Our View of Nature: The role of the artist

In 2013, a shepherd walking in a Central Patagonian desert noticed an odd rock. Upon closer inspection, he realized he found a bone… a very large bone, protruding from the earth. Three years later, over 200 massive bones have been recovered from the site, and all belong to the ‘titan’ of the Cretaceous Period, the Titanosaur.


Dr. Diego Pol on the recent dig to recover Titanosaur bones. He lies next to a femur bone for scale. Courtesy of BBC news.

This massive herbivore, now on display in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, was over 122 feet long and lived in Chilean forests some 100 million years ago. What struck me about this awesome creature was not so much its sheer length, girth, or weight (though the numbers are impressive), but its depiction in the public realm and its subsequent influence on viewer’s ideas of an ancient nature. To be sure, children and adults have every reason to love the exhibit: the dino is several feet longer than the largest room in the museum, prompting the designers to position part of the head and neck into the next hallway, as if it is peeking around a corner.


Titanosaur peeking around the museum corner. Courtesy of BBC news.


But what fascinates me lies in the artist’s rendering and the way the public consumes their depictions. As a natural scientist, I am concerned with data and hypothesis testing. Nothing makes me happier than conducting fieldwork and then pouring over a fresh dataset. But for most folks, and indeed myself until recently, I absorbed scientific knowledge from diagrams in books, drawings, and museum displays. The bones of the Titanosaur represent, to a degree, our own vision of the past, imbued with our values. Whale and dinosaur bones are proudly displayed in museums perhaps because they are another form of ‘charismatic’ megafauna. We like dramatic and interesting animals, and their centrality in public spaces symbolizes far more than just an anatomically correct skeleton of an ancient animal.

Such displays are crucial because they reinforce, albeit subtly, ideas about how natural systems operate. Exposure at a young age has the potential to entrench certain ideas about ecological functioning: take, for example, the Lion King. As Adams (2003) wrote, the film depicts African animals in a humorously inaccurate way – from the ‘ruling’ lions atop pride rock and the shaman baboon to the antics of Timon and Pumbaa – which betrays human ideas about social order far more than authentic trophic levels in the animal kingdom.

The animal kingdom depicted in the Lion King shows little resemblance to real trophic structures. Courtesy of Disney.

But what does the inaccuracy of a cartoon matter? Its purpose is to entertain, not educate. What becomes significant then, in my opinion, is the depiction of nature and ecology when its purpose IS to educate the general public. Take for instance, the famous Akeley Hall of African Mammals in the New York American Museum of Natural History. Carl Akeley was the chief artist on the exhibit. An avid hunter in Africa, he went on numerous expeditions simply to study the landscapes that he eventually painted for the backdrops (he also was a taxidermist and once killed a leopard with his bare hands). Out of his painstaking dedication to seemingly trivial details came one of the most accurate and important exhibits in America. And because countless people, especially impressionable children, have seen the exhibit, he has influenced our mental image of African animals in their ‘natural setting’.

An example from Akeley’s exhibit. Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.
Realistic backdrops are key in museum designs.

The flip side of such dedicated accuracy is, of course, inaccurate and misleading images (canned wildlife photography is another example already covered in class). For instance, the widely known ‘evolution of man’ diagram is woefully false! The sequential progression from ape to caveman to modern human suggests that evolution itself moves toward increasing complexity that (naturally) leads to humans. This is just wrong. Evolution does not track towards complexity, nor are humans the pinnacle of evolutionary mechanisms.

imagesHow did such a false image permeate? Stephen Jay Gould wrote about these issues in science with great clarity: “Science must be understood as a social phenomenon, a gutsy, human enterprise, not the work of robots programmed to collect pure information.” True accuracy in biological art, therefore, is hard to come by and is always situated in some social context. There is danger in misleading images, but power in artistic work that strives to capture reality. There’s simply too much beauty in the complexity to settle for anything less.

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