Monday, August 26, 2013

Aliens Among Us: a Casual Stroll through Harvard's Natural History Museum

            It’s incredible that we (well, some of us, I suppose) are so intrigued and excited by the prospect of extraterrestrial life and intelligence that we fail to notice the aliens all around us.
            I recently went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and, probably needless to say, I really got my nerd on.  Beginning in the Earth Sciences section, I read about the accretion of materials that led to the formation of our planet and walked around an impressive collection of elements, gemstones, amethysts, and rocks collected from various places across the globe as well as a few from meteorites.  As I moved through the institution, the exhibits gradually shifted away from inorganic compounds and toward discussions of climate change and finally onto biological specimens ranging from deep-sea Pompeii Worms (an extremophile found only in hydrothermal vents) to Siberian Tigers, and even a few fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other creatures from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  Finally, the institution also features the interesting Peabody Museum, which houses artifacts from Pre-Columbian American cultures as well as small-scale recreations of temples and murals.
            As I toured the exhibits, I once again was floored by the sheer difference that separated me from what I was looking at.  The interesting, albeit brief, exhibit on evolution offers a bit of clarification for those unsure on the tenets of natural selection (which, as far as I’m concerned, is the closest thing to fact that we’ve yet discovered about the development and emergence of species); but it is a whole other matter to stand beneath this…

 (Fin Whale)

…and marvel at the aliens our planet already has in store for us.
            Some might object to calling creatures such as the Fin Whale “alien,” but I actually intend it in the politest way possible.  Only by really trying to acknowledge the diversification already present among the ecosystems of our planet can we then begin to perceive ourselves as part of this diversification, rather than some pinnacle or omega point at the top of it, straining toward divine transcendence.  Toss us in the middle of the ocean without a boat or paddle, and I guarantee you that all of the sudden we won’t find ourselves at the top of the food chain any longer (hell, throw me in with a boat and paddle – give me a cruise liner – I’ll still probably succumb to the elements).  What I found in the Natural History Museum at Harvard reawakened me to the truth that even I find it difficult to maintain occasionally: that evolutionarily, we are far from the “best,” and that if we seek the alien other, not only are we already among it – we are it.
            I don’t bother memorizing all the transitional epochs and eons during which our planet formed (Hadean, Achaean, Proterozoic, etc.); I can look them up on the internet whenever I need to.  But I am still in awe at the sheer weight of time, even within the scheme of the age of the universe (the accretion of the Earth is believed to have occurred about 4.56 billion years ago, while the universe is believed to be about 13.5 billion years old[1]); and modern human beings – in an anatomical sense – occupy approximately 0.00004% of the entire age of the Earth.  Prior to that time, we can trace the evolution of what we call “humans” back to increasingly more and more alien forms:

Evolution of the human skull (apologies, my camera couldn’t fit all the distinct examples)

Where do we draw the line?  Modern science chooses an entirely arbitrary point, which makes sense in hindsight once we’ve applied the schematics of biological classification.  We see some semblance creeping along the diverging lines, one strand that ends with us; but if we follow this strand back far enough, we will likely stare in disgust at our supposed ancestors.
            The other divergent lines offer glimpses into such unique forms of life that we can’t help but feel as aliens on our own planet:

Ground Pangolin

Right Whale 

Sperm Whale

I could spend hours walking around Harvard’s Natural History Museum; actually, I did.  The exhibit of glass flowers is as breathtaking as their collection of elements and animals.  Finally, what I found most exhilarating wasn’t any one exhibit in particular, but my own body – my own limbs, gait, brain, and the fact that I was part of a culture that put things in museums.  We privilege our eyes; sight is our dominant sense.  We need to see things in order to understand them.  Museums are an institution of seeing…
(don’t ask me exactly what this thing is)

…but we must remember that whatever we look at looks back at us.
            In Arthur C. Clarke’s iconic 1953 science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, the character Jan Rodricks is taken on a tour through an alien museum and witnesses an exhibit that causes immediate terror, and then gradual wonderment:
It was lifeless, of course – not, as he had thought in that first moment of panic, consciously staring up at him.  It filled almost all that great circular space, and the ruby light gleamed and shifted in its crystal depths.

It was a single giant eye. (Clarke 214)[2]

Jan explains that he feels panic, at first, because the situation was unexpected; but the details of expectance are never clarified.  Is Jan afraid because of the size of the exhibit, the reorientation of frame and perspective… or is he afraid because suddenly, in an institution of seeing, he feels that he has become the sight.  Those who know their Foucault may recall the succinct summary of his panopticon writings from Discipline & Punish: “Visibility is a trap.”[3]  As we walk through a museum, we are under the impression that nothing looks back at us – but the museum is not Foucault’s panopticon.[4]  We are not disguised in the central tower.  When we walk through zoos, we are fully aware that animals look back at us; we are not invisible.

Stanley Kubrick, “How People Look to Monkeys,” 1946

It is foolish to believe that simply because the exhibits in a museum are not living, breathing organisms, they do not look back at us.  We are (most of us) unaware of the deep cultural affect that permeates the museum environment.  We separate the museum out, believe it to be an objective space that distinguishes each exhibit, and us from the exhibits; but we do not consider the fact that, amidst the diversity of expunged life, we are the purest exhibit.  Our fascination with other creatures signals the greater imperative: our fascination with what we are, where we fit in the exhibition.
            We need not invoke the technologically advanced aliens of Clarke’s Childhood’s End in order to conceive of this fascination.  All we need to do is reorient ourselves with respect to our fellow terrestrial organisms.  Dismiss for a moment the museum as a “book of nature,” with ourselves as the author, and consider that what we take to be our authorship is actually a reflexive effort to comprehend ourselves.[5]
            Despite the reflexivity inherent in the instance of exhibition, we can still find ourselves in awe of the creatures before us, particularly when all we have left are the bones:

Triceratops skull


Contemplating these strange looking things in turn raises questions about our ability to contemplate other animals at all.  Observing living animals in their habitat, as is the business of biologists and other scholars of the life sciences, certainly assists in the matter; but we must acknowledge, at some point, a barrier in what we can hope to understand.  Dinosaurs, unfortunately, have left us only their bones.  We don’t have any cave paintings, photographs, or home videos, despite our fond memories of this adorable bunch:

(I’m the baby!)

It helps to anthropomorphize things, but as any good scholar will tell you, this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the thing-in-itself (in Kantian terms).  So we attempt to separate, to classify, and to organize in an effort to achieve the most objective, neutral knowledge possible of the things around us; but turning to Foucault one last time, no matter how complex our instruments or how specific our naming system, the utter alien-ness of the creature will evade our best attempts.[6]
            This is not an admission of futility or a concession to the inestimable forces of the inhuman world (which, let’s face it, is the world we live in; it makes no sense to think of it as “ours”).  The further science pushes its boundaries, the more discoveries we will continue to make, and the more (hopefully) we will understand, at the very least, about the consequences and effects of our existence in the world.  By continuing to pursue and discover we will not only continue to develop our knowledge, even if it will always remain imperfect; we will also inaugurate and catalyze the ever-shifting relationship of humanity to the world, culturally, economically, ethically, etc.  As we continue to make new discoveries we must also continue to reassess our economic and political foundations, because whether we consciously choose to or not, we will change.  It will not be for better or for worse – it will just happen.
            And, eventually, we will likely be as bewildering to something else as this is to us:


Kronosaurus (I’m glad I’m not swimming with this thing still in the water)

[1] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, Trans. Ray Brassier, New York: Continuum, 2011, p. 9.  This is also very common knowledge, and can be found easily on the internet.  I think Wikipedia even has the correct figures.
[2] There is also some speculation that the final “starchild” sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey portrays the protagonist, David Bowman, walking through some kind of celestial museum, but unaware of his spectators…
[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, New York: Vintage, 1995, p. 200.
[4] In Discipline & Punish, Foucault writes that the Panopticon is “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (Discipline 202).  The architectural model of the panopticon was designed by Jeremy Bentham for use in prisons.
[5] For more on the museum as a kind of “book,” see Laura Rigal’s fascinating study on excavation, exhibition, and expansion, The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998, p. 96-97.
[6] See Michel Foucault, “Classifying,” The Order of Things, New York: Vintage, 1994, p. 125-165.

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