The Questionable Authority

The Edge of Humanity

Lucy went on display today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and there was no way I could resist paying her a visit. I went in to the exhibit with very mixed feelings about it. A lot of people, including quite a few scientists I respect, have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the exhibit. Richard Leakey called the trip “a form of prostitution” and “a gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity.” Several museums have refused to display the fossil, and the Ethiopian community is calling for a boycott of the exhibit.

Their concerns are hardly unreasonable. Lucy’s bones are very, very old and very, very fragile. Displaying her does involve some risk, particularly in a traveling exhibition that requires packing and unpacking the bones several times. There is no other Lucy. She’s unique. She’s a valuable – priceless – scientific specimen. The opponents of the exhibit think that the risk to the remains is simply too great to justify the exhibit.

For all I know, they might be right. I can tell you this, though. When I walked over next to the display case and looked down at Lucy, all of those concerns evaporated from my mind, replaced by a sense of pure awe.

You stand there and look down at the fossil, and you can feel the weight of the generations that separate you. She lived recently in geological terms, but it’s still so long ago that it beggars the imagination. The Rome of Augustus is ancient history, but sixteen hundred times that many years separate us from her. What was her world like?

When you stand and look at Lucy, you stand at the edge of humanity. She’s clearly not human, but she’s also very clearly human-like in appearance. But what does that mean in terms of how she thought? She walked on two legs, and almost certainly used sticks and stones as tools, but did she have hopes and dreams? Was she able to think about what her children might do, or were her hopes limited to finding dinner and shelter for the next day?

Did somebody miss her when she didn’t come home?

i-21495180783ddf089b2c153da34fa39c-lucy_bones_300_588-tm.jpg

Photo courtesy of The Houston Museum of Natural Science

There’s something about bone that evokes questions like that, in a way that resin and plaster do not. If Lucy can do that for even just a fraction of the people who see her, if she can make just a few more people think about our roots, and about what it means to be a human, if she can show just a few more people the value in looking past our own time, then I think exhibiting her was the right choice.

Science is important, and it would be a tragedy if Lucy is lost to science. But Lucy is also part of our past in a very real and concrete way, and it would be a tragedy if she was kept hidden in a vault, locked away from the world forever.

Comments

  1. #1 jasonmitchell
    August 31, 2007

    I recently saw a program where rare,(extremely) fragile, kangaroo fossils were scanned and reproduced using cad/cam technology and medical imagers (cat scan?) laser surface scan would work just as well.. in any case why hasn’t some one do this w/ the rare and priceless Lucy bones? I know viewing exact to the millimeter replicas does not have the same draw at museums, nor (possibly) the same viceral effect. What are your feelings on the subject – should the originals be in a vault in Ethiopia and exact replicas be on display?

  2. #2 hoary puccoon
    August 31, 2007

    I can understand all the arguments against letting her go galavanting around, but if she were coming anywhere near me– wow. I’d stand in line for hours….

  3. #3 Hans
    August 31, 2007

    I wouldn’t go see a replica even if you paid me. You might as well just download a picture of them bones.

  4. #4 Mats
    August 31, 2007

    Can’t wait till the Houston Museum of Natural Science displays the Piltdown bones, and, while we are at it, the Nebraska Man bones.

  5. #5 Doc Bill
    August 31, 2007

    I hope it’s a *plus* on your recent move to Houston to visit with Lucy. I’ll be there soon myself.

    On a similar note I read Wonderful Life back in 1989 and it was chock full of pictures and diagrams. But, nothing did the Burgess Shale justice but to stand there, way up on a steep slope, above the treeline, after hiking 6 miles up a mountain and look at the critters directly in the rock.

  6. #6 snaxalotl
    August 31, 2007

    … and again we see the see the smug allusion to piltdown and nebraska men. Keep “Mats” in mind. While it’s nice to be armed with complex arguments about protein folding and so on, most creationists have never had someone simply point out the futility of their favorite talking points: piltdown and nebraska were never pillars of evolution; evolution doesn’t depend on the fossil record; evolution never needed the peppered moth; the Weasel program doesn’t prove evolution, it demonstrates something so trivially obvious only a boob would need it… Most creationists NEED these trivial blips to be foundational claims so there can be simple disproofs that non-experts can understand. I see a lot of scientists involved in public debate where they come prepared to argue the sort of detail you see on PT, and miss opportunities to point out simple but crucial misunderstandings along the lines of “errrrm, nobody actually cares about that. they never did”

  7. #7 George Cauldron
    August 31, 2007

    Can’t wait till the Houston Museum of Natural Science displays the Piltdown bones,

    That’s a good question: where *are* the Piltdown man fossils? Were they simply thrown away in 1953?

  8. #8 raven
    August 31, 2007

    Mats the troll demonstrating his dishonesty and low IQ:

    Can’t wait till the Houston Museum of Natural Science displays the Piltdown bones, and, while we are at it, the Nebraska Man bones.

    There are no Nebraska man bones. The ID was always tentative on the basis of one tooth. The associated bones turned out to be an extinct pig. Science makes mistakes like any other field. They correct them. This was corrected 80 years ago in 1927. Its not like biology, anthropology, paleontology hasn’t moved on in the last century.

    Creationists just pile lies up day in and day out to try and make their bronze age mythology sound like it has the slightest bit to do with the real world. When you start out with mythology, that is all they can ever hope to do. Keep lying.

    Nebraska Man
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Paragraphs deleted for length.
    Though not a deliberate hoax, the classification proved to be a mistake.

    It was originally described by Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1922 on the basis of a tooth found in Nebraska by rancher and geologist Harold Cook in 1917.

    Further field work on the site in 1925 revealed that the tooth was falsely identified. Other parts of the skeleton were also found. According to these newly discovered pieces, the tooth belonged neither to a man nor to an ape, but to an extinct genus of Peccary called Prosthennops and its identification as an ape was retracted in the journal Science in 1927.[1]

  9. #9 blf
    September 1, 2007

    My understanding is one reason, perhaps the major reason, a significant(?) percentage of the Ethiopian ex-pat community is against the exhibition is it is seen as an PR ploy by the Ethiopian government. The current Ethiopian government’s policies are reported as being rather dubious: The wars with Eritrea; political trials; harassment of the independent media including the closure of papers criticising an apparently rigged election; politically-motivated arrests (not sure about political trials?); arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial executions; etc.

    Sources:

    * Amnesty International report 2007: Ethiopia

    * BBC Country profile: Ethiopia

  10. #10 blf
    September 1, 2007

    That’s a good question: where *are* the Piltdown man fossils? Were they simply thrown away in 1953?

    According to the Wikipedia article:

    In 2003, the Natural History Museum held an exhibition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the exposure of the hoax.

    Whilst that doesn’t answer the question, it suggests the faux fossils are still around. (An embarrassing thing is I was living in England, albeit not London, at that time, but have no recollection at all of the exhibit.)

    The Natural History Museum has a website devoted to the forgery, but I didn’t see any reference to the current location of the fakes:

    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/human-origins/piltdown-man/

    On the other hand, I didn’t look very hard either! If I had to guess, I’d guess the Natural History Museum still(?) has them, but I’ve no idea if they are on display or not.

  11. #11 LeeLeeOne
    September 1, 2007

    Mats, pwnd!

    TY to Raven…

    damn!

    I’ve wanted to be able to say that for a very long time!

  12. #12 bacopa
    September 1, 2007

    How long did you have to wait in line? I plan on seeing Lucy on a weekday shortly before the exhibit leaves. That’s how I got into Bodyworlds in only thirty minutes. I you waited less than two hours I’ll go see her next week.

  13. #13 Carl
    September 1, 2007

    Mats has displayed a characteristic that is fundamental to the science vs. religion “problem”.

    In the view of many, the bible is never wrong. Therefore, since the bible describes the origins of man differently than evolution, evolution is wrong.

    The problem is that science *is* often wrong. The fact that it is self-correcting is lost on those who only point out the “mistakes” of science, not the great triumphs.

    If you want absolute certainty, join (or start) a religion.

    If you want to understand how the world works, stick to science.

  14. #14 truth machine
    September 1, 2007

    “almost certainly used sticks and stones as tools”

    Why do you say that? That’s not at all certain, and there’s no evidence of it — the best we can do is infer it from the behavior of modern primates. Are you not aware that bipedalism preceded increased brain size, and that Lucy’s skull is the same size as that of a chimp?

  15. #15 Mike Dunford
    September 1, 2007

    “almost certainly used sticks and stones as tools”

    Why do you say that? That’s not at all certain, and there’s no evidence of it — the best we can do is infer it from the behavior of modern primates. Are you not aware that bipedalism preceded increased brain size, and that Lucy’s skull is the same size as that of a chimp?

    I think that the fact that we can infer it from the behavior of modern great apes is fairly compelling evidence. All of the modern great apes are known to use tools in the wild. It’s certainly not unreasonable to infer that tool use is a trait that we’ve (the great apes) all inherited from a common ancestor. It certainly seems like a more likely possibility than the alternative – that tool use arose independently in every single great ape lineage.

  16. #16 Mike Dunford
    September 1, 2007

    How long did you have to wait in line?

    I bought the ticket on the museum’s website that morning. It’s timed entry, and I got there pretty much when the museum opened. No line to speak of, but I think that was mostly because I got there early.

  17. #17 mollishka
    September 1, 2007

    Poignant.

  18. #18 Bob
    September 1, 2007

    I and a couple of friends plan on making the trip down from Oklahoma in late October/early September.

    As already alluded to, if displaying these extremely rare fossils can inspire a new generation of science-seekers, then it’s more than worth the risk to them.

    What point in having them if they’re always locked away somewhere, hidden from sight?

    I would agree: seeing the real thing is worth a great deal of time and effort.

    Seeing a replica? Why bother?

    It’s akin to only looking at photographs of Yellowstone instead of being there…

  19. #19 Metro
    September 1, 2007

    I am reminded of the Mona Lisa.

    She sits under tinted glass in the Louvre, glass so dark that the famous smile is difficult to make out.

    Fortunately the viewer will be amply assisted in the effort by the miiiiillyuns of morons snapping away with their cameras, in total defiance of the signs clearly posted not ten feet distant, under the eye of two motionless security guards, to get a picture of something which they could download for free at better resolution and with higher quality.

    The place is so inundated with flashbulbs that it resembles a disco. But the French know that replacing the old lady with a copy will never do. A man I spoke to said it would be like coming home and making love to someone who looked, felt, and spoke exaclty like your wife, but wasn’t.

    For some reason, we ascribe characteristics to the genuine article that we won’t to a fake. Which, of course, is what the flashing tourist cameras are all about.

    Lucy’s bones are important in just that way.

  20. #20 Anti-Evolutionist
    September 1, 2007

    If Lucy can do that for even just a fraction of the people who see her, if she can make just a few more people think about our roots, and about what it means to be a human, if she can show just a few more people the value in looking past our own time, then I think exhibiting her was the right choice.

    If Lucy is our ancestor, then what it means to be human is nothing more than being another animal that lives, dies and turns to dust.

    Not sure why you think that was the “right” choice.

  21. #21 brightmoon
    September 1, 2007

    “If Lucy is our ancestor, then what it means to be human is nothing more than being another animal that lives, dies and turns to dust.”

    well, since lucy or a close relative IS our ancestor…

    anti-evolutionist, you have to find your own purpose in life and that’s true whether you believe in a deity or not

  22. #22 Anti-Evolutionist
    September 1, 2007

    So basically I have to lie to myself. I have no real purpose… I just have to make one up.

  23. #23 ChicagoMolly
    September 1, 2007

    I had my Moment about 20 years back. The American Museum of Natural History held a huge Human Ancestors exhibit; it’s the only event I ever traveled to NYC deliberately to attend. Room after room of either actual fossils (when they could get them) or castings (when they couldn’t). At that time the Ethiopian government refused permission to send Lucy, so the exhibit used a cast. I was definitely in the right mood to appreciate her, and I was properly impressed, but the emotional Moment came when I stood over the little display case holding the skull of the Taung Child. Knowing that this was the actual fossil that Raymond Dart dug up in the ’20s really made me catch my breath — and even get a bit teary. Funny how that works.

  24. #24 ChicagoMolly
    September 1, 2007

    Anti-Ev:

    “So basically I have to lie to myself. I have no real purpose… I just have to make one up.”

    Wow, we really do occupy different dimensional systems here. Why do you say that the purpose you give yourself is “not real”? Do you mean to say that the only “real” purpose you can have is one that was dumped in your lap by Tradition (Christianity, Islam, Manifest Destiny, Dialectical Materialism, etc) and must never be questioned?

    I suppose if I inherited the Family Mansion from Grandpapa and never changed a thing, that would be a Real House, but if I got some lumber and tools and built my own cabin on Walden Pond and modded it from time to time to make it work better for me that house would be a lie?

  25. #25 truth machine
    September 1, 2007

    I think that the fact that we can infer it from the behavior of modern great apes is fairly compelling evidence.

    That doesn’t make sense — an inference isn’t evidence. I think what you mean is that the behavior of modern great apes is compelling, justifying the inference. But you’re way too facile with talk of certainty, about a creature that lived 3.2 million years ago and whose habits we know virtually nothing about beyond inference.

    It certainly seems like a more likely possibility

    “a more likely possibility” is not nearly the same thing as “almost certainly”.

    than the alternative – that tool use arose independently in every single great ape lineage.

    Uh, nice false dichotomy — tool use could have arisen in great apes within the last 3.2 million years. And independent discovery is not at all unlikely — it’s a cognitive-based behavior, not a genetic trait, and very likely to arise in any organism with sufficient cognitive capacity. Such independent discoveries are quite common among creatures with big enough brains — human cultures independently have discovered many basic techniques — but we really don’t know much about Lucy’s cognitive abilities. She may well have used tools, but “almost certainly” is unwarranted, especially as you seem to have connected it to “human-like appearance” and walking on two legs.

  26. #26 truth machine
    September 1, 2007

    If Lucy is our ancestor, then what it means to be human is nothing more than being another animal that lives, dies and turns to dust.

    Your great-grandfather lived, died, and turned to dust — Lucy is no different, just further back. If you don’t believe it of your great-grandfather, why believe it of Lucy? As for “what it means to be human” — intelligent people understand that meaning isn’t determined by picking out just one fact, and that “nothing more than” is wrong-headed drivel.

    Not sure why you think that was the “right” choice.

    Because he doesn’t make the wrong-headed inferences you do.

  27. #27 truth machine
    September 1, 2007

    So basically I have to lie to myself. I have no real purpose… I just have to make one up.

    A can opener has a “real purpose”. It’s beyond me why folks like you have no greater desire than to be someone else’s tool, but I think it has something to do with child abuse.

  28. #28 truth machine
    September 1, 2007

    If Lucy is our ancestor, then what it means to be human is nothing more than being another animal that lives, dies and turns to dust.

    Not sure why you think that was the “right” choice.

    See, here’s the thing: If the second law if thermodynamics is true, that means that the sun and all other stars will eventually burn out. Ok, so was it “the wrong choice” for scientists to come up with the second law of thermodynamics? That’s as dumb as what you are saying about Lucy. Lucy is our ancestor — that’s a fact. If you don’t like what you see as the implications of that fact — well, too bad, there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it. But we who aren’t so foolish don’t agree as to the implications, and have rather different, more intelligent, ideas as to what it means to be human.

  29. #29 joel hanes
    September 1, 2007

    Ever wonder where the original “Peking Man” erectus fossils are at this very minute?
    I do.

    I suppose they simply got lost and destroyed in the welter of chaos that was the War in the Pacific; but one can hope that they, like the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, might surface again.

    Be nice to see a confirmed sighting of the Eskimo Curlew too.

    Old bones are irreplaceable in an entirely different way than vanishing species.

  30. #30 Jim Thomerson
    September 1, 2007

    Going a little off track here. It strikes me that Lucy and other Australopithicines were relatively small, weak, with weak dentition, etc. in comparison to modern great apes. They lived in an Africa even more dangerous than today (granted, no AK-47′s). Clearly they had a tool kit and social organization which allowed them to thrive. We can only speculate as to the nature of their adaptations.

    So far as I have been able to find out, modern humans are the only living great ape which can throw things accurately and hard. Because some of us make millions by throwing things accurately and hard, I suspect the phhysiology and anatomy of these able throwers is well understood. It would be interesting for a sports physiologist, expert on throwers, to examine the fossils we have and try to determine how well they were constructed for hard accurate throwing. Picture a leopard considering a group of Australopithicines and thinking about being hit around the head with a volly of 100 MPH rocks. Leopard might decide to look elsewhere for supper.

  31. #31 bacopa
    September 2, 2007

    Glad to know it wasn’t so long a wait. I my go in the next week or two and use the pre-buy option. I’ll take the bus and train so I can walk over to Valhalla after the exhibit. I assume you do know about Valhalla, the drunken intellectual capital of Houston? Best time to go is Friday at 4:00. Just go to the WM Rice statue on the Rice quad, extend you right arm as you face the library. Your arm will point the way. Cross the little street and enter the underground chamber and you’re there.

  32. #32 David B.
    September 3, 2007

    Lucy should most certainly have gone on tour and the attitude of many who disagreed struck me as a variation of the “science is too important to waste on non-scientists” attitude that has undeniably contributed to the many problematic attitudes of the public to science today.

    There is only one Mona Lisa, one Declaration of Independence, one Tutankhamun’s treasure, yet all these irreplaceable objects have gone on tour. Arguing a unique biological specimen is somehow more important than a unique artistic, historical or archeological one just sounds pompous.

    Engaging the public should be part of science’s mission. And it’s a goal that’s worth some risk.

  33. #33 gus
    September 3, 2007

    To Mats, and other doubters: You are afraid to lose your dogma. While comfortable, it closes the mind. There are many more examples of “non-creation” out there. People need to let go of the archaic notions of a god, benevolent or nt.

  34. #34 hoary puccoon
    September 4, 2007

    On PT Mats claimed that the threads on pro-science blogs are all about philosophy, never about science. But has anybody else noticed that as soon as the discussion turns away from creationism to science, Mats’s posts stop coming?

    Incidentally, it’s interesting that the Piltdown man was officially revealed as a fraud in 1953, the same year that Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. Look at the progress in molecular biology and molecular evolution since that time. For that matter, look at the discoveries in paleontology– including Lucy– that were made since then. Thanks to the double helix, Lucy and her fellow newly-discovered hominids, and other radical discoveries like plate tectonics and feather-bearing dinosaurs, evolutionary biology has changed almost beyond recognition since 1953.

    And what does creation “science” have to say about that? “Big news. The Piltdown man is a fraud!” Good to see they’re staying in the forefront.

  35. #35 Thinker
    September 4, 2007

    Joel Hanes:

    Ever wonder where the original “Peking Man” erectus fossils are at this very minute? I do.

    There was a program about this on TV over here in Sweden just a few days ago. It turns out that the researcher Otto Zdansky, who found the first remains of Peking Man (but was not credited for it) took three teeth to the University of Uppsala, where they remain to this day.

    As for most of the other remains, your assumption is correct: during the war, they were loaded in crates, to be removed and safely stored, but disappeared and have never been found.

    It would be awesome if they would resurface.

  36. #36 Thinker
    September 4, 2007

    Anti-evolutionist:

    So basically I have to lie to myself. I have no real purpose… I just have to make one up.

    Personally, I see this completely the other way around: I think it’s abolutely wonderful to belong to a species (the only one?) that is equipped to contemplate what to do with our lives, consider the alternatives and select one based on personal preference. (BTW, before anybody else says it: yes, it’s not a perfect world, so the available realistic alternatives are not the same for every child…)

    Rather than seeing purpose and duty as something handed down to us by some kind of dictator, I see our duty as humans to make active choices about how to live life, and then even to be prepared to reconsider those choices as we gain experience. This is difficult, but who said life was supposed to be easy?

    Religion, and other dictates and dogma, are comfortable security blankets, used to avoid the challenge of making choices of your own in an uncertain, complex world. Accepting that challenge and taking responsibility for your choices is anything but lying to yourself.

  37. #37 hans
    September 4, 2007

    Great exhibition, well worth the 8-hour drive! Very encouraging seeing so many people lined up for Lucy’s exhibition on Sunday!:) My kids enjoyed the practical demonstration the museum staff gave, showing skull models and highlighting their differences.

  38. #38 jasonmitchell
    September 4, 2007

    I see most/all commentors feel that reproductions would not inspire the way the genuine aritcle would. I tend to agree, my cristsism/suggestion was based on the comments in the original story that critics believe that sufficient measures are not beeing taken to ensure the safety of the specimens. In a similar vein, if the specimens were digitized wouldn’t a digital version be available to MORE researchers than the originals now are (just email the mighty big solidworks attachment)?

  39. #39 ChicagoMolly
    September 4, 2007

    jasonmitchell: “I see most/all commentors feel that reproductions would not inspire the way the genuine aritcle would.”

    Well, yah, I agree in a sort of a general way, but on the other hand …

    The odds of my getting to actually visit Mars are for all practical purposes zero. The emotional little hairless ape-descendant in me is REALLY DISAPPOINTED and wants to sit in the corner whining and pouting about it all day. But the intellectual hairless ape-descendant is hugely impressed by all the scientific information we’ve got back from the Rovers so far, and without endangering any crewmembers. And all those digital photos do carry one heck of a WOW factor. (Although I do wish they’d packed 5 or 6 microphones on board so we could have a Dolby Surround soundtrack to go with the pictures!)

  40. #40 blf
    September 5, 2007

    In a similar vein, if the [Lucy] specimens were digitized wouldn’t a digital version be available to MORE researchers than the originals now are (just email the mighty big solidworks attachment)?

    I recall once reading that one of the reasons the Piltdown fraud took so long to uncover was that all anybody could look at in detail were casts. Apparently you could see the originals to satisfy yourself the casts were an accurate reproduction, but then you had to work with the casts. The problem is, of course, faked aging stains and the like are not part of the cast, so many clews were missed.

    Whilst I am not saying Lucy is a fake, the same point applies here: For each reproduction technology, some physical details don’t reproduce. That doesn’t mean the remains shouldn’t be digitised or (and?) whatevered–of course they should–but you do have to be careful to remember and work within the limitations.