Precisely

28 06 2007

Regarding “Lucy” going on tour, PZ writes the following;

Just a thought, but the creationists have got it all wrong. They think we worship Charles Darwin, but actually, if there are any objects of reverence among evolutionary biologists, it would be the evidence — the bones of Lucy, of Archaeopteryx, of Tiktaalik, the little trilobite in shale that I keep by my hand at my office desk.

Some days I swear that if I hear the word “Darwinism” or “Darwinist” one more time I’m going to scream; Charles Darwin was an exceptionally smart and unusual man, but I do not keep a little shrine next to my bed with a copy of On the Origin of Species that I read passages from every night before going to bed or anything of that sort. If there is anything that I truly have come to love and cherish in terms of evolution, it has been seeing the various forms of life that attest to it. The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen is finer than any work of art, an Amur tiger roaring on a cold February morning more impressive than any poem… there is simply no way for me to look at the various life on earth, past and present, and think that they are not united by ancient ancestry and divided by processes that continually provide new reasons for excitement.

Even if certain fossils or organisms lose their privileged status as ancestors to other forms (and especially to us), they are no less amazing or beautiful. They are all complete in their own time, never quite finished in geologic time, “endless forms most beautiful” without question. I hate to make the religious analogy, but if I had my own place of worship it would be the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History. While many of the original fossils have been replaced with sturdy fiberglass replicas, a number of the real skeletons are still on display, the bones of creatures long-gone towering over the heads of all. Walking amongst the monstrous and terrible forms, I can’t help but sport a smile; I am among giants otherwise separated from me by a gulf of over 65 million years. Their bones correspond to my bones; we may have missed each other by a long shot, but we share a relative that provided us both with a wonderful body plan that has been carried through the rise and fall of many an evolutionary dynasty.

While it was remodeled in the mid-1990’s and will likely undergo future changes and renovations, I will never forget my first visit to the great Dinosaur Halls, awkwardly craning my head back to get a full view of animals that my imagination could not have conceived on its own. Without this love, this amazement when confronted so forcefully with what evolution has produced, I would make a rather poor scientist indeed. Writing papers in the passive voice, making tentative qualifications about hypotheses, and spending hours pouring through technical articles may be important to the academic advancement and standardization of science, but without the inner desire to discover more about nature, what good is all that? Without at least some amount of childlike enthusiasm, how can we ever hope to continue our enterprise or even interest others in it? While paleontology is the most famous discipline in which adults are supposedly paid to act like children, I think the sometimes near-inexhaustible inquisitiveness is an important part of what makes any good scientists; without it, it’s all just another job.


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7 responses

28 06 2007
Julia

What a lovely post. You’ve really captured the magic of the great museums here. I’ve only been to the AMNH four or five times, but I remember the fourth floor, walking through the whole phylogeny of the chordates. Although the highlight was behind the scenes, when Mark Norell showed me “Dave” the fuzzy raptor, in a drawer in his office.

When Waterhouse built the Natural History Museum in London, he intended it to be like a cathedral. The two towers on the front, and the large Norman arch resemble the west door of Southwell Minster or Westminster Abbey. There are two transepts, and opposite the door is a sweeping staircase with the bust of Richard Owen surveys the great hall. But my favourite aspect is walking through the front door and being met by a grinning Diplodocus carnegii.

The NHM is what got me into dinosaurs, but the Diplodocus is what got me hooked on sauropods.

28 06 2007
Zach Miller

God, I need to get to the AMNH.

28 06 2007
laelaps

Thanks Julia and Zach! The AMNH is one of my most favorite places in the world, hence why I usually mention it at least once every other day or so, hah.

I wish I could get a chance to go “behind the scenes” there; just turn me loose in the basements stacked floor-to-ceiling with bones and I’ll be happy. I wonder how many species there are lying in dusty drawers, just aching for a second look.

As much as I am critical about the museum and the way they present evolution sometimes (I feel it’s a little above the heads of most visitors), I do it because I love the place. I would love for people to have the same kind of experience I did when I was young, and we certainly need all the help we can get when it comes to evolution. I’m hoping to make it over to the NHM one of these days too, although I have to say that I’d love to hunt down William Buckland’s spine in the Hunterian Museum someday, too.

The mention of Waterhouse reminds me of another dinosaur dig I’d like to see done, only in Central Park. Apparently a U.S. version of the Crystal Palace was planned, but Boss Tweed’s thugs smashed Waterhouse’s dinos, burying them in the park. No one knows where they are, or if they can even be recovered. It’d be difficult to do, but I would love to exhume Waterhouse’s lost art, not far from where the real dinosaurs rest in the AMNH.

28 06 2007
Julia

I think I remember hearing/reading about the dinosaurs in the park. It’s the sort of thing I’d expect my husband to read to me from Fortean Times, but he’s denying all knowledge.

In contrast to the AMNH I think the NHM’s main dinosaur hall is pitched below the knowledge of the average visitor (the human evolution gallery is an underrated gem though). It’s about 15 years old at least, and in desperate need of renovation. But my friend’s 12-year-old son thought it was the best thing ever! And as you said, it’s really important that they get the same wondrous experience that we had.

I had no idea Buckland’s spine was in the Hunterian. I’ve been there twice and never noticed – is it on display? Matt Mihlbachler showed me around behind the scenes at the AMNH, and it’s enormous. Yet all I remember is “Dave”!

28 06 2007
Zeta_Gelgoog

I didn’t see my first dinosaurs until a couple of weeks ago. (Being from middle of no where GA kinda limits what you get to see). If you ever get to go to Atlanta, go see the Fairbanks Musuem. Its small for a musuem I reckon, but the casts of the Gigantosaurus and Argentinosaurus are magnificent.

29 06 2007
laelaps

Zeta; I have yet to see an Argentionsaurus, but the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia has a fiberglass replica of Giganotosaurus; it’s definitely an impressive skeleton. I’m glad you got to have a look at them, and if you’re ever in New York, the Bronx Zoo and the AMNH are must-see institutions.

Julia; I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but a children’s book about Waterhouse (called The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins) came out recently and tells the story of the Central Park dinos (among other things). The last page is a hypothetical drawing of what might be under some park benches.

As for Buckland, the book Moa tipped me off to what might be in the Hunterian. Apparently Richard Owen, character that he was, had the spines (at least in part) of Buckland and Gideon Mantell taken out and placed in the museum. I have no idea if they are on display or if they even still exist there (or if the author of Moa is perpetuating an urban legend), but it’s definitely something to look into.

3 09 2007
Julia

Just so you know, I looked for Buckland’s spine in the Hunterian and couldn’t find it. I didn’t get a very long look in the zoology museum (although we had our coffee breaks in there it smelled funny), but it definitely wasn’t in the Hunterian proper (it would have been labelled as such).

I do have some cool photos which I took, mainly for your benefit as you won’t be getting over there any time soon. I’ll post the best this evening and send you the rest.

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