By Margo

The gallery of the “living” (as opposed to the “fossil,” in Louis Agassiz’ binary classification of organisms on Earth) mammals in the Harvard Museum of Natural History contains many skeletons.  Two of them stand out in particular, more for their inverse relationships to reason and power than for the quality or rarity of the bone specimen.

The first skeleton is of a now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, whose very name evokes in the mind of the observer mythical creatures of constellations.

The remains of the Steller Sea Cow on display at the Harvard Natural History Museum

Like the Ursa Maggiore in the night sky, the Steller sea cow loom over the visitor’s head, inviting her to flesh out in the imagination the form suggested by the arrangement of white bones.  Alive, the Cow would have been enormous (eight to nine meters in length).  It lived in the shallow coastal waters of the North Pacific (a part of the world that is close to my heart) and grazed on kelp.  A herbivore, slow swimmer, and unable (or unwilling) to submerge itself, the Cow was vulnerable to hunting by human settlers.  Within 27 years of the arrival of the Europeans to the Commander Islands, where the last habitat of these peaceable cows lived, they were hunted to extinction.

A drawing of the Steller Sea Cow by naturalist Georg Steller, 1700.

The second skeleton is of a modern human, Homo sapiens (I assume a Wikipedia link would be superfluous).  Unlike the Cow suspended from the ceiling, the Homo sapiens stands upright next to its more ape-like ancestors in a display under a staircase.

The evolution display under the staircase.

According to the plaque by the skeleton’s feet, Homo sapiens, like the late exemplar behind glass, are said to be found “worldwide” (in sharp contrast to the extinct Cow).   

Homo sapiens, Worldwide

A behaviorist, intolerant of ambiguity, Noam Chomsky tells us in his 1956 paper, “Three Models for a Description of Language,” would not be capable of recognizing the double-entendre of this image of human remains marked with a descriptive label “Worldwide.”  The Steller sea cow and the Homo sapien may share the same spectacular “living” room in the Harvard Natural History Museum, but the visitor pauses in front of the Homo sapiens display in a particular way, cognizant of their dramatically different histories.

Worldwide domination, worldwide fate.

Domination: that carves out a place for creatures like the Stellar (sic) sea cow only in permanent suspension from the ceiling of a museum.

Fate: the strange meaning of one’s own reflection in the glass separating the bones.

In the 19th century, William James defined cognition, Claude Debru reminds us, as “knowing objects.”  The visit to the Natural History Museum was a lesson in the history of human cognition: a glimpse of the understanding of the world of powerful individuals through the ordered objects that they left behind.  Particularly, it is a lesson in the centrality of the messy relation between objects and subjects in the history and philosophy of science and a challenge to the cognitive science revolution’s vision of human beings as active agents.  At one moment and from one perspective, the human being is an active agent ordering, collecting, categorizing.  In another moment, or from another point of view, the human being is an object of a museum display.

Continuing to make sense of this dynamic relationship between subjects and objects of knowledge without wishing to settle the complexity, seems to me to be our challenge as critical scholars of science.  Perhaps one strategy that we can employ to this effect is the one proposed by Jerome Bruner in his 1971 education program, “Man: A Course of Study”: contrast the human being with other creatures in order to better see him.

Information and inspiration for this post comes from Janet Browne’s guidance of our visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History and Jamie Cohen-Cole’s seminar on “The Cognitive Revolution at Harvard,” May 3, 2012.  With gratitude to both of them and to everyone in our “worldwide” school.