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.