Shaping Humanity- a new book by John Gurche on science and art

by Greg Mayer

John Gurche, the well known scientific illustrator and “Paleo-Artist” has recently published a new book, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins (Yale University Press, 345 pages, $49.95)

Gurche book coverGurche is best known for his exacting reconstructions of fossil hominids in paintings, bronzes, and life reconstructions, although he also occasionally tackles other subjects, as in his highly regarded “Tower of Time” vertical mural at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which treats much of the whole history of life. WEIT readers may recall that back in 2010 I had occasion to praise his reconstructions (slide show) and bronzes (slide show) for the then new human evolution exhibit, also at the National Museum of Natural History. Here are two I showed back then; a facial reconstruction of Paranthropus boisei:

Paranthropus boisei (skull pictured in first photo in post)

Paranthropus boisei by John Gurche at the USNM.

and a bronze of a Neanderthal mother and child:

Mother and child

Mother and child

Beginning with the bones, Gurche layers muscles and other soft tissues, using living forms and anatomical principles as a guide, to build up a three dimensional image of his subject. Many of his decisions must be guided by his anatomical intuitions, instincts, and his own creativity, so while his works are rigorous scientific speculations, they are also creative works of art. The book is an explanation and examination of his science and his art, by the scientific artist himself. The National Museum of Natural History has produced a fine video showing Gurche’s creative and reconstructive process.

Gurche has posted on Youtube a short video in connection with his book, showing a great number of his life reconstructions morphing into one another. (Which is not strictly correct from a phylogenetic point of view, since most of these are probably collateral ancestors rather than direct ancestors and descendants, but it’s a nice video effect– plus their eyes move! And guess who the last hominid is!)

The New York Times has published an excerpt from the book; it’s on my list of books to get.

42 Comments

  1. Achrachno
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    “most of these are probably collateral ancestors rather than direct ancestors and descendants”

    But somewhere in the shrub of human history there probably is an ancestor-descendent line not too different from what he illustrated. Give or take a brow ridge or cheek bone.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:36 am | Permalink

      Modern humans have such a huge variety of head shapes & look suprficially very different but are all one species – isn’t there now a thought that ancient hominins were likewise varied withing populations & that what ‘bushiness’ there is is more about intraspecies variation rather that interspecies variation???

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:37 am | Permalink

        apologies for the two obvious typos… need coffee!

      • Achrachno
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        Separating species is difficult even among living things, where samples/specimens may be too few or not representative. It’s worse for fossils where you only have tiny parts of individuals to work with, usually.

        That said, there were certainly at least several dozen biological species in the lineage illustrated, even if we may be over counting in places.

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Yes, this is about the recent finding from Dmanisi which suggest that some of the classical species from the genus Homo might be varieties of one species. If this becomes generally accepted, then by priority of discovery most can now be called Homo erectus.
        It is always hard to be sure about ‘species’ based on fossils.

  2. marksolock
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  3. Marella
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating.

  4. ploubere
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    saw his work at Natural History Museum this past summer. An important part of the exhibition.

    • Achrachno
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      He’s one of those talented in a way that I just can’t imagine. How is this possible? I see it, but can’t even begin to do anything close. Maybe there’s an unrecorded speciation event and I was left on some lesser branch.

      • lisa parker
        Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        There are several artists working in various lines reconstructing faces from partial remains, from our current time to the earliest hominid samples. Some do it with virtual 3D modeling, some with clay, paint and hair. The ones done with current remains to assist in identifying victims or perpetrators (usually attempting to show the possible aging of the subjects.) The likenesses (done by those with talent) are often eerily accurate, almost to what you would define as “woo.” I am in awe seeing their work.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      I was there too this summer! First time for me. I remember some of those particular exhibits, but by then I was pretty well spent.

  5. Posted January 14, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating!

    /@

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:40 am | Permalink

      And just a tiny bit creepy! In a good way. ;)

  6. Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on π's blog.

  7. Dave
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:22 am | Permalink

    I think it would be great if someone did a version of this with the sequence finally morphing into the face of Ken Ham or William Lane Craig. No less accurate than the current version, and worth it just to see them go ballistic when they find out!

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      Nah. In either case, they would launch an image rights suit.

      • Achrachno
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Jesus then?

        • Karl Boyd
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

          But I thought this was about evolution? Showing them would be a major step backwards. :^)

          • lisa parker
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            I don’t know; I don’t see were (mentally) it would take mush work, and would be really funny.

            • lisa parker
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

              This was supposed to be a reply to Achrachno and please pardon the misspelled much. It’s early for me.

        • lisa parker
          Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

          Sorry; been done waaaaaaaaay too many times. The last one I saw bore a startlingly resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe (with slightly darker skin tone.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      lol!

  8. Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Very nice! & while you are getting that book Greg, you might like to get this one on alligators & crocs by Dinets – Dragon Songs
    amazon.com/Dragon-Songs-Adventure-Crocodiles-Alligators/dp/1611458935/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389778081&sr=1-1&keywords=dinets

    • lisa parker
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Living here, I see enough alligators all over the place. Mostly crossing the street to get back to the canals. And I promise you, although I know they can move pretty fast when they like, the big ones like to sit on the warm asphalt for a good time, purposely I’m sure, daring to get a motorist to get out of their vehicle to try to clear the rode. I think this one or the top ‘alligators’ games. It can be quite a sport when the mostly drunk Spring breakers decide to show their ‘domination’ of these animals. Luckily, these transverses of alligators most often are full and only want to be still and digest their dinner. But some times an arrogant untrained or even uneducated idiot will find out about alpha predators. Luckily, for those dealing with experience in ‘alligator wrangling’ (and yes that is what they call it) know how to easily capture the beasts.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    And guess who the last hominid is!)

    A specimen of Hom.sap.sap, I’m sure. The question is whether he gives vent to his own ego and show himself, or follows established precedent and uses Craig Venter, Michaelangelo’s rooftop Adam, or a tongue-sticking Einstein?
    Face rings no bells for me ; I guess it’s Gurche himself?

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Face rings no bells for me

      …unlike that armless guy they hired to work the belfry tower?

      b&

  10. Greg Esres
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks to the first photo in this post, I dreamed last night of being chased and assaulted by a gorilla.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Maybe you ate cheese before bed. :)

      • Karl Boyd
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        Do not watch the Planet of the Apes series then.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          “Do not watch the Planet of the Apes series then.”

          I wouldn’t dream of it . :-)

          Saw the originals as a child and found them depressing. I only watch movies with happy endings.

          • Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

            Happy for the apes.

            • Karl Boyd
              Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

              In the final original installment of POTA circa 1975, the humans and apes finally live together in peace as equals. Plus you have to admit they were and are smarter and have more relevant social commentary to say than most SF films then and since.

              Though 1968 was a very good year for SF cinema, with both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. Plus we were getting ready to put humans on the Moon for real.

              • Greg Esres
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                “the humans and apes finally live together in peace as equals. ”

                I seem to recall the planet being destroyed by an old nuclear device. I see now from Wikipedia there was some time-travel involved in later iterations that undid all that. Hmmm, don’t recall seeing those.

          • lisa parker
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

            I also only read or watch shows with happy endings. At my age I’ve seen too much reality already. I know enough sad endings.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Fantastic stuff!

  12. Nancy
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Did anyone else think that about 2:08/2:09, it kinda looked like actor Tony Danza? Just a little? lol

    • lisa parker
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      You could well be right!

  13. Kurt Helf
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    The Human Evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian NMNH is excellent (who’d’ve thought David Koch could produce something like this?) and Gurche’s sculptures are magnificent. I had one quibble: the wonderful bronze sculpture of the smiling hominid squatting in front of a cook fire, offering a butchered antelope leg to another individual (not in the scene), looks circumsised. I didn’t think the practice arose that early in human history.

    • Kurt Helf
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      *circumcised.

      • lisa parker
        Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        If was a rough time. Maybe he was (but not voluntarily.)

  14. lisa parker
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure I went to school with this guy (Paranthropus boisei.) We might have gone out a few times. AAhh, the good old (really, really old) days…

  15. Posted January 16, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely fascinating, thanks. :)


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