May 17, 2005

Among the cadavers.

On Sunday I blogged about going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I didn't have time to write that I also saw the "Body Worlds 2" exhibit at the Great Lakes Science Center. I blogged about a Gunther von Hagens exhibition of "plasticinated" cadavers in my earliest days of blogging, but it was just by chance that I happened to be right next door to one of these exhibits with a couple extra hours to wander through. I went in.

What was it like walking right up to the dead, dissected bodies? For me, it was not disturbing. The bodies were amazing -- beautiful. You can look into a real human body and see the details of the organs --not bloody and pulsating -- but perfectly preserved. You know nothing about each individual -- who he was, how he died. But there he is, more fully exposed than a nude, for you to walk right up to and inspect. See those testicles, elegantly suspended on long ligaments?

On the walls are cloth hangings each with a single quote from a philosopher or other writer. You contemplate these great thoughts about the human body -- "this quintessence of dust" -- as you make your way around creatively opened-out corpses, perhaps posed as athletes or dancers.

Some of the exhibition is didactic. Take a look at these three sets of lungs, laid out in a glass case: normal, smoker, coal miner. The coal miner's lungs look as if they are made of coal, and the smoker's lungs are nearly as dark. Laid out on a table are vertical slices of two men, one lean and the other obese. The fat man's real body is stuck inside a thick wall of bland, inert material. Kids, don't smoke. Don't get fat.

And what about abortion? Was there a message here too? In a series of small beakers, we see the human embryo at each week of growth in the first trimester. A man and a woman look at the last one in the line. It's less than an inch long, and they are detecting the fingers and eyes. One feels challenged to make a judgment about which of these entities it is acceptable to kill.

The larger unborn bodies are in a separate curtained-off area, behind a sign that assures us that all of them died as a result of disease or accident. In the center of this part of the exhibit is the body of a woman who knew she was unlikely to survive her pregnancy and agreed to be immortalized this way. You can walk right up to her and gaze into her opened womb and see the 5-month-old fetus that died with her.

Arrayed around her are small cases containing fetuses of different ages. As you look at each one, you see into yourself. How do you respond? Do you think there is an interesting potential person? Or is there some age point where you cannot shake the sense of recognition of a fellow human being? Some visitors see that human being in the beaker that is not even shielded in the curtained area. Others gaze coolly on every single unborn body. Perhaps that 20-week-old evokes a primal human instinct to protect that you do not now realize lies within you.

Near the exit is a quote from Seneca:
Death is the release from all pain and complete cessation, beyond which our suffering will not extend. It will return us to that condition of tranquility, which we had enjoyed before we were born. Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn.


amba said...

Short of strictly pro-life, whatever your position on abortion, technology is complicating it. I'm especially impressed by your ambiguous statement that, looking at "small cases containing fetuses of different ages", "As you look at each one, you see into yourself." Not only into your feelings of recognition or protection or denial, but also into your own history. You yourself were that.

I linked to this, along with some kindred observations, at the end of my "AmbivAbortion Rant." (Part I is here, Part II, with the link, here. Part III is still in the works.)

Simon Kenton said...

When you are good, you are amazingly, humblingly good. I think this one of your best posts ever.

Joan said...

I agree with Simon. This is an amazing, thought-provoking, evocative post.

I would like to respond to the Seneca quote. It seems quite clear to me that when we mourn, we are not mourning the dead -- we mourn for ourselves. We are the ones left behind, without our loved ones. We mourn because we miss them, we will always miss them, and there is no remedy for it. We just get used to it, after a while.

dgm said...

my 6 year old daughter and i went to see bodyworlds 2 in l.a. i thought it was beautiful. i, like you, was more fascinated than disturbed by looking at the dead bodies. i was moved to tears by the fetus exhibits, deeply sad for the mother and children who were unfortunate enough to be part of the display. but i also couldn't help being sad as for the fathers and possible siblings left behind to grieve for them.

Hatcher said...

Thanks for a beautiful post, and the perspicacity to see the beauty of the Body World exhibits.

Unlike some prissy Professor Bloggers, you recognize the humanity that is on display and the ambiguous nature of our being.

I took my then-11-y/o son to the the exhibit in London some years ago and it moved him--and me--profoundly. And in the right directions.

betsybounds said...

Well, there's no accounting for taste, is there. That's what I say.

purple_kangaroo said...

We have an exhibit like that about human development in one of our science museums near here. Some pro-abortionists actually tried to shut it down, saying it was pro-life. It wasn't promoting any view at all--just a strictly scientific exhibit about the fertilization, development and birth process. Amazing exhibit.

But some are offended simply by seeing what an unborn child actually looks like. I guess, like you said, it probably rattles them to look at it and see themselves.

Ann Althouse said...

The decision to take young kids is interesting to me, especially since genitalia is fully on display, but I did not see kids being upset by this. I read pages of the sign-out books provided at the end, and there were many comments by kids, all saying the show was "amazing" and so forth. No one wrote it was disgusting or anything like that. It occurred to me that it would tend to make a young person want to study medicine (or science generally). I think young people are going to think about dead bodies and see images of them in movies, and it would be better to have these idealized bodies to think about then the rotting zombies of the movies.

Joan: We also mourn ourselves, prospectively.

Hatcher: "Professor Bloggers" -- funny!

Purple Hatcher: I think the physical reality, shown neutrally, does tend to make the argument against abortion. The pro-abortion types who recognize this and protest remind me of the creationists who object to the teaching of evolution.

Ann Althouse said...

I mean Purple Kangaroo...

Dan Jepson said...

As a creationist I do not object to the teaching of evolution. I and most like me object to it being accpeted as fact when iun fact no evidence to support the theary has ever been discovered. As a creationist I believe that monumental changes to living species to better adapt to their surroundings and climate are accomplished through the hand of God, not through a mysterious and unproven ability of the organism to change its self. Again, no evidence exists to support the conclusions of evolution as it is understood and taugght be academicia, therefore it ought not be taught as a science at all, since any science is grounded in provable, repeatable experimentation and observed results.

dgm said...

my daughter is very interested--no, i'll say obsessed--with things scientific, especially biology. she heard i was planning to go to the exhibit and begged me to take her. i explained there would be dead bodies and we looked at the bodyworlds website, then i told her to think about it for a day and tell me if she still wanted to go. she did, and was fine.

the naked stuff was no problem either since we have naked people at home (okay,that didn't sound right) and she's got several books on human anatomy. no surprises there.

purple_kangaroo said...

Ann, I agree that many Christians don't have a problem with evolution being taught in schools.

It's when they teach theory as fact without emphasizing to the kids that there is significant debate even in the secular scientific theory about it, showing charts and drawings of complete organisms that were drawn on the basis of a tooth and a segment of jawbone without making clear that it's a scientist's best guess made on very sketchy information, etc. that bothers many of us.

It's one thing to teach science and facts, but it's another to teach philosophy as science, and that's exactly what schools do when they present neo-Darwinism and atheism as uncontroverted fact.

Mark and several others have been having quite a discussion about schools and origin science on his blog. It makes for some interesting reading.

Valacosa said...

Currently (October 22, 2005), the exhibit is at the Ontario Science Centre, in Toronto, Canada. I saw the quote and googled for this:
Seneca "Death is the release from all pain"
And your page was the first hit. Indeed, you do have the full quote there...

If I were to describe the exhibit in one word, it would be "humbling". Indeed the images from all the displays you described are still very fresh in my mind. I still haven't fully digested everything I saw, but I'm glad I saw it...
- Valacosa
P.S> "As a creationist I believe that monumental changes to living species to better adapt to their surroundings and climate are accomplished through the hand of God, not through a mysterious and unproven ability of the organism to change its self."
Evolution isn't about mutations that are inherently adventagous. There are far more lethal and/or crippling mutatuons than benificial ones. (Take Down syndrome. One chromosome transcription error is all it takes.)

But mutations which are adventagous will not easily die out. Sickle cell anemia rendering people immune to malaria in Africa, for instance.

And then, of course, there's things like this.

Sara said...

my family and i went to see the body worlds exibit in minnesota the day it opened. it was amazing. the gradiation of the muscles was incredible. what i do not understand is why people bring their small children to the exibit. there were four strollers with very new babies, and i counted 5 children who starting crying. and 4 of the mothers got mad at the child. you should know your child well enough to know if they are going to be upset at this kind of thing.

Sara said...
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