The strength and weakness of the American Museum of Natural History's displays in its new Hall of Human Origins is the same issue that haunts its other rooms. Visualization abolishes uncertainty.
Did Lucy ever stroll across the African plain with her man's arm around her shoulder? Nobody knows, but I doubt it. Lucy was an Australophicus and I doubt she ever knew who the fathers of her children were. That's not the way of the ape world and Lucy, I presume, was a bipedal ape. But coming generations are going to be confident she did walk that way because they saw it when they were children and never forgot it.
Is this a good thing or not? The argument for is that it excites young minds and gets them interested. The argument against is that it is sentimental and untrue. It may lead to great things for a few who go on to learn more, but the many will live out their lives with a false impression. Pay your money and take your pick.
There is a display showing something of the magic behind these visualizations. It shows how the face of Simma skull #5, a half million year old Homo heidelbergensis, was created. Starting with the skull, muscles are overlaid, then a skin is put over the whole thing, followed by hair.
But this visualization promotes our assumptions too. Why do I see a white face and not a black one? Why is his hair long and straight rather than kinky? He has lips. Why aren't they fuller? Well, you may say, he was not a modern Bantu, which would be true, but he wasn't a German either.
Like it or not; however, this view of humans is the one that will become standard in many people's imaginations. The human line will be a bit more sentimental and a lot whiter than seems correct, but it will be something people can now picture with ease.
Next week I'll take a look at the role of language and symbols in the displays at the Hall of Human Origins