The Norman Transcript

September 29, 2009

Different views of Cambrian Explosion subject of two events at museum tonight

By Julianna Parker Jones

Two opposing views of the fossil record will be presented tonight in two events at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

The natural history museum scheduled its own lecture on the Cambrian Explosion as "a direct response" to the scheduling of an event on the same topic by the student intelligent design club, said Krysten Marshall, public relations assistant for the museum.

The Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Club rented the museum's Kerr Auditorium for a 7 p.m. screening of "Darwin's Dilemma," a short film that explores what is known as the Cambrian Explosion, the sudden appearance of dozens of major complex animal types in the fossil record without gradual evolutionary steps, according to a press release about the event.

The discussion afterward will feature Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, author of "Signature in the Cell," and Dr. Jonathan Wells, biologist and author of "Icons of Evolution."

The Sam Noble Museum, however, will contrast what is said at that event with its own presentation.

A free public lecture will begin at 5 p.m. by the museum's curator of invertebrate paleontology, Stephen Westrop, titled "The Cambrian Explosion and the Burgess Shale: No Dilemma for Darwin."

In this presentation, Wes-trop takes a look at recent research that gives us a new understanding of this evolutionary "explosion" of ocean life, according to a release from the museum. Marshall said Westrop will be available after the lecture to answer questions.

Monday night at a lecture at OU, Meyer said he thought the pairing of lectures was good because it allowed for the audience to get two views.

"I think it's great that students will be party to that," said Meyer, who earned his doctorate in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge. "That's what an academic experience is all about." He said he welcomes a chance to talk with others about what he has spent his life studying.

"It's not a scary topic," he said. "It's one of the great topics -- how life began." The study has become a polarizing debate, but he said that's not how it should be.

"Somehow the discussion of this got all toxic and tense in our culture," Meyer said.

In addition to Westrop's lecture, the museum will open its exhibits to the public for free 6 to 11 p.m. tonight in another effort to show its scientific view of evolution.

"This is specifically for the event because there is a lot of science in the exhibits" that will contradict what "Darwin's Dilemma" has been reported to say, Marshall said.

The museum's Paleozoic Gallery shows many aspects of Earth's Cambrian Period. Highlights include fossils, models of many of the bizarre animals of the Burgess Shale, and animated features showing how these animals may have moved and hunted.

"We invite everyone interested in an accurate description of how life developed over the last four billion years to come hear Dr. Westrop's lecture and visit our galleries," museum Director Michael A. Mares said in a release. "These well-organized and scientifically accurate exhibits illustrate -- through real specimens and scientific methods -- the fact of evolution by natural selection as first described by Charles Darwin and continually supported by all branches of science ever since that time. Dr. Westrop is recognized internationally as an expert on the Cambrian Period, and his presentation will provide insight into the latest scientific research regarding the impact of this time period on the evolution of life on Earth."

Westrop has been the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the museum since 1998. His research focuses on the Cambrian System and its fossils, particularly trilobites. He was a member of an international team of geologists and paleontologists who established the current radiometric dating of the Cambrian Period, including the record of the Cambrian explosion. Westrop has published more than 50 papers in scientific journals on various aspects of the Cambrian, and serves as editor of the Journal of Paleontology, published by the Paleontological Society.

Julianna Parker Jones 366-3541