Thursday, August 18, 2011

Whales at the Field Museum

The Field Museum in Chicago is a soaring temple to scientific inquiry. What do I mean by "soaring temple"? Imagine a skylit, enclosed space big enough to hang a whale from the ceiling at one end, set a couple of elephants on a raised platform at the other, place two towering totem polls in the middle, and leave room for about a bazillion people to mill around besides. Oh, and there's plenty of elbow room.

Through early next year, the Field Museum is hosting Whales: Giants of the Deep, an exhibit on-loan from the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa). If you have any interest at all in whales it's pretty much terrific. I visited when I was in Chicago at the end of last month.

I was most fascinated by a procession of fossilized skeletons of whales illustrating their evolution from mammals that lived on dry land. Even if you've encountered this odd evolutionary trajectory before it's striking to see. Like many, I generally think of life evolving from a 'primordial soup' and only after hundreds of millions of years making its way onto dry land. The Smithsonian has an on-line exhibit about whale evolution that may be the next best thing if you don't happen to live in or plan to visit Chicagoland this year (actually, it's worth a look even if you made it to the Field Museum). The Smithsonian exhibit's title, interestingly enough, is: "Did Whale Evolution Go Backwards?"

In one of the last galleries of the exhibit there were a pair of sperm whale skeletons, 58 and 32 feet long, respectively. They have names: Tu Hononga is the male and Hinewainui the female. Here's a video that gives a sense of how these behemoths were presented (it's got a pretty sloppy soundtrack, so you might prefer to turn down your speakers):

One of the mind-boggling things about sperm whales is how much whale there is relative to whale skeleton. Here's an image from Wikimedia Commons that illustrates this:

That's a lot of whale, eh?

So standing beside them I was feeling dwarfed by just the skeletons of these creatures, and thinking too about how unimaginably massive they would be fully-fleshed. Most of all, though -- because of their physical architecture, I think, and also the way they are mounted so that a visitor senses how they move through oceanic space -- I was conscious of the tubular construction of these whales.

No, I'm not trying to write like a surfer-dude.

What I mean is that the essential calorie-processing nature of these flesh-and-bone giants was overwhelmingly apparent as I stood next to them. Big, big mouths. Many, many teeth. And the ponderously graceful rib cage that once enclosed the fore end of a digestive system (not much different from yours or mine, only bigger) that stretched from nose to tail. These cetaceans are not nibblers. They're seafood processing machines. I stood beside their skeletons imagining these whales alive, flipping their tails through the salty depths, opening wide to suck down several thousand pounds of squid each day.

That such creatures exist, so massive, so intricately elaborate even stripped down to skeletons ... it's wonderous stuff.

Toward the start of the exhibit I was standing next to a man and his son, the boy perhaps nine or ten years old. We were looking at displays about the earliest whales, protocetids I think they were, which lived about forty million years ago. The man was explaining the exhibit to his son, saying something along these lines: "All this stuff they're saying, see? It's about evolution, and none of that's true. No. It's not true. God created everything, all of this." He said this three or four times, in different variations, as we moved slowly, in parallel, through the exhibit.

The kid didn't answer. I wondered what he was thinking behind his silence, taking in the displays, listening to his father's warnings, surrounded by mobs, literally thousands of people, who had come to visit this enormous temple to scientific inquiry, to see, consider, gaze in awe and wonder. I have no doubt that the many, many people at the Field Museum that Saturday had come with all manner of agendas and perspectives, and that the gentleman beside me wasn't the only one who thought the Darwinian frame of the exhibit shoots wide of the mark.

Still, it struck me that that this dad wasn't doing his beliefs any favors by telling his son they'd come to the museum to look at lies.

As I sometimes do when I'm awed by the beauty and grandeur of the world, I thought of a passage from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Eliot was a self-identified Anglo-Catholic, yielding to none in depth and acuity of vision, but at the same time unflinching in his acknowledgement of human limits. Sense and notion. Sometimes it's just not enough.

In the Field Museum, beside those massive skeletons, those creatues fantastically architected to pass through the vast ocean, eating life and being alive ... well, kneeling in wonder seemed square on the mark.

That doesn't make evolution a lie. Not even a little bit. It just means that the world is deep.

1 comment:

  1. Nice Eliot quote. This is one of the things that I've periodically sighed about: to me, the universe is more complex than I can fully understand, any more than I can hold infinity in my brain (defining is not holding - take that Descartes!). My not being able to understand it, my acceptance of mystery, isn't the same as saying that the universe is inexplicable. By invoking God, by anthropomorphizing the universe, we make it smaller. By giving it a human face, with sentience and motives that can be (and have been) described by man, we act like a child with a child's egoism, explaining all life within the context of self. Faith of this kind is at best immaturity, at worst hubris. I'll take my universe vast, beautifully complex, mysterious, and wonderfully indifferent.
    ** Let me note, here, that for a lot of people who don't spend their days contemplating their navel like I do, God is just something that they find comforting, that facilitates their good work (or bad work) helps them frame their time here, and keeps them from wigging out. Not everyone finds existential nihilism comforting for some strange reason.