ACM Pedagogic Resources > ACM SAIL > 2012 Seminar > Seminar Group > Scott Legge

Scott Legge

Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Macalester College

My academic background as a biological anthropologist places me in a very good position to discuss the question of 'what does it mean to be human' from a biological perspective. Researchers of human evolution are always trying to come to terms with the point in our evolutionary history where we crossed that threshold from ape to human. Many of the theories relating to this question revolve around the variations in skeletal morphology in fossil apes and humans. My specific research interests in human and non-human traumatic conditions that affect the skeleton gets to the heart of at least one aspect of this area of inquiry; are we even that different? For example, which types of trauma or diseases do we see in the skeleton that are shared by both humans and non-human primates, and which are unique to each group? How do the patterns of expression of those conditions differ among the primates? I address these questions by examining non-human primate skeletal material from museum contexts. My research experiences in this area will allow me to contribute to discussions about exactly what it is that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom from a skeletal perspective. It also allows me to have some insight into the nature of museum collections containing primates and even somewhat into the history of those collections, as in many ways the historical provenance of a specimen can be just as important as the specimen itself. Finally, I have an interest in the ways in which these specimens are presented to the public. What are we trying to accomplish when we create a space in which the public is invited to view these animals? In many museums, primate materials, and in particular the great apes, are placed in a position that, in some way, draws a direct connection to their relatedness to humans. In other spaces, such as a zoo, the same animals are often placed in an entirely different context (such as among the animals of Africa or in a "Primate House") that can shape the public's perception of the animal in such a way as to create a distance between apes and humans. In either case, it is not always made clear to the public what the intent of the display is, but they can both have a profound effect on thinking and attitudes toward the animal world and, in particular, the place of humans within it.

Courses that I have taught in which the human/animal relationship plays an important role are:

  • Biological Anthropology
  • Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic
  • Primates
  • Darwin and Evolutionary Thought

For the past several years my personal research has involved examining non-human primate skeletal material from museum contexts. Ultimately, I am trying to better understand how humans are both like and unlike our closest living relatives from life-histories told by the skeleton. Therefore, the topic of the seminar itself is a perfect fit with what I do, and I am looking forward to hearing from others about research that is being done both on animals directly as well as the idea of animality. With respect to the location, both the zoos and museums in the Washington, DC area exhibit non-human primates for public viewing. To date, my research has mainly focused on museums in Europe with large collections of African great apes. I am quite interested to see the context in which the DC area museums portray non-human primates with respect to humans. Further, I would like to learn more about collections housed at the Natural History Museum that might be available for future research projects in my area of study.