Toad in the Hole

November 28, 2005

Guest Blogging: Monterey Bay Aquarium Rant

BY Joe Eaton

My thanks to Ron for providing space for a guest rant.

What set me off was a trip we made recently to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It had been a couple of years since the last visit, and while it was good to see the various inmates—the giant Pacific octopus, the ocean sunfish and sea turtle in the Outer Bay tank, the mesmerizing jellyfish—there were some things I found disturbing. One, as our friend Gene also noted, was that the signage and exhibit design seemed to be geared to about a grade-school level, not just in the hands-on lab upstairs but throughout. The dumbing-down was especially striking in a temporary exhibit about sharks and rays, which did have some nice touches (Haida dogfish masks, videos of West African hammerhead dancers). But none of the live specimens on exhibit were identified by Latin name. Come on, folks, a Linnean binomial or two never hurt anybody. I for one could have handled it at 7 or 8, which was around the time I imprinted on dinosaurs and was tossing off Latinoid polysyllables right and left. And the kid-oriented prose ("Doris the dogfish munches a mouthful of wiggly worms," or words to that effect) was a real irritant. Having visited a bunch of splendid natural history museums out in the hinterlands last year—places like Albuquerque, Flagstaff, even Norman, Oklahoma—I had to admit that the MBA did not shine in comparison.

Then, already working up to a cranky mood, I started looking harder at the signs in the rest of the Aquarium, the regular exhibit space, and the absence of the E-word began to bother me. When you think about it, what better venue for introducing the notion of evolution than an aquarium? All life came from the sea, after all; it still runs through our veins, and we respond to its tides. And some prominent lineages went back to it, sometimes repeatedly. Just looking at mammals, you have varying degrees of commitment to a marine environment, from the sea otters that are still broadly similar to landbound weasels, through the sea lions and seals to the whales. Whales, I would hope to the discomfiture of the creationists, have turned out to provide one of the best fossil sequences documenting a major evolutionary transition: ancient amphibious beasts paddling around in the shallows of the Tethys Sea whose descendants morphed into the likes of blue whales and bottlenose dolphins. Why not build that story into the Whale Hall?

I began thinking about the contested functions of institutions like aquaria and museums: they’re about education, or should be, but they’re also about show business. Just bones, even the real bones, aren’t good enough anymore; the dinosaurs have to be animatronic, and a flashy sound-and-light show can’t hurt either. If you start looking at an aquarium as a venue for entertainment, you have to think about capturing as broad a market share as possible—especially if, like the MBA, you’re positioned as the prime tourist magnet in a tourism-oriented town. Maybe, if you’re where you can set the tone for the institution, you try to play down anything with a whiff of controversy about it; you don’t want to offend those nice fundamentalist families from Kansas.

So much for sins of omission, occasioned by whatever mix of gutlessness and venality. But it got worse. Around the corner from the giant octopus, two large ugly fish, a wolf eel and a lingcod, share a tank. To one side, skeletons of each species are on display. The accompanying text goes into the difference between the abundant teeth of the lingcod and the blunter teeth of the eel, and says, as nearly as I can recall, that the lingcod’s teeth are designed for impaling smaller fish while the eel’s are designed for crushing mollusks. Right—"designed." Not "adapted," not "have evolved to" whatever—"designed." Nothing there that the good folks at the Discovery Institute could cavil with. This was late in the day, after a nice lunch at the Portola Grill, and I didn’t have the energy to retrace my steps and re-examine other labels for signs of creeping creationism. But I have to wonder how much of this kind of thing has gotten by under my radar in the past.

Let me be as clear as possible about my own biases: I believe the late geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had it exactly right when he entitled an essay, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The evolving concept of evolution—classical Darwinism plus Modern Synthesis plus Punk Eek and Evo Devo—is foundational to the life sciences. I would hope that it remains central to public school curricula, but with the political climate in much of the country, that’s not something we can count on any longer. Which makes it all the more important for independent institutions like museums, zoos, and aquaria to take up the educational slack. Who knows, a model of Ambulocetus, the prehistoric walking whale, might do for some tourist kid from Kansas what the Darwin-centennial series in Life Magazine did for me a long time ago: jump-start a lasting curiosity about the true history of the earth and its living organisms.

Posted at November 28, 2005 11:48 PM