A Visit to the The Natural History Museum
by Dr. Catherine Collins
There are monsters above the second-storey windows of the Natural History Museum in London. There is something like a lion with the head of an eagle, and something that might be a bear or a dog with crests streaming out behind its skull where the ears ought to be. The two species alternate in stone on plinths above the second-storey windows. One might expect that a museum devoted to science would decorate its façade with strictly factual creatures; one might also expect the building to be of a streamlined and forward-looking style. But the Natural History Museum is a fine example of Victorian Gothic, and it blends fictitious and actual species as carelessly as if both belonged to the same realm. All of this raises the question of what, indeed, the museum is trying to tell the visitors.
A museum is, of course, a human artifact, like a painting, a cathedral, or a Renaissance town square. We tend to forget this, and it is usually the museum's intention that we should, just as the playwright wants us to forget the theatre and the props. We cross the threshold and find simply a collection - a collection perhaps of ancient pots, or works of art or, in this case, of old bones and stuffed animals. We forget the building, and the fact that a collection was in fact made. Certain things were chosen, others missed out, and the collection itself, as displayed, is a work of art. But in the case of the museum, the art in question stems from the Victorian idea that it is possible to view things objectively, and that a collection of natural objects can be innocent in the sense of being somehow humanly untouched. We enter the building, and find the truth.
So we can visit the museum in the spirit in which it was intended, and examine the displays as if these things simply happened to be there, and would be just the same if we saw them in the wild. Or we can stand back from the showcases and try to visit the museum itself, as something designed, with a point of view. And according to the second approach, it is no matter of indifference that there are monsters above the second-storey windows.
I keep returning to the monsters because they were the first things I noticed during my visit last summer, and they seemed to follow me inside as images that set the mood for the rest. In fact, it was not hard to believe that there were also monsters inside, since the first thing you see as you enter is a high vaulted chamber, like a Romanesque cathedral, and, along what would be the nave, the skeleton of a dinosaur. It must be at least thirty feet long, perhaps more. The head is supported by wires and rears over the ticket counter, while the tail stretches almost to the far end of the hail to the foot of the stairs leading to the second-floor mezzanine.
Clearly we are in a cathedral of some kind, and one so like the churches I was used to that I assumed I would know where the important things were to be found. For instance, the wall above the entrance, the one you must turn around to see once you are inside, would contain a large window depicting the Last Judgement and the end ofall things, were this as mediawal as it looks. I walked around the mezzanine and up a further flight of stairs to find out. It turned out that it contained the beginning of all things, or so it seemed. The back wall was covered by the cross section of a giant sequoia, one of the largest and oldest trees still found on Earth. This one was chopped down for the World's Fair in New York. It must have been around fifteen centuries old, as old as English history, and to ifiustrate this point someone had applied labels to the rings of the tree signalling important events as they coincided with the life and growth of this one tree. The rings began with the introduction of Christianity to England by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.
I turned from the wall and looked back down on the dinosaur skeleton. I found myself thinking of the world-tree Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, whose roots descend to the worlds of the dead, the giants, and of men. And I also thought of various myths of origin, with their tales of monsters coming out of the formless deep, and of the battles between men and giants that subdued the chaos, however briefly. As far as I know, the Norsemen do not record that Yggdrasil was ever chopped down and put on display. Beneath its roots, the Noms continue to tell the fate of gods and men.
But this must surely be a digression, since the origins of interest to the designers of the museum are of a more enlightened variety. The Natural History Museum is in fact largely devoted to Darwin's theory of evolution. There is an entire wing given to Darwin, the "Beagle," and the genetic theory that explains it all, and the mezzanine has a special display on the ascent of man, which we must pass while ascending to the giant sequoia. And just as Darwin's theory describes the emergence of man from ape, of ape from slime, the architect has allowed himself to let monkeys emerge from stone, and they ascend the vaulting of the main hail. They follow each other up the walls at intervals of roughly ten feet.
But science or no, the origins explain the end, and it is no accident that the museum is designed like a cathedral. In speaking of the origins of life, and man's beginning, one inevitably speaks of the nature of things now, in the present, and of the goals one may hope for. As it happens, the Natural History Museum makes very modest claims for man, about as modest as they can get away with. Man is a tool-maker, it seems. He succeeds because he can control his environment. This accounts for the fact that Yggdrasil is on display as a felled tree. It is a poignant moment; the tree is older than England. This single living thing grew unperturbed through fifteen centuries of violent history. And yet it fell to the lumberjack. One wonders who is really in control.
THE ORIGINS OF LIFE cannot be treated with showcase objectivity. We are talking theology; the museum knows it, but ducks the blow. At the entrance to the Darwin exhibit stands the following confused statement:
This is the only mention of the conflict between Church and evolution, and it is mentioned as if the conflict existed no more. It sounds like a formula of reassurance, rather in the way the Surgeon General's warning on a packet of cigarettes is a formula of disturbance: "Studies show that belief in evolution is unlikely to prove hazardous to your faith."
But in my experience, the theory of evolution seems hazardous to every Christian who has ever thought about it. I am not thinking of the fundamentalists who feel the authority of Scripture is under attack. Sophisticated Christians have always known that the style of Scripture was not that of an exact science, and should not be read in that way. The trouble comes with the world-view that the theory of evolution seems to bring with it.
The theory of evolution, as expounded by the Natural History Museum, claims that man's existence on earth can be explained solely through a process of chance mutation and natural selection. This same process has led to the emergence of complex organisms from the simplest living entities, and living beings themselves are thought tobe capable of derivation from the inorganic world. The origins of the inorganic world are left to the physicists, who have apparently solved this problem. Whatever bearing this may have on the theories of actual biologists, this, or something like it, is what inhabits the mind of the typical recipient of public education, and it is the impression created by a visit to the museum. And it is this impression that is troublesome to Christians
Essentially, the theory shuts God out of the process of creation, and it does so in at least three different ways, all of them fatal to Christian understanding. First, it purports to show that the universe could have caused itself, so that atheism is a scientifically tenable belief. Against this, the Church has always taught that the existence of God can be known from creation (see Rom 1.19-20). And for a missionary religion it is disastrous to see atheism as a valid option. If the Church were a city at war, this would be equivalent to having the supply lines cut.
Second, the theory claims that life originated by chance. Since rational beings do not act at random, if life can be shown to have arisen by chance then God either does not exist or does not care. There is no providence and, among other things, no sense in praying. The enemy has air superiority.
The final blow, the destruction of the city down to the last doghouse, is the attack on the nature and dignity of man that is implied by reducing his origins to the apes. Nothing less than reason is at stake here, Since the river does not flow higher than its source. If man comes solely from the apes, then he is an ape. The doctrine of the fall into sin is also threatened. People find it difficult to believe in a sudden, downward motion when their minds are focused on a gradual ascent.
That I take to be the substance of the danger to Christianity posed by Darwinism. But on closer examination the whole thing turns out to be a smoke screen. The difficulties posed by Darwinism are either difficulties that have always existed, or should, rather, be considered as difficulties for the atheist.
So how is it that a theory that might be used to defend Christianity is so often used against it? It helps if we begin by falsifying the Christian position. Consider again the biologist's warning placed at the entrance of the hall of evolution: "Before Charles Darwin, most people believed that God created all living things in exactly the form that we see them today. This is the basis of the doctrine of Creation." In fact, it is nothing of the sort. The basis of the doctrine of creation is, "We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen." That is the doctrine of creation, and it talks of things being created, not species. Spot and Fido are created, not generic dogginess. The notion of species, and the view that these remain unchanged, comes from the Greeks. They believed this, along with everyone else, because everyday observation suggests it. To the extent that beings like dogs belong to species, one can say that God creates the species also, but one is not forced to go from the statement "God creates" to "God creates species that always endure and that cannot be altered."
There were atheists prior to Darwin, but they tended to believe that the world had always existed, and in much the form that it is today. It existed as it was, and under its own power. Against this view the Christians introduced the belief in a sudden beginning to it all, and a catastrophic finish. But since evolutionary thinking was as alien to the Christian imagination in those days as it was to everyone else, they introduced as little change in their model as they could while retaining the meaning of Scripture. They let the world flash into existence, as described in Genesis, and promptly settle into its current physical state.
But pressures to evolutionary thinking are difficult to banish entirely from the Christian imagination. Nature can be left in its rut, but salvation history implies some alteration in the spiritual awareness of mankind. Almost a hundred years before Darwin set sail on the "Beagle," Hegel began to consider the changes of consciousness in the antique, Jewish, and Christian worlds and was led to a theory of evolution within human history. And whatever one may think of Hegel's orthodoxy, Christianity was an inspiration to his thinking, which proceeded to influence a good deal of nineteenth-century German thought, Christian and otherwise. The main elements of Darwinism are already present: significant and gradual change brought about by conflict between competing groups. The Communist Manifesto was written before The Origin of Species. Without the Christian understanding of history, it is doubtful if Darwin's theory would have been either conceived or accepted.
An eighteenth-century atheist like Voltaire, confronted by the theory of evolution, would either have roared with laughter or suffered a crisis of unbelief. It is not hard to see why. Change does not simply happen. Changes are caused by other things, so something must exist which does not change. The earlier atheist might comfort him self with the idea that what does not change are the species, or the laws of nature. The entire hullabaloo of birthing and dying nature could occur under the guidance of these unchanging forms. But what if even the species change, and the universe itself is altering its dimensions? It can only be that the One who remains fixed - Aristotle's unmoved mover, perhaps - is not a part of the natural universe, which makes him sound a lot like God.
But Aristotle's unmoved mover was not a very interesting person, from the human point of view, since he or it took no interest in the universe he moved. Unbelievers today have their own unmoved movers, usually in the guise of "the laws of nature," or mathematical theory. These abstractions are no God one would care to worship. And this brings me to the second difficulty raised by Darwinism, which is the clement of chance. If the results are due to chance, then the God who is "out there" does not seem to have much interest or control over what happened here. Such a God cannot be the God of Christian faith.
This argument turns largely upon what is meant by chance. We say that events occur by chance when we did not expect or intend them, which is not to say they were unintended by God. Chance of this kind exists, and is compatible with divine providence, but there is another usage of the word, belonging to the mathematical theory of probability. Random or chance events are ones that can be described according to certain mathematical formulae taken from the theory of probability. When biologists talk about the random mutation of genes that causes variation in the species, they are talking about mathematical randomness. Up to a point, the theory of evolution can be described mathematically. One can model the progress of a favourable gene throughout a population, or the disappearance of another under natural selection, under various assumptions about the rate of mutation and so on.
The theory of probability first came about when the French mathematician Blaise Pascal was asked to solve a betting problem posed to him by a gambling friend, and the basic structures of probability theory were derived by considering the outcomes of games of chance. Now the whole point of a roulette wheel or of shuffling a deck of cards is that we ensure by this mechanism that the outcome, the card drawn or the number that comes up, is not predictable by the individual. At the same time, we ensure that we will be able to predict the long-term odds. This is vital if the house wants to know how much to charge for abet, and how large a return to give on the winnings. Dice and roulette wheels are human machines designed to produce outcomes that individually cannot be predicted, but that on average are very regular. We know that the likeliest outcome on the roll of two dice is a seven; we don't know what will come up the next time we roll.
The argument then runs that if we can model evolution this way, we are implying that God, if he exists, simply gave the world a good shuffle, and now sits back to watch the outcome - an outcome he cannot predict, any more than the croupier can predict the outcome of the roulette wheel. Christians wanting to save the doctrine of providence then imagine the universe to be a crooked house, where God frequently blows on the wheel to get the result he wants, and that would be outside his control if he did not intervene.
I will leave it to the theologian to deal fully with the large numberof anthropomorphic images contained in the previous paragraph. God does not intervene in his creation at some times while remaining absent and unconcerned at others. I will also leave it to theology to explain how divine providence is compatible with human free will and what we experience as chance occurrences. These difficulties have always existed in Christian thought, and Darwin adds nothing new. But the biologists are really not raising these problems, but rather are building a smoke screen from their use of mathematical models. And mathematical legerdemain is something I know something about, being a mathematician myself.
THE POWER OF MATHEMATICS lies in the fact that many practical situations can be modelled by a small number of models. So, for instance, I can use much the same mathematical structure to describe the outcomes of a pair of dice as I can to describe the different heights in a group often-year-old girls. But mathematics is not life, and I cannot assume that, because the models are the same, the underlying causes are also the same. Throwing dice is a way of concealing the future, building a system where anything can happen. But just because the numerical pattern of outcomes is similar to the pattern of heights among the children does not mean that the children are the result of a gambler's instinct. In fact, each girl achieves her height through quite serious ways: by growing according to her own nature and in response to her own environment. There is nothing chancy about it.
We do not like to think of ourselves as dice because dice do not fall where they do in accordance with their own natures. Left to themselves, they would lie on the table. The gambler arrives, throws them in the air, and the dice have nothing to say in the matter. But that is not the case with the growing children. Their growth is the outcome of their natures. No one, not even God, throws them in the air to see what will happen. Each child's growth comes from heredity and environment, all fine causes lying within the providence of God. Similarly, even if the entire sweep of evolution could be described using probability theory - and we are a great distance indeed from anything that complete - this would still not make the universe a casino.
Shortly after Pascal discovered probability theory, Newton discovered the calculus, and used a different branch of mathematics to describe the motion of the planets. This beautiful theory had the effect of making the universe look as rigid and predictable as a clock. God seemed to be shut Out of his creation, and people wondered how miracles could occur. How could God violate the laws of nature and work a miracle? Now the biologists have used probability theory to build another theory of the universe, making it look like a vast roulette wheel. And again, one wonders how God can intervene, and whether he can be found in such a world. It seems that God has been expelled from both the deterministic world of the English scientist and the indeterminate world of the French gambler. In fact, he was never in either the one world or the other, since each is only a mathematical construct. There is no room for God in worlds of that kind, since these are not the world he has made. Mathematics is our creation, so we will find no evidence of God in it.
In fact, God is easier to fmd by considering the French gamblers than by considering the mathematics they inspired, and that is precisely what Pascal did. He asked himself why men gamble in the first place, and his reply - that they do so because they are bored - led him to the existence of God.
Boredom is an interesting phenomenon. Monkeys do not seem to be bored, nor do they search about to divert themselves, either by gambling or by visiting natural history museums. If there were nothing more to be said about man than that he is descended from apes, we would not be bored. We would not be bored by our existence on earth, and we would have no interest in any other. We would have no longing to know God, no longing for anything beyond a determinate range of instinctual drives. Boredom, thought Pascal, is proof of the existence of God, and proof also of our dissimilarity to the beasts.
This brings me to the third difficulty raised by the theory of evolution as usually understood: by seeming to derive man in a gradual and continuous fashion from the apes, it makes him no different from them, at least not where essentials are concerned. And since animals are clearly creatures of instinct, mired within their natural habitats, so must we be.
The argument seems as strong as a fortress, but it is an enchanted fortress and its walls will crumble as soon as we utter the magic password. The password is - boredom. Orit might be laughter, or anything we want it to be. We know that we are different from the apes, and from every other creature on this planet because our behaviour is different. We get bored; they do not. We crack jokes; they do not. These are facts. We know we are different, and we call that difference by the name of reason.
And yet, there remains the small difficulty of how human reason could have arrived in the human species if it was not present in our predecessors. Evolution makes everything out to be gradual, and clearly one cannot be partially or gradually rational. At some point the first joke must have been told, and the first laugh peeled across the African Savanna.
I cannot imagine the sequence of events leading up to the appearance of man. I would not expect to. Of its nature, it was nothing anybody was there to see, nor did it occur over the spans of time and space we find it illuminating to consider. But then, the evolutionists have no accurate picture of it either, so a little restraint might be in order. But I do see the results: we do differ from contemporary animal species. Perhaps they have lost a power of reason that was formerly inherent in all natural things, or we may have acquired it at some point in the past. But clearly we have it now, and any theory that claims otherwise should be returned to the drawing board for further refinement.
The greatest danger of evolutionism is that, under its influence, many people find the obvious hard to see. I once spent fifteen minutes over lunch proving to a university professor that men and beasts are substantially different. He saw only the theory and neglected to open his eyes to the people and animals he lived with.
I am being unfair. Of course he would never have treated a man the same as an animal. But when he began to think of the origins of things, he would see not the men he knew, but the man on the evolutionary diagram. We have all seen him. He is at the right of the standard evolutionary poster illustrating the ascent of man. Start naked and hairy, untouched by humour or ennui, he heads a procession of increasingly upright apish individuals. I have never met this man, and I have often wondered what would happen to the theory of evolution if that poster were terminated by a genuine human being - a picture of Marlene Dietrich lighting a cigarette, perhaps, or of myself even, drinking tea in the café of the Natural History Museum. The whole thing would collapse, leaving only a rustle of fossils and dry bones behind it. Tea-drinking, after all, belongs to the category of the elegant, something the survival of the fittest knows nothing about.
Reprinted with permission from The Canadian Catholic Review (11  11-16). The Canadian Catholic Review has ceased publication.
Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Catherine Collins 2000
This version: 1st April 2001