Discover Magazine posted an article about the job of a paleoartist. Paleoartists use various forms of art, such as drawings or sculpture, to depict extinct organisms or fossils related to paleontology. In this particular article the subject was Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), the supposed ape-like ancestor of humans.
Take a peek at the images here to see what I’m referring to: The first thing that caught my attention was the caption, which stated that a paleoartist uses “science, art and imagination” to reconstruct their subject- in this case Lucy. It’s the imagination that I’m calling into question because it’s possible for an artist to imagine almost anything… including evolutionary descent. It’s the imagination that transforms a set of fossils into what the artist and paleontologists have in mind for the viewer to take away.
When I’m viewing such paleoart, what I’m looking for is an accurate portrayal of the subject matter. I want to see something as faithful to the actual specimen as possible. What I don’t want, however, is propaganda- but too often that’s what we get. And that’s what I’m focusing on in this article.
When the artist has a hidden agenda, then we’re probably not going to get an accurate portrayal; the artwork will inevitably portray the artist’s beliefs rather than what the fossil actually looked like when it was still living. The artist’s agenda doesn’t even need to be spoken; instead it will be revealed in their work. In this case the unspoken agenda is apparent when we view the images: “This is Lucy, and she’s human… just like us”.
As I look into Lucy’s eyes I feel like I’m looking into the eyes of a human being, and I think that’s exactly what the artist intends. In fact he freely admits that “seeing her as she may have appeared in life can make a connection for us that nothing else can foster.” In other words the artist was intentionally trying to make the viewer feel connected to our supposed ancestor, and in that sense I think he was very successful. Unfortunately such an agenda doesn’t help us obtain an accurate reconstruction; it only aids in making the viewer think a certain way- that we evolved from this creature.
Personally, I don’t care what the artist believes… all I want is accuracy, and I don’t think we’re getting that with paleoartwork like this. If, however, the artist were attempting to reconstruct an extinct tree, I think they’d deliver something much more realistic.
But in the case of Lucy, the artist freely admits that he was trying to represent her in an upright position, as if she was bipedal and walked on two legs, as opposed to walking on all fours. And in order to do that, guess what kind of subject the artist used for posing- an ape or a human? Well, it should come as no surprise that the artist used a human subject because the intent was to make Lucy as human as possible. And what better way to do that than with a human subject?
The artist also admitted to giving the arms and legs a “somewhat human” look. The artist took additional license by using a lesser amount of body hair than the scientific data suggests, used black bear hair as a stand-in, and assumed dark skin for tropical humans. So it’s not surprising that the artist tells us that Lucy’s appearance is unlike that of any creature alive today… that’s exactly what it was intended to do!
After reading this article, I can’t help but wonder what an unbiased representation of Lucy would look like. Can we find an artist who can provide an authentic representation without resorting to an agenda? It’s hard to tell. However there are plenty of images of Lucy produced by many different artists, and some are more humanlike, while others are fully apelike. In fact I like the contrasting representation of Lucy exhibited at the Creation Museum in Kentucky… it admittedly represents a creationist bias, which I fully endorse 🙂