The most fascinating parts of the Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia (hardcover edition, circa 2000) are the infographics that tell you what size an animal would be relative to a human silhouette.
I didn’t always consider those infographics the most fascinating parts of the book. For the first year I owned it, what I loved most was the entry on the giant ground pangolin. It’s an elusive nocturnal anteater-like mammal of the family Manidae, and it’s covered in large, smooth scales like plates of armour. When the pangolin is in danger, it curls up into a tight ball and the scales protect it from a would-be predator’s teeth and claws. It looks wonderfully like a walking pinecone with a face and a long tail.
Pangolins still captivate me now, of course. But I’m no longer limited to reading about them in the Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia. I can pull up 400,000 web pages about them in less than half a second, or gain library access to a veritable battalion of field guides, and if I really want to depress myself I can read monographs about how they are extremely endangered because they are the most heavily trafficked mammal in the world. As I grew up, the concept of pangolins grew bigger than the easy language and elementary presentation of simple facts of the Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia. What remained confined within the covers of that book, what endures in my imagination as an unanswered question, is the infographic of a human silhouette next to animals of various sizes.
The encyclopedia had been a present from a close friend of my mother’s, who had spent several years giving me princess toys and lip glosses before finally figuring out where my true interests lay. I spent an entire summer looking through that book, memorizing every detail about my favourite animals: their Latin names (the giant pangolin is Manis gigantea), distribution (pangolins in general live throughout central and southern Africa and Asia, but giant pangolins specifically range along the equator in West Africa through Uganda), diet (insects, mostly termites), conservation status (vulnerable), and reproductive behaviour (mysterious).
The summer after I received the book had been particularly hot. Our dog Buddy would escape to the basement and lie with his belly flat against the cool concrete floor, refusing to come upstairs again. The basement had come unfinished when we moved into our townhouse, the first home my parents could afford to buy. We never had the money to renovate it; instead we slapped a coat of bright ivory paint over the bare pockmarked walls so that it looked slightly less like a serial killer’s lair. It held a washer and dryer, some workout equipment, bookshelves of mismatched size and shape acquired from various garage sales, and some storage boxes full of old knickknacks. Most of the time, it was functional but unspecial—but on the hottest days of the year it was a perfect icebox, kept exquisitely cold by the earth touching it directly on all sides, uninsulated by obstacles like drywall or carpet. In this basement, I kept my dog company and pored over my animal encyclopedia.
I was an only child and there was little else to do. Both my parents worked full time and I was too old for the daycare at which I’d spent previous summer vacations, but too young to hang out with friends at the mall. I passed the endless, sweltering hours flipping through every book in the house and the words helped me stop wishing for things to be different. Sitting on the bottom step of the basement stairs with the Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia spread across my knees, I would run one hand over the silky fur on Buddy’s head while his eyes drooped in delight, and with the other hand I would trace my fingers over the solid black shapes that told me how big an animal would feel if it were as close to me as Buddy was.
This infographic is perfect in its simplicity. By showing a silhouette of an average animal specimen next to a silhouette of an average human specimen, both scaled to size, it gives us an instantaneous understanding of what it would be like to stand next to a pangolin, or a spectacled bear, or a sperm whale, or an ankylosaurus. Knowing that something stands 1.5 metres tall is a viscerally different experience from knowing that something’s snout would be about level with your waist. The silhouettes are loaded with meaning and assumption, the human ones so gendered and raced in their genderlessness and racelessness, the animal ones so uniform in their diversity. The graphic is a fantasy, a repository, and a pure vessel of factual information.
Another fascinating thing about these infographics is that it’s pretty much fucking impossible to find out anything about where they first appeared in print.
I start my research journey on the Internet, because I start every research journey on the Internet these days. Based on past experience, I assume that I’ll hit the right keyword combination with a few tries at most, or find a result that uses the correct technical terminology and be able to go from there. “Comparative human size scale,” “animal human size comparison,” and “human silhouette size scale/chart/graph” all yield a multitude of relevant pictures, but no relevant text results. The Wikimedia Commons even has an entire gallery titled “Animal size comparisons with human silhouettes,” with twenty-nine files created and uploaded for free by various users. Google image search also shows me countless examples of exactly what I have in mind, but no one seems to have written anything about those images. When were they first used in an encyclopedia? At what point did they become popular? Have they ever been observed to fulfill a specific educational objective?
I try to attack the problem from a different angle and start looking up the history of biology encyclopedias instead. This tactic lands me in a different kind of dead end—way too much information, instead of none at all. The history of biology encyclopedias starts with Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, and several hours later I surface from the black hole of Wikipedia articles—about the Romans, St. Isidore of Seville, Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Isḥaq aṣ-Ṣabbaḥ al-Kindi, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Microsoft’s Encarta CD-ROMs—no wiser about those human-animal silhouette graphics.
The two most reliable technologies in my life have always been computers and books. I trust them to work together in supplementary harmony, and when one can’t provide, I trust the other to compensate. If the Internet doesn’t have the answers I want, then surely I can at least find some clues at the animal sciences library. I figure I can manually flip through the encyclopedias and piece together a rough history with the oldest ones that contain those silhouette size comparisons, maybe even spot a general trend in their usage based on publishing date, or country, or subject matter. But as I flip through The World Encyclopedia of Animals (published 1972), The International Wildlife Encyclopedia (1965), MacMillan Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia (1984), Longman Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia (1984), Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia (1975, and then the 2004 re-issue), and Magill’s Encyclopedia of Science: Animal Life (2002), a dawning desperation creeps over me: none of them have it.
I abandon my plan of targeting volumes with particular dates or a high chance of illustrations and start systematically pulling every book down, moving from right to left. Eventually, a librarian notices the growing pile of books next to me and asks if I need help. “Yes!” I say, overly eager, and I start explaining what I’m looking for. The comparison charts, their original creators, the first books to include them, maybe a specific technical name for them that would finally give some order to my search.
The librarian says he’s not sure what I’m talking about.
“You know, like, to help picture what size an animal is! If they were standing next to you!”
“Maybe if you look through some field guides,” he suggests, in a tone that leaves me doubtful as to whether he understands what I’m referring to at all.
I comb through every book on three shelves under animal encyclopedias, two more shelves under field guides, and fail to find a single example. For a moment I feel like I’m in some Thomas Pynchon novel where these infographics I’ve seen all my life are actually an elaborate code for my eyes only, and I’ll soon find out I’m at the centre of a vast conspiracy at the same time I realize that trying to solve it will drive me to insanity.
I am self-aware enough to note that this is an extremely narcissistic response to a minor research roadblock. Perhaps it’s a kind of narcissism relevant to the project of comparing an entire animal kingdom to ourselves? Humans as the only stable referent, while next to our silhouette a menagerie of creatures parades by. Derrida even has a passage about it—about the concept of lumping all non-human animals together, that is, not about the damned size comparison charts because I wouldn’t be having this ontological crisis if he’d written about them. He says, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, that the word “animal” is itself a presumption. It’s a word that we’ve given ourselves in order to also give ourselves the right to “corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” in a way that obliterates their unique existences. It takes away their ability to speak back against us, because there’s no one word that erases the individuality of humans in the same way.
After I calm down from my minor neurological event, I remember that a lot of the online image search results compared the human silhouette to prehistoric animals. I head for the palaeontology section to try my luck there, and no book has ever suffused me with the same sweet rush of relief as Dinosaurs of Eastern Iberia. Because inside it, on every other page, was one of those human silhouettes next to a variety of dinosaurs.
Since it has brightly coloured illustrations that look like they could be aimed at children, and since the Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia that started me on this hellish voyage was definitely aimed at children, I advance to the childhood education library next. I take Dinosaurs of Eastern Iberia with me mostly so I can show it as an example to the next librarian I ask, and partly as a totem I can pull out for myself in case I start questioning reality again.
There are two librarians behind the information desk at the childhood education library. They’re both women around my age, give or a take a few years, and they’re both wearing maroon shirts and wire framed glasses. I open the dinosaur book before I even start to ask my questions.
The silhouette graphics get a spark of recognition from both of them, and as I explain what I’m looking for, they both seem to be on board.
“That totally sounds like a thing,” one of them says.
“That’s definitely a thing,” the other confirms. “I’ve seen them everywhere. There must be a name for them. What did you say you’ve already searched for?”
I recite the list of search terms I’ve scoured a dozen times before, and watch them replicate the process on their computers.
“Huh, this is so weird!” one of them says. “And even if you try other synonyms, there’s nothing?”
“There’s nothing,” the other confirms. “But if you look at the images, there’s lots of—”
“I know, you get tons of images,” I say. “None of them lead to pages that say anything about the history of the graphic, though, and none of them call the graphic by any technical name.” I explain that I’ve already tried everything else I could think of, including physically looking at old encyclopedias.
“That was a great research strategy,” the librarian on my right says. “Even if it didn’t work. It was a good shot. But don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll find something, this is what we’re here for.”
They try plugging the search terms into specific library databases, and with each dead end they get further sucked in to the puzzle I’ve presented them with. I stand in front of the information counter for almost half an hour, sweating in my winter coat, hoping that maybe their expertise will help them unearth something I couldn’t find. I can see that Po-mo Pynchon Panic starting to set in on them as well, as they keep coming up empty.
“This is just the strangest thing! I swear there must be something out there, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them everywhere. How can there not be anything about them?”
Her voice has taken on an edge of bewilderment that I recognize. Her colleague, however, comes up with a new tack that hasn’t occurred to me yet.
“Okay, we’re obviously getting nowhere with the history of encyclopedias. What if you look up the history of infographics instead? There might not be anything specific about this type of chart, but maybe there’s stuff about scale comparisons in general, like when they became popular in textbooks. Why don’t you try that?”
For lack of anything else to do, and out of gratefulness that they took my search seriously and tried to offer a possible path out of the labyrinth, I write down “the history of infographics” on a piece of beige card stock with one of those tiny library pencils and thank them profusely.
The history of infographics is not that interesting.
Simple visual illustrations of complex data existed long before modern printing. Prominent examples of early infographics include representations of planetary orbits by Renaissance astronomers, William Playfair‘s invention of the pie chart to display information about political economy, and Alexander von Humboldt’s map legends. The use of infographics in day-to-day media such as newspapers and advertising began to rise in the 1970s, and by the 21st century, advances in digital design allowed for the easy creation and proliferation of the billions of infographics we now find ourselves immersed in.
I can’t find anything specific about animal size comparison charts using human silhouettes. The earliest things that look kind of similar—if we vigorously stretch the definition of “similar”—are the Pioneer Plaques included on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecrafts, launched in 1972 and 1973. The aluminum plaques are meant to provide extraterrestrials with visual information about human beings and planet earth, and they include simple line drawings of a fully nude man and a fully nude woman. They are obviously meant to look “neutral,” in a clumsy 70s way, like they represent the average adult human of either sex. However, they both possess clearly Caucasian features (and, weirdly, absolutely no pubic hair). The woman is drawn to be about half a head shorter than the man, with vector lines between their shoulders and pelvic areas as though to draw your eye to the comparative differences between them.
Both the Pioneer Plaques and the animal size charts seem driven by the desire to represent the average of the species, blind to their own assumptions about normativity. But who can say what an average human is, when even a close family friend can guess wrong about what an average ten-year-old girl wants for her birthday? National Geographic uses the same figure of a six-foot tall man against every animal in their online fact book. The average height of adult males in the United States today is five foot nine and a half, if we consider all racial groups together. It’s six feet in Norway, and it’s about five foot seven worldwide if we make a slapdash effort to add all of the available numbers together and divide the sum by the number of countries included and then ignore the fact that most people in the world are too busy trying to eke out a living to participate in height surveys. The mathematical mean height of women around the world is about five-three.
The Pioneer Plaques and the silhouette comparison charts also have something else in common. They both seem like attempts to satisfy an urge to bring every living thing on Earth and beyond into a direct relationship with humans. Maybe both are about how nice it is to just stand next to something instead of standing alone.
In the end, all I can really figure out about these relative size scale silhouettes is that nobody has ever put together a coherent history of them.
Here is everything I know about those silhouette size scales:
• There’s no specific name for them.
• When the animal in question is too small to be meaningfully compared to a six-foot tall man, the National Geographic fact book will put it side by side with silhouettes of man-made objects instead—small amphibians next to a tea cup, tiny insects next to a paperclip.
• The invention of these silhouette size charts must have happened sometime after Pliny the Elder, and their proliferation in encyclopedias probably began in the middle to late 20th century, when vector graphics became easily reproducible in mass publishing.
• People feel compelled to make them even when they aren’t paid, and take great pleasure in sharing them on user-made content platforms like Wikipedia and DeviantArt.
• When I look at them, I always inevitably imagine not an animal standing beside me, but an animal standing beside a tall person beside me.
Maybe it really is all connected through some complicated Pynchon-esque code. Or maybe it’s a just a very simple one, a substitution system of similarities that can be cracked by finding the common denominator that links why we want to be close to animals; why a child would spend whole summers flipping through books to find the characters who say what she’s secretly always thought; why it feels so good when we discover someone online who shares the same strange hobby we’ve always been slightly embarrassed by; why it’s such a relief when a librarian says don’t worry, I know what you’re talking about. You’re not crazy. You’re not on your own.
Sunny Chan was born in Hong Kong, raised in Edmonton, and is content in Vancouver. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin and lives in Madison with a dog named Mango. Her creative writing has appeared in Interfictions, Ricepaper, and Flash.