I’ve been reading with interest about the controversy surrounding whether Lucy’s 3.2 million-year-old fragile remains should be put at risk as she is publicly displayed, for the first time outside of Ethiopia, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science between now and next April.
In my mind, however, it is Lucy’s legacy that has put us at risk.
When you see her - and you should -- peer at her frame and ponder one of the more profound questions of our time: Is that why the cesarean rate is so high?
The first time I laid eyes on Lucy’s likeness, it was a mocha-colored cast of her 47 fossilized bones, encased in glass and hung on the wall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
At the time, about a year after my son was born, I was trying to understand why human birth is both a natural physiological process that has successfully (over)populated the earth, as well as a painful experience that leaves little room for error.
That day, in New York, I stared at Lucy’s replicated half-remaining pelvis, which was originally dug out of the ground in Ethiopia in 1974, and sighed as my son squirmed in his stroller beneath her.
“So small!” I shrieked to no one in particular.
Granted, Lucy, living on a diet of nuts and berries and the occasional carcass leftovers, probably stood only about 3.5 feet tall, and weighed about 60 pounds. (Males of her type would have been taller.) But indeed, Lucy’s legacy – as the museum’s slick marketing materials state – is profound in that her fossil shows us how humans evolved from knuckle-dragging ape-like creatures, with roomy pelvises, to upright creatures that became more intelligent.
And therein lays the problem. Lucy’s pelvis was narrower than those of earlier primates. Her pelvis had to be smaller to support efficient walking on two feet. If she continued to walk with the aid of arms on the ground, her stance would have been wider and, when bipedal, she would have rocked from side to side, like chimps do when upright. Meanwhile, our ancestors became increasingly intelligent – meaning their crania enlarged.
Ah, Lucy’s legacy. Big head, small pelvis: The modern consequence of such bad anatomical math plays out every day in hospital labor and delivery units around the world. In America, we can understand Lucy’s legacy in the popular cry for epidurals. We can feel Lucy’s legacy in the rush for the scalpel, with nearly one out of every three births in the U.S. now by cesarean section. And we can ponder Lucy’s legacy as babies are born larger and larger with every passing year. For the record, our pelvises are not getting bigger.
As I sit here, pregnant again, wondering how my own obstetrical drama will play out (the first time ended in a c-section, of course but I am not worried this time), can someone in Houston do me a favor?
Tell Lucy I have a bone to pick with her.