Evolution galleries: Humans and other animals

I’ve been interested in human evolution ever since spending time learning about it during my Human Sciences degree in the late nineties, so whenever I’m in a museum with a human evolution gallery, my antennae start quivering. I’ve visited a couple in the USA over the past few years — one in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and, last year, in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I just love the idea of looking back at our ancestors, and also of being reminded that over the past few million years other species of humans and hominids have existed, often in parallel with each other.

I’m used to seeing these galleries, or even the single human evolution cases in some museums, presenting the various human species on their own, or maybe alongside a few other primates. The museums nip off a single twig of the evolutionary tree, usually starting with modern humans evolving from something like an australopithecus, and maybe hinting that these evolved from an earlier primate species. These exhibitions typically display lots of skulls and models, showing how modern humans gradually evolved from our primate and hominid ancestors.

But I visited a human evolution gallery recently that made me think again about the ways that human evolution generally seems to be presented. This was in the Naturhistoriska riksmuseet, Stockholm’s natural history museum. In this museum the party was open to way more than just primates, including deer, elephants and even an alarming-looking giant prehistoric bird and a sabre-toothed cat. And the primates on display weren’t just there to represent the evolutionary twig of our distant ancestors, but made up a big, bushy, diverse evolutionary branch, amongst which we humans are only one of a whole range of successful (as in, extant) species. Other animals helped show what the hominid environment must have been like, or demonstrated concepts such as ‘what is a species?’.

I realised I was strangely pleased that the human evolution gallery had decided to open its doors to other species too. There are a couple of reasons why this is a great approach. Firstly, while human evolution is a really important topic, and most definitely deserves plenty of gallery space (for example to counter those who believe that humans were created rather than evolved), totally separating ourselves from other animals gives the impression that we are somehow distinct from the rest of the living world.

But secondly, I think the human-only evolution galleries tend to imply the ‘march of progress’ view of human evolution — you know the one, illustrated by the line of hominids, starting with the stooped ape, and ending with the splendid, upright, if rather beardy man. While I have no doubt the curators would denounce this suggestion, the human-only galleries do imply that humans started out as rather, well, sub-human, and gradually got better and better at being human until we ended up as the iphone-wielding, museum-visiting marvels that we are today.

In Stockholm, on the other hand, I very much received the message that we are only one of a whole plethora of species that exist at the end of a whole plethora of branches and twigs of the evolutionary tree, and that, at least from an evolutionary perspective, we are all as valuable and interesting as each other. It’s a subtle difference, but one that’s really worth other museums thinking about.

(N.B. I almost ended this blog post with a rant about evolution being a process that doesn’t care or make value judgements about complexity or human ideas of improvement, but only about surviving to pass on genes. But I’ve decided to spare you — there are plenty of places on the internet you can go to read rants about evolution. I’ll stick to ranting about museums.)

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