There I was Christmas day in LA on Christmas vacation, wearing my Christmas sweater, confident of my abilities in getting my Christmas gluteus maximus to the gym after the holidaze were over, sitting in a movie theater and watching Avatar while wearing my Christmas 3D glasses.
You'd think that Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and 3D action on a moon with floating islands would keep me from being distracted by other thoughts. If I was distracted, you'd think I would be fantasizing about what I was going to buy with my Christmas gift cards, but no. What was this movie making me think of? The extinction of the aboriginal Tasmanian population in the late middle of the 1800s and the weird role of scientists in the study of vanishing races.
Human Remains: Dissection and its Histories is a book about the treatment of the dead by doctors and medical educators, with the main focus on dissection and collection practices in England and Tasmania in the 1800s. MacDonald pays close attention to the value of the "exotic" cadaver. Most cadavers available for dissection were those of white males. She spends a lot of time discussing the political power of someone in possession of a female (her examples are white female convicts) or non-white male (in this case Tasmanian aboriginal) cadaver, for dissection and display. It's a very interesting book.
Back to Avatar, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) leads a science team that has grown avatars of Na'vi bodies, used by humans to get around Pandora without the need for gas masks. The use of a Na'vi body also makes the scientists look like the Na'vi, although their behavior is less disguised.
Augustine clearly cares deeply for this indigenous people. She has studied them up and down, in and out. The science team has compiled enough information on the Na'vi to grow them in a vat.
How did they get this information? How many years did it take? You'd have to start studying alien metabolism almost from scratch. You could do a lot of non-invasive study, but you'd also need tissue and fluid samples, and you'd probably want to get your hands on some Na'vi bodies for dissection and analysis(1). Where would they get those bodies? Would the Na'vi go for this? They give their dead to the neural-net-tree-system on the planet. I can't imagine they'd be okay with some human science team cutting up grandma into smaller and smaller bits.
Tasmanian medical men resorted to grave robbing in their quest for Aboriginal bodies and skeletons, since no one (aboriginal) wanted to give their loved one's cadaver up for scientific study(2).
She comes closer than anyone else I know
to making a lab coat look attractive and almost sexy.
This is not an easy task.
PRESERVER OF A DYING RACE
Augustine as a scientist is impotent against the company that funds her research. She really can't do anything to protect the Na'vi from corporate interest. She and her research team are positioned to dominate the Earth's Alien Biology and Anthropology scenes for decades to come based on their research. They posses the biological artifacts of a race doomed to extinction. Their careers are guaranteed. As this race of people is exterminated, their knowledge and documentation of these people will become even more valuable.
Augustine will be famous and dominate her field, thanks to the persecution and extinction of the people she loves. She can dole out tissue samples, information, and patent all sorts of new techniques for melding human psyches into Na'vi bodies(3). She loses big and wins big as the world she studies is destroyed. Wow. Now I'm going to shop with my Christmas gift cards.
I wonder if Helen MacDonald has seen Avatar yet?
1. Yes, even in 2154 they are still going to need to take bodies apart in invasive ways to study them. I'll bet you five bucks. We have MRIs and 3D imaging these days, but I'll tell you from experience you can study the human body all you want, but the day you start cutting one up, you learn about it like you've never learned before.
2. The circus involved with the cadaver of the last native Tasmanian man is not to be believed. You should read the book.
3. SPOILER ALERT! Of course I am looking at this from Augustine's and our perspective before she dies, or gets her spirit sucked up into the tree. But had she lived, this scenario would have been the case.