Tel Aviv's New Nature Museum Just Discovered Human Evolution

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A display in the “What makes us human?” exhibition in the new natural history museum at Tel Aviv University.
A display in the “What makes us human?” exhibition in the new natural history museum at Tel Aviv University. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

I was delighted to see the sign stating what ought to be self-evident. “What makes man unique?” it asked, in bright yellow letters. “More than 98% of modern man’s genetic material is identical to a chimpanzee’s genetic material. Man’s development and differentiation from his relatives, the apes, is rooted in three principal physiological characteristics: erect posture and walking on two legs, release of the arms and development of the brain.”

”Thank you,” I whispered. Thank you for saving us from terrible embarrassment. A display of this clear, unquestionable scientific truth cannot be taken for granted in the Israel of 2018.

The sign is displayed as part of a new exhibit titled “What makes us human?” in the new natural history museum at Tel Aviv University, which shows the origin and development of the human species.

A replica of an ancient human skeleton that was discovered in the Galilee, from the exhibit "What makes us human?"Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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Granted, questions remain about the curation of the exhibit and some of the choices it made, but it’s important to state this clearly and joyfully: Several months belatedly, the museum’s directors have chosen a side in the debate between science and religion. This is giant leap forward.

With the opening of “What makes us human?” the museum’s curators significantly changed the impression visitors receive. Science has triumphed over fairy tales. The curators have salvaged their own honor and that of their institution.

From the exhibit "What makes us human?", a genetic comparison of three Israelis, each with a different heritageCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, an important and interesting institution, opened in Ramat Aviv, earlyJuly 2018. I visited it a few days after its doors opened. The review I published in Haaretz reflected my great disappointment.

What mainly bothered me was that the museum completely ignored the theory of evolution. The question of how man was created, of how we reached our present form, in which we roam the world on two legs with a large brain, received no answer or even mention in the exhibit I saw in early summer.

A display of this clear, unquestionable scientific truth cannot be taken for granted in the Israel of 2018

My feeling during that visit was that the museum’s founders had sought to please everyone, and to this end, made a great effort to obscure both the earth’s age and the number of years man has been on it. I was stunned to discover that the museum’s founders hadn’t taken sides in the battle between creationists – who, in line with their religious faith, claim that the world was created in seven days 5,779 years ago – and people who recognize the clear scientific facts that the world was created hundreds of millions of years ago through a lengthy, complex process.

This problem – it’s tempting to say “Thank God” – has now been solved with the opening of the new exhibit. Breathe a sigh of relief. This isn’t another theory, but the facts. This is a case where it’s impossible to please everyone, even if someone gets angry.

At the entrance to the “What makes us human?” exhibit there’s a large sign with clear numbers. The big bang occurred 14 billion years ago. The solar system and the earth were created 4.5 billion years ago. The dinosaurs and small mammals appeared 251 million years ago. And modern man appeared 300,000 years ago. Breathe a sigh of relief.

The sign describing man’s origins says, “Man is part of the great ape family (Hominidae), which includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Of these, the closest to us is the chimpanzee.” The rest of the sign is admittedly worded rather evasively and ambiguously, but that’s a detail, not the essence.

A human skeleton stands beside a chimpanzee skeleton in the exhibit "What makes us human?"Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The impressive exhibit includes an explanation of what homo sapien is, the story of Lucy, who lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago, and whose discovery revolutionized our understanding of the stages of man’s evolution; and explanations of tool-making, genetic research, the increase in brain size, human communication, symbolic thinking, language, writing and society.

A sensitive, delicate issue

Nevertheless, several questions remain. Firstly, the name Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, is never mentioned in the museum. Nor is there any explanation of what evolution is. The word is used several times, but a student seeking to understand it would have trouble learning anything without the help of outside sources.

The bigger problem is the isolation of the “What makes us human?” exhibit. The fourth floor is a rather mysterious wing, hidden away, which recalls the electric cave in the famous Israeli children’s book series “Hasamba.” Anyone who knows the exhibit is there will find it, but someone who hasn’t heard about it is liable to leave the museum without ever seeing it.

The museum’s architectural plan is an enigma. The building is huge, but the museum is quite small, even a little squashed, with bizarre twists and turns.

The suggested visitors’ route begins comfortably on the first and second floors. Then you arrive at the collection (countless taxidermic animals with glaring eyes) and you feel as if you’ve finished.

An exhibition of tools used by prehistoric man at The Steinhardt Museum of Natural HistoryCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

At that point, you have to be smart: Skip the third floor and the multipurpose gallery, which features an art exhibit about bird’s nests; it’s a kind of minefield or antitank barrier meant to keep visitors away. Instead, proceed resolutely to the fourth floor. Don’t give up. Take an honest look at the human skeleton placed alongside the chimpanzee skeleton. We’re brothers.

A clear reminder of the difficult battle that still awaits the museum’s directors came on October 3. The Public Forum for a Jewish and Democratic Israel, an organization founded in April 2018 for the purpose, according to its founders, of “providing a response in the media, on social media and on the ground to the activity of groups that seek a disconnection of Israelis from Judaism,” posted the following statement on Facebook.

“A parent of young children wrote the following to us: I visited the new Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University today with my children. I was surprised to discover an entire floor about ‘man originating from monkeys.’ Drawings, diagrams and detailed explanations. I must say I felt very uncomfortable, and preferred to spare my young children this part of the museum.

“I don’t know if there’s a scientific consensus about Darwinian evolution, but it’s clear that this is a sensitive, delicate issue, about which there’s no consensus in Israeli society, especially when it comes to the large swaths of Israeli society that are ultra-Orthodox, religious or traditional. The theory of evolution clashes with their belief in the creation of the world.

“In my view, because this is a museum clearly intended for children, they ought to get rid of this section. At a time when claims of ‘religionization’ (in my view, exaggerated and unjustified in many cases) are appearing every day, we should rise up against the disconnection of Israeli children.”

Rereading this post stifles the sighs of relief I breathed earlier. They were premature. The natural history museum’s staff is now on the front lines. If they manage to get children (including the children of that anonymous writer to the Forum for a Jewish and Democratic Israel) to see the “What makes us human?” exhibit, they will have taken another step toward an erect spine and a developed brain.