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Museum plunged into evolution, religion debate

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Advocates of “intelligent design” say the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science preferred to cancel Darwin Days events rather than provide an opportunity to present an alternative theory of evolution.

Not so, said Mary Ann Hatchitt, communications director for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the state’s museums.

“There was nothing to cancel because there were no Darwin Days events planned or scheduled” for 2015, she said.

Further, the activities held on Feb. 9 and 12 in 2014, in conjunction with International Charles Darwin Day, were a one-time-only event sponsored by the museum, Hatchitt said, and were never intended to be an annual recurring celebration – in part because the museum lacks the money and workforce to organize and oversee it.

“The state is getting a black eye over this one and we don’t deserve it,” Hatchitt said, noting that a recent report about the controversy on a local TV newscast implied that the museum canceled this year’s event and tried to distance itself as a sponsor.

Nevertheless, emails obtained via an Inspection of Public Records Act request made by the two intelligent design advocates – former Sandia scientists Mike Edenburn, a mechanical engineer, and Jim Campbell, a physicist – seem to support their contentions.

In addition, as recently as last month, Evolution News and Views, a website managed by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a nonprofit religious “think tank,” accused the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science of working with “atheist groups” to put on “anti-religious lectures” and then dodging the intelligent design debate by cancelling future Darwin Days events.

The theory of intelligent design holds that particular forms and structures of the universe, as well as biologically diverse plants and animals, are best explained by an intelligent cause, rather than a process such as Darwin’s natural selection. Intelligent design also differs from creationism in that it is not based on religious text.

Edenburn said he and Campbell likely would not have challenged the museum’s Darwin Days celebration “if it had just been a promotion of Darwinian evolution.”

But a flier that was available in the museum’s lobby, as well as posted to the museum’s website last year, listed a number of speakers who, combined, “seemed to paint a picture that religion is detrimental to society,” Edenburn said.

That impression, he said, was bolstered by the groups listed on the flier as co-sponsors, including New Mexicans for Science & Reason, Humanist Society of New Mexico and the Albuquerque chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“Our problem was that a state institution was participating in sponsoring an event where the speakers denigrated religion,” Edenburn said. “The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that denigrating religion, just like promoting religion, is a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Public institutions have to be neutral with respect to religion.”

Numerous bloggers and concerned citizens have posted comments suggesting the museum acted less than honorably in sidestepping the debate and canceling future Darwin Days events.

One of the critics, Albuquerque resident Michela Dai Zovi, wrote in an email to the Journal that “canceling an event because of the related-but-tangential subjects it excludes is nonsense.”

She went on to say that, when an event is held at a publicly funded venue, “obsequity to the demands of two people is not democracy; it’s cowardice. … In canceling an homage to Darwin because two people complained that his legacy conflicts with their views, the Museum of Natural History has shown that it has learned nothing from the man they intended to honor.”

Hatchitt, who was not working at the Department of Cultural Affairs at the time of last year’s Darwin Days, said the event was coordinated by a volunteer who departed while it was still in the planning stages, leaving museum staff to take over.

The particular speakers objected to by Edenburn and Campbell were not supposed to be part of the Darwin Days events, she said, “even though they fit in nicely” with the overall theme.

Additionally, these talks should not have been printed on a flier or posted to the museum’s website because they were considered private meetings in a museum room rented by the organizations giving the talks, not part of Darwin Day events.

The emails provided via the IPRA request and shared with the Journal by Edenburn show museum staffers and volunteers were involved in scheduling the speakers; that the fliers were printed and posted with the approval and knowledge of museum staffers; that museum administrators tried to distance themselves as sponsors by asking groups to list the museum as a location “and don’t even use the word hosted”; and that organizers of Darwin Days were under the impression it would become an annual community event hosted by the museum.

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