One of my current classes and I just went to the Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Below is the post I placed on our class blog in reflection on that exhibit:
When I was a little girl my favorite place to go was the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry. Even though I grew up near Orlando, my family did not have season passes to Disney World or Busch Gardens; we had season passes to MOSI (the above-mentioned museum). So my early memories of science are filled with what it was like to walk as a very small person and look up at enormous dinosaur skeletons, to watch as my father, an electrician, explained the way a current climbed up a Jacob’s ladder, to send a giant pinball though an equally giant pinball machine to learn about kinetic and potential energy, and to sit still and in awe as galaxies swirled above me in a planetarium. And this is also the place where I first fell in love with the world and learning about it…and so with science…well that and my home in the Florida countryside with its lizards and fiddler crabs and an endless ocean. But all of that is to say that whenever I enter a science museum, I feel like I am five again—astonished by and in wonder at everything around me, ready to explore, and in love with the world.
The Hall of Human Origins is not different for me. I can’t help but be in wonder in front of the answer to one of the deepest questions of our existence: where did we come from? I love how the answer to that question shows our connectedness to every living thing around us and to the earth itself. I am looking at a bowl of fruit sitting on my kitchen table as I type and I remember that I am 60% similar to a banana. That knowledge changes how I approach that banana, how I approach everything…and that approach, which may be one that started when I was a child wandering through another museum, is one of reverence to everything around me, everything I am somehow genetically connected to, which is what I think Darwin felt as well. The last lines of The Origin of the Species get at this, and are very meaningful to me:
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
“Forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Yes, that is what I felt as I walked through the exhibit this time. And that humanity is one of these most beautiful and most wonderful forms. Darwin’s text deals with brutal things: survival of the fittest, extinction, death, but this is how he chooses to end his text with beauty, wonder, and even hope.
And humanity too is a brutal story: war, genocide, slavery, and yet all of the answers to the question “What does it mean to be human?” throughout the exhibit were about what makes us beautiful: we write music, dance, and sing; we make sculptures and paint images; we have empathy and care for those who would die without our help; we use tools and language and write; we live in community. The exhibit that most struck me in the Hall of Human Origins was an interactive film about Neanderthal burial practices. I was struck by this answer to what it means to be human: bury the dead, mourn, place flowers in a grave. The beautiful unnecessary practice of recognizing the meaning of a life, the importance of an individual, the passage of time and life and death. This is part of our own beauty, our gift to this universe in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the tension between religion and evolution hinges upon the idea that humans lose their “specialness” if we have evolved like any other animal and from animals. But, as a religious person, I see something else in our evolution. I see that we are unique and special among the species of the world precisely because we have come from other animals, precisely because we are connected to the world around us so profoundly and we are able to be aware of this and look with wonder at how we came to this place. We give a unique and unrepeatable beauty to this vast and stunning universe…but we could never do so if we were not a part of it, if we were not one of these “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”