29 March 2008

Houston, Part 2

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science sundialWhy take irreplaceable objects like the Lucy fossil out to display publicly?

One answer might be the magical belief that there's some sort of "essence" to the thing. That the real fossil stirs us in a way that no copy ever can. Another might be that there are little details that are not readily appreciated in reproductions or at a distance. I have a small collection of sketches and original comic art, and I do love seeing little changes that were masked in the final printed page. An artist's quick sketch on the reverse of the paper, an editorial change where the art was covered over and redrawn. And I definitely get a better appreciation for the sheer size and scale of a dinosaur when I see a complete mounted skeleton of an Allosaurus and its trio of wicked meat hook claws.

I went to the Houston Museum of Natural Science because I probably wouldn't have another chance to see the Lucy fossil again. I'm not sure if I went because of the first reason or the second. Being an evolutionary biologist, it seemed somehow important for me to take this opportunity. And it was a good excuse to get out of town for a weekend.

The Lucy fossil was part of a much larger display on Ethopia. I found this very interesting, because I knew next to nothing about the history of the region. I had never heard of ancient cities like Aksum and Gondar, so I appreciated the exhibit greatly.

But as for the Lucy fossil itself... I don't know that seeing the original Lucy fossil really enriched my understanding or appreciation of human evolution. Although renowned for being so complete, it is still really fragmentary. This makes it hard to pull much of a sense of anything. And because I don't know much about vertebrate morphology, I couldn't make sense of even something simple like how this skeleton is distinctly female, or how it differs from other early hominids. My ignorance was simply too vast.

Still, despite my personal ambivalence, I don't oppose the exhibition of the fossil, as some have. Because I am an evolutionary biologist, perhaps I had too much information in some ways so that what would be new and unusual to other people were things I already knew. And hopefully others will be struck by little details and gain some deeper understanding of Lucy that they didn't have before.

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