Are Zoos Teaching People To Deny Evolution?


A few weeks ago, before the fires forced evacuation, I went on an overnight trip at my favorite zoo, the San Diego WIld Animal Park. I’m not much of a zoo guy, since most of them get me bummed out by the confinement of the animals. The Wild Animal Park is a joyous exception.

But this time, I had a recurring experience which was unsettling. And once I noticed it, its frequency became increasingly disturbing. I’m curious to hear if anyone has made similar observations at the L.A. Zoo. I’m especially want to hear Will’s take, as he used to work there. More after the jump.

Intelligent Design is the latest guise of a longstanding theoretical attempt to explain the world known as teleology. A teleological argument supposes “that there is purpose or directive principle in the works and processes of nature.” (From a wikipedia article that has a nice overview of the history of the teleological argument).

The teleological viewpoint was pretty well smashed to bits by theories of evolution, and yet it survives with a grip on popular imagination as an easy answer in the face of the world’s complexities. Again from wikipedia, a summation of the argument can go something like this:

1. X is too (complex, orderly, adaptive, apparently purposeful, and/or beautiful) to have occurred randomly or accidentally.

2. Therefore, X must have been created by a (sentient, intelligent, wise, and/or purposeful) being.

3. God is that (sentient, intelligent, wise, and/or purposeful) being.

4. Therefore, God exists.

So, we’re at the zoo, going on tours and listening to tour leaders talk about all the different animals. And over and over again, I hear the same sentence construction:

The [animal] has those [traits/skills/behaviors] so they can do [task].

Over and over, this same construction was used. And then the problem hit me: the word “so.”

“The giraffe has that long neck so it can reach the high leaves” implies that the giraffe was given that neck in order to get to those leaves. The unspoken question is WHO gave the giraffe that neck. The question implicitly assumes agency – that someone or something is responsible for giving the giraffe that neck in order to fulfill a purpose. It’s a fundamentally teleological assertion.

And it was definitely the one sentence. Notice the difference in meaning if it’s read as two: “The giraffe has that long neck. So it can rach the high leaves.” Nitpicky on paper? Yes. But spoken alound, the two version have completely different meanings.

If it happened once or twice, I could see it just being a simplification or a random choice of words by a given tour leader, many of whom are volunteers. But once I started paying attention, I saw that almost EVERY time an animals’ characteristics where described, they were talked about in this fashion.

At best this is lazy education. At worst, it’s laying the groundwork for the public acceptance of intelligent design and denying evolution. And this is at on of the premiere zoos in the country, if not the world.

Have any of you noticed anything similar at the LA Zoo, or any other Zoos you’ve been to? Have you had experiences as Zoos where the keepers or tour guides went out of their way to explain things in more complex evolutionary terms, or has the pressures of the marketplace to be entertaining shown you zoos that simplify and dumb down as much as possible?

20 thoughts on “Are Zoos Teaching People To Deny Evolution?”

  1. >

    So you’re saying the two can’t both be true? Heck, I’m a Christian, I believe in God, and I also believe that the ideas behind evoloution are less about disproving the existence of God, and more about the adaptability of God’s creation.

  2. I think it’s a common perception that evolution gives animals things to make living easier. But it’s actually that some mutated animals use their mutations to their advantage.

    So, while I’ve had it up to here with religious whack-jobs and I.D., I hear “The giraffe has that long neck so it can reach the high leaves” more as sloppy science than a pushing of divine theory. A more accurate description would have been something like “The giraffe uses its long neck so it can reach the high leaves”, leaving the “why” to philosophers and sex-crazed theologians.

  3. I completely disagree. When I hear (or read) “The giraffe has that long neck so it can reach the high leaves” I in fact picture millennia of _evolution_ that has “given” this creature we call a giraffe this long neck. I mean, the giraffe started out as a single-cell organism like you and me, yes? For whatever reason, this species benefitted from reaching up high… and the years of development complied.

    That’s how I read it anyway. I see no offense to Darwinists.

  4. No, they both can’t be true. They are polar opposites.

    But then again, I’m an atheist, so I’m burning in hell, anyway.

    And while I understand and appreciate the intent to try to reconcile the two as a means towards getting people to live together peaceably, I think that ships already sailed. Sailed, hit an iceberg, and plunged to the ocean floor.

  5. i am less concerned with the supposed implied intelligent design (which i do not see). my focus falls upon the fact that them having long necks is thought to be for fighting and not feeding…talk about out of date science…

  6. No offense to the blogger, but I find it really hard to believe that the administrators of the San Diego Zoo have “hatched” some vast conspiracy to push the agenda of believers in teleology or “intelligent design”.

    If anyone would be opposed to the intelligent design “theory” it would be zoologists, people who are well informed and have studied for the biology, etc.

    I think it is just lazy English…or perhaps using the simplest terms to speak most efficiently to children and people who speak English as a second language…and to unedjucated barking mad fundamentalists… ;)

  7. Polar opposites?

    It’s not a matter of reconcilliation. Growing up, I had my doubts about evolution, but after taking biology and physical anthropology courses in college, my eyes were opened to the broader scope of evolutionary FACT, which extends far beyond the origin of man.

  8. My vote is lazy english and nitpicking. If this was a conspiracy to promote ID than it is an awful one.

  9. But I’m just now realizing that getting into a mostly subjective, pseudo-scientific, quasi-religous debate is pretty much wasting everyone’s time, so we’ll agree to just disagree.

  10. Giraffe’s long necks enable them to reach food high in the treetops. Giraffes have long necks because it offered them a survival advantage.

    Giraffes did not decide to grow long necks. No entity gave them long necks (unless there was some selective breeding done by those aliens from Chariots of the Gods).

    Yes I think you’re correct that the phrasing is purposeful to either be inclusive of those visitors who are subscribers to creationism or the person who said them believes in creation and this was their way of fulfilling the minimum requirements of their position.

    The whale watch naturalist classes I’ve taken for the past three years do not include this sort of thing. We talk openly about evolution and how much we do or don’t know about the evolution of mammals and the local geological history. The classes are presented by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium which is part of the Los Angeles Department of Rec & Parks.

  11. I think you share my secular paranoia about wing-nuts and their attempts to return US culture to the 1950s.

    Seeing as this did happen in San Diego, I would say it warrants investigating, in light of the recent furor over the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the SD Natural History Museum.

    (Curiously, I remember reading the article at the above link in the LA Times but it has since disappeared from their data base. Fortunately had it.)

  12. I am a pastafarian. I am a convert. The flying spaghetti monster (FSM) has his noodly appendages in all of this making you think evolution is an absolute but really its just a blend of ID.
    Read about the FSM his church here:

  13. Seriously? You really thought those types of descriptions was a thinly veiled promotion of intelligent design? Are you sure you weren’t just bored?

  14. There is no evolution, only DE-evolution. Humankind prefers to put up barriers and put labels on other in order to destroy the other. Getting hyper-paranoid about this shit causes more stress, which results in shorter lifespans, and eventually we will be no more.

  15. Umm actually the advantage that giraffes have with the long necks isn’t for reaching leaves in trees, but rather for mating battles (giraffes use their necks as clubs… longer neck means more leverage, more likelihood of winning a battle with another male giraffe and getting the chance to impregnate the females. If the SD Wild Animal Park is still talking about tree leaves they’re about 20 years out of date in their giraffe biology. I find that offensive.

  16. Sorry to be so late in chiming in but I was out in the desert finding god. He says intelligent design is bullshit. And he says to say hai.

    From my time at the L.A. Zoo as an employee and also concurrently for the last two years there as a volunteer docent, I found little love in-house for any theory but evolution.

    I have no trouble saying that a lot of the explanations imparted about any given animal in the zoos collection were simplified but I never found it to be due to any perceived “pressures of the marketplace.”

    The L.A. Zoo’s docent program is a pretty arduous 26-week educational ordeal and those who successfully complete it get a good foundation knowledge in the animal sciences. So if information imparted on any given animal is “dumbed down” so to speak, frankly it’s because employees and volunteers are dealing with a majority of visitors to the zoo who are interested but only up to a certain point.

    As to Don saying the food accessiblity issue is somehow archaic info, unless there’s some wry humor at work that I’m too dense to catch, it ain’t all about sex. A giraffe’s gotta eat first in order to have the strength to club at each other for the right to make more giraffes.

  17. When I taught high school students about biodiversity, we were instructed to avoid using terminology like “plan” or “design” in any context. You couldn’t, say, talk about how the body plan of a frog is well suited to swimming. Mostly for the reasons you point out.

    It can be hard to anticipate the way your words can be used and misused.

  18. You’re reading too much into a tour guide’s verbal usage of punctuation (and possibly the word “so,” a somewhat ambiguous adverb in that case). But now you have me wondering what type of Atheist you are. Most Atheists I’ve met are just as loony as any God-believer.

    But I do agree that Intelligent Design is bullshit.

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