Chance pairing/proximal encounter with bust of Charles Darwin and taxidermied Corvidae: Cephalism and human thought

22 Aug 2018 - 11:30

 

Melissa Waters, of the Honours in Curatorship class of 2018, writes about one of her experiences in Berlin. The students went on a trip, funded by the Mellon Foundation, to visit the 10th Berlin Biennale curated by South African Gabi Ngcobo. However, once in Berlin they found the city had many other curated spaces to explore, as well as the Biennale, including the Natural History Museum.

 

Chance pairing/proximal encounter with bust of Charles Darwin and taxidermied Corvidae: Cephalism and human thought

 

The Natural History Museum of Berlin is constructed much like any other museum of the natural world – familial divisions and imposed categorisations delimit the space within. Rooms dedicated to categories like minerals, space, and birds clearly illustrate the human desire to organise the apparently differential aspects of the world into a logical system. While intriguing interventions that disrupt this status quo are not completely absent in the recent history of these kinds of institutions, the pervasiveness of this model means that unusual and truly provoking encounters within such spaces are rare. My visit to Berlin’s museum of natural history did elicit a thought-provoking encounter, albeit by chance. As I bent to photograph a mounted crow, a reflected image in the glass cabinet partly obscured the crow’s face. Usually an annoyance, this reflection instead provided an entry point into considering the way we as human animals study, describe and understand “the natural world.”

The obscurant was a stone bust of Charles Darwin, the famous scientist who theorised the concept of evolution and its mechanism of natural selection. The superimposition of one of the most celebrated thinkers of biological history with that of a crow – moreover, a superimposition at their respective cranial ends, with their heads overlapping – led me to wonder about intelligence and our anthropocentric understanding of it. We term ‘encephalisation’ as the relative brain mass to body mass in animals. Cephal- or cephalo- means ‘head.’ Encephalisation also refers to evolutionary processes, whereby the complexity of organisms has generally increased from the start of biological life, and there has been a trend towards encephalisation – the presence of a defined head and neurological centre. Human animals think of themselves as the culmination of this. Evolutionarily and taxinomically speaking, in terms of human animal-produced knowledge, one of the earliest organisms to exhibit cephalism are the cephalopods. A cephalopod is an animal such as an octopus, squid or nautilus, which is characterised by, among other things, a prominent head. The cephalopods are believed to have evolved during the Late Cambrian period, and are related to mollusks and gastropods or snails.

 

An organism’s level of encephalisation is thought to be somewhat correlated to its intelligence. Human animals have derived the encephalisation quotient (EQ), a mathematical equation which is a measure of approximate intelligence for mammals. Humans have an EQ of 7.44, dolphins 5.31, and chimpanzees and crows 2.49. Human animals have categorised crows as one of the most intelligent animals, and as troublesome and haunting, deathly and sinister. Crows exhibit qualities thought to be highly correlated with intelligence. They play, and use and construct tools. They are capable of displacement, like bees and ants, which is communicating about something not spatially or temporally present. Crows can recognise human animals, and distinguish between individuals by facial features. From our biased position, we have constructed an idea of the mind of the crow, as well as those of other animals. References are made here to octopi, snails, humans, crows, bees and ants with regards to encephalisation and measures of intelligence. This chance pairing of objects – Darwin and the crow – enabled me to consider the constructed hierarchy of intelligence and the subjective nature of systems of knowledge.

 

Above photograph of a mounted crow in Berlin’s Natural History Museum's "evolution in action" room, with a reflection of an adjacent bust of Darwin.

Words and photograph by Melissa Waters. If you liked this piece we will be posting more from the students about their time in Berlin.

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