Exploring PostNatural History

Do you know Dolly the sheep? She became world famous in the nineties as the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. She is currently on display at National Museums Scotland. Now, have you ever heard about the goat Freckles? She is one of the first four BioSteel goats to be engineered. These goats were genetically modified to produce spider silk in their milk for use in manufacturing bulletproof armor, fishing line, and human tendon replacements. Their offspring live on research farm alongside other spider silk-producing organisms, including silkworms, plants, and bacteria. Freckles is on display at the Center for PostNatural History, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Freckles the BioSteelTM Goat, on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History during the 2017-2018 exhibition We Are Nature. Living in the Anthropocene.

This is a story about a unique museum in the world: The Center for PostNatural History (CPNH). Founded by Richard Pell, professor of arts at Carnegie Mellon University, the museum is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge relating to the complex interplay between culture, nature and biotechnology. The term “postnatural” refers to organisms that have been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. This is a staggering concept, and troubling at once. It looks at evolutionary biology through the lens of human culture. Through history, humans have shaped aspects of the living world to suit themselves, first with the dawn of agriculture and the domestication of animals, and more recently with genetic engineering and synthetic biology.

The Silkie Chicken - Its fluffy, fur-like plumage is the product of a mutation. Breeders who were seduced by the animal’s unusual appearance preserved this recessive mutation through the ages.

Chickens are an everyday example of a postnatural species. We’ve domesticated chickens for food for thousands of years. Today, there are about 23 billion chickens alive at any given time. It is the most numerous bird in the world, and could likely be the symbol of the Anthropocene. Yet, it is difficult to find a specimen on display in a natural history museum. Domesticated animals, and other species often less associated with human interference, such as corn, are often ignored by traditional museums. The Center for PostNatural History (CPNH) is focused on these blind spots, and what they reflect about human needs and desires. The Silkie chicken, whose distinctive fluffy plumage makes it an attractive pet, compared to the chickens bred for meat consumption, is only one among many postnatural organisms on display at the CPHN.

The Gallery of the Center for PostNatural History, featuring Freckles the goat.

The main exhibition space, a dimly lit room that creates a mysterious and intimate atmosphere, presents a mix of familiar and unfamiliar species, such as fluorescent ornamental pet fish, laboratory mice, and genetically modified mosquitoes. Genetic engineering has led to a critical change in postnatural history. On the wall, one can see a pair of genetically modified mouse embryos that have an altered version of the developmental HOX gene: one grew no ribs, the other too many. Genetically modified organisms spark controversy, but the CPNH is careful not to take position. Its discourse is not predicated on any particular ideology. Rather, its mission is to tell engaging stories about the collision between the natural evolution of an organism and its cultural history.

On the left, a mouse embryo with the gene for rib creation knocked-out. On the right, a mouse embryo with the gene for rib creation over-expressed.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Richard W. Pell. Image courtesy of the CPNH

It is very difficult to leave this museum without feeling disturbed by the interplay between culture, nature, biotechnology, art, and science. If you are curious and not afraid to be challenged, the CPNH is worth paying a visit. Now more than ever, as it recently reopened after renovation. On December 2019, the postnatural even crossed the Atlantic with the creation of the Museum of PostNatural History (“Musée d’histoire post-naturelle”) in Switzerland.

More information on the website: https://www.postnatural.org/

Admission is free.

Open on Sundays from 12 to 4 pm.

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Gil Oliveira

Gil Oliveira holds a MS in Environmental Geosciences from the University of Lausanne and a MA in Museum Studies from the University of Neuchatel. He currently works at the Valais Nature Museum, and at the Laboratory for Pedagogical Innovation (LIP) at the University of Fribourg.