Brain Pickings

Evolution: The Natural History of Animal Skeletons, Stripped Down

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What a flamingo, a capybara, and a guinea pig have to do with the beginnings of recorded time.

When Gunther von Hagens put together his traveling display of half-stripped bodies playing sports, chess, fencing, riding a similarly half-stripped horse, and generally acting like their human counterparts, audiences were horrified and fascinated. Bodyworlds was gross anatomy on parade, and to some it might have felt more like body snatching than an education in muscle mass and movement. But Von Hagens, for all his showmanship, emphasized that these bodies, preserved hopefully forever, were for learning. The entertainment was incidental.

The image that opens the Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu’s stunning book Evolution takes Von Hagens horse and rider and strips it completely, bone against black in a beautiful high-resolution photograph. The result is somehow even more animated, more eternal, and the quote paired with it, from the eighteenth-century naturalist Comte de Buffon, reveals the project at hand:

Take the skeleton of a man. Tilt the pelvis, shorten the femurs, legs, and arms, elongate the feet and hands, fuse the phalanges, elongate the jaws while shortening the frontal bone, and finally elongate the spine, and the skeleton will cease to represent the remains of a man and will be the skeleton of a horse…”

Human being (Homo sapiens) riding a horse (Equus caballus)

For hundreds of years, natural history museums have offered body worlds of their very own, skeletons stripped down for study, sometimes posed in their natural habitats looking about as natural as a pork chop in the jungle.

Evolution, published originally as a large-scale coffee table book in 2007, now in a physically smaller but expanded edition, provides a stark contrast of black and white and bone. Patrick Gries’ photographs against black backgrounds transform animal skeletons into tender and lively creatures, as animated in death as they were in life, while Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, a professor of natural science, provides a concise summary of each animal’s place in the evolutionary ladder.

Greater flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber, Africa, America, Eurasia

These skeletons are so far beyond death that we can see in them almost a new kind of creature, where the bones are animated without muscle, and skulls manage to look at us without eyes. Gries poses the skeletons provocatively: a leopard pounces mid-air onto its prey, a piranha is about to snap, a black swan preens its missing feathers, a wood pigeon flies off the page.

Cheetah, Acynonyx jubatus, Sub-Saharan Africa

The book is organized according to the principles of, you guessed it, evolution, but de Panafieu prefers to tell the smaller stories of the parts rather than the whole: of predator and prey, of teeth and digits, of specific changes in fish, of brains and their carrying-cases, skulls.

Hermann’s tortoise, Tesudo hermanni, France

Mostly taken from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the animals represented here are from all over the globe, land and sea, big and small: the flamingo, the guinea pig, the okapi, the capybara, the house mouse, the little owl, stunningly-ribbed snakes, sea sponges, the nurse shark, seahorses, the pilot whale, the common carp. the sacred ibis, Humbolt’s wooly monkey, and of course, the human.

Ring-tailed lemur, Eulemur mongoz, Madagascar

A rare book that is both a complete work of art and a complete work of science, Evolution dismantles the natural history museum into its parts, revealing a stripped-down animal kingdom and the commonalities at its core.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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