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.