Shaping Humanity

downloadJohn Gurche
November 2013

It’s been fifty years since C. P. Snow wrote in “The Two Cultures” about the gap between the arts and the sciences. Every so often, someone comes along and bridges the divide. Paleoartist John Gurche is one of these people.

Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins recounts Gurche’s years-long efforts literally to put a face on the bones of our earliest hominin ancestors, as he worked to reconstruct the bodies of fifteen of our predecessor species for the Smithsonian’s “Hall of Human Origins.”

This magnificent project was grandly done, and Gurche’s book is an achievement equally grand. Shaping Humanity combines the brain of the scientist with the soul of the artist in a totally engrossing way. I can’t recall another recent book that has held my attention so strongly in such different ways.

Who are you? We beings from your future are using every method we can devise to bring you into focus and answer this question. We want to know you, to see your face, even to experience the world through your senses. We measure you. We generate long chains of numbers, images, and symbols in our effort to understand you.

Passages like this one, from the end of the book, bring clear focus to the author’s methodology — use the best, most detailed physical science to inform the artist’s representation of ancestors whom we can “see” only through the application of informed imagination.

Gurche is rigourous in presenting the science of fossil anatomy, and if you aren’t fascinated by the implications of small differences in the angle at which the neck attaches to the torso or by the incremental evolution of thumb rotation, this might not be the book for you. But even if you might find the science a bit daunting, you will be caught up in the complex relationship between the science and the artist. Consider this passage, representing the revelation of an early hominin fossil:

His bones remained still, in their bed of silt, as the surface of the land shifted above them. Rains swept away sediment, floods scoured the surface, cutting into earth until, one and a half million years after his death, the water opened a window and the sun once again warmed the bone of his cheek.

Here is the book’s greatest fascination, and its greatest beauty, as we peek in at the author’s artistry in all of its depth. Gurche writes:

Gaining an understanding of human origins through scientific study is one way of experiencing a link to the human past. Other kinds of experience—holding in your hands the skull of an ancient ancestor, for example—fulfill the yearning for a connection in ways that transcend measurement and analysis. I have found personally that one of the more potent ways of making contact is to use the best science available to create art about our origins.

The process of creating art from fragments of bone is a long and complex one, but for Gurche it is also a special kind of intimate relationship, a way of reaching back across the stretch of time and touching a life. Not a human life, perhaps, but certainly a life enough like our own to make a moving connection. The best sections of the book are those in which Gurche shares his response to the vanished life he holds, literally, in his hands.

It can be almost overwhelming to have the remains of an ancient human ancestor spread out on a table before you. Your rational side says: Let’s dive in and start measuring, but something makes you hesitate. Here is something of incalculable value. It was once alive; it felt joy, grief, and anger. It knew the sound of running water, the dreamlike motion of a running giraffe, the smell of flowers in bloom. perhaps it briefly wondered about the stars. What remains of it holds clues about your own deep past, at an almost unimaginable number of generations before your time. It can inspire a sense of wonder and reverence that is sometimes difficult to communicate with others about; it is beyond words. except that there are others who feel it too; you sometimes see it in their eyes, and not always in someone known for having a lyrical outlook.

There are many more moving passages like this one, and it’s worth repeating that they raise the scientific discussion of the fossils of our predecessors and ancestors to a rare level. The reader cannot help but feel privileged to be allowed to share the author’s sensitivity and sensibilities.

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