How evolution has kept us alive

conceptual drawing of "Surviving" at the Penn Museum

For nearly 7 million years, human beings have roamed the earth, evolving, adapting and surviving. Our brains have expanded, our bodies have grown and we are much better communicators.

Paraphrasing Darwin, it isn’t the strongest or most intelligent species that survives, it’s the one most able to change—and human beings are skilled survivors.

And there are mountains of evidence to prove it.

“Surviving: The Body of Evidence” comes to life April 19 at the Penn Museum, an interactive exhibit exploring the evolutionary process and its effect on human beings. It is part of the Museum’s “A Year of Evolution,” an April 2008 to May 2009 celebration that includes the “Surviving” exhibit, guest speakers and collaborations with leading cultural institutions such as The Academy of Natural Sciences and The Franklin Institute.

Janet Monge and Alan Mann, curators of “Surviving,” say it is a “journey of self-discovery” wherein visitors will recognize that “within each person lies both a scientist and a scientific experiment hatched by evolutionary processes.”

Six separate segments are linked together in the exhibit under the processes of evolution: “Fit for Life,” “Our Place in the Natural World,” “Find Your Human Ancestors,” “Witnessing Evolution,” “We are not Perfect, but We are OK” and “We Keep Evolving.”

Monge, adjunct associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and acting curator of the Museum’s Physical Anthropology section, describes “We Keep Evolving” as “the real trip into the unknown” in which visitors, once they are informed about evolutionary process, will try to envision the future fate of human beings on Earth and the sustainability of all life forms.

Portions of “Fit for Life” are devoted to communication, which Monge says is a “defining feature of humans.” Other topics include balance and flexibility, which she says is more advanced in humans than in other animals.

Visitors to “Surviving” can walk through a half tunnel of human evolution and also view a 15-foot-long body of a woman with flesh and bones on one side and a series of interactive video monitors on the other. Visitors can explore all aspects of human evolution at each place in the body.

Though there are artifacts, including casts of mammals, horses and bears, “Surviving” is not an artifact-based exhibit. And although there is an evolutionary timeline, that’s not the core focus. Instead, Monge says, “the whole exhibit is what we call ‘evolutionary anatomy.’ It’s understanding humans from an evolutionary perspective, not so much in all of these great capabilities, but actually in terms of our species-wide weaknesses And so basically it’s an exhibit about a visitor who has those issues, and it allows them to think about those issues as being part of evolutionary process.”

Childbirth is an example. Monge says childbirth in humans is a difficult process, but not so in virtually any other animal. “So there’s a whole section in there about why human birth is a difficult thing, from an evolutionary perspective,” she says.

“Surviving” is purposely aimed at middle school-age children and above; Monge says middle school students begin to become more informed about biology, “and once you start to think about biological systems, you can really understand evolutionary process.”

After its run at Penn, the exhibit is set to travel to different museums around the country, and possibly to Canada and Europe. “I think it’s going to be interesting for people,” Monge says. “I think that you can come away with information on a lot of different levels.”

For more information, visit the Museum's website at www.museum.upenn.edu/new/exhibits/surviving/index.shtml.

Originally published March 27, 2008

Originally published on March 27, 2008