With Surviving, Mann and Monge have gone more public with their dynamic approach to teaching about human evolution. For anyone raised on traditional museum displays centered around objects with labels, the exhibit is something of an evolutionary leap in itselfone in which the visitor brings the most pertinent item to be studied, his or her own body and mind. Surviving is a multimedia, interactive world in which your body is the central exhibit: You carry within you all the evidence required. The exhibit’s thought-provoking activities and displays are designed to make visitors see themselves in a different light.
The curators first worked with Toronto-based exhibit designers Reich + Petch Design International (www.reich-petch.com), along with exhibit interpreter, Ruth Freeman of Blue Sky Design, in a series of eight two-day long workshops to hone and shape the exhibit to put the visitor at the center of the journey through human evolution. Then Reich + Petch designed the exhibit and another Toronto-based company, the House of Kevin (www.houseofkevin.com), built it. The interactive and audiovisual aspects were created by Chedd-Angier-Lewis Production Company (www.chedd-angier.com).
“Most people don’t understand evolution because they might have a concept of dinosaurs or they might have heard something or other about Darwin and it might have gotten all confused,” Monge says. Add to that the religious content, a “constant part of the general rhetoric out there,” she says, and the confusion can become greater still. “If you individualize the information, it makes it just much more comprehensible. I mean, people just have so many misconceptions about evolution, it’s actually really scary.”
While it may surprise some of those caught up in the polemic, Monge places the blame for this situation “squarely on the shoulders of probably three or four generations of scientists who never had the urge to move beyond their own walls and try to communicate this effectively,” she says.
Monge estimates that she gives between 50 and 60 lectures a year to high-school and other nonprofessional groups as “a community service,” she adds. “Not to do that would be, in my own mind, morally reprehensible.” Not that people are consciously thinking, “‘I’m going to be morally reprehensible today,’ but you have to take those moments to really integrate communities,” she says.
“You’ve got a creationist museum and they’re [showing] humans walking beside dinosaurs, and further engraining these notions of the fallacies of evolution. If we can’t generate a meaningful exhibit or even produce meaningful talks” that can at least get people who hold such beliefs to look at them somewhat more critically, “then we haven’t done our damn job,” she insists. “We wouldn’t do that to our students; why would we do it to an educated public?”
(Monge recalls that, in her own education in the Catholic school system in Philadelphia, “evolution was introduced to the curriculum,” she says. “I subsequently foundwhile at collegethat I had had a better introduction and understanding of evolutionary processes than virtually any of my cohort.”)
In broader terms, the exhibit is a reminder for even those who accept the evidence of evolution that the process is still going onand humans are not exempt from its effects. “We live on a planet in a web of life and that means all of these other things are impinging upon us and they are not controllable,” Monge says. “They’re not predictable and they’re not controllable. Including culture. And the thing is, culture creates as many problems as it actually resolves. People don’t understand that. They see it as the great insulator.
“You have a planet where everything is undergoing evolutionary change,” she adds. “What would make you think that humans are so wonderful that we could alter things that are planetary in nature? It’s like a species-based denial.”
The essential mission of Surviving, says Mann, is “to make sure that everyone understands that evolution plays an [important] role” in their lives. “The focus of the exhibit is that we’re survivors but that we’re not perfect. As a result, we have problems.” After mentioning such pieces of evidence for our evolution as molars and sciatica, Mann adds one more: “If we were created in God’s image,” he notes, “then God [clearly] hasn’t had a Caesarean section.”
Surviving is built on six sections that stack and support each other like vertebrae.
The first part, “Fit for Life,” is something of a celebration of all that is splendid about humans, such as our versatility and flexibility, our ways of communicating, our diverse omnivorous diet, our endurance, our balance, and our dexterity.
Next, “Our Place in the Natural World” shows humans’ relatedness to all life on earth. One highlight is meeting the 210-million-years-old Morganucodon, one of the world’s earliest mammals and our earliest mammalian ancestor discovered in the fossil record. All mammals share with Morganucodon the traits of being viviparous, or live-bearing; nursing their young with milk from mammary glands; being warm-blooded and covered with some form of fur; and possessing special teeth and jaws for chewing food up before swallowing.
In this section, visitors can view the evidence for the primate line of evolution that branched off from other mammals around 55 million years ago, and trace their own development since our ancestors branched off from some common primate ancestor a mere 7 million or so years ago, giving rise to several hominid species, including us.
They can also compare humans to other creatures, like chimpanzees, raccoons, cats, deer, dogs, gorillas, and bears. Look in a mirror and explore whether your teeth look more like a cat’s or a chimp’s. Learn why you see a red fire hydrant differently than your dog does. Discover that you and a chimp have the same number of hair follicles per square inch of your bodythe chimp’s hairs are just more noticeable. And watch the other Homo sapiens visitors play and have fun with all these exploratory activities.
Also available for investigation is the physical evidence for similarities and differences between humans and other primates. Like our primate relatives, we have forward-looking eyes, omnivorous dentition, flexible hands and toes, and nails and sensitive finger pads instead of claws. On the other hand, humans’ pelvises are wider and not as long as those of our closest primate relative, chimps, a configuration that allows us to carry the weight of our upper bodies and walk on two legs all the time. It also means that our legs angle in from our pelvis to our knees and then go straight to the ground from there. We can carry our children or heavy loads of food or gathered wood. We can run and throw a spear. We can gesture to each other while we walk.
FEATURE: Fit Enough, by Beebe Bahrami
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/28/08