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.