Marianne Sommer guides us through a fascinating exploration of human origins and the future of culture and chemistry in History Within.

Spanning evolutionary and biological depths—encompassing every aspect of human condition and expression. Her investigation traces the passage of modern science, viewing our past with expansive potential.

Author Synopsis…

History Within deals with human histories that have been reconstructed on the basis of bones, organisms, and molecules in the twentieth and twenty-first century. It focuses on the work of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Julian Sorell Huxley, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, and human population genetics. Besides following the history of science, it is an analysis of the circulation of knowledge at the museum, the zoo, through organizations such as UNESCO, and projects like the Human Genome Diversity Project and the Genographic Project, as well as through print, radio, and film. The book illuminates the ways in which the sciences of human origins have contributed to particular historical cultures. How have the evolutionary perspectives informed other scholarly and scientific disciplines, areas from national and international politics to literature and art, and how have they been adapted by individual readers and visitors to their own purposes, ‘identities’, and orientations in life?

The first part of the book deals with Osborn. His production and popularization of the history within are analyzed during his presidency of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century. He invested enormous energy not only into having every ‘fossil hominid type’ represented in his exhibition hall but also into finding the still ‘missing link’. Osborn’s work is situated in the museum and education reforms, in eugenic concerns, and in the cult of the wild, the primitive, and ‘threats of modernization’. Part II engages with Huxley’s production and popularization of history within from the perspective of the new evolutionary synthesis. This perspective and the understanding of the living organism as a museum of evolutionary history informed his directorship of London Zoo and his involvement in organizations such as the Colonial Service, UNESCO, IUCN, and WWF. The third part of the book is about Cavalli-Sforza’s history within the gene. In his scientific career, he was instrumental in the development of a mathematical, computational human population genetics. He also popularized the light this science throws on modern human evolution and the genetic kinship of human populations in books and engaged in global projects of blood collection and genetic analysis, most centrally in the Human Genome Diversity Project.

The knowledge scientists created about evolutionary history and human diversity stood in connection with imperialism, colonialism, (inter-)nationalism, or totalitarianism, not least through understandings of race, ethnicity, and gender. While for Osborn in the first decades of the twentieth century, race was a constitutive factor in the human evolutionary past and present, Huxley deconstructed the very concept and was among those interwar intellectuals who argued for a global democracy on a biological basis. Finally, Cavalli-Sforza’s postwar endeavors in human population genetics were driven by a belief in the liberating and enlightening capacity of scientific knowledge. Central to all projects was the collection, preservation, analysis, and management of bones, organisms, or molecules at museums, through national parks, and in databanks, but not only the conservation of biological but also of cultural diversity has been a concern. With Huxley’s science, popularization, and public work at UNESCO and conservation organizations, concepts such as diversity, trusteeship, heritage, applied ecology, and evolutionary humanism gained in currency. All three protagonists also worked with particular understandings of ‘memory’, as related to biological heredity or as the store of cultural knowledge, and they worked toward what they believed to be progressive human evolution.

The approach taken in the book draws on diverse perspectives from the history of science in order to answer the question how ‘bones, organisms, and molecules’ were translated into texts, images, or exhibits about ‘our’ biologically reconstructed past and deep-rooted ‘identities’ that may then circulate. The book inquires after the role not only individual scientists, but also institutional networks played in the process. It situates the scientists’ own understanding of science communication in the developments within history of science from ‘the popularization of science’ to ‘the circulation of knowledge’. It engages with the concept of historical culture and asks after the role of the human origins sciences (‘history within’) in interaction with other kinds of histories (‘history without’) as a kind of public history effort. Particular attention is paid to the media and genres of communication, and to the images and metaphors Osborn, Huxley, and Cavalli-Sforza developed to capture human biological kinship, in terms of trees or networks.

The projects of the scientists engaged with in this book were ultimately directed at an improvement of the human condition and to varying degrees at the associated conservation and development of natural environments. In their view, evolutionary biology is the Leitwissenschaft that should inform worldview and guide ideas about the future of humankind. Their practices were accompanied by reconfigurations of ‘nature and culture’ that encompassed processes of naturalization, de-naturalization, and re-naturalization with regard to human identities. Such processes were marked by an increase in mathematization and technologization that – together with the latest ‘historical document’, ‘the gene’—create an aura of authority and objectivity. Population geneticists today can analyze entire genomes and have computer programs that group people according to them. They can visualize genetic kinship in different ways – as dendrogram or as a mosaic pattern.

What might the future history within look like in view of these developments and those in other branches such as epigenetics?

About the Author: Marianne Sommer is professor in the Department of Cultural and Science Studies at the University of Lucerne. She is the author of History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules (University of Chicago Press 2016).


David Attenborough puts on a VR headset to watch his latest film, and finally meet his co-star, a titanosaur – the largest dinosaur that ever lived.

This mixed reality, 360º film by the BBC tells the story of the discovery and reconstruction in Argentina of the world’s largest-known dinosaur, a brand new species of titanosaur. Measuring 37m long – close to four London buses put end to end – and weighing 70 metric tons, it now holds the record as the biggest animal ever to walk the Earth.

In 2014, a shepherd spotted the tip of a gigantic fossil bone sticking out of a rock in La Flecha Farm in the Chubut Province in the Argentinian desert. Palaeontologists soon uncovered a massive 2.4m long (femur) thigh bone, the largest ever found. By the end of the dig they had uncovered more than 220 bones. As the programme reveals, these all belong to a new species of the giant plant-eating titanosaur.

Filmed over the next two years, the documentary follows the twists and turns of this forensic investigation. Attenborough witnesses the uncovering and examination of these stupendous fossils and the dramatic construction of the complete skeleton. And using state-of-the-art graphics, the film also reveals the internal secrets of this dinosaur and what it means to be a giant.

From 11 February 2016, IMAX Darling Harbour will propel audiences on a steam train journey through the breathtaking Canadian Rockies in Rocky Mountains Express.

Rocky Mountain Express

Following the original 19th Century route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Rocky Mountains Express highlights the adventure of building this nearly impossible transcontinental railway, one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, constructed by thousands of engineers and labourers from around the world. Spanning thousands of miles and some of the world’s greatest natural barriers, the Canadian Pacific Railway drew together communities isolated in the wilderness, shaped a new nation and changed the face of the North American continent forever. In Rocky Mountains Express, audiences are invited to ride the rails along deep river canyons and over high mountain passes to discover some of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes on earth and join in the human drama and epic engineering that shaped a continent.

The film weaves together spectacular IMAX aerial cinematography, archival photographs and maps, as well as the potent energy and rhythms of a live steam locomotive to immerse audiences in this remarkable story.

Rocky Mountain Express was filmed with the world’s largest film format, guaranteeing spectacular image quality on the massive IMAX screen. Sound is also a vital part of the experience, as the film has carefully captured the remarkable symphony of the sonic moods produced by a locomotive and matched this with an original musical score by celebrated composer, Michel Cusson.

I caught-up with the award-winning Canadian filmmaker Stephen Low, to learn more about this grand-scale ‘docu-venture’…

When did your love of locomotives start?

It started at pretty much from zero. I travelled with my family every summer across Canada the first twenty or so years of my life.  There were steam locomotives for the first ten of those years. My dad also took me to the local round house where they serviced steam engines. Having a small boy in those days was a ticket into places like that. No one ever said no to a kid that loved trains, although I always worried that they might. He lifted me up and put me in hot simmering cabs to see the coal fires which to me was both intoxicating and scary. I never got over it.

Why did you choose to tell the story of Rocky Mountains Express over other railways?

It is one of the greatest railroad stories in the world. Canada was a vast wilderness with few people. Canadians were struggling to tie the country together against near impossible odds and keep the west from falling into American hands. They chose a very difficult route through southern British Columbia. If it had failed economically it might have brought the country down as well, and it was a close call especially in both Rogers Pass with the avalanches and the steep climb through Kicking Horse pass. It’s still challenging to this day for modern railroaders.

What are the historical highlights you find most fascinating?

As a filmmaker I’m always looking for simplicity because that’s what people respond to, what kids remember and what inspires them. Where is the weakest point in the system? If the railroad was going to fail and take the country with it, where exactly would that be? I would like to stand on that spot and think about it. In the winter it was in Roger’s Pass where avalanches regularly buried trains, crews and long stretches of track. They eventually dug long tunnels (5 miles and 9 miles) to lessen the grades and escape from the avalanches. But the great stone pillars of the original line can still be seen in the forest. Some of them have been knocked down by avalanches since the line was closed roughly a hundred years ago. 

The other place was the steep grade in the Rockies at Kicking Horse pass. There was about eight miles on a 4.5% grade, which is very steep for a railroad. They built special heavy locomotives (2-8-0 consolidations) for this route. Sometimes five or six engines were needed for even modest sized trains, for this stretch. Going downhill was of course very dangerous, and it must have been borderline economically for many years. 

Rocky Mountain Express Aerial   
Can you describe the technologies and techniques used to create the film?

This film was shot on film (1570 IMAX). It is one of the very few true IMAX films shot in recent years as most are now blow-ups. Some might regard this as older technology but it’s far higher quality than the modern digital cameras—about ten times higher quality—and it’s very expensive compared to digital. The latest film stocks from Kodak are very high tech, something lost on the digital dudes. We used a very sophisticated gyro-stabilized helicopter system called Spacecam but it’s not particularly new.

What were the biggest challenges in filming and how did you overcome these?

The steam train operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) only did a few trips a year so it took nearly four years to do the shooting. We had some control of the train on some occasions but most of the time we did not. IMAX cameras use a thousand feet of 70 mm film every three minutes. After shooting a roll we had to land to reload the camera and then chase off after the train again. Before doing a shot we scouted the line to make sure there were no dangers ahead, like wires over the track, and we never broke that rule for obvious reasons. Every three rolls or so we had to find our fuel truck which was chasing us on the highway. It was very exciting work to say the least.

Did you use drones to film any of the aerial shots?

We do not yet use drones because of the size and weight of the camera. The best digital cameras used on drones are only about 10% of the quality of 1570 negative (real IMAX).

How would you define this film, as a documentary or does it signify a new genre?

Yes it’s classic documentary I would say. The origins of this kind of film started with the famous National Film Board of Canada film “City of Gold” directed by my father, Colin Low, and Roman Kroiter. They used huge glass plate negatives from the nineteenth century intercut with contemporary live action to tell the story. They did camera moves on the stills using an animation stand that were quite complex in those days. Now we just use fluid heads and zoom lenses. In any case that was the beginning of this style of film that is now commonly used in many documentaries. If you Google National Film Board you can view “City of Gold” online.  

How will this help engage new generations in historical exploration?

Emotion drives the human spirit. A moment of inspiration can transform someone’s life—especially a kid. “Wow I want to get involved in the world around and the sooner the better.” And this film seems to do that for a lot of people. We get letters every day from around the world.  

What is the experience you want audiences to walk away with?

It’s a beautiful world. We once used our courage and ingenuity to modify or subdue nature, so to speak—we are facing the opposite challenge now.

It’s time to subdue ourselves and protect nature. We still have the courage and ingenuity, but will we use it?

Rocky Mountains Express is a culmination of Stephen Low’s remarkable 30-year career. Low’s love of high-fidelity cinema and his fascination with the steam locomotive have come together in this giant screen experience that brings alive the magic and drama of the steam age for audiences of all ages.

Australians can ride the rails with the Rocky Mountain Express this February.

Film Duration: 45 minutes
Where: IMAX Darling Harbour, 31 Wheat Rd, Darling Harbour
Bookings: Via the Box Office, online at imax.com.au or PH: (02) 9213 1600
Tickets: Adult $23 / Child $17 / Conc $19.50 / Family Pass (2 Adults and 2 Children) $68

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