Your haircut is horrible. Your salary is worse. Your rug, for some reason, is smelling like fish. Even so, please remember that, in the grand scheme of things, you are utterly and completely … insignificant.
Sorry. That's the inescapable conclusion one comes to after a morning on the American Museum of Natural History's brand new "Insignificance" tour.
It's led by Jing Li, a Columbia University sophomore who conducts the tour for summer camp groups who probably arrive expecting something a little more … upbeat. "The objective for me is to show how insignificant humans are on a planetary, evolutionary, and socio-economic-anthropologic scale," he said cheerfully.
Mr. Li is a MEEP — a paid intern in the Museum Education and Employment Program that hires about 45 New York college students each summer to develop their own tours. While other MEEPers conduct crowd-pleasers such as "Disney Animals" or "Attack and Defense," featuring a lot of big teeth, Mr. Li looked at the museum's vast array of exhibits and realized they all led to the same conclusion: Humans are here for but an instant, a speck in the universe, and may soon forget all we have ever learned (including the fact that the bus leaves at 2).
His tour begins in the Rose Planetarium's 360-foot spiral walkway, where each step represents 75 million years — from the Big Bang to the present. At the very end there's a line the width of a human hair. That's how long humans have been on earth.
Got it? We're newbies. And it's only very recently that we distinguished ourselves from the rest of the planet's creatures.
To illustrate this, Mr. Li heads to the Hall of Human Origins — the place where, he admits, his younger visitors giggle. More mature visitors … try really hard not to. (It's difficult: You're surrounded by hairy, naked ape-people.)
The hairy, naked ape-people Mr. Li stopped in front of were a pair of Homo Ergasters, distant relatives from almost 2 million years ago, shown in the diorama trying to protect their dinner from a hungry vulture.
"See? Humans were not at the top of the food chain," Mr. Li said. "They were fighting off other animals and not even for live prey, for dead prey." Pathetic.
A nearby diorama of Peking Man brought the point home. "The place where the scientists found this guy was the den of a hyena," Mr. Li said. "So the hyenas took him home and then ate him."
He was prehistoric takeout. As were we all, till recently.
Sure, we've evolved somewhat since then. Mr. Li said scientists now think this may have happened as we learned to hunt: Tracking animals lead us to start predicting the future ("I will find an animal at the end of these footprints."), which lead to abstract thinking.
But don't take human intellect, or even society, as a given, Mr. Li said as we arrived at his final destination: the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples. ("There used to be a lot of couples in here," he said, because it's always so empty.)
No one was smooching when we got there, so we focused on the exhibit about a group of New Zealand Maori who had sailed off around the year 800 and settled on a small island called Chatham. Their story is told in the book "Guns, Germs and Steel," Mr. Li said.
Although back in New Zealand the Maori had been farmers, their seeds didn't grow in the Chatham climate, so the group reverted to hunting and gathering. They stopped sailing, too, and lost their map-making skills. As time passed, they even forgot they had come from just 100 miles away.
Then, in 1835, Maori sailors from New Zealand "decided to take a trip," Mr. Li said. "Somehow they landed on Chatham and began killing everybody. They had guns."
While Mr. Li's point was that it's the environment that determines who we are (if you can't farm, you go back to hunting), it was sobering to think that over the course of just 1,000 years, a society could forget its roots entirely.
How many of our stories, or even societies, will still be around in 3007? There's no telling. But one thing is for sure: Campers coming to the museum then will probably ask to go on the big teeth tour.