Becoming human, cont’d.

The New York Times has a review of the new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which includes the fascinating hominid reconstructions I wrote about earlier.

This part was particularly interesting:

The exhibition’s theme is “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” And the new image of the human it creates is different from the one from a century ago. It isn’t that nature has suddenly become a pastoral paradise. […] Yet the emphasis here is not on the battle for survival but on the long trail of evidence left as the human thrived. Unlike Darwin, the hall reminds us, we know that there have been multiple human species, including Homo floresiensis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Paranthropus boisei, Paranthropus robustus, Australopithecus afarensis and Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

During the brief 200,000-year life of Homo sapiens, at least three other human species also existed. And while this might seem to diminish any remnants of pride left to the human animal in the wake of Darwin’s theory, the exhibition actually does the opposite. It puts the human at the center, tracing how through these varied species, central characteristics developed, and we became the sole survivors. The show humanizes evolution. It is, in part, a story of human triumph.

I can see how this notion can be taken too far; it might give people the impression that evolution has a purpose and an end goal, and that producing Homo sapiens is its entire point. Indeed, the article takes the exhibit gently to task for going down this slippery slope:

There are times too when it seems as if the Smithsonian has almost gone too far in humanizing evolution, as if it were answering those who, on religious grounds, object to the evolutionary universe and its inhuman brutality.


At any rate, the exhibition’s focus doesn’t really give us a feel for the daring of the evolutionary vision, which is a tale not of progress but of accident, frightening in the moment, fortuitous only in retrospect.

And yet I think we can still revel in the grandeur of the evolutionary story, purposeless as it is, and our place in it. Richard Dawkins says something similar in his documentary The Genius of Charles Darwin: that in the absence of a religious teleology giving meaning to the rise of humankind, we can still view with wonder and awe the spectacular achievement of our simply being here. In his words:

You and I, and every living creature, can make the following proud claim: Not a single one of my ancestors died young. Not a single one of my ancestors failed to copulate. Plenty of other individuals died young and failed to copulate, but they didn’t become ancestors. It’s blindingly obvious, but from it, much follows. It means that every single living creature has inherited the genes of an unbroken line of successful ancestors. We have all of us inherited what it takes to survive and reproduce. That’s why we’re so good at what we do — why fish are so good at swimming; why birds are so good at flying; why aardvarks are so good at digging; why humans are so good at thinking. That, in essence, is Darwinism.

Darwinism, of couse, is not and shouldn’t be the whole picture. It’s a scientific description of what happens in nature, not a prescription for moral behavior. For that, we can debate the merits of religious versus secular moral systems; but I personally see no reason why finding our existence meaningful, on a human level, should preclude a clear-eyed recognition of our origins, of the blind yet awesome workings of the universe. Reconciling empirical knowledge with a sense of wonder and joy — and with a sense of purpose in human society — is, I think, one of the tasks of humanism, or poetic atheism, or whatever name we wish to call it.

(Image h/t BBC News)


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