed his advice.

      2. Al Gore is reasonable with his farce of a scare-tactic movie? He even goes as far as to connect selected extreme weather patterns? Laughable.

  2. This is so biased and agenda driven. Get over yourselves. All credibility lost when you cite Wikipedia

  3. The belief in human-induced global warming is a scam. Just because someone who is wealthy also realizes this doesn’t make it invalid. There are plenty of wealthy individuals and corporations who support it.

    Too bad for alarmists we have millions of years of data that CO2 lags temperature and we are currently experiencing a low point of temperature AND CO2.

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