BY Andrea Zittel in Reviews | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

The Hall of Human Biology and Evolution

BY Andrea Zittel in Reviews | 05 SEP 93

It must be really hard to curate a permanent exhibition for the purpose of conveying hard held scientific fact. What follows is my own take along guide to some issues concerning the evolution of man and the place of the human race in nature.

Why are we so interested in evolution? Is it the objective challenge of attaining scientific knowledge, or is it like tracing a family tree, a photo-album or a yearbook? Are we each individually responsible for our own actions or were we instilled with a sort of predestined set of genetic commands? This exhibition might have delved into the idea of what makes us so utterly and painfully conscious of our existence as human beings. It is not the transformation of the body that is so radical in the process of our evolution so much as the growth of our intellectual and technological abilities. This power sets us apart form other species, and also makes us feel more vulnerable, aware that the same forces that we use to create may also one day serve to destroy.

This exhibition does not touch upon this area. Geographical and archaeological data are predominant. ‘Scientific history ‘ is carefully sifted form the ‘history of science’ – looking for hard evidence, clean evidence. It troubles me that we are not shown the embarrassing progression of evolutionary theories from Lamarch to Darwin. As well as attempting to stake down the ever elusive ground between African Eve and Neanderthal Man, I would also have proposed studying the constellation of more evasive issues webbed around the concept of evolution.

It seems to me that the most important topic concerning evolution today is our rapidly mounting capabilities to control our own evolution . This cannot be underestimated. With the breakthroughs of the last 40 years, geneticists are now reaching the point of being able to create new forms of life by combining genes of radically different organisms. An organism that started out as a plant can now become part animal through the insertion of specific genes. It seems likely that in the 21st century human modification will become the most important means of evollutionar5y change on the planet. It also brings up the age old question of man’s relationship with ‘nature’: Darwin distinguished ‘natural selection ‘ from artificial selection’, but I see this technology ultimately as a ‘natural’ phenomenon. The work of human s is just as much a product of nature as that of all living things.

Far be it for me to trivialise our potential destructive effects on a delicately balanced living world. The power to modify living beings is staggering, and because we cannot relinquish this potential we look for ways to reconcile it. A current theory is that genes merely use living bodies as vehicles for their own perpetuation… A gene is, in theory, immortal and can live for millions or billions of years in a succession of bodies. Once a body has reproduced it becomes expendable since ageing bodies are not worth the genetic cost of maintaining them. The reason I mention this perspective is that it portrays the gene as an oppressive entity. Through genetic engineering an now has the capacity to retaliate against a cycle of tyranny, enabling us to reconcile the discomfort we as a society are experiencing with this ultimate authority being invested in us.

We often talk about genetic engineering as if the human race had developed until now in an unmanipulated fashion, but throughout history we humans have been obsessed wit the control of our own heredity. Long before the discovery of the gene we had used social, geographic and religious structures to organise distinct blood-lines. Interbreeding among castes and the production of elites were carefully controlled. Even if this has not had a large noticeable effect on our physical evolution, the point is that we have long desired this control. The control of self-creation.

Here at the museum, evolution is presented in most instances by explaining modification through reproduction. What does it mean to evolve? There are many other form s of evolution than simply reproduction. In fact reproductive evolution is in most instances the exception. Shaping is also a form of evolution. Things like our environments and social structures have always played a major role in our evolving states. The same set of genes can express itself in more than one way depending on the environment experienced by the living organism.

Evolutionary thinking has had a tremendous effect on our perception of the world. Time has become the medium of progress… Have you noticed that evolution and progress are often used synonymously? The ascent. Rather than waiting to die and go to heaven we can climb the ladder here in this dimension, if not lifetime. If biological beings do not evolve quickly enough to satisfy our need for improvement, we have made sure hat our products do. Household commodities now evolve, each one in some way better than the last. Remember that Darwin’s theories evoked religious opposition because it excluded the hand of God from natural selection (not because religion opposed the idea of evolution itself). First evolutionary theory allowed us to defy our deity and now through genetic manipulation we can assume the role that deity.

The issues I am proposing to be considered in the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution do not concern fossils and bones but rather our slow and gradual understanding of human uniqueness and desire. People viewing the displays at the museum are not so much interested in the data as they are fascinated by their relationships to the figures in the glassed in dioramas. The glass seems significant. Our interpretations of the evolutionary process has had an enormous effect on our expectations and ambitions here in the present tense. We should realise that a single perception of the world today is only part of a process of evolving knowledge, a knowledge not necessarily leading from ignorance to enlightenment. These understandings are necessary positions for creating a rational, coherent world.