Monday 2 August 2010

Making Evolution Visible

There has been a flurry of discussion over the news that the creationist Noah's Ark Zoo Farm has been awarded a "Learning Outside the Classroom" quality badge. The TES has a summary of the issues, and quotes:
It has attracted controversy for its views on evolution and creation, arguing that science has tried to "remove any notion of God from our understanding of life".

"This is unjustified and we look to put the case for a Creator across to those who wish to investigate," the zoo's website says.
At least, according to one commenter, Noah's Ark is "a really boring place to go to compared to the excellent Bristol Zoo only 20 minutes away", which should be a deterrent to any teacher looking for a good all-round animal experience for their students.

So it's refreshing to see that there are attractions making evolution part of their own stories. Today, Paul and I visited Birdworld, about an hour's drive away. The birds are marvellous, and pretty tame - Paul handfed an avocet.

There's a mural of extinct giant birds, including Dinornis, Aepyornis and Diatryma, seen with Paul (looking extremely dashing) for scale. And a display on the evolution of birds:

I'd have liked to see "There's a dinosaur in your garden!" rather than "Is there a dinosaur in your garden?", but it's great to see a cast of Archaeopteryx on display. The captions read:
  1. One theory is that some dinosaurs first developed feathers (called proto-feathers) for warmth. These dinosaurs were small, light and fast like birds.
  2. Over time proto-feathers became longer to help with balance when running. Muscles in the forelimbs grew stronger with increased use. Together, the use of proto-feathers whilst running and leaping slowly lead [sic] to flight.
  3. In modern birds the large breastbone acts as an anchor for powerful flight muscles. The wishbone helps brace the chest during flight. They have replaced heavy teeth with a lightweight beak.
It's not perfect - it's more narrative than I'm happy with, and there's a bit of a suggestion of Lamarckism, but there is a nice big section saying "Birds have continued to evolve for improved flight since Archaeopteryx".

It's low-tech - it's a (beautifully) painted board with laminated printout labels. The biggest expense was probably the cast of Archaeopteryx and the model Aepyornis egg. But it doesn't need to be son et lumière with computers and holograms. This works, and it would be great if more wildlife attractions could find it in them to put a bit of evolution back into their displays.

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