Sunday, August 24, 2014

Making the living as interesting as the dead

Dinosaurs are endlessly fascinating things. They may be one of the biggest common denominators interest of among young children, both male and female. They’re huge, they’re weirdly shaped, and perhaps most importantly, they don’t exist. You see only the skeleton, and drawings. As a consequence, you’re forced to imagine what they would have been like. This means that they get a romance and curiosity attached to them that seldom attracts to the animals that the world actually has. One wants what one can’t have, after all. What is Jurassic Park, if not a combination of Frankenstein and man’s attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden?

Of course, if dinosaurs actually existed, they’d just be one more animal in the zoo. You can take this one of two ways. Either dinosaurs are overrated, or we should be more interested than we are in things that actually exist. For aesthetic reasons, I prefer the latter choice - one ought to learn to take joy in the merely real. Of course, getting people to see that is easier said than done.

Doubt it not, a giraffe is as bizarre as any dinosaur. One may appreciate this on an intellectual level, but it is hard to view one with quite the same wonder. The most effective way I've seen to demonstrate the point is at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Firstly, the exhibits move from dinosaurs, to ice age skeletons, and then on to living animals, encouraging the juxtaposition quite naturally.

But most importantly, to get people to be intrigued by modern animals, the most successful trick is to show them not just a giraffe, but a giraffe skeleton. It encourages you to look at a giraffe the way you look at the dinosaurs. And when you do, you realise that it’s comparably tall, wackily elongated, and many of the elements of the skeleton share features with those in the previous rooms. They also show you a real giraffe next to it, completing the imagination picture you had to fill in on your own in the previous cases. But most of the room is filled with skeletons of living species. A rhino or a hippo skeleton could easily be placed in the previous rooms without seeming out of place. If you judge a dinosaur less by its age and more like a child would, as a strange giant animal, the dinosaurs still exist. We just stopped noticing them.

The message is subtle but powerful. You would do well to be less fascinated with dinosaurs, and more fascinated with animals. The dead are intriguing, but so are the living. The latter have the advantage that you can still see them. So afterwards, why not take a trip to the zoo?

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