Man and Ape

A Controversy Evolves

This image isn't of an artwork from "Sensation," the "controversial" Brooklyn Museum show, although it could be. The stooped and hairy mannequins, with their ridged brows and full-body five o'clock shadow, might easily be by, say, Jake and Dinos Chapman or some other "firebrand" artist with an equally "seditious" or sacrilegious agenda. You certainly wouldn't put them past Damien Hirst.

In truth, they're not art at all, but didactic tools from a diorama at the Museum of Natural History's permanent exhibit on human evolution. A text accompanying this fuzzy duo instructs museumgoers that "our place in the great tree of life is seen in the structure of our bodies. We share some of our biological characteristics with all living organisms, while others are shared with increasingly narrow groups: for example, with all animals, vertebrate animals, mammals, or just with other primates like monkeys or apes." These two represent the evolutionary bridge between apes and man. They do, that is, if your belief system permits you to concede that such a bridge exists. "Humans," according to scientists at the museum, "are an integral part of nature. We belong to the great branching system of living things which has arisen from an ancestry that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago."

But not everybody sees things that way, as we know. Interpreting Genesis literally, evangelical Christians refute evolutionary theory. Adam was made in God's image, they claim, and Eve from Adam's rib. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Since evolution can't be replicated in a laboratory, there is no evidence that it actually occurred.

This kind of religious crackpotism would seem harmless enough were it not for the fact that the Kansas Board of Education this year chose to concur with the creationists by voting to eliminate anything that smacks of evolutionary theory from public schools. Kansas wasn't alone. School boards in New Mexico, Nebraska, and Alabama (where science textbooks now disclaim evolution as an unproven theory) have all made attempts in recent years to challenge the preeminence of evolution in scientific curricula. Texas, Ohio, Washington, New Hampshire, and Tennessee also considered, and ultimately defeated, similar bills, including some that would have required those who teach evolution to present evidence contradicting it. This a decade after the Supreme Court said that states could not compel the teaching of creationism in classrooms.

In a recent Colorado poll, 31 percent of respondents claimed to believe that God created man in his present form "all at once in the last 10,000 years." Only 15 percent supported the view that mankind developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and that God had no part in the process.

What has all this got do do with "Sensation"? Well, of the Museum of Natural History's $111 million annual operating budget, $9.6 million comes from the city. Everyone knows that Rudy Giuliani was playing to the upstate vote when he condemned a harmless picture by Chris Ofili as an example of "Catholic bashing," and threatened to evict the museum and withhold its city funds for nebulous violations of its charter. Catholics are the largest voting bloc in New York. But what if creationists held the power here? It's not hard to imagine Giuliani directing his cynical theatrics elsewhere, and targeting institutions as it suited his agenda. Plenty of people in this country would find the idea of passing some hairy humanoids off as our ancestors a "vicious attack on religion," as Giuliani termed "Sensation." The question is, What kind of sensation will he target next?

 
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