Kirk Johnson: Evolution is Not an Obvious or Intuitive Concept
Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. He oversees more than 460 employees, an annual federal budget of $68 million (museum’s federal budget in FY 2012) and a collection of more than 126 million specimens and artifacts—the largest collection at the Smithsonian. The Museum of Natural History hosts an average of 7 million visitors a year, and its scientists publish about 500 scientific research contributions a year.
As a vice president of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Johnson was part of a team that led the museum and managed its $40 million annual budget. The museum, which receives 1.4 million visitors per year and has a staff of 400, launched a $170 million capital campaign in 2005.
As chief curator at the Denver museum, Johnson oversaw a 70-person research and collections division that included curators, archivists, conservators and technicians and managed its $3.5 million annual budget. He was responsible for the museum’s 24 collections, and he led the completion of the museum’s first comprehensive long-term collections and research plan. He served as a curator of paleontology since joining the museum in 1991.
Johnson is the author of numerous scientific papers, and he has edited seven scientific volumes. He has written nine books, including his most recent, Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies, which was published by the museum and the People’s Press in 2012.
Kirk Johnson: One of the things that museums have been on the vanguard for for the last hundred years is the discussion, the public discussion of evolution and specifically the evolution of humans. And for literally since Darwin’s time that was one of the great discoveries was that humans actually are descendants from other forms of animals and we are part of the tree of life.
We’re not separate from the tree of life. We are part of the tree of life. And we’ve watched the twentieth century this continuous addition of information to that narrative. And now we have with the genome, the Human Genome Project we have the ultimate tool for mapping our position in the rest of the tree of life. So it’s sort of like in many ways the final nail in the building of understanding how we fit with the rest of the things that live on this planet.
I think it’s really important that people do understand that evolution is what makes biology makes sense. That’s what makes all life make sense. So from the museum point of view it’s always been a very important thing to show the actual evidence for evolution. So if you want to have a rational conversation about evolution and creationism – and I have had many rational conversations with creationists who often feel that they haven’t seen the evidence for evolution.
And museums again are the most accessible portal for understanding science that we have. And museums by presenting dinosaur skeletons and exhibits about human evolution frame the evidence that we have, the three-dimensional evidence that we have for evolution. And I found that to be the most powerful way is to walk through an exhibit and say here are the elements of evolution manifest. Because frankly evolution is not an obvious or intuitive concept. It was an amazing discovery that we’re all related but it was not obvious. It’s not obvious that I’m related to a strawberry. But that’s the story of evolution.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton
It was an amazing discovery that we’re all related, but it was not obvious. It’s not obvious that I’m related to a strawberry, but I am.
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