A controversial Kentucky museum that trumpets the Bible story of creation and rejects evolution is making room for an odd guest: Charles Darwin.
A new exhibit at the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum argues that natural selection – Darwin's explanation for how species develop new traits over time – can co-exist with the creationist assertion that all living things were created by God just a few thousand years ago.
"We wanted to show people that creationists believe in natural selection," said Ken Ham, founder of the Christian ministry Answers in Genesis and a frequent Darwin critic.
The exhibit might seem peculiar to many who have watched the decades-long battle between evolution scientists and creationists, who take the Bible's Genesis account as literal truth.
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But the idea that creationists can accept natural selection "isn't really new in creationism, though it's interesting that Answers in Genesis would have an exhibit on it," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.
The $27 million museum has drawn international attention – and, the ministry says, more than 650,000 visitors – since its opening in Petersburg, just south of Cincinnati, in 2007. Its exhibits match the high production value of popular natural history museums. But in its version of history, Adam and Eve are considered the first humans, Noah rescues humanity from a worldwide flood and early man lives among dinosaurs.
Ham said the new exhibit features live blind cave fish, models of bacteria and recreations of Darwin's famous finches, whose variant beaks helped inspire the British naturalist's theories on natural selection.
Darwin proposed in 1859 that new species appear through the process of evolution. He attributed evolution to natural selection, when randomly occurring traits – such as the change in body color of a beetle – give a species a survival advantage over competitors.
Ham said he agrees that natural selection can give an organism an advantage in its environment, but creationists do not believe that the process can lead to new species, such as fish evolving into amphibians.
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by a large sign that reads: "Natural Selection is not Evolution."
"The exhibit is to clearly show that natural selection is not a mechanism to change one kind of animal into a totally different kind," Ham said. For example, he said, dogs can develop new traits from one generation to the next, but they remain dogs.
Ham isn't the only creationist who holds that view. A Web site, CreationWiki, developed by the Northwest Creation Network, says natural selection "explains the mechanism by which traits are selected and organisms adapt to their environment." Like Ham, the Mountlake Terrace, Wash., group argues that natural selection is only responsible for "small adaptations."
But Scott, whose organization advocates evolution education, said the fossil record proves that one type of body plan can give rise to another through evolution. She said the recently discovered fossil Tiktaalik – a prehistoric fish with some traits like those of four-legged animals – shows an adaptation toward a life on land.
"We have a gradual transition of vertebrate fossils from those who swim to those who have stumpy fins to those who can function well on land," Scott said.
Ham acknowledged that creationists share only a limited common ground with Darwin, and he remains a staunch critic of evolution.
"In regard to Darwin's overall idea, that there's no supernatural involved in formation of life, and that there's a mechanistic, materialistic mechanism to evolve creatures – he's totally wrong," Ham said.