Palaeontology and the Photographic Trace


by Justin E. H. Smith

Some time back I took a group of students to the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée at the Jardin des Plantes. This is the famous collection of skeletons laid out according to one version of the order of nature by Georges Cuvier at the turn of the 19th Century. We were looking at a display case (added long after Cuvier’s death) that consisted in four rows, one above the other, with five skulls in each row representing five developmental stages of three species of great ape –gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans–, plus Homo sapiens. 

I had asked the students to pay attention to the way in which the different species, particularly the human species, seem to develop away from each other as they move from their more or less similar infant stage through adolescence to adulthood, and how the gorilla in particular develops a huge cranial crest, while the human simply develops a freakishly huge cranium (at least by comparison).

At this point a student interrupted to ask me whether each skull of the same species was from the same individual.

Pardon? I said. The student explained again that she wanted to know whether the baby gorilla skull, for example, was from the same animal as the adolescent gorilla skull and the gorilla skulls at the other three stages of development. How on earth would that be possible? I asked, still confused as to whether I had understood.

Yet, intuitively, I understood, and what she was asking was not at all strange. Deep down I imagine she knew that the skulls were real skulls, and that to get a skull from a baby gorilla you must close off the possibility of ever getting an adult skull from the same gorilla. And yet, in seeing these skulls placed next to each other, in this way, they had become something more than the skulls of different animals: they became representations of skulls of something that is in each case the same thing, namely, the kind.

Such representation would indeed become possible, in the past 150 years or so, by means of photography, in this case x-ray photography, of the same individual. It is now possible to show images of different stages of development of the same individual’s skull. The idea of laying out skulls as they are at the Galerie seems to me to be, if not an imitation of what is now conventional in photographic representation, at least something we are now completely conditioned to understand through the conventions of photography, and that may, more importantly, have emerged in tandem with photography as a result of the new possibilities of representation that this opened up.

I find that I frequently have a vague thought that is similar to the one I have attributed to the student, whenever I read of a baby mammoth preserved in Siberian permafrost, or of a baby snake trapped in amber millions of years ago, or of the toddler’s skeleton from Alaska that provides the earliest evidence for the inhabitation of the Americas. These, I inchoately imagine, are freeze-frames in the course of the life of individuals who thrived a long time ago. I do not process these archaeological or palaeontological remains as the end of the life of the being whose remains they are.

There is a related peculiar habit of diminutivising long-preserved animal remains: of saying that the half-decayed corpse of a ten-thousand-year-old mammoth is cute, for example, which it is hard to imagine hearing of, say, a worm-eaten baby elephant that has been dead for three weeks.

Time changes our perspective on what we are seeing, but importantly, when there is a lot of time between us and the life of the animal, the remains no longer strike us as identical with a single individual, but rather as standing, at least, for a stage of development in the course of its own life, and perhaps also as a stage of development in the evolutionary history of its species.

And here is where it occurs to me that, perhaps, in order for us to see palaeontological remains not as vestiges of individuals but as representations of stages in a developmental process, as freeze-frames, we needed first to be exposed to freeze-frames, to see motion and change and development as constituted by a series of images that may be broken down and isolated, and studied with an eye to the discernment of the general laws governing this development.

This is a point related to, but also distinct from, the well-known argument from Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison for the dependency of ‘mechanical objectivity’ in the history of science upon the emergence of photographic technology. They are interested in the late-19th-century transformations in the perception of the complexity of particular events, and most of all in sciences, such as fluid dynamics, that aim to articulate general laws valid in all places and times. I am by contrast interested in transformations, perhaps impacted or quickened by the advent of photography, in the way we think about past processes. For the splash of a drop, to use Daston and Galison’s example from A. M. Worthington’s book of that name first published in 1877, what photography revealed is what seemed the irreducible singularity of each physical event, and the incumbency for science of not simplifying or idealising away the singular complexity of the event, as had commonly been done in the earlier era of scientific illustration. My suspicion rather is that the influence of photography on the  perception of past palaeontological processes is one that causes us to lose sight of the singularity of any particular bit of evidence, any individual material vestige, and to interpret it instead, again, as a representation of a general process.

I do not want to say that palaeontology and archaeology in their mature articulation are materially dependent on photography, or even that they are co-nascent with it. If we are convinced by Adrienne Mayor’s argument, then there was already a rather developed palaeontological research program in classical Greece and Rome. (I should also cite William Harvey’s experiments in the mid-17th century, who slaughtered female deer at successive stages of their pregnancies in order to observe the development of the foetus, effectively taking each of the deer foetuses he observed as representatives of the same general process, rather than as individuals in their own right. Similar experiments were also common, in the work of Albrecht von Haller, of Harvey himself, and many others, on the development of chicks in eggs. These examples complicate my historical thesis, occurring as they do long before the era of photography, but I note them in order, eventually, to make sense of these complications, and to see if they cannot be made sense of without totally subverting the general account I am trying to give.)

What I do want to say is that photography (which, as Eadweard Muybridge shows us, has also been cinematography practically from its beginning) has so conditioned our perception or, as it were, our folk-ontology of time as to make it practically impossible for us, now, to think of material evidence of past processes as vestiges of the things themselves, and instead we see this evidence as a representation or a model, as if, simply in being unearthed it is already being mediated and interpreted for us by scientific instruments.

The instrument in question here is the camera, which freezes the past, or rather which freezes the present as it recedes into the past, and which does not in fact need to be present or implemented in the observation of any fossil, skeleton, or grave site in order to fundamentally shape the way these objects are seen.

Piece originally published at