Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Out of Line

Today in class our professor put a slide up of the image shown above. It is the frontispiece from a book called “Mans Place in Nature” by T.H. Huxley, an anthropologist who was one of the first to do comparative anatomy between apes and humans and recognize the striking similarities in skeletal form. Anyway, it is a lovingly detailed and compelling engraving and, it got me thinking.

Because its a successive progression of hominoids, all standing in line at the movie theatre, one might be led to think that humans evolved, in a linear fashion, from something that was like a living ape to the upright Annie Hall watching humans we see today. Well, that would be wrong, in a few ways. The first reason it is wrong is that when you learn about evolution and extinction and speciation you know, like so many hard won routes in life, human evolution was not linear. Artists need to take full advantage of how many dimensions a two dimensional graphic can depict. Although, I assume the artist, Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, did what he was told in this case, to draw these apes all in a line, to suggest, because of their similar anatomical structures, that they all shared a common ancestor. This was quite innovative and bold at the time that it was published in 1863, so I dont mean to diminish its value. But what we know now about evolution has changed, so its important to have our images be an accurate reflection of the changing concepts. Well, at least that’s what I thought.

I was on my way to the interview to my absolute dream job, I was wearing a slightly ill-fitting too formal jacket and I was shuffling through the autumn leaves on the way to the museum. I had done a project, in art school, about human evolution. It was a hypothetical piece depicting what I thought would be a great exhibit at the museum in the hall of human evolution. And here I was at the very museum, going to the design department, because they called me, about to show my work. I was achingly naive and thrilled.

I got into the interview and showed the art director my work and when I flipped to my depiction of an exhibit on human evolution I paused and told her, “well I know this shows evolution in a linear fashion—(because it looked cool and worked well with my idea) I wanted to show all the hominin skulls printed on a translucent material so you could see them overlapping one another for comparison of size and traits, I imagined each panel printed or engraved on glass and large enough so a visitor could walk through each successive stage—but I know evolution is not linear”.

She paused and swallowed. At the end of the interview she gave me some advice, she said “Dont ever say anything negative about your own work in an interview”. Ok, she was correct, but I was also correct. I was right about the way evolution works, I was just naive in thinking that the designers would actually care. And anyway, I should have used my newly-acquired scientific knowledge to change the layout of my project and then just kept quiet. Or even better, just kept quiet. My heart was in the wrong department.

Needless to say, I didnt get the job.

And just today I shuffled through the autumn leaves to the same museum, but I didnt go to sweat over fonts and colors that no one cares about, I went to learn, about human evolution and how experimental, bushy, halting, complex and non-linear the real story may have been.

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