An innovative, interactive exhibit at the Penn Museum traces human evolution—big brains, back pains, dental problems and all.
By Beebe Bahrami

We were all waiting in the Upper Egyptian Gallery—diverse Philadelphians, Penn students, faculty, and staff—for the next speakers to arrive on the podium for the Darwin Day celebration at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It is an annual event, falling near Charles Darwin’s birth on February 12, 1809. Dr. Michael Weisberg, a philosopher of science and Penn assistant professor of philosophy, had just finished giving a public talk on “Evolution and the Environment.” The next talk, “Evolution in the Courts: The Story in 2008,” was about to begin. It was presented by Eric Rothschild L’93 and Steve Harvey, the lawyers who successfully represented the plaintiffs in the Dover, Pennsylvania, “intelligent design” case [“Intelligent Demise,” Mar|Apr 2006]. The man sitting in front of me suddenly turned around and said to anyone who would hear, “It’s important to listen to all sides of the debate and then determine what you’re going to believe.”

And there in a nutshell, it seemed, was the source of the ongoing polemic pitting creationism against evolution. Even many well-meaning, informed people get tripped up on the idea that this question has anything to do with belief. But it is not about belief. It is about presenting the evidence for evolution and how it works.

Surviving: The Body of Evidence, a new exhibit that will run through May 2009 at the Penn Museum, does just that. Funded in large part by the National Science Foundation, along with many other individual and institutional contributors, Surviving is a highly engaging, interactive, multimedia exhibit on human evolution co-curated by physical anthropologists Janet Monge G’91 and Alan Mann.

Monge is acting curator of the physical anthropology section of the Penn Museum, keeper of the physical anthropology collection, associate director and manager of the museum casting program, and an adjunct associate professor in the anthropology department. Mann was a professor of anthropology at Penn from 1969 until 2001, when he joined Princeton’s faculty, as well as curator emeritus and a current research associate in the Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section and director of the museum’s casting program.

In the works for more than five years, Surviving involves all the departments of the vast Penn Museum. After its run in Philadelphia, the exhibit will travel to at least 10 cities, with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Heath Museum in Houston scheduled as the next stops.

But the genesis (as it were) of Surviving goes back even further than that, and represents the synthesis of decades of dedicated teaching. It began with Alan Mann’s quest for an effective way to teach his students—in a popular course called Human Adaptation—how best to see and understand the evidence for human evolution.

Mann began teaching the course in the 1970s, joined by Monge about 20 years ago. “We realized what we were talking about was how we fit into the natural world,” he says. For example, consider the common human problem of back pain, caused by the fact that “we have an extremely elegant way to move—walking upright. No other animal has disk-degradation problems. Why does it break down?” Over the years Mann and Monge worked out a way to address the issues of how we came to be as we are—both our elegance and our problems—by looking at humans from the long gaze of evolution.

In reflecting on the Human Adaptation course, Monge notes that that there have been a number of creationists among their students over the years—“People who would say, ‘Yeah, I came into this class full-well thinking there was just no way I was ever going to come away with any kind of an understanding of evolution except in a negative sense,’ and [afterwards] they said, ‘Hey, nobody ever showed me the data.’ You know what I mean? Show me the data. And also explain data, interpretation, and theory with a very real kind of an example.”

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Further Information
On Surviving and on evolution:
This site is also going to be an extensive resource for teaching evolution.

On The Year of Evolution:
Check back regularly as new events are added.

On the Penn Museum’s casting program:

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Last modified 04/28/08