Q&A: John McCarter

The head of Chicago's Field Museum lends a powerful new voice to the evolution debate.

By Kathy A Svitil
May 28, 2006 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:47 AM
Roy Zipstein


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John McCarter is the chief executive officer and president of one of America's premier science research and exhibition centers: the Field Museum in Chicago. Under his leadership, the museum has embarked on a major expansion of its physical structure and the scope of its research activities. He oversees the work of 200 scientists, including far-flung legions of field researchers at the forefront of international efforts to protect endangered tropical environments, and home-based teams of laboratory investigators doing cutting-edge studies in new disciplines like molecular evolution. McCarter, who also serves as a trustee of the University of Chicago, has emerged as one of the leading critics of the intelligent design movement and an outspoken proponent of teaching modern evolutionary theory to all students. In March the Field Museum opened a controversial new exhibit called the Evolving Planet, which takes visitors on a 4-billion-year journey that shows life on Earth developing from single-celled organisms to dinosaurs and finally to humans.

Why did the museum create this exhibit?

The fundamental goal is to improve scientific literacy. We are concerned that middle schools and high schools are not doing justice to scientific curricula. There are lots of ways of getting at that goal. I'm very up-front about making our dinosaurs the marquee attraction of this exhibit. People love dinosaurs, and they are going to come to see them. But we want visitors to see the broader story of evolution, with dinosaurs in that evolutionary context.

Is the exhibit in response to the recent attention given creationism and intelligent design?

We've had an exhibit on evolution for many years, but as we went through it with children and teachers, we discovered that it was not having the impact we wanted. It was constructed in such a way that visitors rushed through to get to the dinosaurs, so we decided four years ago to change it. We think this will be a much more effective educational experience, telling a broader story. The intelligent design and creation controversies really came to the fore over the course of the last couple of years.

Is evolutionary theory losing ground?

No. It is being strengthened every day. We have ongoing bio-geography studies in the Philippines that look at live animals to see how the complexity of island populations evolves. We are getting a grasp on geologic forces like plate tectonics and how continents and mountains rise and form. We are able to look at contemporary living species and infer from the molecular diversity how those organisms evolved over time. Evolution is the base of much that goes on in health care. I don't think evolution is losing ground at all.

Are you frustrated by the attention intelligent design is getting?

I'm disappointed. I think it underscores the importance of the educational mission of institutions like this. It adds responsibility. Unlike a young teacher who has just finished his or her master's degree in education with an undergraduate degree in science, we can't be intimidated by a 55-year-old school board member who says "Don't teach evolution" or who wants to teach it in parallel with other so-called theories.

Why do you think anyone listens to the people pushing intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory?

I think we are going through a period of time where faith-based institutions are becoming more powerful in people's lives. It tracks with the political climate. It is the theological dimension of an upwelling of conservative enthusiasm in this country.

Do you think that upwelling will grow in strength?

That is hard to predict, but the pendulum swings back and forth. I think that five years from now, creationism as a theology will still be powerful, but this intelligent design tactic, which is supported by a very small group of people, will be history.

Is the public embracing these ideas because they don't understand what science is?

Yes, absolutely. I think that kids get turned off to science at some point—fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade—when science is perceived as too hard and too complicated. I've traveled to China and visited universities where students are triple-bunked and start school at seven in the morning. They are studying computer sciences, mathematics. They are studying hard scientific subjects. That does not happen here, and I think we disadvantage ourselves as a country and as a society if we fail to capture the imagination of kids when they are 10 to 15 years old and enable them to direct themselves in scientific pursuit.

Even if the museum can reach these kids, aren't they likely to go home and get a different view?

You can counteract that by telling stories. We try to make the museum experience telling enough that it becomes a conversation with families over the dinner table two nights later. There is no hubris in this. We realize that we are a very limited part of the world. There are magazines, television, a proliferation of cable channels. There is a lot of competition for time, from playing Little League baseball to computer games. We know we are a very small part of a family's or an individual's experience. There are polls showing that half the U.S. population accepts the theory of evolution. But 75 percent of the people who come here do. You could say that we are preaching to the choir or, more positively stated, that we are reinforcing their understanding of evolution and building their confidence with fact and effective storytelling. They can say, yes, this is something that I can see evidence for in the fossil record. And for those people who don't accept it, the exhibit may enable the families to have a discussion about what their 15-year-old saw and how that fits into the overall faith of the family. We are not against religion. We are very supportive of religions and religious institutions. Much of this museum is a celebration of the impact of religion on cultures. But we do that in anthropology. We don't do that in paleontology.

What's the danger in meshing science and religion?

Where we get in trouble as a society is when people of one persuasion or one capability jump into another field—when theologians come into science and attempt to reinterpret scientific records through supernatural intervention, and alternatively, when scientists go into theology and say "There is no God." It is really not the business of either. There should be a common dialogue, a middle ground where people can discuss issues like this as matters of philosophy as well as matters of theology and matters of science. We've lost a lot of that public discourse as we've moved to this frenetic, fast-paced life, with no time for reflection and discussion and debate.

Is it wrong for people to want their universe to make some kind of sense, in all its facets—to want to make it orderly?

I think people want to simplify, because everyone is so busy. We have moved from a society with the traditional family of four, with Mom at home and the father working, to dual-career families, and we have the complexity of raising children at the same time. There is a real desire to simplify. People don't have the time to reflect on what is going on in the world. Look at this polarization of attitudes toward the war in Iraq. There is a much more complicated set of issues concerning how Iraq fits into global strategies, but there is no time for a public discourse about those larger issues. Look at Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline. He would present a very thoughtful analysis of these larger issues, but two comedians with light talk on CBS and NBC had 80 percent of the market in that time slot. Same thing with National Public Radio. It may be part of your life, and of my life, yet only 2 percent of the population is listening to NPR. I think institutions like this don't have a crack at people's attention and time, so you have to be really good at delivering messages or explaining controversies in a way that sticks in people's minds.

Does promoting a particular point of view go against the traditional role of a museum as a collection of objects?

At the core is the collection, but based on that collection is all the science that we do. That fish [McCarter points to a large fossilized fish in his office] is a beautiful object; it is fascinating to look at, but in and of itself, it is not that important. Where it becomes important is in the story of what happened 50 million years ago in Wyoming, in the Green River Formation, where this fish once existed. The fossil helps us interpret what was going on there geologically, how evolution has taken place to lead to contemporary living things. So collections are important only to the extent that you are able to interpret them scientifically.

Should museums make their holdings more freely available to the public? Does the public have a fundamental right of access to the information?

When I started here nine years ago, I was warned not to build a Web site. People said that if the images were available online, no one would come to the museum. But I think that's wrong. I think it stimulates physical attendance. We are trying to make our collections more broadly accessible. Right now, we are slowly making digital reproductions of the 23,000,000 specimens in our collection. Eventually, we will have a lot of those images on our Web site, so that people in Peru or in Kenya will be able to share these collections.

It seems museums have switched from being repositories of artifacts and information and history to being advocates for a specific viewpoint.

I don't think I'd call it advocacy. Again, I call it storytelling. For example, when we open our Pre-Columbian America exhibit in 2007, we will focus on a wonderful collection of artifacts that traditionally were displayed in cases—the beadwork of the Plains or Woodland Indians, or the Maya or the Toltecs. You would see an object, but there was no contextual story around that object. What we are doing now is using the artifacts to tell a story, from people coming over the Bering Land Bridge at the time of the Ice Age, through the peopling of hunter-gatherer societies, to the development of agriculture and complex urban societies.

Aren't you communicating a particular message with that story?

Yes, a point of view. For example, we are telling the story of the land bridge, but we are also telling these cultures' creation stories: "We have always been here . . . we came from the sky . . . we came from the ground." We respect their traditions.

But you don't respect Western religious traditions in the same way in the evolution exhibit.

No, we don't, and maybe that is inconsistent. Western religions have their own fascinating traditions. We have brought exhibits such as The Dead Sea Scrolls and Heaven on Earth: Orthodox Treasures From Siberia and North America, thereby sharing important dimensions of Western religions with our visitors.

What is the harm in telling the other story?

I don't think there is any harm, as long as it is not posed as a scientific alternative to the story of evolution. Many of my colleagues here and many scientists around the country are people of faith. It is not an either/or issue. Rather than saying that something like the human eye is too complicated to understand, so a supernatural intrusion must have enabled it, we are saying that it is possible because of a scientific theory that has been under development for 150 years and has been reinforced by the fossil record and now by the molecular record. Trilobite eyes will be an important part of the exhibit because in them you start to see the development of vision. You see the ability to discriminate between light and dark, and then the capability to pinpoint direction through vision. Ultimately, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution, the primate eye comes about. Once you understand that context, the history of how vision developed, you don't need to bring the intrusion of an intelligent designer into the process.

Do you really believe trilobite eyes can change someone's opinion about the hand of an intelligent designer?

Sure. The mainstream theological community is already way beyond the literal interpretation of the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and seven days of creation. Instead, they are saying that those are wonderful stories, created 2,000 years ago by people who were trying to explain their world, not that they are scientific fact. To me, the important issues of theology are the applied morality of behavior and guidance, rather than that this whole thing took place in seven days. That's an example of the simplification: Give me easy answers, simple stories, rather than challenging me with very tough issues. Stem cells—that's a tough issue. Abortion—that's a tough issue. That's where we should be focusing our attention.

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