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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Beauty in the Ashes

Elizabeth Newbury

Science is a hideous creature. It seethes with self importance. It reeks of arrogance, of knowing. It's filled with numbers and weird formulas that cause migraines. Society, today, bows down before science. It is the new cultural icon, the new standard to which we hold all things. It has already claimed truth, and now it has turned its head to other entities, seeking to conform and weigh all things according to its criteria.

Ironically, despite having sold my academic soul to a career in a scientific field, that's how I feel. The beauty of science itself is that it is universal(1)., that you can adhere to its rules and the knowledge and truths you fashion under its heading are 'universal'.

But you cannot tell me that numbers are beautiful. Or rather, you cannot make me believe that such is the case. The solution of those numbers could be beautiful, or the history behind how the equation came about is beautiful, but the fact that the equation is in and of itself not beautiful. F=ma is no more beautiful to me then a lump of coal. The equation is just a compilation of numbers, just like a painting is just oil on canvas. It's the composition, the result, the story that is beautiful.

Perhaps that's why I find the soft sciences so much more appealing to my sense of aesthetics. The 'softer' sciences, such as my major anthropology, are invariably made far more beautiful than 'hard' sciences, such as physics, because by their very nature they are not reliant on simply churning out numbers. I'm not trying to degrade physics in any way, but one has to concede that in order to get a degree in physics, chemistry, and so forth, you have to at least be able to find a little enjoyment in numbers. Anthropologists use numbers as the means to an end, to try to find human universals that apply to all peoples, universals that go beyond science to true understanding.

Let us take a very simple example, the Laetoli footprints. In Laetoli, Tanzania there exists a find that has shaken up our understanding of human evolution. Simplified, this is a find of fossils and fossilized footprints that was discovered in the late 1970's by Mary Leakey. Tracks of two different creatures with feet much like the ones we put socks on every day spread across a flat plain over a distance of twenty feet, forever preserved in volcanic rock. It is believed that these two individuals, walking side by side, made their impressions shortly after a volcanic eruption and a rainfall, and because these elements were right we can now find see the impressions their travels made today.

Now if I were to simply use a scientific approach to this example, I could tell you all sorts of conclusions one can draw just from the fossils themselves. For instance, a train anthropologist can get a lot of information simply by examining the footprints that were discovered. Judging from just the length of the stride and the placement of the foot, an anthropologist can tell you that one was taller than the other, and that they were moving across the landscape at a stroll, or at least, not a run, nor a very hurried pace. A brisk walk, perhaps.

That same anthropologist can also give you the date of the fossil's discovery, using radio potassium dating methods, and tell you that it was anywhere from 3.6 million years old to 3.8 million years old. Also, taking into consideration the age of the site, they can go on to tell you which early species of hominid most likely created the footprints. In this case, the A. afarensis is the favored species for this find. Judging from the depth and size of the footprints, the individuals were about four feet in height and four feet eight inches. They could even tell you that the smaller of the two individuals paused for a moment, turned slightly to the left, and then continued on.

But all of that would be pointless without knowing why this find is so significant. By the way that the footprint was made, and the lack of a diverging toe and the presence of a defined arch in the foot, an anthropologist can tell you that it was made by a hominid. The feet of apes, the only other animal with a foot similar to our own, are characterized by a toe that extends like a thumb from the rest of the foot. The reason for this is because the toe is necessary for climbing up into trees, or rather, climbing with any sort of ease, for long periods of time, and with any speed at all. The arch is an adaption that was used to support the weight of the body comfortably, for a creature walking upright.. The shape, the way the heel struck down first and the way the toes were then used to push off from the ground is a sort of locomotion that only a hominid would use. To take that a step further, we can tell that these creatures who made these prints were using bipedal locomotion as their primary, if not sole, way of getting around, and that they were adapted from an ape ancestor.

"This motion–the pause, the flance to the left–seems so intensely human, it transcends time. Three million six hundred thousand years ago, a remote ancestor – just as you or I–experienced a moment of doubt." (Mary Leakey, quoted in Lewin, 1988, p57)

Yes, well no surprise there, you may say. Or you may even think that's just footprints, and that it doesn't prove anything whatsoever.

But during the 1970's this was a tremendous step (if you'll forgive the pun) towards establishing who our early ancestors were. Combining this with other fossil evidence, such as those found at the site and also with Lucy, anthropologists now feel comfortable answering one of the most critical questions that had been plaguing their field: Which came first, the brain or the bi-pedalism?

Obviously, when taking into account the small brain capacity of Lucy, and establishing that the first hominoids did indeed practice bipedal walking for great distances, then we can firmly establish that bi-pedalism came first.

This discovery does go beyond that, however. Based on the size differential between the two footprints (one set had a much larger print), the commonly believed theory is that one of the individuals was male, the other female. Noting the differential strike of the smaller set of prints, it is also believed that female was carrying something on her hip, such as a child. Combining all of these elements together, and including the fact that the two sets of prints seemed to remain in step for the length of the twenty meters, and anthropologists can paint a picture that these two early hominoids were a family unit. From there, there are endless possibilities for hypothesis on our early social structures, even the way that our earliest societies could have been formed from this core family unit.

The other thrilling aspect of this discovery is that it was made by Mary Leakey, one of the most celebrated women in anthropology of the then and now. This monumental discovery, the combination of the footprints and the skeletons that went along with it, is made all the more beautiful because it was also a landmark for female anthropologists everywhere.

So why is this scientific element beautiful to me? It's certainly not because of the symmetry of the fossils. To me, bones are bones, footprints are footprints. It's the story that these little bits of evidence tell that makes them so interesting to me. It's the fact that I can consider the how these fossils made an impact on our communal understanding of how human society evolved. That these discoveries made an impact not only on what we know, but how we perceive the world. Prior to this discovery, we had only scraps of evidence to go by as we tried to figure out how and why exactly our ancestors evolved from apes and into the hominoids. It was at first believed, due partially to our big egos, that the way we developed was big brains first, then apes. We still don't know all of the answers, of course, and this fossil only created more questions: Why did we develop bipedal locomotion first? What exactly was the social structure of the A. afarensis? What was their environment really like, filled with active volcanoes? What exactly did they look like, these two footed, small brained creatures?

But this is part of the beauty of my science, my softer, more cushy anthropology. The discovery, the adventure is beautiful, because it's more than just facts and figures. It's how we live, how we came to be. We're learning our story, the reason for our being here, not just predicting the speed of an apple falling. The study of human evolution is an aspect of this hideous creature called 'science' that I can look straight in the eyes and dare to call beautiful.


1)By universal, it should be understand that I mean to those societies that accept science as a part of one of their theologies. Obviously if a society believes that all truths are as a result of divine intervention, that an apple falls because it is the will of a deity or because spirits keep it close to the earth, then this statement cannot possibly apply.

2)Article 1, Some information about Lucy

3)Article 2, Laetoli Footprints, pictures

4)Article 3, More on the Laetoli

5)Price, T. Douglas and Gary M. Feinman, "Images of the Past" Third Edition, Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company: 2001. pages 40-41. (about the Laetoli site; also where Mary Leaky reference is from)

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