Cristián Samper on Appreciating Evolution

The director of the Natural History Museum discusses why understanding evolution is so critical

Cristián Samper, evolutionary biologist and the director of Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, discusses his favorite evotourism sites. (Brendan Smialowski)
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Cristián Samper is an evolutionary biologist and the director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He spoke with senior editor Laura Helmuth about his own favorite evotourism sites, both within the museum and beyond.

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Which places have given you the greatest appreciation of evolution?
I realize now I’ve been an evotourist all my life! Clearly the Galápagos is one of the places. If you’re a biologist, you have to study On the Origin of Species; it’s such a classic. In some ways, going to the Galápagos, for an evolutionary biologist, is like a pilgrimage to Mecca. Very interesting research is still being done there. The Grants, Peter and Mary, have been doing really interesting work on finches, looking at contemporary evolution.

One of the trips I took this year, to Hawaii, was another. What you’re looking at there is the progression of islands. It’s most striking on the Big Island—you can really see volcanoes in action in every sense of the word. You see stripes of old lava and new lava, and from there you can go to a six-million-year-old island and really understand the formation and erosion of islands, and look at how that led to a diversity of species.

For me, some of the sites that I saw as a young biologist, in Colombia, were also important. There’s a site in Colombia just north of Bogotá in a place called Villa de Leyva. What’s amazing there is that you see all these ammonites, a lot of ammonites, and ichthyosaurs and other marine reptiles. What was so striking to me was that this site is 7,000 feet above sea level, in the Andes Mountains—going there and seeing these incredible fossils, understanding that all this was the ocean bed and now it’s way up in the mountains. It’s not a legendary site, but it was one of the places that really opened my eyes and posed a lot of questions for me as a young biologist.

What evotourism site would you like to visit?
I haven’t been to the Burgess Shale yet. It’s such an iconic collection, and so intimately tied to the Smithsonian Institution in so many ways. It’s so fundamentally important for understanding evolution and life on earth.

What is your favorite representation of evolution in the National Museum of Natural History?
I think the Hall of Human Origins is probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date treatment that we’ve done of evolution.

But we have so much work on evolution throughout the museum. For the museum’s centennial, we established the Evolution Trail, which leads through various parts of the museum, linking the whole concept in an attempt to bring everything together. There’s evolution throughout the museum. You could almost call it the Evolution Museum.

The Mammal Hall also presents a lot in terms of adaptations; there is a big evolutionary message there. And the Ocean Hall, especially the “journey through time” gallery. Even the butterfly pavilion has some interesting information about co-evolution between insects and plants. Evolution is a common theme throughout the museum.

But if I had to pick one gallery or place, it would probably be the Hall of Human Origins. It not only showcases the evidence of change, but it talks about environmental change and about adaptation.

Part of what I like about it is that it makes evolution personal. So often it’s sort of out there and distant, like the fossils from the Burgess Shale or extinct dinosaurs. But this hall brings evolution into personal contact; it shows where we come from.

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