Lucy went on display today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and there was no way I could resist paying her a visit. I went in to the exhibit with very mixed feelings about it. A lot of people, including quite a few scientists I respect, have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the exhibit. Richard Leakey called the trip "a form of prostitution" and "a gross exploitation of the ancestors of humanity." Several museums have refused to display the fossil, and the Ethiopian community is calling for a boycott of the exhibit.
Their concerns are hardly unreasonable. Lucy's bones are very, very old and very, very fragile. Displaying her does involve some risk, particularly in a traveling exhibition that requires packing and unpacking the bones several times. There is no other Lucy. She's unique. She's a valuable - priceless - scientific specimen. The opponents of the exhibit think that the risk to the remains is simply too great to justify the exhibit.
For all I know, they might be right. I can tell you this, though. When I walked over next to the display case and looked down at Lucy, all of those concerns evaporated from my mind, replaced by a sense of pure awe.
You stand there and look down at the fossil, and you can feel the weight of the generations that separate you. She lived recently in geological terms, but it's still so long ago that it beggars the imagination. The Rome of Augustus is ancient history, but sixteen hundred times that many years separate us from her. What was her world like?
When you stand and look at Lucy, you stand at the edge of humanity. She's clearly not human, but she's also very clearly human-like in appearance. But what does that mean in terms of how she thought? She walked on two legs, and almost certainly used sticks and stones as tools, but did she have hopes and dreams? Was she able to think about what her children might do, or were her hopes limited to finding dinner and shelter for the next day?
Did somebody miss her when she didn't come home?
Photo courtesy of The Houston Museum of Natural Science
There's something about bone that evokes questions like that, in a way that resin and plaster do not. If Lucy can do that for even just a fraction of the people who see her, if she can make just a few more people think about our roots, and about what it means to be a human, if she can show just a few more people the value in looking past our own time, then I think exhibiting her was the right choice.
Science is important, and it would be a tragedy if Lucy is lost to science. But Lucy is also part of our past in a very real and concrete way, and it would be a tragedy if she was kept hidden in a vault, locked away from the world forever.