Saturday, July 21, 2007

A no-bullshit story of human evolution

We spent today visiting Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Antropologia, one of the world's great museums. Most of its vast space is devoted to displays of the artifacts of the ancient peoples and civilizations that occupied the territory of modern Mexico before the European conquest. The collection is astonishing, educational, and wondrous. See it if you can.

But what I enjoyed most was the no-bullshit presentation of human evolution. Mexican anthropologists don't seem to have to bother with fighting off creationists -- and they aren't about to let their young people get any less than scientific ideas about humans. From the text setting the scene in the introductory gallery:

Our planet is approximately 4,500 million years old. Life in its oceans began about 3,500 million years ago.... In order to survive, living beings have undergone evolutionary changes that involve anatomical, reproductive and behavioral modifications. All these changes have led to variations within one single species, the occupation of new spaces [niches], the emergence of new species, and also, extinction.

Against this background, the order Primates, to which human beings belong, has a history of more than 50 million years in a wide variety of environments. ... [A]nthropology, through the study of fossil remains and modern primates, can trace the evolutionary relationships, presenting a mirror that reminds us that we are part of the history of the world and of the animal kingdom, and not as we had believed, that we were created to have nature at our service. [The museum's English with my interpolations.]

The museum makes no bones about showing hominids of the era of "Lucy" -- the ancient skeleton found at Olduvai Gorge in the Rift Valley in Tanzania -- living alongside, and looking much like, great apes.

And the museum does not limit its portrayal of evolution to physical features. Evolution has created new relationships, a new shape to the world ecosystem.

The domestication of plants and animals did not mean, as we used to think, the domination of humans over nature. On the contrary, what happened was the symbiotic development of relationships between people, animals, and plants that enabled all to survive. In this relationship, plants and animals acquired characteristics that humans found advantageous and over time underwent physical and behavioral changes that increased those benefits.

The result was that humans, together with those plants and animals, extended their species over the whole planet. [My translation.]

This lovely figure is supposed to represent another of those early hominids.

I can't imagine that a U.S. museum would so matter-of-factly include a human birth among its vignettes of our ancestors.

The room devoted to setting the evolutionary context of human pre-history concludes with a wonderful electronic display in which a whole wall is covered with pictures of skulls that morph into human faces of both sexes and every racial group. The visitor is pointed on toward the artifact displays with these words:

...the human beings who crossed into the Americas continued to evolve (biologically and socially) simultaneously yet independently of those who remained in the Old World. Separation from their groups of origin and their internal recombination [interbreeding] slowly gave them their own characteristics, both biological and cultural; their new habitat became the melting pot that gave rise to a whole range of societies, in response to the needs for survival in different environments, climates, and geographical regions, as well as the need for their own internal cultural development. [The museum's English with my interpolation.]

I wish very much that more people in the U.S. could be exposed to such an uncompromising understanding that, whatever we humans may be and aspire to be spiritually, our species is the marvelous product of the interactions of our material, social and physical history and circumstances. We are not diminished by seeing the truth of our evolutionary history.


Kay Dennison said...

I agree! And the photos, as always are wonderful.

Michael said...

Nice photos! Mexico is a fascinating place...I have never been to one of their museums, but it looks well worth it.
I'm curious why you seem to think that museums here in the USA are somehow not as forthright with evolutionary material. Did you have a specific museum in mind?

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