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NEW YORK, Nov 8 (AFP) - US museums are going where schoolteachers are increasingly wary to tread, with a series of exhibitions championing evolution at a time when Charles Darwin's theory is under fire from creationists.
The exhibits include "Evolving Planet" at Chicago's Field Museum, "Darwin" at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and "Explore Evolution" which is being shown simultaneously at major university museums in six midwest and southern states.
The shows come amid furious debate in many US school districts over the teaching of evolutionary theory and the first trial on the teaching of the God-centered alternative favoured by many religious groups, "intelligent design."
The trial on whether intelligent design is religiously motivated and therefore unconstitutional wrapped up in federal court in Pennsylvania last week, with a judgment expected early in the new year.
Judy Diamond, professor and curator of the Nebraska University State Museum which developed the "Explore Evolution" project, said the idea was very much a product of the current environment.
"We conceived of it as a response to the fact that evolution was not being taught in schools and that museums now have to take up the banner," Diamond told AFP by telephone.
Diamond believes a gradual slide in teaching evolution over the past 30 years has led to the current state of affairs where some school districts are "systematically" seeking to reduce the emphasis on Darwin's theories.
Many other schools, she says, are simply reducing the amount of time spent on teaching evolution as a way of avoiding controversy.
"It's not that they don't want to teach it, it's just that they feel unsure of the amount of community support," she said.
In a Gallup poll released last month, 53 percent of American adults agreed with the statement that God created humans in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it.
Thirty-one percent stood by the intelligent design stance that humans evolved over millions of years from other forms of life and God guided the process, while 12 percent said humans have evolved from other forms of life and "God has no part."
Diamond said her project was aimed at addressing the apparent lack of a coherent education about evolution for both children and adults.
"They often don't have a clue what they are arguing about, or what they supporting and not supporting," she said.
While response to the exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive, around 10 percent of feedback cards provided by the Nebraska museum have taken a critical stance.
"The theory of evolution should not be shown as it is not the truth," read one. "That God created the world will be proved to evolutionists at the end of their life."
As well as Nebraska, identical "Explore Evolution" exhibits are being shown at museums attached to the universities of Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Minnesota.
The "Darwin" show in New York is being touted by its curators as the most in-depth exhibition ever mounted on the British naturalist and author of the landmark evolutionary work, "Origin of Species."
While the organisers insist it is not intended as a direct riposte to the proponents of intelligent design, the exhibit promises to "clarify the distinction" between scientific theories and non-scientific explanations about the origin of life.
"We feel both the opportunity and the need for a very strong statement about the importance of Darwin to science and to our daily lives," said Michael Novacek, senior vice president at the American Museum of Natural History.
"As a scientific theory, evolution is not merely a matter of curious conversational speculation as the way it is sometimes characterised by the anti-evolutionist group," Novacek said.
"It is a very powerful unifying theory ... People should at least have a sense of this before they make personal decisions about whether his theory has any merit," he added.
US President George W. Bush has said he supports teaching intelligent design to American students on the grounds of allowing differing schools of thought to contend.
Critics have responded that intelligent design lacks any scientific foundation and, therefore, should not be put forward as a scientific alternative to evolution.
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