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.

How to be a person among persons

This week I read Kevin Simler’s Personhood: A Game for Two or More Players, a sociological essay on what it means to be a person. It’s a really interesting piece, of the type that makes me pause every few paragraphs in order to highlight a really interesting point. For example, this explanation of the benefits of personhood:

Being a person entitles you to conduct yourself among persons. Or to be more precise: The more personhood you display, the more you’ll be welcome in the society of persons.

And what I thought to be a quite brilliant summary of transitioning to adulthood in society:

A large part of growing up consists of internalizing the social consequences of failing to maintain integrity.

He also talks about personhood in terms of being a fictional construct, which I found particularly interesting because I’ve recently finished reading Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens, which also talks about culture and humanity in terms of fictions. But I’ll write more about that separately.

Personhood is always a fiction: the fiction of being a consistent, singular agent.

I probably haven’t done the article justice with my choice of quotes here. It’s really quite fascinating, and I recommend it to you.