Of bones, dinosaurs and DNA

Marianne Sommer enjoys her fascinating and complex work Dominique Meienberg/SNSF

Skeletons that change sex, apes and what our DNA can tell us are all in a day’s work for Latsis-prize winning professor Marianne Sommer.

This content was published on January 12, 2011
Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich,

The historian of science is being presented with the prestigious award in Bern on January 13 for her work on how the natural sciences explain the history of humankind.

Sommer is Swiss National Science Foundation professor at the Centre for Social and Economic History at Zurich University. The SFr100,000 ($103,000) prize is given annually to an exceptional researcher aged under 40. You studied both English literature and linguistics and biology. How do you combine these aspects in your work?

Marianne Sommer: That started mainly with my PhD when I began to apply methods from linguistics to the analysis of how monkeys and apes are portrayed in National Geographic magazine. What I like to do is see how, in the course of history, knowledge about human origins and history circulates outside science. The image of apes has changed over the years. A reflection of society’s attitudes?

M.S.:  In a way, yes. People can’t look at apes, our closest living relatives, independently from themselves. In the interwar years and after the Second World War, the idea that humans were inherently aggressive was widespread and particularly gorillas were still portrayed in National Geographic as being aggressive beasts, monsters even.

It changes in the 1960s to a more positive image, because we learned more about primates from long-term field studies by famous women primatologists. The “make love not war” atmosphere has gone hand in hand with a different understanding of human nature. Of course, the story took another turn with Jane Goodall’s reporting of ‘war’ between chimp groups. Your post-doctoral work focused on the case of the Red Lady.

M.S.:  William Buckland, an early 19th-century Oxford University professor of geology and a cleric, came upon this skeleton in Paviland Cave in Wales. He thought it belonged to a woman who practised witchcraft, and, as the cave was quite close to a Roman encampment, he created stories about how she might have sold her divinations – or herself – to the soldiers. Although the skeleton was found close to a mammoth skull, which would indicate it was prehistoric, Buckland made it contemporary with the Roman occupation of Britain. It was still quite dangerous to argue for a great human antiquity at that time, particularly for somebody of his standing.

After Buckland’s death, when there was more evidence that humans and extinct animals had coexisted, scientists reclassified her as a male Cro-Magnon prehistoric skeleton. Like other fossil hominids, specimens of “noble” Cro-Magnons could function as deep ancestors and provide identities for European nations increasingly in competition. As another example of how knowledge of deep history circulates, you have been looking at the American Museum of Natural History and Charles R. Knight.

M.S.:  The popular notion of the history of evolutionary thought is that it started with Darwin and has barely changed since. So it’s very interesting to see that an artist like Knight, who painted pictures of prehistoric scenes and animals for the museum in the early 20th century, was so influential on how we imagine the history of life on earth and especially how dinosaurs looked and behaved. In accordance with the evolutionary theory of the time, Knight portrayed them as aggressive, either fighting or devouring a prey, and many working paleontologists say they were inspired by Knight’s images at the museum and elsewhere. Darwin came up with the theory, but Knight did a lot for the look and feel of evolution.

Dinosaurs in the film Jurassic Park still resemble Knight’s, but you can also see that the scientific and popular notion of their behaviour has changed dramatically from Knight’s time when people thought they were rather dumb. They wouldn’t think of dinosaurs as having quite high social intelligence that would allow them for example to hunt in packs. For your current project you are, among other things, looking at DNA.

M.S.: Nowadays scientists analyse DNA sequences to try to reconstruct the human family tree and migration across the globe. The political implications are very diverse, depending on the context. The Human Genome Diversity Project, for example, aimed to sample DNA from indigenous peoples, but it met with resistance because indigenous groups feared exploitation and didn’t like the idea of scientists telling them what their histories were when they had their own origin myths. But there are also populations who welcome or even solicit genetic research on their origins.

Marianne Sommer

Sommer studied English literature and linguistics and biology at the universities of Zurich and Coventry. Her PhD was completed in 2000.

She worked on her habilitation about the history of the human origins sciences through the biography of the Red Lady during post-doctoral fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and in the Science, Medicine, and Technology in Culture Program at Pennsylvania State University. The work was finished and accepted during her 6 years at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ). 

Sommer is now a professor at Zurich University and lecturer at the ETHZ.


She has just edited with Philipp Sarasin an interdisciplinary handbook on evolution (J.B. Metzler 2010), and her current project considers the cultural history of the historical life sciences in the 20th century, when these sciences have reached the masses.

A press release for the Latsis prize has praised Sommer for her “widely acknowledged interdisciplinary research which has given the study of science history a tremendous boost in Switzerland”. She says it is wonderful to receive such an accolade.

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Latsis Prize

The National Latsis Prize is one of Switzerland's most prestigious scientific awards. It is awarded annually on behalf of the Geneva-based Latsis Foundation by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The SFr100,000 award honours the outstanding scientific achievements of a scientist or scholar under age 40 working in Switzerland.

The Latsis Foundation, a charitable organisation, was established in 1975 by the Greek Latsis family. 

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