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

January 14, 2014 • 9:30 pm

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.

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

  1. “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.

    1. 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???

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  2. 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!

        1. 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.

  3. Very nice! & while you are getting that book Greg, you might like to get this one on alligators & crocs by Dinets – Dragon Songs

    1. 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.

  4. And guess who the last hominid is!)

    A specimen of, 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?

        1. “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.

            1. 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.

              1. “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.

          1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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…

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