Saturday, February 18, 2012

Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful

When I was a little girl my favorite place to go was the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry. Even though I grew up near Orlando, my family did not have season passes to Disney World or Busch Gardens; we had season passes to MOSI (the above-mentioned museum). So my early memories of science are filled with what it was like to walk as a very small person and look up at enormous dinosaur skeletons, to watch as my father, an electrician, explained the way a current climbed up a Jacob’s ladder, to send a giant pinball though an equally giant pinball machine to learn about kinetic and potential energy, and to sit still and in awe as galaxies swirled above me in a planetarium. And this is also the place where I first fell in love with the world and learning about it…and so with science…well that and my home in the Florida countryside with its lizards and fiddler crabs and an endless ocean. But all of that is to say that whenever I enter a science museum, I feel like I am five again—astonished by and in wonder at everything around me, ready to explore, and in love with the world.

The Hall of Human Origins is not different for me. I can’t help but be in wonder in front of the answer to one of the deepest questions of our existence: where did we come from? I love how the answer to that question shows our connectedness to every living thing around us and to the earth itself. I am looking at a bowl of fruit sitting on my kitchen table as I type and I remember that I am 60% similar to a banana. That knowledge changes how I approach that banana, how I approach everything…and that approach, which may be one that started when I was a child wandering through another museum, is one of reverence to everything around me, everything I am somehow genetically connected to, which is what I think Darwin felt as well. The last lines of The Origin of the Species get at this, and are very meaningful to me:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

“Forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Yes, that is what I felt as I walked through the exhibit this time. And that humanity is one of these most beautiful and most wonderful forms. Darwin’s text deals with brutal things: survival of the fittest, extinction, death, but this is how he chooses to end his text with beauty, wonder, and even hope.

And humanity too is a brutal story: war, genocide, slavery, and yet all of the answers to the question “What does it mean to be human?” throughout the exhibit were about what makes us beautiful: we write music, dance, and sing; we make sculptures and paint images; we have empathy and care for those who would die without our help; we use tools and language and write; we live in community.  The exhibit that most struck me in the Hall of Human Origins was an interactive film about Neanderthal burial practices. I was struck by this answer to what it means to be human: bury the dead, mourn, place flowers in a grave. The beautiful unnecessary practice of recognizing the meaning of a life, the importance of an individual, the passage of time and life and death. This is part of our own beauty, our gift to this universe in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the tension between religion and evolution hinges upon the idea that humans lose their “specialness” if we have evolved like any other animal and from animals. But, as a religious person, I see something else in our evolution. I see that we are unique and special among the species of the world precisely because we have come from other animals, precisely because we are connected to the world around us so profoundly and we are able to be aware of this and look with wonder at how we came to this place. We give a unique and unrepeatable beauty to this vast and stunning universe…but we could never do so if we were not a part of it, if we were not one of these “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”


Also, I promised a few of you that I would add this picture, which is me as a Homo Floresiensis:


  1. Professor Berry, I find your reaction to the museum and expression of it beautifully said. I especially like your reference to Darwin's last line from On the Origin, which only solidifies my views on the relationship between evolution and religion.

    The part of the exhibit that always impresses me most is the art made for it. The recreation of hominid faces and sculptures of different forms in dynamic poses brings them to life. The fact that even the our oldest hominid ancestors, forms like sahelanthropus and orrorin tugenesis, have such expressive faces always surprises me...something I am often struck by also when looking at gorillas or orangutans. The facial reconstructions have eerily modern human-like eyes, which may be a result of artistic embellishment, but they are striking nevertheless.

    The story of Homo floresiensis (pictured above...) always sticks with me even after I have left the exhibit. The fact that they lived only 17,000 years ago-very recently in the scope of evolution-freaks me out! That means they were around when we, modern humans, lived. I remember clearly when the "Hobbits of Flores" (homo floresiensis) were featured in a National Geographic, which I received monthly as a kid, and being totally enthralled by the puzzle of their existence and place in human history. And also hearing stories about little people that live in the forests in Indonesia that will snatch vulnerable children from villages on rising speculation that these tiny humans may even still be around! Now the last part may be somewhat of a Bigfoot-Lochness-type myth, but I admittedly subscribe to those. Now how and when Homo floresiensis got to the island of Flores is still in question, as is whether their small stature results from island dwarfism (the phenomenon where some animals shrink over time on an island, seen in pygmy elephants) or a deformity common throughout the population.

    Anyway, with all of this said, I too feel an awe when going to the Natural History museum, not only because there is so much to see, but the content of it has such huge implications as to our evolution in relation to everything on earth. I also think it it important to recognize that this sense of awe cannot necessarily be explained scientifically, and gives me the feeling that there is something much bigger than us out there.

  2. The visit to the Human Origin's Exhibit was actually my first time at the Museum of Natural History, and while the layout initially confused me, I found the exhibit's placement adjacent to the Hall of Mammals and the Deep Sea Exhibit rather interesting, as it reiterated one of the exhibit's main arguments: we are all very closely related.

    Overall, I thought the exhibit was very well put together. I liked how it didn't just focus on physical developments, but mental evolution as well. While animals have developed intricate social networks that include trade and pooling of resources to promote mutual growth (similar to the ones we are a part of) it is our brain's development to include the opportunity for artistic growth that strikes me as one of our particularly human characteristics.

    This idea of what makes us particularly human is one that the exhibit directly addresses, by simply asking you the question. In the corner of the exhibit, behind the model heads of early hominids, there is a computer station that asks patrons to answer the question "What makes us human?" I am always interested in the answers to questions like this, so I clicked through without answering to see what others had said. Words like "weep," "play," "brain," and "responsibility" popped up on the computer screen, but for me, had little effect, as all of these traits have been observed by scientists in many different animal groups. The two words that had an impact on me, and I believe relates closely to the questions we ask in this class, are "believe" and "faith." While there is no way to see if animals or our earlier human ancestors had these same concepts, the fact that a large portion of the people who visited this exhibit see this as a particularly human trait was something I found interesting.

  3. I agree, Sophie. Professor Berry, your reaction was wonderfully stated. That was the best first-visit to a museum ever. I'd never really been to the Natural History Museum before Friday, and I love science museums that showcase the history of the Earth. I think it's so fascinating to see what we've become and what we might evolve to. Although my future-chick wasn't very appealing...I hope we are hotter than that in the future.

    Over the years, in different classes, I've been asked "what makes us human" many times, and I've always said basically the same thing. We have the ability to care for each other; we think, and play, and love, and cry. We live in groups and lean on each other for support. The exhibit confirmed these traits with its little interactive screen, and threw in a few others that stuck out to me: we believe and we have faith. And I do strongly believe that these traits are some of the strongest among all that makes us human.

    But the exhibit also pointed out something else to me: that we haven't been the only 'humans' to have walked this earth. The numerous videos and displays illustrated some of those traits in other groups of animals. The video on burial rights confirmed that early neanderthals cared for each other the same way we do: they buried their dead respectfully and wept for their loved ones. They too loved and cried, and, in a way, believed. Their beliefs didn't match our modern religions, but the way the family gathered together to bury their dead with flowers showed that they had faith in something 'beyond.' Those are human actions; humans have evolved, but the early neanderthals truly are our ancestors. The exhibit was even more proof of evolution, for me.

    Even more fascinating that the exhibits on early humans were those highlighting our similarities to chimps, monkeys, and orangutans. They display so many 'human' traits, too; they're definitely loving and feel their losses, they care for each other, especially their babies, and they rely on a community. So with such strong similarities to humans, where do we draw the line as to 'what makes constitutes humanity?' Would it be wrong to say that monkeys and orangutans are slightly human? Because I think the exhibit just convinced me that they are...we are something like 98% genetically identical to orangutans (I think)...

    And bananas! We're 60% genetically identical to bananas????? BLEW MY MIND!!

  4. Museums are always a source of entertainment for me. As happy as I was to hear we would be visiting the Museum of Natural History, it caused me to have a longing for home, similar to the nostalgia Professor Berry explained. My absolute favorite museum happens to be the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Part of my interests in taking this class has to do with that museum. Because of my deep love for the Museum of Natural History in New York, I have always had a chip on my shoulder about visiting the one in D.C...until this time. For some reason this visit to the museum showed me the differences between D.C.'s Natural History Museum and New York City's. Although, a live butterfly the size of a softball landed on my nose in New York City's, here in D.C. I learned that far somewhere down the line that butterfly could have been an ancestor.
    The Human Origins exhibit is actually so interesting and informative, it relieved me of my bias towards D.C.'s Museum of Natural History. It goes further than what I had just learned in high school science classes. Usually when I was taught evolution, physical changes were the bulk of the information. The image of a hunched over monkey gradually chaining into a less hairy human was the extent of my visual understanding. After visiting the Human Origin's Exhibit I realize there were so many other changes further than just the physical that brought the first humans to the humans of today. I always sort of considered early hominids, homo floresiensis, and the like to be more animal-like than human-like. Coming to this exhibit caused me to question what makes something human-like as opposed to animal-like and why I had always simply assumed neanderthals were animal-like? At first I realized their appearance was probably the reason I put neanderthals in a different category than humans of today. Once I took away appearance I realized these early people were actually more human-like than animal-like. They buried their dead and seemed to have feelings. "Feelings," is the word I used to answer "What makes us human?" at the computer station in the museum. The crazy thing is, the exhibit showed that early neanderthals actually had some feelings. They cried and mourned their dead. This changed my whole understanding of evolution. I was under the impression that current humans were the only people who felt things deeper than the tangible, possibly even metaphysical. The line of what is "animal-like" and what is "human-like" is completely blurred now and to answer Poonam, no, I don't think it is completely outrageous to say monkeys are slightly human, maybe even more than slightly.
    On another note Wale and I have been discussing all weekend a fact we learned at the museum: it is physically impossible to eat and breathe at the same time. Of course, neither of us are willing to fully prove this wrong, if anyone is please let us know...

  5. Going to the Human Origins exhibit was an interesting experience (also being my first trip to the Natural History Museum). Throughout my whole education I have been taught about evolution and about the different ancestors on the Human tree of evolution; but I never had the privilege to have any sort of visual, in order to understand what something like an Australopithecus africanus actually looked like.

    I also noticed what Calle noticed, that Human Origins was placed next to the Hall of Mammals and the Ocean exhibit. I think that this is deeply indicative of where we came from.

    Looking through the exhibit, I had a different experience from what other people seemed to have. From reading these posts, it seems as if people were in awe of the different species of 'humanoid' species and how they behaved "like us". On the contrary, I was struck in a different sense. I was surprised at how 'not-special' we really are. Our species essentially won the lottery. We just happened to develop a slightly larger brain and different physical form/physique than previous species. As someone else mentioned previously, Neanderthals had many of the same characteristics as we do--we bury our dead, we mourn, maybe they even had some sort of spiritual belief--so what makes us so different? Are we slightly more sentient or self-aware than the others? Or was it that we were just lucky enough to figure out how to domesticate animals first, and through thousands of years populate the planet with 7 billion people.

    Some of you might think that we are so special as a species, but 15,000 years ago, Homo sapiens and previous 'humanoid' species would not have many observable differences. Because this is about science, religion and popular culture, I ask this question to anyone that reads this post: why have divine beings only revealed themselves to Homo sapiens? There could be many possible answers to this question, but I still think it is one that needs to be answered.

    This exhibit has made me think a lot about where our species has been and where it may end up in the future. Maybe Chase was right to point the Buddhist perspective, that eventually we will continue to evolve until we lack physical imperfection--until we shed our physical bodies altogether.

  6. The Human Origins Exhibit was extremely well done and fascinating to say the least. I thought the emphasis on the brevity of the existence of homo sapiens and the longevity of the species from which we developed was the most intriguing. Sometimes, I, and I think society as a whole, forgets to put human development in perspective with the history earth. Though this probably wasn't the intention of the creators of the exhibit, I felt extremely insignificant when compared to the hundreds of thousands of years that other species survived. However, that also gave me perspective, like other people said, on how long our species will last. In the front of the exhibit was a time line that showed how long our ancestors lasted, along with the family tree of genetically similar species. I wonder how this could change in the future, and how that will fare for humans.

    I agree with Professor Berry, about the burial video towards the end of the exhibit. Though the woman who told the story was a little bit creepy, the message stuck with me. Part of the development of our frontal cortex allowed us to value the sanctity of human life enough to mourn the loss of it. I loved how gentle, yet morbid the thought seemed; what made us humans was our empathy.

  7. The Natural History Museum is my favorite museum in DC, and it always has been since I was young. I have always like it even more than The Air and Space Museum. But it was my first time that I've been into the museum at the point in my life where I can actually appreciate the exhibits.
    It amazes me how similar we are to chimpanzees. It only takes that 1.5% of genetic differences that makes us different from them.
    Another thing that amazed me was the timeline of the different human species that walked the earth. We haven't not lived on this planet for that long, compared to the other species that came before us.
    Going through the exhibit made me wonder how the world could have been different if there were different species of humans other than Homo Sapiens on this earth right now. What kind of conflicts would have occurred from it? The kind of prejudice that would be present right now. We can't even live in a fair society among different cultures of the world, let alone the different genders.

  8. This visit to the museum was by far one of my best. The Hall of Human Origins opened my eyes to the beauty of evolution. I love Professor Berry's use of Darwin's quote: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." It is so appropriate, because as a religious person, I see the beauty of God in all His works-- especially in what may be His most precious work: the human race.

    I truly enjoyed seeing where we as a race were hundreds of thousands of years ago, and it made me wonder where we'd be one hundred thousand years from now. I loved seeing where our "humanity" began. But, as Professor Berry mentioned, this made me question what exactly it means to be human. Is it emotion? Empathy? Art? The beauty of humanity was expressed so well in this exhibit. I particularly loved the interactive film about burial practices. It's beautiful to see where our most complex traits began, and how, thousands of years ago, we weren't very different from what we are now.

  9. The question of where humans come from has always puzzled me and I found the Humans Origin Exhibit quite interesting. I really liked the interactive parts where you created what the future species may look like. Although it was amusing, I don't think it was at all realistic because I don't picture humans sprouting flamingo legs or walrus like bodies anytime soon. One of the things in the exhibit that was interesting but kind of creepy at the same time was the live human population count above the map that showed human development. Watching the human population count grow higher and higher was oddly freaky.

    I also watched the video about Shanidar Cave in Iraq and found it fascinating that humans participated in activities such as burial ceremonies accompanied with flowers and the careful placement of the deceased in the ground. It is interesting that habits like this began so long ago and have carried on into present time all around the world. It was interesting to see all of the artifacts in the exhibit such as old tools and artwork. It really reminded me of the socio cultural anthropology class I took last semester and how all of the world's cultures developed out of some type of common foundation thousands of years ago.

    As previously mentioned by some of my other peers and Professor Berry I was very surprised to see that humans were 60% genetically similar to banana trees. Oddly enough, this was probably the most interesting part of the exhibit for me because it seems so far-fetched and something that I would have never guessed to be true.

  10. This is completely unrelated to anything relevant to the question or trip, but since I first visited the exhibit a few years ago, I wondered if the existence of a "Hall of Human Origins" amounted to a de facto recognition by the American government of the validity of evolution, since it IS the National museum?

    I found communication section incredibly fascinating -- I've always had an affinity for speaking, writing, and eloquence in communication. So when I was reading about the earliest forms, I was moved by the simple but powerful impact that a handprint can have on a cave wall. I found myself contemplating *why* we made idols. Why do we carve ivory figurines of elephants? There was something beautiful about the simple act of crafting.

    I was also interested in the spot where you could read what people said it "meant to be human." Some were basic, other ideas were captivating. Of course, I then started to wonder what my answer would be, and found my answer to be personal to me. By that, I realized that what makes us human is different for everyone, but the concept of even thinking about what makes us what we are binds us together as a common species - humans.

    Personally, I said that what makes us human is, "Looking at the stars and wondering what it would be like to cradle them in your arms."

  11. It was my very first experience of going to a museum in Washington, DC and because of how the exhibit was put together, I was completely forgot about my actual objective to see the Human Origin Exhibit and ended up roaming everywhere in the museum like a little child. Thanks to the professor who actually saw me and directed me where I should be going.

    The exhibit was fascinating and has a lot to learn from. What really struck me in the Human Origin Exhibit was the development of difference bone length in accordance with the surrounding nature. In African countries, they had slimmer bodies and longer legs to release heat easily while in Arctic countries, they had wider bodies and shorter legs to retain heat. This kind of physical development was such a stunning fact to me because of how the early humans adopted to the environment. Just like how bear turned its hair color and became a polar bear, humans have the ability to adopt and alter the physical appearance in accordance with the surrounding environment. It was also surprising how small early mankind was. Overall, it was a very productive experience with a lot to learn.

  12. Luke brings up an interesting question. Are humans "special" at all? I think he has a point in saying that "we won the lottery" of survival...but we haven't really been around that long compared to other hominid species. In a sense we can ask, what makes us special compared to Home Erectus, which was around a lot longer than we have been. If we are special, it can't be about our least not yet. What does make us "special" if we are? And if we are not "special" then what does that say about us and about religion? And if we are not special, what separates us from the other animals?

  13. I think the most profound part of the Human Origins Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History was the video excerpt they showed about how all humans, no matter skin color, heritage, and hair color, are all genetically the same and we all are connected by the same ancestors. The video itself was cool, but as I was sitting there watching it there was a group of younger kids who were on a field trip and the way they reacted was really interesting- they were even more excited than their teachers were. I think it is a really hard concept to grasp that everyone is this world is somewhat "related" in the technical terminology, and it is especially overwhelming to picture our human species growing from something as an ape. But to answer Professor Berry's question as to whether or not humans are special, I think we are because of the fact that not only can we do special things that our earlier ancestors could, like dance and sing and create art, but it means something to us, and we make meaning out of the simple things because of our brain developments over the generations.

  14. I definitely enjoyed the interactive "run your own country" exhibit. Although the outcomes were heavily nuanced by someone's political opinions, it was kind of interesting to think about the ruling of a nation in terms of human development, not just political development. Especially when juxtaposed to the exhibit outlining our genetic links to everything from bananas to chimps. Consider how incredible it is that a non-conscious fruit is 60% similar genetically to the species capable of higher thought and civilization-buidling. That just blows my mind. Even if the "rule your own country" exhibit designers couldn't think of a better name than Xlandia.

  15. I have been to a few museums that traced the story of humankind in the past and studied it a lot in school so I already had a good idea of what we would find at the exhibit before I even went there. Still I thought it was very well done with interactive devices and understandable informations for kids but not only, and this made the visit very pleasant.

    One of the things I loved the most was the skulls at the entrance. I do not know if they were real ones or representations but it was a very intense feeling to be able to touch and feel the differences between the skulls as if we were "touching history". I had this opportunity only in my bio laboratory in high school and seeing a little girl next to me playing with them was very powerful, I felt like the new generation of humankind was trying the understand the complexity of her "ancestors". I also spent a lot of time looking at a board that showed the benefits and negative effects of evolution over humans. For example, living on two feet implied we would suffer of back pain but that we could carry food and children in our freed arms.

    Then, the videos about archaeologic search in a cave that gave them the ability to reconstruct the story of a group of humanoid struck me. They found very few clues in this cave but they were able to tell what species of humanoids lived there, what tools they used and how one of the members of the group died (he was eaten by a panther).This aspect of archeology that gives us the opportunity to unravel the mysteries of our past really makes me believe in evolution and want to know more about how life developed on Earth.

    The tree of the evolution of humanoids is fascinating to me. We do not have a linear evolution with every new species descending from an other one and leading to a third one. Our evolution is bushy, with some species of humanoid cohabiting on the planet and disappearing at very different times as if they had no reason to survive while some other did, they just did. A good example of this are the Neanderthals because they had everything they needed to survive (fire, tools, and even cultural development with burying rites) but they diapered anyway.
    Then Why did they become extinct? Why didn't we? Will we become extinct and have a new species of humanoids take our place?

  16. The most fascinating part of the museum for me was the ocean exhibit right before the Hall of Human Origins. There was one part in particular that completely relates to the Human Origins though. I found a spiral that represented the timeline of life on earth through millions of years. At the end of this long, long spiral was a miniscule sliver that represents man. Later in the Human Origins area, there was a timeline of man that stretched across almost an entire wall. It blows my mind again and again when I realize how small that wall is compared to the history of life on this planet and the history of the planet itself. Another stand-out moment for me was the large population clock. The human population was at about 7,134,000,000! I remember looking at one of these in my AP Environment Science class less than a year ago and it was only at about 6.85 billion. Compared to the numbers in the mere thousands that the exhibit showed for the early years of human history, this is staggering. I've read several estimates that show the human population reaching heights of 15 billion eventually. Looking to the future, I wonder how far we'll go in destroying the planet and how different Earth will look in just thirty years.

    Luke's question about humans being special intrigues me. In my opinion, we're not special. We just got lucky. I firmly believe that, one way or another, the human race will cease to exist or be mostly wiped out within the next 1,000 to 2,000 years. In the distant future, another creature, probably completely different from the human race, may evolve to take our place as the most intelligent beings. In the history and future of Earth, I believe the human race will only be a blink.

  17. I was really interested in the part of the exhibit about the social life of the people from the past. We have spent a lot of time talking about how people interact now; the arguments between religious and scientific believers, evolutionists and such. However thinking about how people from millions of years ago interacted is an interesting thing for me to think about. The little signs said that one way of socializing for them was gathering around a fire. To compare that way of interacting to what we have been talking about in class is a huge difference. Despite the differences, people then and now still felt the need to interact with each other, communicate, and create some sense of community. I also thought about how with all of the evidence that this one exhibit had (and there are many other museums with evidence of evolution as well), I personally find it hard to believe that people are able to reject the idea so quickly because of their religious beliefs. It really does come down to who you are able to put your faith in and what you are able to trust.

  18. Wonderful Experience in museums
    I used to think museums are not my thing. My hometown Hefei city in China is also called the science city because a Chinese American Physicist Chen-Ning Franklin Yang, 1957 Nobel Prize Laureate used to study in my high school there and there is a Top 3rd university in my hometown. So when I was young, I have been many different the science and technology museums in China, including Hefei, Beijing and Nanchang. But they are pretty similar. I remember there was a machine which could make your hair stand on end and there were short 3D movies but I hardly remember other things. Perhaps in China science museums are serious. So I preferred zoos and amusement parks before.

    However, things are different here. Museums could be as interesting as amusement parks and zoos. I went to visit the Philadelphia Art Museum last Thanksgiving and the Museum of modern art in New York, and the Spy Museum in DC last winter break. I felt like I began to fall in love with museums here! And it was a wonderful experience in Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History last Friday! I could not express how much I love that museum. It’s pretty colorful and interactive. I remembered there is a chart showing how we related to other living things. It shows that our human-beings are 99% genetically similar. People and chimpanzees are 98.8% genetically similar. And I was a little shocked. Oh we are really pretty similar! I also love those sculptures of animals and glad to see people are taking photos with them. I went to a movie with my friends later that day and still could not help telling them about that wonderful place. (haha)

  19. One of the greatest and most perplexing ideas to me that was heavily prevalent in the museum exhibit was the notion of how long all of this evolution took. I think that is the greatest disconnect for people who are unsure of the theory of evolution. In no way can we completely understand vast amounts of time. The best way for us to relate to time is to put into terms of our own lifespans. Because of this, many of us are apprehensive in accepting all of the information being presented to us.

    An example of this is that we believe our species (homo sapiens) to be the long time ruler of the earth. On the timeline in the museum, it shows us how we've only really been on this earth for about 100,000 years. To put things into perspective, the species that preceded us was around for 900,000 years. That's insane to me. But when you understand how genetic evolution works, you realize that the only way for macro changes to come about is to give it many thousands of years of random mutations and non random selection.

    And to expand on Ben's last point, I completely agree with him. Humanity has dreamed of being able to spread mass destruction since its earliest days. We are an exceptionally violent species. And in the last 70 years, we have not only acquired the weapon that would allow to achieve this, but we've used it. The scary thing is that it only takes one push of a button and a reaction from a rival country to bring about the end of mankind. It makes you wonder just how long we can avoid this doomsday, but the constant threat of it happening makes it almost inevitable that it will happen.