Join 3,519 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


creative dissatisfaction, that elusive fire in the belly
December 30, 2009 8:55 PM   Subscribe

MAN is one of a number of animals that make things, but man is the only one that depends for its very survival on the things he has made. That simple observation is the starting point for an ambitious history programme that the BBC will begin broadcasting on January 18th in which it aims to tell a history of the world through 100 objects in the British Museum (BM). A joint venture four years in the making between the BM and the BBC, the series features 100 15-minute radio broadcasts, a separate 13 episodes in which children visit the museum at night and try to unlock its mysteries, a BBC World Service package of tailored omnibus editions for broadcasting around the world and an interactive digital programme involving 350 museums in Britain which will be available free over the internet. The presenter is Neil MacGregor, the BM’s director, who has moved from the study of art to the contemplation of things. “Objects take you into the thought world of the past,” he says. “When you think about the skills required to make something you begin to think about the brain that made it.” via The Economist

Of the 100 objects, only one has not been selected yet. Mr MacGregor is waiting until the last possible moment to pick out the best symbol of our own time. Suggestions, please, on a postcard to: British Museum, London WC1B 3DG.
posted by infini (36 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beavers?
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:01 PM on December 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Man, that sounds awesome. And a little bit familiar? Kind of reminds me of the old Connections TV shows.

Those of you who remember James Burke's "Connections" series should know that there's a .torrent out there in the world that can get you all three Connections series', and it is absolutely 100% worth it.
posted by mhoye at 9:03 PM on December 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


And don't bees depend on the hives they make for their survival?
posted by brando_calrissian at 9:13 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


MAN made Metafilter. Q.E.D.
posted by goatdog at 9:17 PM on December 30, 2009


Good call, The Economist. Nothing says "we have the wrong history" quite like blatantly ridiculous anthropocentrism!

Let's see that again: MAN! Fuck yeah!
posted by vorfeed at 9:22 PM on December 30, 2009


children visit the museum at night

And get to meet Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler?
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:32 PM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Funny, seems to me MAN has mostly depended on things WOMAN makes.

Birds.
Ants.

posted by regicide is good for you at 9:33 PM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Just one more thing the Late Great George Carlin figured it out a long time ago... it's not really about your "things" or your "stuff", it's all about having a place for your stuff.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:52 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Those of you who remember James Burke's "Connections" series should know that there's a .torrent out there in the world that can get you all three Connections series', and it is absolutely 100% worth it.

It's also all (plus The Day the Universe Changed) on YouTube if you prefer that.
posted by Copronymus at 10:17 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


that MAN is mea culpa - its their style for every article's first word, please correct it if its implying something other than what the fpp should. thanks
posted by infini at 10:46 PM on December 30, 2009


Imagine this on American TV... ah, no, sorry, we need the bandwidth for that Jersey show and Real Housewives.
posted by Huck500 at 10:52 PM on December 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


MAN is one of a number of animals that make things, but man is the only one that depends for its very survival on the things he has made.

Whoa, I really disagree with everything after the "but." First of all, colonial insects like ants and bees depend on the things they make for survival, for starters. That's just off the top of my head...how about beavers and hermit crabs? I'm sure biologists could come up with more.

Second, prehistoric humans were able to survive on the open grasslands before they had much in the way of technology (I'm talking about pre-fire here). It wasn't glamorous, but I believe that, in the right environment, it's possible for humanity to survive without itools; one might even argue that our long term prospects are better without them. But I digress...
posted by Edgewise at 11:20 PM on December 30, 2009


I believe that, in the right environment, it's possible for humanity to survive without itools

If this was a typo, it's the best ever.

If not, carry on.
posted by Ouisch at 11:37 PM on December 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Man's great advantage is our social organization. Even when our only tools were sticks and rocks, we survived by working together and protecting each other.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:02 AM on December 31, 2009


Man's great advantage is our social organization. Even when our only tools were sticks and rocks, we survived by working together and protecting each other.

and this era's greatest tools are those that allow us to communicate, share, be social (and occasionally, snark)
posted by infini at 12:06 AM on December 31, 2009


As a self made generalist,
A really nice question infini.
You have the cortex moving into 3rd gear.

As i do not know the list i can only speak from history.
It's a thing/system we have made.. not a concept.
It has gained us the most above all other such.
AS tool users we are sublime. This is our strength welded to reason.
And why we are so ahead in tech and so retarded in social skills.

The bow and arrow.
posted by Joachim at 1:45 AM on December 31, 2009


Imagine this on American TV...

Well, sadly that's the same as here in the UK as this series, something that would be perfect for television, is only appearing on radio. Don't get me wrong, I love radio, and radio 4 especially and I'm sure they'll do a marvellous job, but a series that looks at objects would make more sense if it were on TV and we could actually look at the objects.

But that's not going to happen these days, when anything involving culture or art is a dirty word at the BBC, and all shows must conotain an element of interactivity. If you enjoyed this show or have any comments to make then go to our website and join in the fun on our blog or send us your tweets.

I can't just blame DG Mark Thompson for this, but I'm gonna.
posted by ciderwoman at 2:16 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


MAN is one of a number of animals that make things, but man is the only one that depends for its very survival on the things he has made.

Obligatory.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:55 AM on December 31, 2009


This does indeed sound awesome...but there's nothing there yet. None of the shows exist. So how am I supposed to remember to look for this when it comes out (and by that I mean either "is complete, so I can download the entire thing" OR "is an RSS feed").
posted by DU at 3:41 AM on December 31, 2009


MAN is one of a number of animals that make things, but man is the only one that depends for its very survival on the things he has made. makes things that make other things.

I've actually been thinking about this recently. There's a lot of research put into figuring out the parameters of the human instinct/drive towards language, but almost none (that I've ever seen) figuring out the same for the human instinct towards engineering. The similarities of monuments around the world, for instance, or the types of tools. When (either in history or at what age) do humans first get the idea to use one tool to make another? And so forth.
posted by DU at 3:47 AM on December 31, 2009


Yeah I thought of posting this but also thought to wait until the first episode was up. Ah well...

It is odd that it is Radio instead of TV. But for Londoners at least this is a good way to learn more about some of the fascinating objects at the BM and then actually go see them!

There's so much to see there and sometimes its hard to make sense of it. For example, right now they are showing several objects from the Staffordshire hoard, which mefites went ga-ga over when it was posted about here.
posted by vacapinta at 3:50 AM on December 31, 2009


DU: "MAN is one of a number of animals that make things, but man is the only one that depends for its very survival on the things he has made. makes things that make other things.

I've actually been thinking about this recently. There's a lot of research put into figuring out the parameters of the human instinct/drive towards language, but almost none (that I've ever seen) figuring out the same for the human instinct towards engineering. The similarities of monuments around the world, for instance, or the types of tools. When (either in history or at what age) do humans first get the idea to use one tool to make another? And so forth.
"

I came in here to post this. Humankind's great achievement is not creating tools, but using tools to create 2nd generation, better tools. I loved the book series The Cave Children by A. Th. Sonnleitner because it explores exactly that idea: it's basically a children's book about a boy and a girl who find themselves isolated from the rest of the world, with no tools or food and only a basic education. The books then follow their survival, in which, over the course of many years, they kinda sorta recapitulate the progress of man from stone age to bronze age to almost medieval technology. All with very detailed descriptions of how they, for instance, collect ore, create charcoal from wood, build a primitive smelting furnace and cast bronze to make knives. The author also tries to come with reasonable explanations as to how one could get inspired to try out new things and make the leap from using, say, a spear to using bow and arrows.

It's not always very realistic, but I loved the sense of continuity the series had - there was always this idea of re-using old equipment and improving on it with new ideas and materials, making it better suited for a task. The book also gave me a new appreciation for the society we live in: we don't have to start at zero, we can build on the stuff other people created.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 4:51 AM on December 31, 2009


It's weird to me, this impulse many people seem to have to draw sharp distinctions between humans and other animals. As they invariably get pointed out to be wrong, does that suddenly mean the animals who are "like us" are suddenly promoted to human status? Of course not, because it was just some thing to say. Anyway, the retreat is always to ever more specific distinctions. Used to be "using tools", then "making tools", now I guess "making tools for use in tool-making". If I had to bet, I'd bet that sometime soon we'll have an example of a non-human animal doing that. Maybe there already is one, I don't know.

Anyway, in addition to possibly being not specific enough, it's also already too specific. By this standard, there's nothing separating most people from the rest of the animals, since most people don't really do much tool-making or meta-tool-making, and certainly not tool-inventing. We buy all our shit now. This year's laptops are better than last year's, but this is a very recent phenomena, that a small fraction of people are responsible for. For most of human history, humans had a set of tools that they learned how to make from their family and neighbors, and those tools didn't change much because they were right for the job. So I don't think extreme constant innovation is really a defining feature of humanity.

I think the truth is there is no sharp distinction, as you would expect given our shared evolutionary history and shared environmental pressures. Humans are different only in degree. We use more tools, more complicated tools, and have a more complicated language. Go us.
posted by Humanzee at 5:08 AM on December 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


The books then follow their survival, in which, over the course of many years, they kinda sorta recapitulate the progress of man from stone age to bronze age to almost medieval technology.

This series sounds awesome. In fact, just last night I was just going to post an AskMe looking for books like this. Have to look for it.

It's weird to me, this impulse many people seem to have to draw sharp distinctions between humans and other animals.

It's true that many try to do this because they are thinking humans aren't animals. But even if you accept that we are there still remains something to be explained. Why have we taken over the planet so effectively (and in such relatively complete cooperation) when nothing else has?

...most people don't really do much tool-making or meta-tool-making, and certainly not tool-inventing.

But I think they do and you just don't notice. I'm not talking about building laptops or Inventions With A Capital I. Just stuff you might call "folk engineering" and is sometimes celebramocked on sites like ThereIFixedIt. But even in everyday life, people bend paperclips to fix air vents, use pens to unjam vending machines, choose just the right books to jam under the edge of the wobbly table, etc. There's definitely an anthropology of tool making that I think is going largely unnoticed.
posted by DU at 5:27 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


All with very detailed descriptions of how they, for instance, collect ore, create charcoal from wood, build a primitive smelting furnace and cast bronze to make knives.

Also: ObGingery
posted by DU at 5:31 AM on December 31, 2009


I'm also disappointed this won't be televised. One of the best documentary series on BBC4 this decade was Masterpieces of the British Museum which was 6 30-minute episodes. Each episode focused on one piece. My favorite was the Durer Rhinoceros-- not only is the woodcut incredibly beautiful, it influenced the way rhinos were depicted for 300 years.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:50 AM on December 31, 2009


DU et al, my logic for 'preposting' this was so that a) anyone in or around london could attend the events at the BM if they were aware in advance (like myself ;) b) bookmark and follow the programmes as soon as they were on air and c) maybe get inspired to send in a postcard for "today's" object
posted by infini at 6:11 AM on December 31, 2009


Ha! Finally - proof that MAN does all the important work around here and WOMAN just benefits from the fallout. Thank you British Museum and BBC! Now I don't feel so bad about my wii fit score.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:48 AM on December 31, 2009


It's true that many try to do this because they are thinking humans aren't animals. But even if you accept that we are there still remains something to be explained. Why have we taken over the planet so effectively (and in such relatively complete cooperation) when nothing else has?

But that sense of dominance we have is also an artificial separation. It depends solely on what you consider "taking over". Sure, I feel superior now, but when the ants come and invade my house every spring, it's not so clear who's on top of what. They, too, communicate and cooperate, they build things, they domesticate other species, they are all over the planet, and they outnumber us many times over.
posted by Freyja at 7:49 AM on December 31, 2009


Yeah, but ants aren't raising the sea level.

HUMANS! HELL YEAH! UH!
posted by DU at 7:59 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, if you want cooperation or world-conquest, look to ants.

I agree that most every human can (and does) make and use very simple tools. But plenty of animals do that too. As I understand it, people trying to draw a bright line between animals and humans are talking about the more abstract stuff: inventing something "new" that they haven't seen before, or building a tool to help them build another tool. My point is that either you're talking about simple stuff that other animals do, or more abstract stuff that most humans don't do. Or as was put (obviously somewhat facetiously) in a thread about bears getting into garbage, there's considerable overlap between the dumbest humans and the smartest bears.
posted by Humanzee at 8:10 AM on December 31, 2009


Yes . insect biomass outweighs us ten to one.
long live the beetle
posted by Joachim at 1:33 PM on December 31, 2009


"Ha! Finally - proof that MAN does all the important work around here and WOMAN just benefits from the fallout."
here is one you might like...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ny8VXayKEY

a real party warmer
posted by Joachim at 3:24 PM on December 31, 2009


When (either in history or at what age) do humans first get the idea to use one tool to make another?

Stone knapping...or even before that, fire-hardened wooden spears. So it was a long, long time ago.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:34 PM on December 31, 2009


Nests. Webs (even some amebas make webs). Burrows. Dams and dens. Reefs. And that's in 30 seconds of thinking about it.

As was once said, "Your reasoning is excellent - it's your starting premise that's wrong."
posted by DarbyMac at 8:02 AM on January 1, 2010


Oh phew, it's on radio. My new year's resolution is to get to know the stolen crap in the British Museum a bit better. For a heart stopping moment I thought I might have to share the place with other people (well more 'other people' than is normal there).
posted by Helga-woo at 11:23 AM on January 2, 2010


« Older Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to pr...  |  Is aviation security mostly fo... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments