Making Nature: how we see animals

A vis­it to the Well­come Col­lec­tion this week, for the exhi­bi­tion Mak­ing Nature. It explores human inter­ac­tion with ani­mals; how we clas­si­fy them, dis­play them, observe them, and change them. From Wal­ter Potter’s taxi­dermy tableaux, to tigers in Man­hat­tan apart­ments, to BioS­teel™ goats that lac­tate spi­der silk, it’s a well-curat­ed, thought­ful, and even­tu­al­ly unset­tling expe­ri­ence.

It starts with Lin­naeus’ tax­onomies, the desire to impose order on the nat­ur­al world. Per­haps well-inten­tioned, but his racist human stereo­types (‘indo­lent and capri­cious Africans’) indi­cate that order is as much about opin­ion as fact.

Mak­ing Nature shows how our view of ani­mals changed from asset to resource to com­mod­i­ty, to enter­tain­ment and dec­o­ra­tion. This obser­va­tion struck me:

Humans soon dis­cov­ered they could train cap­tive birds to sing songs that may not attract mates in the wild, but would cap­ti­vate human lis­ten­ers.

The song­bird became a pro­gram­ma­ble musi­cal device.

Per­haps the sad­dest part of the exhib­it was the video instal­la­tion The Great Silence, by artists Allo­ra & Calzadil­la with author Ted Chi­ang. It con­trasts shots of two loca­tions in Puer­to Rico—the Areci­bo obser­va­to­ry for mon­i­tor­ing sig­nals of alien life, and a sanc­tu­ary for endan­gered parrots—simultaneously with Chiang’s epony­mous short sto­ry, writ­ten from the point of view of one of those par­rots.

Humans have lived along­side par­rots for thou­sands of years, and only recent­ly have they con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might be intel­li­gent.

But par­rots are more sim­i­lar to humans than any extrater­res­tri­al species will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to rec­og­nize an alien intel­li­gence if all they can do is eaves­drop from a hun­dred light years away?

The exhi­bi­tion is, like every­thing in the Well­come Col­lec­tion, free to vis­it. It runs until 21st May, and is the first in a year-long series explor­ing our rela­tion­ship with nature.

The Celts, Art, Identity, Intelligence and Vanity

This week I went to the British Muse­um to see the Celts: Art and Iden­ti­ty exhib­it. It was won­der­ful, a great cura­tion of amaz­ing objects. It fin­ish­es at the end of the month, so I advise you to go if you can.

Some of the objects are over 2,000 years old, yet beau­ti­ful­ly crafted—such as the Great Torc of Snet­tisham, made from 64 fine threads of mixed gold and sil­ver, and mould­ed ter­mi­nals with tiny embossed details ham­mered by hand with great pre­ci­sion.
See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons
We tend to think of our ancient ances­tors as sav­ages, yet as War­ren Ellis remind­ed me through one of his fourth-wall break­ing medieval char­ac­ters in his book, Cré­cy:

These things are going to look prim­i­tive to you, but you have to remem­ber that we’re not stu­pid. We have the same intel­li­gence as you. We sim­ply don’t have the same cumu­la­tive knowl­edge you do. So we apply our intel­li­gence to what we have.

One thing I found very inter­est­ing is that, in Britain at least, the his­tor­i­cal record shows that finds of mir­rors (pol­ished bronze) are fol­lowed short­ly by finds of combs and cos­met­ics. As soon as we were able to see our­selves, we want­ed to look bet­ter. That capac­i­ty to make objects of van­i­ty was always there, but it took a dis­cov­ery to unlock it. This makes me think of the adja­cent pos­si­ble the­o­ry:

The strange and beau­ti­ful truth about the adja­cent pos­si­ble is that its bound­aries grow as you explore them. Each new com­bi­na­tion opens up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of oth­er new com­bi­na­tions.

It also makes me think of ‘self­ie cul­ture’. His­to­ry shows that we always want­ed to show off pic­tures of our­selves, but we didn’t have the tools; paint­ed por­traits were expen­sive and time-con­sum­ing, as was ear­ly film. But afford­able phone cam­eras and online social net­works made the cul­tur­al shift pos­si­ble. It’s not that we’ve sud­den­ly become vain, but that we’ve always desired to be vain and are now able to ful­fil that.