Lucy’s legacy

As I’ve mentioned before, Lucy is going to be in Houston at the end of this week for an extended stay. This is not entirely a joyous occasion in the scientific community: many people, including Richard Leakey, are not happy that such a precious specimen has been subjected to the risks of travel. I sympathize. The bones of Lucy must be treated with the utmost care and regard, and any loss or damage would be an awful tragedy. However, there’s more to it than preserving an important fossil: Lucy is a touchstone to our past and is a symbol of the importance of our long history. We need to bring the ancient world to life for our citizens, and for not entirely rational reasons, people will want to see the real thing. I see that someone else shares my sentiment:

There is a wanton arrogance alive and kicking within the general scientific community. An arrogance that clings stubbornly to fact while at the same time stridently denying reality. And it pisses me the hell off. The facts in this case are clear: Lucy is one of the oldest hominid fossils ever discovered, and is very valuable for researchers. The reality of the situation is equally clear-cut, if a bit harder for the critics to swallow: Nobody gives a shit about replicas. Does it look the same? Sure. Can 99.9 percent of the population not tell the difference? You betcha. Does that matter? Not one iota. You see, for all the cranial capacity human beings have developed since little Lucy made do with a glob of gray matter the size of a key lime, we are not rational thinkers. Homo sapiens are, first and foremost, irrational and emotional.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it arrogance, but there is a little selfishness to it, and most importantly, there’s a deep appreciation of the importance of that long-dead individual and a greater fear of its loss. What balances that fear, though, should be the recognition that other people could also stand to learn to love that tiny scrap of our long-past ancestry — the Lucy exhibit is an opportunity to teach.

Shouldn’t that be part of our mission? In addition to our own intimate learning of science, the task of sharing it with everyone else?


  1. #1 Zeno
    August 29, 2007

    I’m a relic collector from way back. (I assume it may at least in part be a side-effect of my Catholic upbringing.) I have on my desk a small chunk of masonry from Throop Hall, the original Caltech lab building (later admin center) that was torn down in 1972 because of earthquake damage. I have on my bulletin board the office door card of a colleague who passed away much too early and much too young and much too recently to be forgotten. And I noticed recently that my car still contains the small piece of wood that came from my grandparents’ house when it was being gutted for reconstruction.

    Each little item reminds me.

  2. #2 Tex
    August 29, 2007

    The Houston Chronicle had a very nice spread on the front page about Lucy today. I can’t wait to see the letters to the editor tomorrow pointing out how Satan planted fossils like her to fool those of us with little faith and what a godless, liberal paper the Chronicle is (this is a paper that never passes up a chance to endorse a conservative, no matter how demonstratably idiotic he or she is).

  3. #3 The Science Pundit
    August 29, 2007

    I believe it was Robert Pape (in an essay about how almost everyone has the makings of a suicide bomber) who asked the hypothetical “Would you give up your wedding band (for a small reward) if you knew that it would be replaced with an exact duplicate that even you couldn’t tell from the original?”

    Only single or divorced men answered “Yes.”

  4. #4 jeffox backtrollin'
    August 29, 2007

    Oh come on now. If King Tut can tour, why not Lucy? My 2c.

  5. #5 Andrew Tetlaw
    August 29, 2007

    As a complete non-scientist I really enjoyed ‘Evolution’ by Stephen Baxter. It’s a novelisation, the story of, evoltion. It’s told in a dramatic way that helps you identify with the protagonists and it is an incredible tale of survival.

    It helped me truely appreciate that evolution is not just a dry possibly brutal, theory. Face it, ‘survival of the fitest’ doesn’t really connote anything positive. And yet it really is a grand story on the same level as other sacred texts.

    People feel truth they don’t just process and accept facts.

  6. #6 Dorid
    August 29, 2007

    I have mixed feelings about this. I was very disappointed when I found out that the skull of La Brea Woman in the LA NHM was a fake. (The Page does not sell ANY fossils from the tar pits, only offers reproductions. ALL La Brea fossils remain on site.)

    I kinda felt cheated in a way… I understand using reproduction parts when you don’t have a whole fossil, but to reproduce the whole thing seems like cheating the paying museum members (especially because the reproduction is not labeled that I recall)

    On the other hand, I can totally see keeping the only human found in the tar pits on site. BECAUSE most people can’t tell the difference between a real fossil and a museum quality reproduction, I don’t see where displaying a reproduction would make any difference, except on an emotional level… people want to see the “real thing” … and I expect a lot of people are willing to pay to go to a museum to see Lucy than would pay to go see a replica.

    Since Lucy is a lot better known than La Brea Woman (and arguably more important), I can see where both side would feel even more strongly than I did about La Brea Woman.

    I’d like to go see Lucy, but at the same time I also worry about how well she travels, and whether or not a human remain should be moved (oddly, I did not have this concern over the remains used in Bodies displays around the country. So it seems my concern and any opposition to moving Lucy (or La Brea Woman) is purely irrational and emotional.

    I can’t feel TOO bad about feeling emotional about science, though.

  7. #7 PZ Myers
    August 29, 2007

    You would advocate lying to people?

    Uh, no. We shouldn’t do that, ever.

  8. #8 Mike
    August 29, 2007

    As the custodian of three entirely ordinary (and thus within my meagre budget) trilobite fossils, I understand the fascination that the real article holds. No matter how well done, a reproduction could not induce in me the feeling of awe and wonder that holding the remains of a dime-a-dozen sea bug that had lived 400 million years ago produces. That feeling of connection can be a powerful outreach tool. I don’t know what my decision would be if I were custodian of Lucy, but it wouldn’t be a slam-dunk.

    I’m not as interested in hominids as in other denizens of the past, but while I might go to see Lucy if she came within range, a reproduction wouldn’t have me go to the end of the street.

  9. #9 Mike
    August 29, 2007

    “The original specimen should not be moved. They should take an authentic looking cast and tell people it is the real deal.”

    If we evolutionists lied like that we’d have to pay creationists a licence fee for use of their techniques.

  10. #10 procyon
    August 29, 2007

    From the Washington Post:
    The International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology, a group affiliated with UNESCO, passed a resolution in 1998 saying such fossils shouldn’t be moved outside the country of origin. The resolution, unanimously approved by representatives of 20 countries, including Ethiopia and the United States, said replicas should be used for public display.

    Apparently the Smithsonian is refusing to display the Lucy fossils. Bummer.

  11. #11 vandalhooch
    August 29, 2007

    I share Pee Zed’s sentiments. This week I used a real fossilized mammoth tooth (with attached jaw material) in my high school sophomore biology class. I made a special point of indicating the fossil’s age and its irreplaceableness. You should have seen the students’ faces light up and their eyes go wide when they realized it wasn’t a ‘fake’.

    Get an emotional hook in ’em first, then keep ’em on the line with intellectual appreciation!

  12. #12 raven
    August 30, 2007

    They better have very good security.

    What is the possibility that a Xian terrorist will try and destroy those old fossil bones? Pretty high IMO.

    These guys think nothing of lying for Jesus. They occasionally kill for Jesus. I can just see the wheels going around in their tiny brains. Why try to destroy science for Jesus by babbling like an insane 2 year old on the internet when you can sabatage some real fossils with a hammer? For Jesus of course.

    There have already been some rumblings from the creo cess pool community about doing exactly that.

  13. #13 John Scanlon, FCD
    August 30, 2007

    Christian B. – …What? Did you just fall asleep at the keyboard?

  14. #14 Ex Patriot
    August 30, 2007

    I only wish that I could travel the distance from where I live in Europe to see the the most amazing fossil of all time. I have read the book about her discovery and have tried to read everything else concerning her. I just hope the security if very tight as you never know the fundie idiots might try to do for their mythological god. Safe journey Lucy

  15. #15 Dave S.
    August 30, 2007

    Sheldon writes:

    At the Denver Musuem of Nature and Science they have a cast of the Lucy skeleton. It looks very real, and I would bet that one cannot tell the difference. The original specimen should not be moved. They should take an authentic looking cast and tell people it is the real deal.

    What PZ says. It’s truly an awful idea. If you display a cast, call it a cast. If you display a model, call it a model. If it’s imaginative artwork, call it so. If you aren’t convinced by the principle of the thing, just imagine the Creationist outrage when such a thing gets out, as it will.

    And they’d be right to be outraged.

    On another matter. Don’t the majority of paleoanthropologists do analysis from casts anyway?

    But they know they are working with a cast when they work with a cast.

  16. #16 Mel
    August 30, 2007

    Recently the King Tut traveling exhibit came to MT’s Museum of the Rockies. The displays were nice and I stolled through reading all the placards. But, I was not teribly impacted. Everything (except 2 necklaces) were replicas. I was not impressed by a 4ft tall gold leaf statue I knew was plastic. Now, you show me the real thing and I am liable to stare in awe for hours. A replica just does not inspire me like the real thing.

  17. #17 Dennis Lawler
    August 30, 2007

    We’ve got tickets to see her tonight during the members only preview. Can’t wait! What a coup for our local science museum!

  18. #18 Fatboy
    August 30, 2007

    while I might go to see Lucy if she came within range, a reproduction wouldn’t have me go to the end of the street.

    Well, I’d probably go to the end of the street to see a reproduction, but not make the 5 hour drive down to Houston. Like a few other people here, I’ve got a handful of real trilobite and ammonite fossils. And I’d go further to see those than a reproduction of any fossil.

    Anyway, my family’s planned a trip to Houston for October. Hopefully the crowds won’t be so bad by then.

  19. #19 stogoe
    August 30, 2007

    Oh, lay off her, Christian B. I think Atrios said it best:

    I don’t know if she’s dumb as a stone or if she just understandably had a bit of a brain fart. I’ve got a Ph.D and I probably had moments like that in public. Either way she’s just a young woman whose worst moment wasn’t appreciably worse than the regular outbursts of our commander in chief. It means nothing. Let it go.

    As for this:

    Consider that it took only two Texans to wreck the planet’s most powerful military, beggar the world’s leading economy, destroy the western hemisphere’s foremost seaport, literally grind to dust uncounted artifacts from the dawn of civilization while butchering the Middle East’s most advanced secular nation, and undermine a Constitution which had withstood civil war, depression, and outrageous corruption.

    Dubya is in no way a Texan. He’s from a blue-blooded northeastern dynasty, and he merely moved to Texas when the GOP determined he could win a run for Governor there.

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