Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins
"Shaping Humanity is a humanistic portfolio that unpacks the complexities of making, shaping, and viewing human ancestors."
Russian-born intellectual Vladimir Nabokov was once asked whether he considered himself a writer or a scientist. (Well-known for his prominent literary works such as Lolita and The Gift, Nabokov was also an entomologist, evolutionary theorist, and butterfly curator for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.) Nabokov responded to the inquiry with puzzlement, offering the observation: “There can be no science without fancy. No art without facts.”
Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins is the very embodiment of Nabokov’s sentiment. Shaping Humanity is the art and science of understanding human origins that is thoughtfully, purposefully, and brilliantly refracted through the author’s aesthetic lens.
Indeed, it is the critical reflection of how art, culture, and nature (or, broadly termed, science) intersect that makes the work so unique. Rather than a “science book” with artistic gestures or an “art book” about working with scientific objects, Shaping Humanity is a humanistic portfolio that unpacks the complexities of making, shaping, and viewing human ancestors.
On the surface, Shaping Humanity is the story of how the well-known paleo-artist John Gurche (of Jurassic Park fame) created 15 sculptures of human ancestors, spanning six million years of evolution, for the 2010 opening of the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins. As an exhibit, these hominid reconstructions stand at various points in the Smithsonian’s Hall and invite museum-goers to mingle and reflect. As a book, Shaping Humanity invites the reader to peruse and ponder the eyes of the reconstructions that, hauntingly, stare back from the page.
Just as Nabokov saw art and science as necessarily complementary processes, we see these themes inexorably intertwined in Shaping Humanity. Each chapter is organized around a specific fossil species—for example, Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”) or Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit” species from Indonesia.) Mr. Gurche deftly pulls together decades of research about each species.
We are given historical background about the discovery of the fossils as well as a summary of the most up-to-date paleo literature published. The information (the science) is easily accessible to non-experts in the field, free of jargon, but still gives as much detail as what one might expect in some paleoanthropology textbooks.
We are treated to the “behind the scenes” making-of stories that surround each of the sculptures and reconstructions. (I confess—prior to this book, I knew nothing of the complexities of making realistic hominid eyeballs to say nothing of the rote, tedious work required to texture Lucy’s outer coat, hair by single hair . . .) These anecdotes ground the book through the author’s wry humor and an very human interactions with the artistic process. (Models become tired; exhibits get delayed; materials are fragile; these are the backstories one doesn’t know in walking the Hall of Human Ancestors.)
But Shaping Humanity is more than just the stories (however complex and reflective) of the artistic process. It’s more than just the story of an artist putting bodies on fossils. As the stories of the artistic process unfold, we come to understand that in creating these sculptures, these bodies, these reconstructions of extinct species, we are putting a narrative on the fossil. We, as viewers and the audience, take an active role in the interaction as we internalize the pieces. These artistic reconstructions take a static object, like a fossil, and give it a face and body, transforming that static object into something dynamic.
Subjects like human origins and paleoanthropology are rife with an internal cannon of literature and shelves brim with popular books, speaking to the practically unending interest in the topic of human evolution. Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins is, perhaps, the best book in the field. It’s ability to speak thematically—to interpret art and science as intertwined explanatory schemas—gives the work a staying power that ought to be present long after new fossil discoveries change current interpretations of the fossil record.
In his own words, Mr. Gurche reflects on his experiences creating the sculptures and reconstructions in the Smithsonian Hall: “Gaining an understanding of human origins through scientific study is one way of experiencing a link to the human past. Other kinds of experience—holding in your hands the skull of an ancient ancestor, for example—fulfill the yearning for a connection in ways that transcend measurement and analysis. I have found personally that one of the more potent ways of making contact is to use the best science available to create art about our origins.”
Shaping Humanity does just that: It encourages us to reflectively explore these very themes.