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Fact-Checking the Smithsonian’s Koch-Funded Climate Change Exhibition

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