Israel To Open Natural Museum Showcasing Human Evolution, Despite Renewed Creationist Tension In West

Steinhardt Museum of Natural History recently opened to the public after nearly 20 years and houses more than 3,000 items and artifactsPhoto: Jessica Steinberg via Times of Israel

The fight between the science of evolution and creationism is far from over in the West. Last month in the state of Arizona in the United States, the textbooks saw the term evolution deleted in many contexts and minimized when inevitable. The Superintendent of the Department of Education of the state Diane Douglas peddled the usual pseudo-scientific defense of 'evolution being only a theory' and brought the issue of 'indoctrination' etc. In 2016 Judge Van Tatenhove, a federal Judge and a George Bush appointee, was in favour of a creationist theme park which received $18 million in tax incentives from the state in the summer of 2014. June 2018, The Newsweek magazine has reported how in Florida private schools which accept or rely on nearly $1 billion in state scholarships, teach that humans and dinosaurs lived together (a virulent form of creationism called Young Earth Creationism) and that in pre-civil liberty movement times blacks and whites lived in harmony.

(Top) Work in progress at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv: Whale skeleton replica getting prepared. (Bottom) Science under veil: Exhibit on human evolution kept under shroud at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, Beit Shemesh,Jerusalem.  Pictures Courtesy: ‘Times of Israel’ (Top) Work in progress at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv: Whale skeleton replica getting prepared. (Bottom) Science under veil: Exhibit on human evolution kept under shroud at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, Beit Shemesh,Jerusalem. Pictures Courtesy: ‘Times of Israel’

Amidst such a scenario, Israel is all set to open a new national natural history museum right in Tel Aviv with exhibits on evolution. The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History has taken the poetry and symbolism of Hebrew Bible in harmony with the spirit of the age and has harmonized it with science. Thus the museum is shaped in the form of an ark - a Biblical metaphor for human relation to saving biodiversity through planetary crisis. It contains at its top floor the exhibits showing the evolution of humanity. A significant section of orthodox Jews do oppose evolution in Israel - so much so that recently in Jerusalem a natural history museum covered its exhibit on human evolution with a sheet. Nevertheless Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History considers evolution "an adequately proven scientific fact", the decision to cover the exhibit seems to be more a tactical step to initiate the orthodox into a dialogue with science. However Tel Aviv museum is not even making such compromises but allows the visitors to bypass the evolution exhibits which are kept in the topmost floor. As the museum is set to open this month, it becomes the 'only natural history research center in the Middle East'. Interestingly the discovery at the beginning of this year of a fossilized human jawbone in a collapsed cave in Israel estimated as between 177,000 and 194,000 years old, is adding new dimensions to the evolutionary history of early humans.

Such tensions highlight both the hold of religion and creative space the human mind generates between religious belief and scientific discoveries which challenge those beliefs. This flexible creative space, which the West has been forced to discover, has always been with us in India and we often take it for granted.