Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bizarre Furor over Lucy, our Ancestor

So, check out this article, or this TIME one, about the first exhibit in a globetrotting 6-year voyage of the bones of Lucy, our 2.3 million year old ancestor. There appears to be some long-drawn out debate over whether its appropriate to be moving these kinds of objects around, or to exploit african countries, or something. I am a bit perplexed by the various arguments, having myself always been a fan of seeing the real thing myself. On one side is the renowned (but a little patronizing and batty) Richard Leakey:

"This iconic fossil is a unique biological specimen that should never be placed at risk: travel, packing, unpacking and handling exposes the skeleton to dangers that are unacceptable," says Leakey. "The decision to send Lucy on tour to the U.S. and perhaps elsewhere is to be deplored by any right-minded person."
"I definitely think that Lucy should not have been sent to America. ... Unique biological specimens and fossils such as Lucy are for science and should be retained in their country of origin,"
"Nobody will benefit from Lucy's tour apart from American museums, which are exploiting Africa's resources," he said.
This last bit is rich. According to TIME,
To borrow her, HMNS agreed to pay the Ethiopian government an undisclosed fee — estimates range from $300,000 to several million dollars — plus part of the proceeds from ticket and museum-store sales, money that the government has promised to Ethiopian museums. Ethiopian officials are also hoping that Americans who come to see Lucy in Houston or on tour might come to see Ethiopia too.
I fail to see how this is exploitative, especially since this is the fee for ONE museum, among presumably about half a dozen that will show these bones. I can see an argument (made by ECOH in the TIME article) that the money will just line the pockets of various Ethiopian officials and hardly benefit anyone. In addition, this last bit, about touting Ethiopia for tourism, will have to be synchronized with, you know, an actual campaign. So that will have to materialize. That being said, I think Leakey is out-to-lunch when he says this is exploitative. I object to a bunch of other things he said too. Saying that Lucy's tour should be "deplored by any right-minded person" is spitting in the face of any reasonable opposition. And to say that 'unique biologic specimens and fossils such as Lucy are for science and should be retained in their country of origin' is paradoxical, arrogant, narrow-minded, elitist, and frankly, bullshit. Especially Lucy. Especially Lucy.

First of all, I don't understand what the 'for science' part has to do with being retained in their country of origin, considering that regardless his opposition to Lucy's move, Leakey did at least acknowledge that the American museums are going to benefit from this tour. How is that not a benefit to science? I guess he would argue that keeping them in Ethiopia is better for science ....huh? Isn't Ethiopia a poor, corrupt country potentially at risk for the kind of instability that could destroy Lucy?

Oh....wait, what he actually means is that NOT keeping them where they are irrevocably harms the fossils. But haven't they already successfully carted papyrus Dead Sea scrolls and the First Emperor's terra cotta warriors all over the world?

Oh...wait, what he actually means is they should stay in Ethiopia, so that his poor african friends wont be exploited by the big, bad, swaggering White Museum Men from the West. (The funniest part of Leakey's evil 2nd-rate museum condescension is the hilarious paradox that these guys are all geeks and nerds in pop culture).

I think that the original discoverer of Lucy (who I originally thought was Leakey) Don Johanson, has this to say, which I think is an appropriate summation:
"While I cannot overemphasize my personal concerns for Lucy's safety, a broader exposure of Lucy to the public does have great educational value. Seeing the original Lucy will surely heighten public awareness of human origins studies, particularly at a time when the validity of evolution has come under fire in our schools."

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