This is the second installment of a two-part interview with John Gurche, author of the new book Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins (Yale University Press, 2014). Gurche is a paleoartist, known for his work with dinosaurs and early humans. Gurche has worked on the movie Jurassic Park, designed stamps for the US Postal Service, and recently crafted the sculptures for the Smithsonian Museum’s Hall of Human Origins. In Shaping Humanity, Gurche delves into the data, research, creativity, and emotion employed in constructing the Smithsonian exhibit. Gurche works from his studio in Trumansburg, New York, where he is also artist in residence at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. When we left off, Gurche was describing his experience dissecting humans and apes to gain reliable data for his sculptures.
ZvB: Is there any particular scientific development that has changed the way that you work the most over time?
JG: Of course, improvements in the field and the way we extract information from the fossil record always help, and sometimes offer changes to the prevailing model. Sometimes I’ll be working according to one model for what a particular hominin is all about, what its adaptations are, what it’s body form is, etc. and some overturning discovery will come along. This happened twice during the building of the homo erectus bronze. A discovery will come along that changes our view of that creature. So those things I always have to keep up with. Another thing that’s influenced the way I work is the development of stereolithography, and laser scanning. Sometimes the skulls that I’ll work on are too delicate to do the traditional molding and casting, so in that case they scan it, and send me a high-resolution print-out.
ZvB: You’re very honest in your book about the times when you have to be inventive or subjective. I imagine you’re in a pretty small field, but is that a common trait amongst people who do facial reconstructions? Or is there some pretense of pure objectivity?
JG: My two biggest competitors don’t come from a science background—they come from film school in once case and art school in another. I don’t actually know how they work, but I don’t think they do what I do. You can’t, unless you’ve been dissecting great apes for thirty years. So I would imagine that subjectivity plays a greater role in their work than mine. But for some anatomies, we just don’t know. The details of the hair patterns, lip coloration, some of the details of the expression around the eyes… There are some things that we just don’t have answers for. I have to try to read everything available on that hominin’s adaptations, and make sure I’m not putting something outrageous in when I’m making those guesses.
ZvB: I loved the part in the book when you had to come in to this coffee shop to measure people’s ears to get the natural human range of ear height.
JG: Just a little peek into my life.
ZvB: So do you get feedback and criticism from paleontologists and anthropologists who see your work? What kind of challenges have they made to you?
JG: Yes, I do get lots of feedback. I try to get all the feedback I can before I do the reconstruction. Afterwards it’s not that useful. Anthropologists debate and disagree about many anatomical features. For example, did Lucy hold her shoulders up high in an ape-like position, or did she hold her shoulders in a lower, human position? There are disagreements on that, and I have to understand the arguments and try to make an intelligent choice. In some cases, I have to do slightly different reconstructions for different institutions. This summer I worked for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and did a Lucy figure for them. Their head curator for anthropology is of the school of thought that sees Lucy in slightly more human terms. They think that she wasn’t doing much climbing, that she had a fully defined arch in the foot, and that her ribcage was more human-shaped. So in little detailed ways I had to build my reconstruction to fit their ideas.
ZvB: Do you think that your sculptures have the ability to sway skeptics towards believing in evolution?
JG: I guess I would say no. For one thing, I’m not sure anything would convince them, because they want so much to believe what they believe. But certainly seeing something that is realistic and looks like it’s alive, which is what I hope to do with my sculptures, is only going to register with them in the same way as a realistic shot in a movie of a fantasy creature. So no, I don’t think it has that power. Hopefully for people who haven’t really thought about it, or who are not committed to one way of thinking or another, it might help them visualize these things alive. That’s one of my major goals.
ZvB: What kind of projects are you working on right now?
JG: I’ve got a couple on the horizon—one I can’t tell you about, but it’s really cool. It’s so cool that I can’t tell you. For the other one, I’ve been communicating with the head of the project at the Georgian site of Dmanisi. They’ve found five skulls from that site. I’ve done reconstructions for three of the previous four skulls (one of them doesn’t have a face so I didn’t do that one), but number five has always been really fascinating. They found his mandible years ago, and when they found it was so weird and so huge that I said to the guys on the team, “Find the skull of that guy.” And they have. Skull number five is the skull of that guy. Plus they have most of his skeleton. He wants me to do a reconstruction and we’re both looking around for funding. That’s the next thing.
ZvB: Are there any emerging technologies that are not available yet but are very exciting possibilities to you?
JG: There are sculpting programs on screen that you can interact with, and what you are doing will appear in 3D on screen. I don’t think it’s gotten good enough to have the kind of high resolution that I’m looking for, but I think it’s getting there. I look forward to working with that kind of technology. I think we’re on the verge of technological work that will make it unnecessary for me to do molding and casting, because we could just laser scan and then 3D print them. It has to be a soft material though, because you have to be able to implant hairs into it. And it needs to have some kind of smoothing algorithm so you don’t see little microcontour lines, which you can see on the 3D printouts. But I think we’re close, and when I that happens I will say Hallelujah! Because I hate molding and casting on the level of the whole human figure. Anything that can go wrong does go wrong. I keep think ok, on this project I’m going to have a trouble-free molding and casting session, and each time something horrible happens. Probably they’ll develop it two days after I die.
From Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins by John Gurche
ZvB: Anything else you want to mention about the book?
JG: A couple of things. One is about the perspectives that this kind of work generates, especially if it’s really intensive, like total immersion for four years. You really start to view humans and the lifespan of our species within a greater evolutionary context. It gives you a sense of how weird humans are, really, and what a fantastic development we are in the history of life on earth. When we’re speaking of the origin of humans we’re talking about a part of the universe becoming aware. That’s a big thing. That kind of perspective surfaces in the book fairly frequently. Hopefully, there are passages in there that will make readers feel a strong personal connection to these ancestors. That’s why there’s a question and answer section with Lucy, where we get to ask her some of our questions. She doesn’t answer of course, she’s dead, but the book tells what science has been able to bring to light as far as answers. Hopefully readers will connect with these ancestors in a personal way.
A lot of the book is about how humans came to be the way we are now. Right now we are a collection of nervous systems linked in a way that no other mammal is. We are linked, by a shared matrix of culture and language. I view language really as a means of sound-mediated thought transfer. To me that’s a big deal. So I think that we’re linked in ways that no other animal or organism is. I try to bring that out in Shaping Humanity and talk about how we got that way.
“Who are you? We beings from your future are using every method we can devise to bring you into focus and answer this question. We want to know you, to see your face, even to experience the world through your senses […] We sift through the debris you cast off, trying to understand the way you lived. We hold the tools that you made and feel a connection with you […] We would so like to know about your life, what you think about when you gaze into a starry night sky. Do you wonder about your people’s future, about whether there will be heirs to inherit your world and your ways? We can answer: Yes, for we are they.” – Excerpt from Shaping Humanity, by John Gurche.
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