Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Visit To The Human Origins Exhibit At Washington D.C.

Blogging has been light the past month. I have been traveling in the U.S. Yesterday I visited the Human Origins Exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C.

I am quite familiar with the story-lines of human evolution and I try to keep abreast of new developments, so for me conceptually there was nothing radically new at the exhibit. But still, I had not seen before at close hand the material evidence for human evolution... the skeletal remains, the tools, the musical instruments. So it was a thrilling experience to see all this evidence at one place.

I liked the way the exhibit was organized. There would be a temptation with fossils of hominins of different ages to draw lineages and focus on questions of ancestry i.e. organize the skeletal material especially the skulls in such a way as to propose genealogical relationships between early and later species.

The exhibit mentions possibilities but for the most part avoids that minefield and instead presents  human evolution in terms of grades of development of various traits and characters. So there is a section on development of social skills, a section on tools, a section on symbolism and art, a section on bipedalism and a section on brain size. Each have an internal chronology wherein the evolutionary trajectories of these traits and technology are presented.

Besides these themes there are interactive screens for curious visitors to ask questions and learn about various aspects of human evolution like the human family tree, the similarities and differences between different human species and what's hot in the field of human evolution. There were also some amazing reconstructions of different human species. To the right is me with Grandpa...

I thought the exhibit touched a bit too lightly on controversies. Whether humans and neanderthals interbreed and is Homo floresiensis a distinct species or a diseased "modern" human have been major talking points of recent years, yet these questions were mentioned but not presented in any detail.

Still, these are my quibbles. That does not detract from a very engrossing couple of hours.

Running on the second floor of the museum is an exhibition on human races with the theme "Are we so different". I went up and after two hours of happy contemplation about human evolution got a rude shock.

The exhibit with the American Anthropological Association leading the charge stresses biological egalitarianism to the extreme. I understand the need to highlight the sad and unjustifiable history of racism but the exhibit takes an approach that emphatically discourages any sensible thinking  about human evolution. Just about every section of the exhibit screams "Race has no biological basis", "Race is a social construct".

The argument presented goes something like this. Humans are made up of populations which gradually grade into one another. So dividing them into races makes no sense. Nonetheless it is possible to using details of skeletal morphology to recognize where the persons ancestors came from.  Talk about contradictions!

The stance being taken is that races are very deep divisions of people. Groups must posses "major differences"- which the exhibit never defines - or  unique characters not present in individuals of another group. The criteria set for there to be races comes dangerously close to essentialist thinking where it was thought that objects of nature could be categorized by their essential or unique properties not shared by other objects. This kind of essentialist or unbridgeable gaps criteria was made up in the past to rank peoples in a hierarchy from superior to inferior and to justify discrimination and so the exhibit abhors the thought of any kind of systematic biological differences between human groups.

Biologists recognize though that nature is messy. We humans are one species. In the past populations spread over the globe were isolated or semi isolated for tens of thousands of years and differences between them evolved. Today's populations - east Asians, sub groups within Africa, Australian Aborigines, Inuit, West Eurasian to name a few - are descendants of those once isolated groups. Yes, there are overlaps of traits between groups -  the isolation has not been long enough and humans migrate and interbreed -  but it is also true that different populations have different collections of traits which are correlated and occur in high frequency in one population and not another.  There is no requirement that a trait has to be uniquely present in one group or population to qualify it as a race. So "Humans are made up of populations which gradually grade into one another" fits the criteria for races quite nicely!

Yet there is no space in the exhibit for this thinking.  Political correctness rules.

Leaving aside this though I found the contents of the exhibit quite educational, especially the presentation on the history of discrimination in America from early colonial times to the present.


  1. That's what happens when political correctness gets rampant. The worry is that anyone (with quick access to litigation) can misconstrue biological differences as a reasoning for superiority. The fact is there can be no such a thing in evolutionary science as a quality scale. Due to the varying ecological environments on Earth, native groups are better suited to their home environment. That's what evolution is all about, and its why Suvrat tolerates monsoonal conditions far better than I can.

  2. yeah people are terrified of using the word race

    ah monsoons.. but I miss the snow though!