July 2019Spectacle

A Small Victory for Science in “Deep Time”

An enduring characteristic of the Trump administration has been its disregard of the facts when they contradict the president’s pre-established conclusions.  Trump’s cries of “fake news” over any critical report in the media escalated to calling much of the news industry the “enemy of the people” – although exempting his beloved Fox News, by any standard a shameless peddler of right-wing ideology at the expense of truth and which has practically become the president’s in-house propaganda organ.

Science, in particular, has been under siege for uncovering facts that fail to support the administration’s agenda. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has documented the administration’s actions to undercut science, from weakening scientific advisory committees to altering science-based information on government websites to restricting federal scientists from speaking publicly about their work.  

Not the least of the administration’s assaults on science is its aggressive attack on the mounting evidence that the climate is changing and that human activity is a large reason for it.  “Officials have misrepresented climate science, removed climate-related content from several government communications, and proposed sharp reductions in climate research,” UCS says in its report.  The fact that over two centuries of pumping carbon into the atmosphere has driven up global temperatures and played havoc with ecosystems is an “inconvenient truth” (as Al Gore put it) to Trump’s allies in the fossil-fuel industry, which exists to extract and burn coal, oil and natural gas for profit.  One of Trump’s latest and most egregious attacks on climate science is his creation earlier this year of a panel whose express purpose is to undercut the findings of climate scientists; its leader, National Security Council Senior Director William Happer, once compared “the demonization of carbon dioxide” to “the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”  The Trump administration’s demeaning of science inspired the annual March for Science that began in 2017 in order to fight for the value of truth and scholarship.  It sometimes seems human enlightenment has not advanced since the church’s attacks against Galileo for finding that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the sun around the earth.

The war against science is a reason why “Deep Time,” the new permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is so refreshing.  Much of

the media surrounding the reworking of the museum’s fossil collection has centered on its signature artifact, the well-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton dubbed the “Nation’s T. Rex” arranged in a dramatic pose, chomping on the bones of a Triceratops.  The tableau could be considered a metaphor for predatory capitalism, the strong devouring the weak, although with its arsenal of horns the Triceratops had some ability to fight back.  An enormous Diplodocus skeleton towers over much of the gallery.  But they are only part of a gallery full of fossils, large and small, going back over 600 million years, from mammals that co-existed with early humans to early crustaceans, worms and mollusks that lived in the sea.  Small children, who constituted a large percentage of the visitors on the June morning I visited, will find plenty of sights to awe them and stimulate their imaginations.

But unlike the museum’s old prehistoric fossil exhibit, which largely displayed bones with minimal context, “Deep Time” tells a story – the story of how life has evolved in response to changes in the environment.  The fossils are arranged along a timeline in which one can start at near the present day and wander backward to the origins of life, all the while gaining an understanding of not only the animal and plant species of past times but the natural world that sustained them – and sometimes drove them to extinction.  And as one views the exhibit’s fossils, graphics and films, the message comes through loud and clear that human activity is having massive impact upon today’s environment, not only through climate change but air and water pollution, destruction of natural habitat and overconsumption of resources.

As one slides backward into prehistory, fossils of creatures not too different from those of today, such as the ancestors of today’s elephants and rhinoceroses, give way to the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods.  From there time extends backward to even earlier animal and plant species.  Life on earth persisted through six mass extinctions, the most recent the asteroid strike in what is now Mexico 66 million years ago that ended the reign of the dinosaurs but set the stage for mammals – our ancestors – to thrive.  But that wasn’t even the most catastrophic extinction – that distinction belongs to a period of massive volcanic activity 252 million years ago that wiped out over 90 percent of marine species and many on land but also gave rise to many new animals, including turtles, frogs, dinosaurs and mammals.

And now, the exhibit makes clear, we are entering a seventh mass extinction – one caused by humans.  A display shows how extinctions followed the spread of humans to new regions of the world – from a low of 17 percent in still-diverse Africa to a catastrophic 97 percent in Australia.  And extinctions continue to accelerate – according to the Center for Biological Diversity, extinctions today are occurring at 1,000 times the normal or “background” rate, “with literally dozens [of species] going extinct every day.”  “Deep Time” makes clear that climate change is only one of the factors in this ongoing  human-made natural disaster – habitat loss, poaching, ocean acidification and other human causes are also to blame – but it is a real and accelerating problem.

A graph showing global temperatures over the last 500 million years makes clear the correlation between humans and global warming.  While it is true, as some climate-change deniers argue, that the world was much hotter before humans evolved, global temperatures were dropping when people arrived on the scene.  Soon the line takes a U-turn and the temperature begins climbing precipitously.  From the depths of the Ice Age we have advanced halfway to the point where the polar ice caps will melt completely.  And this is with humans having been around a mere sliver of the earth’s existence -- if the time since the earth formed were a 24-hour day, modern humans would show up six seconds before midnight.  Another display shows how humans have disrupted the “carbon cycle” that through most of the Earth’s history had efficiently moved carbon between the atmosphere, ocean and living organisms.

The Smithsonian is one of the few government entities with enough independence and clout to get away with such blatant truth-telling.  However, it’s not immune to political pressure, as evidenced by its 1995 Air and Space Museum exhibit on the Enola Gay, the aircraft from which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  After complaints from veterans’ groups and members of Congress, the museum was pressured into eliminating or altering the exhibit’s contextual material on the how the bombing sparked the nuclear arms race as well as on the human toll of the atomic strike on the Japanese.  But “Deep Time” managed to slip under the radar, perhaps by incorporating climate-change science into an otherwise gee-whiz display of dinosaur bones.

It’s worth noting that the name of the gallery which houses “Deep Time” is the “David H. Koch Hall of Fossils,” underwritten by a leading member of a family that has used its great wealth to aggressively promote pro-corporate, anti-worker public policy across the United States.  While the Koch organization has generally been aligned with Republican priorities, it has broken with the Trump administration on a number of key issues, such as immigration and trade.  And now the Kochs have sponsored an exhibition that further distances itself from Trumpian orthodoxy, this time on environmental science.  We can take a little satisfaction in the divisions on the political right that have allowed a bit of light to shine through.

“Our energy and resource consumption has local and global side effects, like ocean acidification and climate change,” a display panel says.  “Can we develop sustainable solutions to grow food, build homes, and power our technological world?” The exhibit attempts to answer the question through films and hands-on exhibits that illustrate ways that humans can mitigate or reverse some of the damage to the environment they have caused, such as building green roofs on urban buildings, removing invasive species and employing “no-till” agriculture to preserve soil nutrients and remove more carbon from the atmosphere.  But the exhibit eschews more radical and probably necessary solutions to slow climate change and mass extinctions – such as the complete elimination of fossil fuels or reducing the growth in world population.  Such bold conclusions might have caught the unwelcome attention of Trump and the right wing.

Nevertheless, “Deep Time” performs the valuable service of telling the truth in the midst of a time when truth has been devalued.  Children marveling at the prehistoric monsters will imbibe some learning that might stick with them. It would be nice if more of our political leaders would do the same.

Photos by Bill Mosley

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