Wednesday, April 14, 2010

4/14: Wrap up and Thank you

04-14-2010 05:48:04
Dear Panelists:

As we begin this final day of the conference I would like to thank you all for your energetic contributions. There is much here to digest. On behalf of myself and our partners in this endeavour, we thank you.

Ideas from the last section are still developing so please keep that going. Also, please take time to go back and tie up lose threads as well. Here in the wrap up section feel free to post your current or upcoming projects that relate to evolution and visual culture.

Finally, but not least, I would like to thank the over 3,500 visitors that watched the discussion from over 55 countries. The online format has certainly extended the discussion beyond the walls of any auditorium or lecture hall that I can imagine. Please continue to leave feedback and responses on the blog.

Again, thank you.


04-14-2010 13:19:42
A story, probably apocryphal, is told about the brilliant and precocious Nobel laureate economist Paul Samuelson. It is said that at the end of his PhD oral exam the head of the examining committee said sheepishly, "Well, Mr. Samuelson, did we pass?"

At many times over the past 10 days I felt that, far from directing the conversation, I was struggling to keep up. Fortunately, in spite of the range of expertise and richness of imagination of you panelists, the discussion was remarkably coherent and focused. Your willingness to engage one another directly and to ask pertinent questions enabled me, like the coach of the Brazilian soccer team, to sit on the sidelines and watch the beautiful game unfold.

I know that there were times when many of you were eager to expand the conversation or dig a little deeper, and no doubt you could have. But you did travel far and deep, and we ordinary humans will be challenged to follow your path as far as you went.

Wordsworth described poetry as powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. I am looking forward to spending more time with this conversation, reading more slowly, discovering connections that I missed in the pressure of the moment. I hope you will do the same. I have no doubt that you will be impressed and pleased with what you have accomplished.

Besides, the conversation is far from over. Some of you are posting even as I write, and the conversation will continue in other venues. As Garrison Keillor says at the end of each installment of The Writer's Almanac: BE WELL, DO GOOD WORK, AND KEEP IN TOUCH.


04-14-2010 10:37:33
Thanks for asking about future projects, J. D. I have a book coming up on Darwin and aesthetic theory that begins with Burke and ends in the present. It will be an edited volume both about the influence of aesthetics on Darwin and Darwin on theorists and theoretical models. There are books that deal with evolutionism and aesthetics from the perspective of anthropology and prehistory, but this one will be about "the fine arts."

04-14-2010 10:59:40
Thank you, JD, Kevin, the NAS, Johns Hopkins, and my fellow participants, for the intellectual roller-coaster ride: evolutionary ideas and images are provocative, proliferative, intoxicating. There was, and is, an evolutionary imaginary of monsters, specimens, tree charts, scenes from deep time, laboratories, field work, fossils, fingerprints, critical commentaries, etc. It was a pleasure and a privilege to contribute to the proceedings, and to get to know some very smart people.

I want to mention that many of the images that I posted in this symposium come from a website that I co-curated with Paul Theerman (National Library of Medicine), Rewriting the Book of Nature: Charles Darwin & the Rise of Evolutionary Theory:

I am particularly interested in the visual rhetoric of charts; part of my current work is on modernist scientific charts and illustrations in 20th-century popular science and medical books and exhibitions. As a parting gift: I leave the group with two 19th-century evolutionary charts: a zonked-out vortex chart purporting to show the relationship between "ideal unity" and "protoplasmic identity", from Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and J. Arthur Thomson (1861-1933), The evolution of sex (London, 1889), 280; and a tree chart of "mental evolution" from George John Romanes (1848-1894), Mental evolution in man; Origin of human faculty (London, 1888), title page and foldout.

Mental evolution in man; Origin of human faculty (1888). Romanes here uses a tree-like diagram to argue for the evolution of higher mental functions.

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and J. Arthur Thomson (1861-1933), The evolution of sex (London, 1889), 280.

04-14-2010 13:51:36
Looking at this symposium as an amazing collection of deeply developed ideas rubbing up against other equally deeply developed concepts rooted in history and in evolution has been an extraordinary opportunity to do what I believe science and art both strive to do --- actually affect change (evolution metamorphosis) in a positive manner. JD, Kevin, NAS, John Hopkins and all this network gathered to support these interpretations had the foresight to see the possibilities of affecting change through this natural selection process. Still in all these loose ends of threads are lines that need exploration from both sides of the two cultures.

I know I have left a number of loose ends and find many other loose ends in grasping the depth of the concepts here. Too little time in the few remaining hours, but life goes on and as innocent as this sounds I am changed by this experience.

So I want to thank all of the panelists. Even if many of you spoke over my head, you all have given me much to learn from.


04-14-2010 14:49:49
My first project will be to read, re-read and digest these fascinating discussions. Thanks to all the organizers and panelists for such a stimulating discussion.

In terms of evolution and the visual, my next graphic novel is called Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth and it should be out this winter from Hill and Wang. This is the first one I've written but haven't drawn, so that collaboration with the artists was very interesting and exiting. After that, I will be writing a drawing a story about Santiago Ramon y Cajal and the interplay between his childhood desire to be an artist and the his microscopic masterpieces of the nervous tissue. Finally, I have a comic about beetles and evolutionary discovery called The Age of Elytra that I will be serializing as digital comic books.

04-14-2010 15:20:27
At least with respect to visual culture’s contributions to scientific understandings about Darwin’s legacy, we started with antipodes (keynotes by E.O. Wilson and Eduardo Kac) and then mapped many spaces between, identifying a vast network of intersections between artistic and scientific practices, contexts and inventions. This has deliberately been conceived by the organizers as an open-ended process, starting with origins and moving to the present. Online symposium formats rarely elicit the give-and-take of flowing conversations (and this exchange was not, in my view, an exception) but speaking as a participant, it has been very worthwhile in provoking discussion and putting out some of the salient issues of visual culture in the wake of Darwin. Our assembled group seems to have a high threshold for tolerating “truth claims” of evidence in science but clearly appreciates visual culture in all its manifestations. Although I do not recall that Kuhn’s name came up, the symposium underscored some of the historical contingencies attending the creation and evolution of Darwin’s theory and their ongoing ramifications in culture. My thanks to all involved.

04-14-2010 16:43:16
Dear JD,

Wow, what a fun Evo-Devo ride this has been! Thanks to you and Kevin, as well as the sponsoring institutions and agencies.

I know I will be digesting and assimilating the various contributions for days and weeks to come. The existential threads and streams that have originated between/amongst the panelists will, I suspect, continue long after the symposium goes offline. Opportunities for cross-fertile and synergetic collaboration abound.

When do we start the next symposium?!


04-15-2010 02:47:51
Dear JD, Kevin and Everyone,
Yes this has been a fantastic experience - and also much fun. This kind of symposium is certainly effective in bringing together people and creating dialogue. Many advantages over a conventional conference. I can also see I have much to read and catch up on. I have just completed a book on the impact of Darwin and evolutionary ideas on the cinema - 'Darwin's Screens: evolutionary aesthetics, time and sexual display in the cinema', published as a print on demand by Melbourne University Publishing. I am currently working, with colleagues, on two areas. The first is 'Cinema & Civilisation', which involves examining the way in which the very first films (1895 onwards) were used by colonial powers in their various civilising missions. This draws on late 19th century debates about the nature of civilisation and the human. The second is a project on the emotions. It draws partly on Darwin's 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals', in order to trace the representation of the emotions in animals and insects etc from the 18th century through to the present in literature, painting, and film. We are interested to discover the degree to which cultural representations of the emotions have been used to unite rather than divide human and non-human over this period. Love to hear from anyone with similar interests.
best wishes

04-15-2010 03:24:23
Thank you!! JD, Kevin, NAS, Johns Hopkins, and all you incredibly smart fellow participants. This was a blast! Like riding spring rapids on the Colorado River, and occasionally capsizing. I learned so much. I’m forever grateful to you all... What an intellectual treat!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

4/13: All panelists, start your crystal balls

Last Update: 04-14-2010 12:08:43

04-13-2010 11:25:54
Because we have been following a more or less chronological order, because we are drawing near to the end of our time, and because it is subject on which we are all equally ignorant, I would like to start a thread about the future.

We have had some discussion of biomachines, of eugenics, and of sociobiology as a new eugenics. We also have groups such as the transhumanists and the Singularity University that are eager to use science and technology to essentially create a humanity that is healthier, longer-lived, more creative, and perhaps able to leap buildings in a single bound. Many of us are already wearing our technology, embedding artificial body parts, and ingesting our personalities. Synthetic biologists dream not only of recreating life as we know it and designing new organism from "biobricks," but of creating new systems of DNA that are built on different proteins. Is this evolution? Is it eugenics? Where do we see ideas about these developments in our visual culture? How are scientists, artists, philosophers, and others addressing our future options?

I know that there are a number of active threads still proceeding in parallel, but I would like to bring everyone together on this one.

04-13-2010 13:25:10
On the first time reading of Kevin's prompt "biobrick" read as bio-trick. Small type and aging eyes. But the analogy held. Biomachines, eugenics and sociobiolgy of our past predict a future of rationalized margins for the masses..

We see that fear of science manifest in mass media. First, second and third rate films of mad scientists and science gone awry may have started with the Godzilla era but continue to grow in correlation to bio-engineering. A current example: Repo Men The press right, left and center grasps at the sensation of science missing the substantial structure behind the headlines.

Dismissing the current fundamentalist religious views on evolution as simplistic overlooks an increasing divide between the educated including the marginal/uneducated and this astute level of academic philosophers gathered here.

EO Wilson and Wendell Berry are both heros to me. Consilience helped me to see how the arts and sciences could mesh and improve our understanding of our place in Nature through critical thinking. Frankly I struggled to comprehend it but gained immensely from the process. In "Life is a Miracle" Berry stood for the masses who reason faith as a magic visceral component of life. His views were simplistic and easy to comprehend. Even when not substantive Berry presented an argument based on his faith.

My faith lies in both art and science. Were I to create a symbolic deity it would be an Andrias japonicus,

So gazing into my crystal ball I see visual culture migrating away from rational thinking towards more sensationalism while science continues evolving to create ever more sensational "biobricks"

Andrias image from public domaine

Andrias japonicus image by Dante Fenolio copyright Dante Fenolio

04-13-2010 14:46:52
To add another “brick” to Tracy’s wall of ideas, let me quote from Fred Ritchin’s provocative article (“Failing to Harness the Web’s Visual Promise”) in the newest online version of “Nieman Reports” (Spring 2010). Ritchin notes that on the Web, “It is possible to think of photographs or even pieces of photographs as nodes that link to a variety of other media, what I call hyperphotography, rather than as images that are sufficient in and of themselves. In this way, the reader becomes much more implicated in the unfolding of a story when she has to choose pathways to follow as a means of exploring various ideas, rather than being presented with only one possible sequence.”

Substitute any type of “visualization” of science (drawing, chart, sculpture, painting) for Ritchin's word “photograph” and consider who will become “implicated” in the future in the unfolding of science’s visual narratives, and how the medium of communication will influence that involvement. Each may determine the consequent interpretation and use of whatever "biobricks' scientists create. An artist envisions her viewers; a writer imagines her readers; the “mass” media (films, television, comic books…) care only about numbers, the box office, the ratings, not the faces or names. Reach is all. The audience becomes an approximation rather than a listener. For scientists, artists, and anyone who cares about encouraging constructive public reception to science in the future (because what's the sense of science if it cannot be put to use?), the 21st century context of multiple pathways (tailored as well as mass-directed) represents both an opportunity and a terrifying challenge. Yes, I agree that the “divide” grows ever wider and deeper And what shall we make of the fact that it is doing so even as the number of nodes and opportunities for creative expression increase? And what if the margins become hardened or walled off? No crystal ball...only a small plea for a more organic approach to that incorporates understanding of the watershed as well as measurement of the water.

04-13-2010 14:52:15
To answer Kevin's question my insight is that "designing new organism from "biobricks" attests to the importance that bottom up practices and craft itself has acquired in modern science and in particular sciences using biotechnologies. This part of science and the element of practical knowldge is often invisible from the public image of scientific research. Artist's residencies in labs and sci-art collaborations, which as JD has noted both as a term and as field of policy for culture and science is closely linked to the important work that the Wellcome Trust has carried, it seems to me unpacks this other notion of what it means to do science, one that includes protocols and instruments, fascinating 'objects' in their own right. This lab based concept of craft is the inbetween space where artists and scientists meet in producing fantastically different 'things'.


04-13-2010 17:27:45
Let's say someone (someone from this symposium, perhaps) got hold of the technology and built an organism as an art project. Call it SciArt, conceptual art, political art, what-have-you. But it has no biomedical value. The only thing anyone's going to be cured of as a result of it is maybe tunnel-vision.

Is this acceptable? Under what conditions? Does it depend on what kind of nervous system it has? On who is funding the work? On where it is shown? On what happens to it after the "show"?

If it is not acceptable--as many people would say it is not--what does that say about public valuations of art, of visual culture, in contrast to science?

04-13-2010 18:22:12
The working title of this particular discussion forum, “the crystal ball,” represents a most challenging subject for discourse. In the 21st century (an era of information technology), the relationship between art and science has become, on a practical level, ever so much a professional partnership. Digital media, animation, graphic design, etc., have become vital illustrational components of scientific advancement today. This connection is no more evident than in the realm of biology. The down side of this situation, as mentioned by others in the panel, is (at least the appearance of) a relegation of art to the status of the “handmaiden” of science. On the up side, I would argue, more and more scientists are finding that the visual imagery revealed by the application of the technology of today’s art forms is heightening their awareness and appreciation of the beauty (and, yes, the “elegance”) of the natural world. Historically, technology (as the extension of scientific discoveries into our real everyday world) has always had an artistic bent to it. Let us not forget that the ancient root etymon techne is, in fact, the Greek word for “art.” Technology, if looked at properly, can stand as the medium where science and art can be reconciled on the knowledge-discovery landscape.

As epitomized symbolically in C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures (which, incidentally, enjoyed a celebrated 50th anniversary of its own last year), we often tend to see art and science as poles apart, with an “either/or” mentality, as opposed to the conjunction “and” – bearing the notion of complementarity. It is so enlightening and constructive to see the differing perspectives of such complementarity in the narratives of the panelists in this symposium! Some say that science is “objective” about Nature, while art is “subjective.” Not so! They both entail flowing, evolving, impressionistic, and relativistic representations of the world. Relativity theory has exposed space-time as a contorted, distorted, twisted, and fluid medium – rather much like a Dali painting. Quantum theory has shown the microworld to be indeterminate and imprecise, whereby the “observer” defines reality by the experimental way of looking at Nature. For example, material existence has a wave-particle duality, depending on the method of analysis. The expression “observer-created reality” is now part of the vernacular of physics.

The central theme of this symposium is “visual culture and evolution.” Perhaps we should ponder the implicit issue of visual culture in human evolution. After all, we might ask, is there a “Darwinian” union of the two?! Such a philosophical query leads down many lanes of thought, as one contemplates the metaphysical roles of “art” and “science” in human existence. My own training initially was in science (specifically physics), and, I suppose, scientific cognition is my default mode. We must distinguish the significance of “science and the individual human being” from that of “science and humanity.” Personally, I went into science (physics) because I was (still am) curious about the how the world works. Understanding a particular physical principle, or solving a mathematical relationship about a particular physical process, gives me goose bumps. However, “science and humanity” is altogether different. The scientific enterprise (and artwork, as well), many would argue, is just another side of our biological essence, i.e., who we are. Yes, science shows the way to the “understanding” and “knowledge” of Nature. The goose bumps of the individual scientist notwithstanding, such “knowledge” of Nature leads to “prediction” and, ultimately, to “control” of Nature. To what purpose? “Darwinian” thinking gives the obvious answer: the betterment of human society – rather the betterment of some human societies in competition with others. Yes, ‘tis true, that much of science is collaborative today (look at the author lists in papers in such journals as Nature and Science), but there remains competition – some would say that it’s in our genes. (And some would label it “social Darwinism.”) The history of science is tainted with the uses (misuses) of scientific knowledge in conflicts between nation states and in the destruction of the environment (not to mention the pillaging of natural resources from the non-industrialized, underdeveloped countries).

Call me a mystic, but I would aver that the stars were aligned propitiously on the astral plane in 2009 – with the coincidence of the multitudinous Darwin celebrations and the (lesser known) 50th anniversary of Snow’s The Two Cultures lecture (and ensuing book). What most folks (who haven’t actually read Snow’s book) don’t realize is that Snow was not simply presented a cultural divide between the arts (generally speaking) and the sciences per se. His “take-home message” was that we must heal the divide if we are to solve the global problems of under-education, poverty, and “rich vs. poor.” My hope (optimistic and altruistic though it may be) is that a more balanced return to the “arts” will save this biological species called Homo sapiens (sapientia – Latin for “wisdom”) from self-destruction. Snow’s directive is that, if we are to solve the global problems befalling humanity, it is not sufficient for us (the “intellectuals”) to convince one another; we must convince those with the decision-making power (viz., government leaders).

The eminent physicist/philosopher Henry Margenau (1901-1997), like many notable physicists of the “golden era” of physics in the 20th century, turned to Eastern philosophy/religion in the end. Margenau (see his book The Miracle of Existence, 1984) posited that we human beings, in both our scientific outlook and our artistic expression, have come full circle in our relationship with Nature. For, he said, “we look into Nature and see ourselves.” We need both art and science for us to understand our oneness with Nature.


04-14-2010 03:54:22
Just a quick post, really footnote to Nathaniel's point about cure and western science method. It comes from Feyerabend's Against Method where he poses the question how non western cultures and civilizations managed to develop cures and medicine outside the domain of western techno-science. He refers to the regions and cultures that today overlap with south america.

04-14-2010 03:55:56
Nathaniel, your question gets at the heart of how we value of our creations. I’m sure if we combed through the combined histories of science, technology, medicine, and mathematics we’d find plenty of examples of this “no value” perception many people have when encountering new, exploratory work (e.g., the Germ Theory of Disease). This Truizm hints at that reality.

If this hypothetical organism you’re referring to was not intended to have any practical biomedical value or merit –- meaning, its creator made no claims to that effect – then, many people who are knowledgeable about contemporary art would say it is acceptable...and meaningful as an experimental work. The organism, by design, served no apparent purpose other than testing the skills of the artist to see whether or not it was possible to create. Some might argue that’s a purpose with a tangible result.

To add another frame of complexity to this response: If the creator had built this organism to raise new and fundamental questions about biomedical engineering practices and/or biomedical ethics and/or biomedical applications — or anything that challenged the biomedical practitioners to rethink or expand a technique, research approach, or some design scheme — then that creative act would also be regarded as acceptable.

More to the point: Even if the creator aimed to use this novel organism as a way to cure a disease, or spark a discovery, or inspire a technological innovation -- but misses the target -- then that too would be acceptable. After all, is it any different than testing a hypothesis that “fails” the verification, or falsification, process (Popper, 1957 & 1965) in following the scientific method, and subsequently needs some re-thinking with new data. I think people are inclined to say that it was a “productive” experiment with a measurable outcome (i.e., it didn’t work). And that piece of information is also valuable in so far as it earmarks one experiment that needn't be repeated without further development.

From an artist’s perspective, this concern about “acceptability” may strike many in the arts as a moot issue -- especially in this age of Postmodernism, where many creators choose to blur or erase the line between The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Unlike the sciences and mathematics, there’s no standard criteria or canon of aesthetics for making, presenting and interpreting a “work of art.” Any medium is fair game (biological, chemical, nuclear, electronic, industrial refuse, air, light, etc.); any form of expression will do (from the subtle to heavy-handed; from the most sublime to the crudest), and any message (from the elegant to the vulgar). This is where the “interface” between the practices of art-making and science-making can get momentarily turbulent…like two jets flying in parallel formation, until one suddenly crosses the jet stream of the other -- startling everyone in the wake.


04-14-2010 06:47:12
No predictions here. Instead I offer a wish list for more art exploring the boundaries of human perception and focused on viewer subjectivity, more ecological consciousness, scientific and aesthetic examinations of collective consciousness and behavior through private meditations, more collaborative exploration of the full sensorium, continued challenges to ideas of biological and technological determinism, including the falsely-reductive flow-charts of ‘isms” in art history, and more support in every way for what the cognitive scientist Roger N. Shepard identified as the value of “unfettered artistic exploration.”

04-14-2010 07:56:55

Thanks for this thoughtful response. This thread has gotten me thinking about comparing the ethical dimensions of art and science.

In science, you have Institutional Review Boards, human subjects' guidelines, HIPAA, the Belmont Report, the Helsinki Agreement, and Nuremburg, not to mention Jeremy Rifkin et al, plus an entire academic discipline devoted to thinking about, policing, and bloviating over the ethics of biological research.

In art, what I'm hearing is, you have an ethical wild, wild west.

This could create some significant tensions in future art-science collaborations.


04-14-2010 11:24:02
Nathaniel, just a quick note in response: I apologize that my enthusiasm here has led me to break the speed limit and word count. But I felt compelled to add the following…

I trust you know that the arts have a similarly rigorous review process as the sciences. Although it tends to be far more subjective and less dependent on “empirical tests” of hypotheses, premises, suppositions, and so forth, they’re, nevertheless, often deep, insightful critiques by scholars, practitioners, and other professionals who take the work of these their review boards very seriously, and who try to be as impartial, or “objective,” as possible in their evaluations and assessments. I’ve sat on my share of these review boards on both sides of the fence, and, you’re right: we seek to understand and critique various qualities and characteristics of the process and product of the work in question.

Speaking for the arts (and I mean to include here all forms, expressions, media, processes and products), I can say there’s a wide array of aesthetic dimensions and characteristics of works of art that are taken into account. Whether or not the artist who created the work accepts the constructive criticisms and “value-judgments” is another matter altogether. Frankly, if artists did that throughout the ages—if they simply accepted these judgments bytheir peers and patrons and the cognoscenti—there’d be no break with the traditions of making, appreciating and developing art. There’d be no rich history of modern, contemporary, and postmodern art as we know it! Here, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism applies so brilliantly: “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.”

Art movements, like science movements, are largely “reactionary” in their responses to and interpretations of the limits our perceptions of truth & beauty; they’re also influenced by the reach and limits of our tacit and explicit knowledge, which we are the tools we use to know these things. The polymath and science historian, Robert-Root-Bernstein explores all this in his fascinating essay, “Beauty, Truth, and Imagination: A Perspective on the Science and Art of Modeling Atoms” (in J. Burroughs, ed. Snelson’s Atom. Catalogue for Novo Presents: Art at the Academy Exhibit, New York Academy of Science, 1989c, pp. 15-20).

Presumably, professional art reviewers and scholars are informed by a long history of evaluating and assessing works of art, which comprise the History of Art (Hartt, 1989). And these assessments addresses a veritable matrix of physical and conceptual properties (Gombrich et al., 1970; Goodman, 1976), symbolic properties (Langer, 1958), experiential properties (Dewey, 1934), properties of expression (Sircello, 1972), properties of “meaning” (Panofsky, 1955); properties of visual thinking (Arnheim, 1969; Klee, 1959 & 1969), properties of “interpretation and response” (Ackerman, 1982), properties of illustration versus interpretation (Schapiro, 1973), and so much more.

I won’t bore you with further details about the numerous facets of this phenomena we call “Art,” or wax on about why I love both the arts and sciences so profoundly, but I would like to leave you smiling with at least one humorous note that arcs back to my previous post and your excellent questions. It concerns our first impressions and second opinions of an artwork’s “relevance.” Please keep in mind as you read the following that, for me, A.r.t. encompasses All representations of thought. I elaborated on this in another thread, and it’s important to mention here because that broader definition is what I live by and embrace as a “truth” I cannot prove…

I once tried to read the introduction of my friend, Dr.Shai Haran’s book, titled The Mysteries of the Real Prime (Oxford University Press, 2001). I felt like I dove into an intellectual abyss…never to return again. I mean, pure mathematics is one of the most elegant forms of high art that’s so foreign to most people’s experience we have no way of relating it to our world. And yet, to the handful of deep math practitioners working on ”the Riemann zeta function and its adelic interpretation,” Dr. Haran’s symbolic language makes perfect sense. Here’s the overview, in a nutshell:

“The Mysteries of the Real Prime develops an arithmetical approach to the continuum of real numbers and unifies many areas of mathematics including: Markov Chains, q-series, Elliptic curves, the Heisenberg group, quantum groups, and special functions (such as the Gamma, Beta, Zeta, theta, Bessel functions, the Askey-Wilson and the classical orthagonal polynomials) The text discusses real numbers from a p-adic point of view, first mooted by Araeklov. It includes original work on coherent theory, with implications for number theory and uses ideas from probability theory including Markov chains and noncommutative geometry which unifies the p-adic theory and the real theory by constructing a theory of quantum orthagonal polynomials.”

Say what?! When people would ask Shai what he and his colleagues did with this stuff, this creative genius would simply shrug his shoulders and sigh, “Nothing. We just play games with it. Game Theory.” The point is: No one knew what to do with it. It was even more abstract and alien and disconnected from our everyday reality than the most bizarre synthetic organism imaginable. The public tends to dismiss this Extreme Math, because it’s “not of this Earth.” All that changed, however, the day the Defense Departments of the world started applying pure math for more than Game Theory; or, rather, variations on the theme of Game Theory.

I suppose that’s the way human knowledge grows…by our higher awareness of nature’s ways. Ultimately, ”ideas are always in the air,” as Leonardo da Vinci once observed. We just have to be open to seeing every aspect of nature anew—and then, questioning what we see continuously…while enlarging our field of view and vision of what is possible.

One final related note: When I reflect on the evolution of James Clerk Maxwell’s four major equations that enabled us see and define the deep connection between electricity and magnetism united in the properties of light, I realize that scientists and mathematicians alike have been engaged in the same process of creative-critical thinking which artists have flowed with for eons by instinct, intuition, research, and a leap in logic and not just blind faith in luck: We’re all slowly opening the aperture of our imagination to see farther, deeper—and, hopefully, more wisely—than ever before.

This equation appears on my favorite MIT T-shirt that I'd purchased as a graduate student many years ago; I appropriated it and digitally manipulated it in Adobe Photoshop purely for inspirational purposes :)

04-14-2010 11:47:50

It is easy to see the arts as a wild wild west atmosphere unencumbered by the bureaucracy of self imposed limitations like the ethics committees governing biological research. But consider the full spectrum of art and science and our historical grounding of alchemy, we have matured in comparable umbrella like forms. Science can be done outside the umbrella of review boards as well as art done outside the umbrella of credibility. Science can create monsters. Art can too. But art done under the umbrella of science bureaucracy will be subject to the same ethical restraints.

Bringing art/science collaboration under the umbrella of science is a way to lessen these tensions.

But the tensions that will inevitably arise from the merge can be significant to consider. They can be signs of irregularities and natural selection can follow.

04-14-2010 12:08:43
Well said, Tracy. And right on...

04-14-2010 13:15:51
Brilliant stuff, Todd and Tracy--many thanks.

I was being terse and provocative about the wild west--really, I just meant in terms of what would be accepted in terms of bio-engineering for aesthetic purposes. Thus, bringing an art-science project like building an organism under the science umbrella would preclude pretty much all of Todd's earlier possibly "acceptable" versions of the experiment. And if it were done under the art umbrella, there would probably be a splinter PETA group--"People for the Ethical Treatment of Art"--vandalizing art studios.

But your expositions on the larger questions of ethics in art are fascinating. With the math example, Todd kind of looped us around to the other thread on elegance. This is fun!


04-14-2010 15:13:29
On a pedestrian note, following up on Tracy Hicks's observation that "second and third rate films of mad scientists and science gone awry...continue to grow in correlation to bio-engineering" and just about every other technological advance. Here's a prediction, with respect to art/science visual culture--as the sophistication of computer-generated imagery increases and removes the constraints of the physical world, the power of the entertainment mass media to define the reality increases as well (e.g., communication devices on board the 1969 Starship Enterprise influenced the design of the first mobile phone-- a biobrick but a "brick-like device" nonetheless...).

04-14-2010 17:49:04
Please walk on through here May. Your point is good and appreciated.

Thanks for the accolade, Nathaniel, Just keeping up with you Todd, Marcel and all these brilliant folks is a tremendously fun stretch for me. Your wild west analogy was/is appropriate. It resonates in the art world. The art world is wild west free wheeling and can be obtrusive to be sure. That is part of the strength of art in the big broad picture. But to continue this perpetual metaphor that picture is also the large end of the funnel. The small end we are talking about here is under the umbrella of credibility.

Unlike peer reviewed science, art stands above the high water line in current culture only by the veracity of the artist and with the credibility of those who( circling back to Marcel's post) find the watershed, Knocking art from its base of credibility is more easy than stopping well meaning science from re-altering the environment after previous generations of scientifically proven alterations have gone awry that we see in the current global warming solutions and debates.

quoting Marcel:
"...only a small plea for a more organic approach to that incorporates understanding of the watershed as well as measurement of the water."

Describing this in visual terms helps me but we have to get in this water more to find the depth.

Tying these threads together is aspirational. I look forward to meeting and hopefully working with Marcel at the Smithsonian this summer and fall. And hope to meet more of you in the not too distant future.


04-16-2010 00:32:34
To All “Crystal Ball” Gazers & Futurists…

it would be a shot of inspiration to hear your responses to these basic questions (and by all means please add your own):

How can we use art-science-technology to help children constructively cope with their FEARS of the future? What do they fear most? What would help remove these fears?

Today, many kids experience chronic anxieties as though their minds were constantly on “Red Alert,” which we hear echoing throughout the airports of the world, further stressing our nervous systems. Ever since we crossed the 2000 threshold, our “futurephobias” seem to be escalating—catalyzed by the events of 9/11, which blasted tons of angst-ridden reports into the atmosphere from the media that are still rumbling around the world.

As I recall, my own central nervous system felt like the anxious fella in this primal drawing (see below). Never mind that this drawing was done decades ago; it still feels like the future to me! Bruce Schneier’s book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World (2003), offers some comfort in understanding the situation; however, that’s short-lived. As you read Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2007), you realize why our nation feels paralyzed dealing with these radical events, such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; Power implores us to intervene and remain committed to preventing these sickening human catastrophes.

During the 1980s, at the height of our nuclear “M.A.D.ness” (Mutually Assured Destruction), Dr. Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician at Boston’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center, had interviewed scores of kids of who felt as though they had no future…that we’d all gotten lost in the Forest of Progress...

To find our way home again, I'd recommend reading Jonathan Schell’s sobering book, The Fate of the Earth (1983). In the last chapter of that book, Part III: “The Choice,” Schell writes: “Two paths lie before us. One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path—if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about—then we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachments to life will weaken: our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on such a precarious foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end. On the other hand, if we reject our doom, and bend our efforts toward survival—if we arouse ourselves to the peril and act to forestall it, making ourselves the allies of life—then the anesthetic fog will lift: our vision, no longer straining not to see the obvious, will sharpen; our will, finding secure ground to build on, will be restored; and we will take full and clear possession of life again. One day—and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon—we will make our choice.” (p. 231)


“I See You.” Those three words sum up one of the more memorable messages of James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” But there’s a historical reality behind that wise expression that’s worth recounting here for all the reasons we’re participating in this Visual Culture and Evolution Forum.

When you open Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994), right up front you’ll read: “Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to “hello” in English, is the expression: Sawu bona. It literally means, “I see you.” If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying Sikhona, “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence.

This meaning, implicit in the language, is part of the spirit of ubuntu, a frame of mind prevalent among native people in Africa below the Sahara. The word ubuntu stems from the folk saying Umuntu ngumuntu nagabantu, which, from Zulu, literally translates: “A person is a person because of other people.” If you grow up with this perspective, your identity is based upon the fact that you are seen—that the people around you respect and acknowledge you as a person.” (p.3)


One of 37 multi-colored serigraphs on Arches 300gm paper, 16” x 24” Hand-written text reads: What do we want to evolve towards as an intelligent species growing free but directionless...

Ink and collage on paper; 18” x 24”

Bruce Shanks, Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist, The Buffalo Evening News (2-12-54 & 2-28-74)


04-16-2010 19:05:14
I was moved by Todd’s last commentary, as well as by the visual images he showed. I also liked his combined terminological usage of “art-science-technology.” In fact, it was Todd’s evocative book Breaking the Mind Barrier: The Artscience of Neurocosmology (1990) that first got me into the habit of combining the words as one.

“Fear” is such a powerfully emotive concept. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the primal instinct of fear is “good” (i.e., ensuring survival of the species in the competitive struggle for existence). Unbridled fear, though, can be maddening, self-destructive, and even homicidal. Channeled or controlled fear, the psychologists will also tell us, can be potentially “good” (again, in the “Darwinian” sense of the word). Alas, so much of our fears today are conditioned by subliminally “creative” forces around us. As Todd addresses, how do we use Artscience to help our children deal with their fears of the future? Well, to begin, I would argue that we must guide our children through a “de-conditioning” process directed at the following influences: 1) Many of the fears that our children (and we adults) face are instilled by the news media, via their self-serving “creative” usage of visual imagery and technology. Sensationalism rules the news media, especially in the West; and changing the societal effect of the media barrage entails battling a corporatocracy that defends itself simply by retorting that it is “giving the consumerist populace what it wants.” 2) Perhaps more “creative” in its manipulation of public fear are not-so-benevolent government leaders, who (in the midst of today’s global conflicts) practice the politics and policies of “fear” as a means of steering public opinion. Open-mindedness and discernment of the multiculturalism of truth are vital. 3) Technology divorced from Artscience is manifest today. The addiction to (and dominance by) technology per se represents a clear and present danger (see Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology [1992]).

Todd closes with a lesson derived from the linguistic character of human interaction seen in some African tribal cultures. I learned similar lessons from my Native American ancestral heritage in the Appalachian region of the USA. I am part Cherokee, through lineages from both maternal and paternal sides of my family in that part of the country. My mother’s family passed along to me, my siblings, and my cousins, many stories and teachings of Cherokee life (which, in turn, were passed to them by word-of-mouth). One particular aspect I found touching at an early age: So I learned, should a stranger approach a Cherokee tribe and ask “Who are you?,” the response would be (in the native tongue) “I am a human being.” (The word “Cherokee” is not a native expression; it is a corruption of a term applied to this tribe by early European colonists.) As I have later found, many other Native American tribes have a similarly humanistic linguistic identity. I have made every effort to pass along this and other Cherokee stories to my children.

As working artists/scientists, as educators, and as parents, we must strive to instill in our children (and in our students) the motive power of Artscience in the self-fulfillment of human curiosity and imagination, as well as in defining our oneness to each other and to Nature. It is only fear of the unknown that is the worry.


04-16-2010 23:01:27
I’m glad this crystal ball thread is still active, I had intended upon responding more. Particularly, I was happy to see Assimina bring Feyerabend into the discussion as his work opens up possible methodological contributions by the arts to science that I wish there was more time to discuss.

I’d like to add another thought about our expectations for how artists might increasingly engage the biosciences. I’m inclined to think that some of the stronger future works will deliberately eschew the powerful iconic forms we might expect.

The Vacanti mouse in 1997, made me understand that scientists (and/or visualization staff) were fully capable of creating totally seductive spectacle that could be read metaphorically, hyperbolically, and generally misinterpreted into varied urgent discussions. Thus, I don’t predict that the best biological or techno-scientific art since this will be that which tries to compete with such science-fiction imagery or indeed icons, but rather that which more humbly takes our thoughts in a different direction. If the Vaconti mouse fundamentally misled, making us believe that Frankensteinian transplantation had been achieved, I feel the most important new art may opt to take us away from such a spectacle. Oron Catts had an interesting way of describing this non-sensational practice as based in “the aesthetics of disappointment”.

… but I don’t want to end my response with the word “disappointment”, so I’ll end by thanking everyone for contributing so many thought provoking ideas!!!



04-17-2010 11:42:05
Rick, thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful responses and reflections here…They give me hope… Honestly, I got choked up reading them…clearly, I’m not sanguine about our collective future. I wish I didn’t feel the weight of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s intuitions about the human race, but I do. We seem destined to “succeed” in misunderstanding one another, because we “fail” to take the time to learn and grow from the richness of our diverse cultures’ unique perspectives that have shaped our individual philosophies of life.

On a positive note, in the discussion forum on “Visual Culture Today,” I proposed something constructive and optimistic [because I am, by nature, optimistic] that would enable us to “grow this conversation,” as the environmental artists Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison would say. Hopefully, the proposal will resonate with others, too…

Paul, thanks for reflecting further, too. It's always challenging to gaze into the future and not fear what we may see staring back at us.... I only wish we all had more time to gather our thoughts and suggestions. There’s so much refreshing material on all these threads to weave new worlds of wonderment!

Monday, April 12, 2010

4/12: Elegance in Science

Last Update: 04-14-2010 11:22:29

We have all heard the popular story of Watson and Crick proclaiming that they knew that their discovery of the structure of DNA was right because it was so beautiful. This story is evoked often as an example of the importance of the visual in leading discovery thus begging the debate between art as a hand maiden to science or a cognitive tool for exploration. What is the role of art/visual culture as we advance in our understanding of evolution - past, present, and dare I ask, future?

04-12-2010 09:24:30
Thanks, JD, for bringing this up. I am just beginning to think about this topic and will offer a few opening thoughts and look forward to the group’s reflections.

“Elegance” is more than pretty language in science; it is a term of art. Its opposite is “brute force”: where you learn the answer by, say, methodologically grinding through all possible solutions until you find the right one.

Here’s an example of an elegant solution: What is the sum of all the whole numbers from 1 to 100? The brute-force solution is to go, “One plus two is three, plus three is six, plus four is ten,” on up to 100. The elegant solution is to recognize the symmetry of the set of digits: 1+99=100, 2+98=100, 3+97= 100, and so forth. There are fifty such pairs, 1–49, folded about the number 50 in the middle. The answer, then, can be reached in seconds by anyone with 4th grade math skills: 50x100+50=5,050.

An elegant experiment has the same qualities of simplicity, cleverness, and incisiveness. As an experimental strategy, it values insight over effort. There’s an obvious mathematics envy here, but it is not just professional jealousy. The mathematical aesthetic—austere, simple, and effortless—imports more successfully into some sciences than others. Newtonian mechanics is elegant; quantum mechanics is not. The Copernican universe was accepted not because it enabled better predictions than the Ptolemaic model—it didn’t—but because it explained the behavior of the heavens with a smaller number of assumptions and principles.

In biology, genetics is more elegant than biochemistry. “Shotgun” DNA sequencing is brute-force; the Meselson-Stahl experiment, which proved the semi-conservative replication of DNA has been called the “most beautiful experiment in the world.” Part of what is so compelling about the tale of the double helix, I submit, is that it is doubly elegant. The double helix itself was too pretty not to be true, Watson crowed—it solved the problem of how to faithfully transmit genetic information to the next cellular generation. And Watson and Crick’s model-building approach to the double helix was the epitome of elegance. It relied on a minimum of data, which—adding a frisson of human fallibility—they didn’t even collect themselves!

Elegance is, in short, an aesthetic used as a principle of reasoning. I am starting to think about what elegance buys you, and what it costs, intellectually. What kinds of environments of equipment, funding, collaboration, and so forth tend to foster elegance, and whether certain types of problems lend themselves to this kind of aesthetic thinking. And, overarchingly, what is the role of aesthetics not just in the production of scientific knowledge but in thinking about nature and designing experiments?

The Copernican model

The Ptolemaic model, with epicycles

Celera's "shotgun" method of genome sequencing

The Meselson-Stahl experiment


04-12-2010 11:41:03
I think that Nathaniel’s comments about elegance are quite interesting. One of my favorite stories of the visual being a tool for cognitive exploration is about Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Cajal was the father of modern neurobiology and an outstanding artist in his own right. His illustrations of the nervous systems are elegant and from them he was lead to draw accurate conclusions about how information flows through the cells in the retina (before our ability to physiologically test those ideas).

His skills as a microscopist were informed by his childhood desire to be an artist. As a young student, he spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to mix watercolors to effectively capture natural colors. If I recall his autobiography correctly, he even kept an watercolor “lab book” recording all the color samples and the combinations to create them. He was especially obsessed with the colors of flowers. This approach to drawing out nature through the manipulation of colors and stains in conjunction with his willingness to experiment artistically would eventually be the avenue he used to manipulate the Golgi stain and demonstrate the nervous system is constructed of discrete cells.

04-12-2010 13:06:25


Can you elaborate on the ways Ramon y Cajal's work was elegant? I see its beauty immediately, but how does it embody those notions of simplicity, parsimony, and incisive explanation that I was talking about? Are there other anatomists of the day who took a more "brute force" approach?

Help me see the way you're seeing.


04-12-2010 13:12:28


As a visual response to your post about Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Golgi, I would like to insert a couple of images by Katherine Sherwood. We showed her work at the NAS in an exhibition entitled Golgi’s Door. Not only is her work interesting here because she uses visual references (medical technology – old and new, Golgi, and ancient healing symbols) but her own painting practices were developed as an act of necessity after suffering a stroke that left her partially paralyzed.

Katherine Sherwood, ‘Unfathomable Logic,’ 2003, mixed media on canvas, 62" x 51”

Katherine Sherwood, Golgi's Door, 2007, Mixed media on canvas, 20 x 20 inches


04-12-2010 14:45:04
Hi Nathaniel

I may be busted here. It is entirely possible (probable) that I am not using elegance as you have (i.e. I goofed). Allow me to scramble to explain what I had in mind when I made those comments.

First, because the Golgi stain only stains a handful of select cells (and to my knowledge we still don’t know why that is) what we see in Cajal’s drawing is actually a small subset of the numerous tiny nerve cells packed into the tissue. Prior to his innovations, the use of Golgi stain on nervous tissue produced slides that were just a gray blur (this is the brute force anatomy I was imagining). It was Cajal’s delicate manipulations of tissue and stains and his simplified drawings that I was envisioning as elegant.

Second, at time there were two prevailing theories of how the nervous system was structured. The Reticular Theory held that the nervous system was a network of tubes like the circulatory system. The Neuron Doctrine said the nervous system was comprised of discrete cells. Cajal’s illustrations confirmed the far more parsimonious Neuron Doctrine which more effectively explained how changes like learning arise in the nervous system.

So, that was what I was thinking, but upon reflection it doesn’t qualify as elegant like the Meselson-Stahl experiment does. Looks like I’m talking about elegance I perceive and interpret based on the background I know and not the simple, straightforward visual elegance of the figures you’ve supplied.


04-12-2010 15:12:03

Interesting discussion. I don't have time to elaborate on my contribution here, but this is the cover image of a recent issue of the British journal Architectural Design, which takes this idea of elegance as the theme. Many articles in this issue attempt to adapt this idea from science into architecture, with greater or lesser degree of success. Image below.

A.D. 77:1 (January/Februrary 2007), guest edited by Ali Rahim and Hina Jamelle of Contemporary Architecture Practice. Sorry for the blur - it's just a screenshot of the cover taken online.


04-12-2010 15:46:37
Thanks for the clarification. You're not busted at all. I see now how those images relate. They share the notion of parsimony, of trimming down to essences. I love the selective Golgi stain example, particularly. That stretches my notion of elegance.

Do you know of any references to Cajal's work (or Golgi's, for that matter) as "elegant"?

And Christina, thanks much for the journal reference. I look forward to seeing how the architects define elegance and comparing it to scientists' conceptions. Great stuff.

04-12-2010 23:02:58

I haven''t seen anything on Cajal, Golgi and elegance, but I will keep my eyes peeled.

Has anyone written about Thomas Young and elegance? As I was trying to get to sleep (no luck yet), I kept thinking about his double slit experiments. The resulting images are so beautiful and simple and the idea they illustrate so profound that I wondered if they had been considered in this context. I am talking about his work in neurobiology next week and would like to share with the class some of the ideas I've been exposed to in this discussion.

04-13-2010 07:49:46
Beautiful! Sheesh, I've got a graduate degree in neurobiology and I didn't know about Thomas Young. Interesting guy; I wonder if his papers are still extant...

I'm seeing this come back around to visual culture (after this past week, I'm starting to think that *everything* does, eventually): I see how that image of the double-slit experiment conveys a great deal of information--information about *principles*, not just lots of data. That's exactly what I mean by elegance. There's an *eloquence* to this image. If you understand enough about it.

So, since you're talking about this next week and I'm probing the concept of elegance in science: if you have time I'd love for you to post a riff on why that double-slit image is elegant. What does it tell you--how does it speak to you? And how does it use the principles of parsimony, simplicity, grace, and insight to convey it?


04-13-2010 15:43:31
On the subject (rather the personage) of Thomas Young... The famous double-slit studies showed that light behaves as a wave, contrary to the Enlightenment view (no pun intended) that it is corpuscular. What goes around, comes around: In the 20th century, similar double-slit experiments with electron beams showed that particles also behave like waves under some conditions... Hence the 'wave-particle duality' of quantum physics!

Add to Young's repertoire his seminal role in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone... Elegance, indeed!

04-13-2010 17:14:41
Yes, I guess I wasn't clear, or maybe I asked for the wrong thing. I am aware of the double-slit experiment and its fundamental result, but I was hoping for a little exposition from an expert on how that experiment and/or its resultant images embody the principles of elegance. Do you feel comfortable with that?

04-13-2010 18:35:34
Hey Nathaniel-
I’m certainly no expert, but if I am thinking about elegance correctly then I feel this result is elegant because it addresses a big idea with simple materials and design and the resultant image produced makes the answer almost intuitively obvious to anyone who has seen colliding ripples in water. Plus the image responds to manipulation of slit distance in a mathematically predictable fashion (see this web page for a cool demo that allows you to adjust slit length). For me, the result is a visual image composed of simple (beautiful) lines that provide insight (maybe kinda) into the fundamental nature of light.

Of course, before this discussion I really didn’t know much about elegance a formal way of viewing science, so I am trying articulate my clumsy feelings about these ideas. I hope I am not to far off base and I appreciate everyone's indulgence. Whatever the case, I have found this discussion particularly stimulating. I hope I can translate that excitement to my students! The cartoonist in me thinks this might be an interesting thing to address in one of my science comic books sometime…

04-13-2010 21:06:16
Cant imagine discussing Elegance in Science without a mention of Ernst Haeckel

04-14-2010 05:04:08
Very pleased to see the work of Ernst Haeckel highlighted! Elegance and beauty personified. In the modern history of “evolutionary thinking,” in my opinion, he stands out amongst the very few who have integrated scientific principles with a deeply artistic vision of Nature. One of the heroes in the storyline of this symposium, for sure. Haeckel’s accomplishments are manifold. In the post-Darwin age, he produced the most elaborate evolutionary representation of the “tree of life” and pioneered the field of phylogenetics. See The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought, by R. J. Richards (2008), and Visions of Nature: The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, by O. Breidbach (2006).

04-14-2010 08:06:32
On Haeckel:
Beauty, yes.
But elegance?
Would you say his aesthetic was one of stripped-down beauty, economy of line, incisive perception?
(I realize the answer may be in Breidbach--I definitely need to read that. I know Richards' book.)
In a more general sense, I do think that scientific and medical illustration often manifest some of the principles of elegance. Compare an illustration to a photograph: the illustration is often much more informative, precisely because it *leaves out* much of the detail. There's much greater economy, and it stems from the intervention of the artist's mind. She decides what to include, using the efficiency of thought rather than the approach of a photograph, which by "brute-force" includes all the information the camera can gather. I realize this is a simplistic comparison of painting and photography, but I think the general point is valid.

04-14-2010 10:56:48
As to your question of “elegance” in Haeckel’s work, I would say have to say “yes” it applies. Though, I can certainly see how it might not in the sense that you expressed the term. My own view is shaped (perhaps warped) by my training in physics. Alas, there is no universally accepted definition of “elegance” in physics (and I suspect in the world of art as well). I plugged the term “elegance in physics” into Google© just now, and the first item was an online article entitled “What’s wrong with this elegance?” (March 2000) in the journal Physics Today (from the American Institute of Physics) by the physicist David Mermin (Cornell University), based on a lecture he gave on “Elegance in Physics” at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis (see Mermin explores the relativity of this word in the realm of physics. More often than not, the descriptor “elegant” is applied to an encompassing physical theory (though on occasion, as you suggest, it is applied to seminal experiments as well). Quoting the eminent physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Mermin states what I would call the “standard” conception of elegance in physics (referring to a physical theory or physical principle): “harmoniously organizing a domain of science with order, pattern, and coherence.” From this standpoint, much of Haeckel’s work would clearly be “elegant.” One example is his beautifully synthetic conception of the “tree of life” (albeit with some assumptions that we now know to be incorrect), based on the evolutionary thinking of the late 19th century. Another is his “recapitulation theory,” with its proposition that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (which was later disproven). Viewing Haeckel’s work diachronically in its day, the expression “elegant” would be highly appropriate.

Quoting Mermin again, “Elegance in physics is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is in any other field of human endeavor.” Even quantum mechanics (with all of its “fuzziness”), Mermin argues, is “elegant” (and I would agree)…. Nathan, you stated that, “In biology, genetics is more elegant that biochemistry.” I would have to disagree there, as well. I think that both fields have their “elegant” aspects. Initially (just after getting my Ph.D. in biochemistry and for many years thereafter), I did not perceive any such “elegance” in biochemistry. After teaching biochemistry for more years than I’d like to count, I gradually came to see the beauty and elegance of many of the principles that underlie the biochemical character of life. Maybe I just needed the time to get my right brain talking to my left brain?!

I’d be interested in hearing about the relativity of “elegance” in the realm of art from some of the panelists?

04-14-2010 11:22:29
Just to chime in. Elegance has no single definition, is a word that traverses fields and domains, is used in mathematics, fashion, design, aesthetics, has some association with minimalism, efficiency, grace, beauty. It is often deployed in social descriptions, where it is associated with a kind of performance of social class that is not available to members of the working and lower classes, which requires capital and cultural capital.

The larger question for me is the relationship between aesthetics and science. Aesthetics is both a historical construct, a domain of philosophy and cultural commentary which developed mainly out of the writings of Burke and Kant and then spread to the emergent wider fields of philosophy, art commentary and criticism. But is also generalizable, so that we can speak of an Aztec aesthetics or even a NASCAR (racing car) aesthetics. And, in relation to evolution and visual culture, it might be useful to think about an aesthetics of scientific practice, theorizing and presentation which may mobilize evolutionary concepts, including directive streamlining and adaptive efficiency.

04-14-2010 13:01:35
Rick, your response is incredibly helpful. Thanks--you've given me a month or more's worth of leads to track down, and more than that of things to think about.

Your remarks raise the question of different notions or definitions of elegance. I'd assumed physicists had the same definition as biologists, but I see I can't take that for granted.

I expected to get popped by a biochemist for my crack about genetics being more elegant than biochemistry--but not by someone who is also a physicist!

And Mike, yes, you've nicely articulated the underlying idea of interest here. What is the role of aesthetics in science, to what extent can we generalize about it, and what impact does the choice of one aesthetic over another have on scientific knowledge production? A history of the art of science.


04-14-2010 16:59:37

Thanks so much for your inspiring comments and ideas, which have stimulated much thought by me and many other panelists in this symposium.

On another note, I share your fondness of (and affiliation with) D'Arcy Thompson. His On Growth and Form is truly a timeless classic. I have gravitated to his work and his personage so many times over the years. I tend to see in Thompson's work a blend of Goethe, Darwin, and Einstein. Let us note the ongoing 150th anniversary of his birth (see

04-14-2010 17:30:05
My pleasure. And what a fine way to end the symposium. Let us raises our virtual glasses in a toast to D'Arcy Thompson—a true visionary. Cheers!

04-14-2010 18:24:41
Cheers, indeed...


04-15-2010 02:50:04
Thanks, everyone! It was inspiring to follow your adventurous thoughts and gather new resources...

JD, this is a terrific topic. “Elegance” is like the ‘archetypal hero’ in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). It’s that elusive thing we celebrate in our mythologies and real world experiences. We can easily point to elegance, and yet we struggle to describe what exactly we’re pointing to, since it seems to have some hidden characteristics that we can only know through our personal experiences of it. What artifacts or events would you highlight in the History of Visual Culture that you think show the essence of what elegance is…or is not?

Nathaniel, I like your realization about visual culture here ‘(after this past week, I'm starting to think that *everything* does, eventually)…

Essentially, that’s what I meant by “A.r.t.” (All representations of thought). It’s everything we’ve created as an expression-representation of our thoughts, feelings, emotions. It’s the embodiment of visual culture. A.r.t. includes everything from pure math (Algebraic Geometry) to masterful “performance art” in the sciences: I once watched MIT neuroscientist Dr. Ann Graybiel gracefully draw with two hands simultaneously these elegant scientific visualizations of the Basal Ganglia on a blackboard in front of an attentive audience of graduate and medical students. This impressive feat of ambidexterity, couple with her vibrant personality and kinesthetic intelligence, made for an enriched learning experience. It was a memorable example of an ArtScientist teaching a course on “The Human Nervous System.” The fact that this memory is as vivid and fresh today as it was refreshing thirty years ago suggests that elegance and grace leave lasting impressions.

Jay, given your passions for drawing and the fine art of cartooning, I’m sure you’ve filled many treasure chests with elegant cartoons that have inspired your work and research. I’d love to see any of your favorite ones that sum up evolution, and the evolution of elegance. Maybe you have a couple that envision what concepts of elegance may be in a hundred years from now. Are we heading towards a more – or less -- elegant future? What’s the future of elegance look and feel like?

Here are three related/unrelated images showing the “simplexity” of elegance.


04-15-2010 16:39:40
Hi Todd

I do have a few cartoons and comics laying around, but none match the simplicity and power of this one, the first cartoon about evolution drawn by the man himself. Interestingly, it looks far more like a bush than a tree. Charlie was ahead of his time.

Oops, forgot to say thanks to Todd for including a Feynman diagram. When I give talks about using comics to teach science, I have a section that focuses on great visual representations that have helped advance our understanding of the universe and I always show a Feynmen diagram and feebly try to explain it (this is the part of the talk where a mumble really fast). This discussion has given me a lot of material to think about in that regard and I am grateful to JD for starting the discussion and to Nathaniel for propelling it along. For anyone interested in seeing how I tried to deal with explaining the evolution of the eye, below is a link to and excerpt from my book Optical Allusions. Think of it as a nice counterbalance to the concept of elegance...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

4/11: Understanding how scientific ideas function in the cultural realm

Last Update: 04-14-2010 09:24:42

04-11-2010 14:15:44
At Christina's suggestion, lets discuss " limitations of the social construction approach to understanding how scientific ideas function in the cultural/humanities realm."

As Christina commented in her last post, "Is there a middle ground between these two? Which authors in history and philosophy of science, or literary/visual theory, etc. negotiate these two domains well? This seems a great opportunity for our different disciplinary backgrounds to come together to point out useful theoretical models for research on the topics of this symposium."

04-12-2010 00:20:36
At the risk of changing the subject, restating the obvious or rehashing well worn-themes, let me add some comments on useful theoretical models for research on the topics of this symposium.

Science is concerned with repeatable outcomes, and with the reliable mathematical regularities in configurations of matter and energy. By and large the configurations studied by science are not static, but rather recreate themselves dynamically. Examples are Earth’s orbit around the sun, the regular pattern of crystal growth, the Krebs cycle of metabolic activity in a cell that uses oxygen, the global carbon cycle and perhaps certain economic cycles. These self-recreating configurations are highly exceptional in a statistical sense amidst the vast majority of configurations of matter and energy that exist only once in time and space and never repeat, be they naturally occurring or a product of human society. The latter are largely random and instinctively of little interest to us.

But where does this leave the once-in-time-and-space creations of art? Darwin and subsequent abstractions of his theories provide some interesting bridges (see e.g. the work of Jacques Monod that inspires these comments, and whose 100th birthday we celebrate after the 200th birthday of Darwin.) Consider the central cycle of life: biological replication. It has clearly repeated for billions of years, making it unquestionably a worthy object of scientific study, notwithstanding the fact that it lies at the heart the human experience, orchestrating the births of our children and their children, and the inevitable deaths of those we love. Yet the specifics of this cycle have not repeated for billions of years with simple mathematical regularity, but rather have been relentlessly elaborated by the process of random mutation and natural selection described by Darwin. If we look closer, we see that other cycles are elaborated by kindred evolutionary processes, including the Krebs and carbon cycles mentioned, the latter which we now seek to stabilize through international efforts, either including Freeman Dyson's carbon-eating trees or not, as Ellen Levy muses in a previous post. Each tick in the evolutionary ratchet that alters one of these cycles is a once-in-time-and-space event that leaves a profound legacy.

In its abstract form, evolution is the mix of creativity and regularity that leads the universe to an ever-richer set of self-recreating cycles. The specific future outcomes of evolution cannot be predicted by science, and this fact can be scientifically demonstrated. In particular, by evolving us, the game has changed, and now our own creativity, along with our science, is added to the mix. Roger Malina’s post in the artist/scientist collaboration thread mentions relevant work of Anna Dumitriu and Jane Prophet. But on the artistic side I loved Eduardo Kac’s comments on his works Genesis, Natural History of the Enigma, Cypher, and Alba, the GFP Bunny. “Suddenly in the context of art a new life form, a new being, exists.” These are instances of the audacious creativity of humanity, a creativity that will provide another tick in the evolutionary ratchet.

04-12-2010 03:50:28
There are many answers and methods that could be applied to Christina's question according to the field each one is working. In approaching a question concerned at its core with the challenges of so pronounced interdisciplinary approaches I would like to bring in a comment by Ian Hacking and a definition of being interdiscipinary as appying one's discipline towards different directions. My discipline is history so I would like to translate Christina's question into 'how can we historicise' the relations between science and culture in given historical moments, periods and social contexts. This is far from a question pertaining to simply an exercise in thinking. Attention to techniques developed or subverted by artists themselves in response to scientfic techniques of represenation or imaging have been crucial in allowing for a dialogue between art and science as a historically meaningful phenomenon. Dioramas is one such example. Artists have produced work that referenced popular images of science, or have participated in the public aspects of science making, in a long time but have also referenced crucially the work of each other. The perssistence of the term 'natural history' from the surrealists to current work is one example of this internal dialogue. How one fixes impact in historical terms from an art historian's perspective aims ultimately at geneaologies of ways of seeing and poetics that while fixed in their cultural and historical contexts concern the works of art themselves rather than their accuracy or not to scientific ideas.

04-12-2010 09:45:22
I am interested in Assimina’s reference to the surrealists and May’s comment that animators more than other filmmakers are limited only by their imaginations and can take on ‘the challenge of visualising almost anything’. Darwin himself felt the pull of imagination in strange ways. In reminiscing about those things that affected him most on his travels he said: ‘In calling up images from the past, I find the plains of Patagonia most frequently cross before my eyes. Yet these plains are pronounced by all most wretched & useless…Why do these arid wastes takes so firm possession of the memory?...I can scarcely analyse these feelings. – But it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination’. So Darwin would probably not have been surprised to learn that he was to inspire the writings and art works of a number of surrealists who were also committed to the free scope of the imagination. Luis Bunuel,, the surrealist film director said that when he read ‘The Origin of Species’ his whole life took ‘a sharp turn’ and then dedicated himself to making a series of surrealist classics that defy the imagination in all possible ways. Comte de Lautreamont, a literary precursor of surrealism, saw literature and art as an attempt to confront the problem of man ‘the sublime ape’ who is grounded in the finite yet seeks the infinite. The surrealists revered Lautreamont because of his famous description of a young boy who was ‘as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella’. In writing about the impact of Darwin’s anti-anthropocentrism on Max Ernst, Margot Norris said: ‘Ernst’s monstrous zoo reflects a free invention and distortion of form unthinkable in the pre-Darwinian age’ (Beasts of the Modern Imagination, John Hopkins, 1985). Like the surrealist, Rene Magritte, Darwin’s image of a respectable Victorian gentleman was at odds with his radical ideas. What I am trying to say is that Darwin would not have been the least surprised to find he had much in common with the surrealists and their pursuit of the unimaginable – or with animators, cartoonists and contemporary performance artists such as Stelarc who pioneered cybernetic body art. Darwin would probably also have been somewhat amused by the surrealist film, ‘Max Mon Amour’ (1986) a comedy of manners, in which Charlotte Rampling has an affair with a chimpanzee. The director Nagasaki Oshima treats the affair in a totally dead-pan manner, while satirising the bad behaviour of the bourgeoisie. Darwin’s radical ideas about evolution, change, emotions and the body made many things possible –particularly in the world of the imagination.

04-12-2010 12:36:53
Absolutely! The surrealist hybrid is an impossible-real, something that evades the order of nature yet could be witnessed as a material fact and in this light I agree with Barbara quite ‘modern’ and could be seen as compatible to Darwin’s own ‘thought-style’. Moral tales, comprising the early children’s literature, full of stories about transformation and cruelty, often across ‘species’, like 'primate children' to insects could be seen as a genre that the surrealists were fond of and a genre that Le Chants de Maldoror by Lautreamont illustrated by Dali as well as many others certainly takes notice of. Dali’s own The secret life of Salvador Dali could be read as a natural history where the conscious state of Dali the painter emerges out of his subconscious and fragmentary memories paired by a series of bizarre drawings that attest to his taste for hybrids and natural facts at one and the same time. Natural history and natural history books were part of surrealists’ readings- Natural History literary occupied the space of Picasso’s drawings in an artist’s book he did with texts drawn from Buffon’s Natural History- a number of Dali’s sketches surviving intact in the pages of his 1885 copy of Our living world (New York, Selmar Hess, pp. 110 and 438-439) overlaying images of reptiles and crustacea depicted in old style line drawings in the book (something which he liked, like Warhol also did). His Gala-Minotaure, so well grasped in Niki Loisidi’s work on surrealism, and the differences between his forms and those of artists he admired and who also used imagery of natural facts and evidence reminiscent of the idea of natural history yet placed to different uses and contexts, like De Chirico so well described by Nikos Daskalothanasis, attest to both the historicity of surrealist hybrids as well as to their possible uses in allowing us to elucidate, like Barbara just did, an understanding, culturally based as it is, of evolution in its modern dimensions.

04-12-2010 12:41:55
As I have read through the posts by the artists and art historians participating in the forum, I cannot help but conclude but that Darwin achieved the ultimate success…his ideas have been considered interesting enough, fascinating enough, to spark the creative imaginations of extraordinary people, to be incorporated within their engravings, paintings, sculpture, installations, films. So, let me pose a question important to those of us who study the history of mass popularization of science: must accuracy matter?

Many scientists rightfully rant and rage whenever film documentaries or television programs or books knowingly distort or misinterpret scientific data. Certainly, questions about inaccuracy and willful misinterpretation have bedeviled the political debates over the teaching of evolution, climate change, genetic manipulation, and so forth. In one of Suzanne Anker’s first comments, she included what she described as early examples of deliberately “crude” and “brutish” satirical reactions to Darwin. Yet those and other powerful and often wildly inaccurate images “traveled” within the wider culture. They took hold. And it quickly became darn near impossible for popular, mass culture to approach evolution without attention to “monkeys”…even when such references were inappropriate to the context. So, should scientific accuracy in the visual representation of evolution matter? Or (as the creators of mass culture have argued) are we attempting to quench or "censor" the imagination by even posing such a question?

04-12-2010 13:29:40
Suzanne and Marcel:
What about that area of visual culture between art and science that includes journalism and documentaries (as Marcel mentioned)? On one hand such media require correct information but on the other one does try to create such things with the idea of grabbing one's attention and communicating information.

04-12-2010 13:55:48
Marcel and Suzanne,

This conundrum of truth has driven a decade long conversation between a group of scientists and artists I started to establish a base for the science merge into my art. At the time the group started I was focused on a confrontation resulting from the interpretation of an installation/exhibition wrapped around a summer I spent in Central America as artist in residence collecting reptiles and amphibians for a UT natural history museum collection.

Realizing my process was pushing the boundaries of the natural history collection process to a limit, I found a group of scientists willing to advise me in a very intimate and conversational format. We call the group the Chorus relating to the dwindling frog choruses not found on the collecting trip.

To say the Chorus has been active and occasionally overactive would be an understatement. We have driven each other to continually readdress issues previously addressed from new perspectives as they arise. Weather the Chorus makes my work any more honest on a scientific level could be debated, The visceral content is always present and can be interpreted by the viewer anyway they choose. But the Chorus has drawn me back to keep a factual reference point when needed.

salt cured eugenics books with corn from Correlation Collection installation

clear cast frog from Correlation Collection installation
Correlation Collection installation in 2000

04-12-2010 14:52:18

To clarify my question in the post that starts this thread, the phrase “materialist philosophy” accidentally got left out, so I was asking: Is there a middle ground between “social construction” and “materialist philosophy”? The few responses so far (even without reference to materialist philosophy) hint at some of the reasons for my question.

On the one hand, David Haussler points to how humanity is changing the course of evolution – using Kac’s GFP Bunny as one example, – yet he does so within the current framework of a complex systems, which presumes: regularity yet nonlinearity; contingency (“cannot be predicted”); eternal drive toward ever-greater complexity (“leads the universe to an ever-richer set of self-recreating cycles”). In this instance, art & culture are conceived as material entities that arise from and affect the course of the evolution of matter in its presumable self-organization towards more and more complex systems.

In some ways, this is not so far from E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldober’s narrative in their new book The Super-organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies (2009), which argues for the power of self-organization and emergence to produce complex societies (where ant colony architecture, for example, is interpreted as the “extended phenotype” of each particular species’ genotype) (Two images below from a recent talk I gave, with my comments added – the ant colony architecture is from The Super-organism, whereas the other is the cover of the April 2009 issue of SEED magazine featuring “The Hive Mind,” a review of The Super-organism). In Wilson’s and Holldobler’s work (and not in Haussler’s comments, by the way), sociobiology (as “eugenics” was renamed in 1969, in the transition in the name of the journal Eugenics Quarterly to Social Biology indicates) meets self-organization, and the genetically-determinist underpinnings are never far from the surface. The corollary is that human architecture and culture are also the extended phenotype of our evolving genotype, an idea that takes us right back into the early-twentieth-century, the idea that style mirrors evolutionary change, and the ideas of eugenics (with the added focus from mid-to-late-century molecular biology).

On the other hand, Assimina Kaniari (bringing Ian Hacking’s work into the discussion – I’m guessing in part a reference to his book The Social Construction of What?) describes how, for an interdisciplinary historian, her goal is to historically contextualize art and science and their interrelations within particular moments/places. If we move from history to contemporary criticism, how can we best contextualize today’s crossovers between art and science, yet without the benefit of hindsight? Some historians of science examine ideas within their institutional contexts: schools, funding trends, who wants to know what, what effect do certain ideas have in society (and so therefore are funded projects), etc. I am reminded of Richard Lewontin’s lecture/book Biology as Ideology, where he explicitly positions biological science within the social realm to question the presumed objectivity of science, especially when used to legitimate power and inequality in human society.

My current thinking is that complex systems is functioning as the new ideology. For me, a telltale sign of something functioning ideologically is its diffusion into numerous facets of culture, its trendiness as an explanation for almost anything, and a rhetorical pervasiveness into the social sciences, arts, and popular culture. Complexity, emergence, and “bottom-up” self-organization seem to be the new hot lingo. This popularization stems from the diffusion of a scientific paradigm change into the arenas beyond science itself: society and culture. (A diagram showing this paradigm change is posted here, made by microbiologist James Shapiro, U. Chicago).

James Shapiro, “Genome Organization and Reorganization in Evolution: Formatting for Computation and Function,” in From Epigenesis to Epigenetics: The Genome in Context, eds. Van Speybroeck, Van de Vijver, and De Waele (2002), 113.
Cover image of SEED (April 2009 issue), featuring its story "The Hive Mind," a review of The Super-Organism. Excerpts from the review are on the side. Note SEED's caption: Science Is Culture
E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, The Super-Organism (2009), 460-61.

Why do we presume that evolution moves always toward greater complexity (or ever-greater richness, as David Haussler writes), with perhaps just a few phase-change blips? Can we discount Stephen Jay Gould’s intepretation of the Burgess Shale? It has its critics, I know, but I’m not convinced that everything in the universe shows a common pattern of moving from so-called “primitive” “simplicity” toward “advanced” “complexity” – this seems like an updating of Spencerian teleological “progress,” revised to accommodate current nonlinear theorizations. We act as as microorganisms are “primitive” or simple because we have focused our attention on their individual structures (Richard Lewontin, in Biology as Ideology, describes the historical parallel of political individualism in the west with an “atomistic”/isolated framework in science and laboratories), and in contrast, a human individual seems infinitely more complex. But what if we were to look at their “super-organism”/colony/systemic structures (preferably, without the genetic determinist bent of EO Wilson), especially if there were a way to do so in the fossil record? Such complexity may be way “older” than we presume.

James Shapiro challenges the idea that bacteria are simple in his 2007 article, “Bacteria are small but not stupid: cognition, natural genetic engineering, and socio-bacteriology.” He concludes: “The take-home lesson of more than half a century of molecular microbiology is to recognize that bacterial information processing is far more powerful than human technology. The selected examples of bacterial ‘smarts’ I have given show convincingly that these small cells are incredibly sophisticated at coordinating processes involving millions of individual events and at making them precise and reliable. In addition, bacteria display astonishing versatility in managing the biosphere’s geochemical and thermodynamic transformations: processes more complex than the largest human-engineered systems. This mastery over the biosphere indicates that we have a great deal to learn about chemistry, physics and evolution from our small, but very intelligent, prokaryotic relatives.” (816-17)

Similarly, horizontal gene transfer (HGT) also suggests a complexity and adaptability in microorganisms that is far from simple or primitive. This new knowledge led the New Scientist to host a contest for visual reconceptualizations of the “tree of life,” putting one such image on the cover that boldly proclaims, “Darwin Was Wrong: Cutting Down the Tree of Life.” Instead of the tree, they suggest a “tree with vines” or web or net - bringing in both horizontal gene transfer at the microbial level (and suggesting it also happens in “higher organisms”) as well as complex systems imagery. (Image here: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s 2005 diagram showing a microbial web, owing to HGT.

It’s very hard to separate science from culture; how we look at the data, what we see or don’t see, is strongly influenced by culture/belief/training. The history of science shows this so well. It is equally difficult to separate culture from science, at least in our current scientific age.

It seems therefore that this difficulty of separation is similar to the tension between the two main current theories of social construction or materialist philosophy. Which returns me to my lingering question, one that is troubling my own work now as I examine the interrelationships between contemporary architecture and complex biological systems: Is there a middle ground or alternate approach that negotiates these two theoretical models?

Source given in image. Sorry this image isn't visual. I attach it because I find the abstract and article very interesting.
Source in image, with my own text; from a talk I gave recently.

Source in image - January 2009.


04-12-2010 16:59:29
I am interested in returning here to Barbara’s post about Semir Zeki’s analysis of Mondrian, which responded to the topic of new imaging technology and visual culture. I believe that it also says a great deal about how science functions in the realm of visual culture as well as the reverse. Some of the work in neuroaesthetics (mentioned also by Roger) is based on the reasonable assumption that art tells us something important about the brain. This approach has resulted in some wonderfully insightful comments (e.g., Zeki’s observations about ambiguity actually being the brain’s choice among equally valid interpretations, each of which is clear). However, upon its “re-entry” into the zone of visual culture, the term “ambiguity” necessarily includes other elaborated visual cultural meanings, including “open to several interpretations or of uncertain significance.” The fact that terms like “ambiguity” and “complexity” overlap but are not equivalent in science and art suggests only a small part of the difficulty in spanning the cognitive and visual cultural spheres. In considering neuroaesthetics, some of the questions for are, first, whether one can find neural mechanisms (presumably higher order sensory neurons) that link private experience and visual cultural meanings (as a social repository of experience), and second, what sorts of construction of meaning can make their translation possible between cultures.

Barbara pointed out some of the problems (e.g., history, meaning . . .) Both cultures, as we have seen from various posts are rooted in politicized systems of motivation, valuation, and preferences. Imaging tools are important but interpretation plays an equal role. Zeki’s work with color and Mondrian, reminded me of a similar problem when Richard Taylor, a physicist, undertook a fractal analysis of Jackson Pollock paintings to judge their authenticity. My understanding is that he was well aware of the possible differences surfaces and reproductions would make to his analyses and had allowed for this. But the problems raised are enormous and speak to the difficulties in transdisciplinary communication.

04-12-2010 17:24:40
Christine observes that "It’s very hard to separate science from culture.... It is equally difficult to separate culture from science, at least in our current scientific age."

For me, what gets messy is the notion of "culture". Where does "culture" come from? How is it produced? Some of the posts imply that there is a domain called "science" and another called "culture". But we could also categorically nest "science" within "culture".

The Free Online Dictionary lists 8 meanings for "culture", including:

"1.a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
c. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.
d. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.
2. Intellectual and artistic activity and the works produced by it."

So what I see is that: (a) both artists and scientists make truth claims, (b) scientific discourse and practices, especially those relating to molecular biology, neuroscience, and computer science, have a very privileged status in our society, and that artists have appropriated the discourse and look and topics and technologies of science to make art that sometimes functions as a critique. And (c) at the same time scientists have appropriated art technologies and aesthetics to transcribe, illustrate, model and theorize their data.


04-13-2010 11:00:54
The heading of this post is "understanding how scientific ideas function in the cultural realm." I would like to point out an early example of "scientific ideas" in the context of the Everson Museum, in an exhibition curated by James Harithas. By the way, Mr. Harithas was invited to resign from his post as Director about a year later. Mr.Harithas had devoted the museum's annual budget to "Process and Metaprocess," an exhibition featuring the seminal work of Frank Gillette. This exhibition included multi-channel video (55 Channels in total,) live chicks hatching on a daily basis, behavioral studies between tarantulas and wood tortoises, as well the development of termite nesting. The audience response ranged from indignation, in that, the museum was filled with electronic equipment and botanical and animal life. On the other hand, the exhibition was very well received by the critical art established. The exhibition was viewed as being revolutionary.


04-13-2010 12:12:10
In a performative sense, are such works of art "evolutionary" as well as "revolutionary"? Do they mobilize the technologies and "aesthetics" of science to perform an evolutionary sequence? Let me explain...

For many decades now artists have been making “experimental art”, in the “art lab” or "in the field" (no longer in a studio). The artist wears a lab coat not a beret. On a performative level, what is the contemporary art of molecular biology and neuroanatomy and computer science producing? One answer: it performs a truth claim for Art, insists that the Artist produces in Art a species of truth that is equivalent to, or even trumps (tells the hidden truth about), Science. Or perhaps makes common cause with Science and Technology, attempts to annihilate the boundaries, and adopts the research agenda of molecular biology, neuroanatomy, computer science--and invites scientists to reciprocate.

Larry Shiner, in The Invention of Art, describes a centuries-long process in which "Art" is an ensemble of institutions, practices, and ideas, which was first defined in opposition to artisanal craft production, and then in various ways, as opposition to the quotidian, to everyday life. At the same time, all along the way, the new movements in Art, defined themselves in opposition to the old movements, while at the same time insisting in some way that there was a lineage or progression, so that it was possible to define Pop Art, an anti-art critique, as belonging to the same category, the same family, as Raphael, Goya, Van Gogh, etc. There was implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, an evolutionary logic that was deployed by the exponents of the “new” and “modern” (and “postmodern”?). At various moments this constituted something like Loewy's naturalizing evolution of objects, but with the objects being "revolutionary" art movements which successively critiqued and conceptually improved upon (at least according to their own rhetoric) their predecessors—an Art evolution.

So: We're fading. So many ideas and examples have been tendered, but do any of my fellow panelists want to take this on? Has evolutionary discourse, evolutionary ideas structured the succession of art movements? Does it still do so, in ways that adapt and assimilate the changing emphasis and research agendas of contemporary evolutionary science?

04-13-2010 13:54:17
Dear Michael,
A few thoughts about art and science, evolution and revolution:

1.0) I don't believe in the "construction" of science" as a practice absorbed in relativism.  Obviously are are a number of ways that the social, or cultural, affects scientific practices, particularly in its funding mechanisms. All research studies are not granted the same level of funding. There are social and ethical constraints that operate within research that impact what in fact will be researched and hence receives money and institutional support. Politics is an issue.

1.1) All scientists do not share the same sensitivities or nuanced intuitive perceptions. All scientists do not recognize the concept of "chance" in the same way. (i.e., the discovery of mirror neurons

1.2) All scientists do not share the same sense of tenacity about their work. The "production" of Dolly, to say the least, required an enormous amount of trial and error.

2.0) The artist neither wears a lab coat nor a beret. The characterization of "the artist" can no longer be specified. The discipline of visual art ranges from mimetic exactitude to feats of endurance. Each discourse within art brings with it, its own set of qualifiers, from the rag-tag pervert to the philosophically astute dandy.

2.1) Artists do not produce truths about the laws of nature. Artists produce subjective and inter-subjectivepropositions in relation to the way they see the world. Distortion, irony, the grotesque can have equal footing with elegance, efficiency and structure within the discourse of art. Art is an open code, as Umberto Eco maintains, that shares confluences with the ideas of its time.

3.0) The question of art as research is be bandied around right now. From Ph.d degrees in Studio Practice to government funding for art institutions that call themselves research institutes.

3.1) The lineage of movements from one ism to another is a misnomer. There is always more than one kind of practice operating at the same time. For example, Picasso was making Cubist paintings at the same time as his large-bodied nudes. It is easier to tell a story that has a discreet beginning, middle and end, but a more archeological approach would garner other information, particulary in the discipline of Art History

3.2) A proliferation of media, both new and old, has infiltrated the art world, bringing to the fore alternative combinatory practices. There is no clear direction for art to go in as it is practiced today. Arthur Danto terms this time of a period of "historical entropy."

3.3) Although there is no evolutionary mandated direction for art, its practice is heavily influenced by historical determinsm and the reframing of extant images, ideas, sensibilities, etc.

04-13-2010 15:39:38
Dear Suzanne:
If Arthur Danto is correct, and this is a period of "historical entropy", then the old linear narrative of evolutionary progress in art, no longer persuades, and this is the period to end periodization.

I was not even remotely suggesting that there was an "evolutionary mandated direction for art", but rather that artists in their work, manifestoes, critical commentaries, and performances in the role of artist, were participating in the construction of, and mobilizing, narratives of evolutionary progress in art.

My not very theorized intuition tells me that many artists and many of us in this discussion are--in the age of lateral transfer, proliferative cladistics, neuro-science, molecular biology, genetic engineering, etc.--also participating in and mobilizing evolutionary narratives--but not the same ones as were mobilized in abstract expressionism and modernist architecture.


04-13-2010 18:25:22
Concerning ever-greater richness, while complexity is difficult to define, under most definitions it appears that our universe is more complex now than it was moments after the big bang, and that this greater complexity has accumulated steadily. In life on earth, the progression is not from bacteria to animals, but from the simpler common ancestors to the complex world of modern bacteria, animals and other contemporary life forms and ecosystems. Today's bacterial communities are complex, as Christina correctly points out, and this is consistent with progression toward ever-greater richness. I see this progression in my work every day as I sift through genomes of different species and study the historical record of new genetic innovations they contain, one built on top of another through the eons. This observation of nature is not merely a contemporary social construct. That human culture is both a product of this mysterious process and a profound contributor to it through art and science I find to be a cause for celebration.

04-13-2010 20:53:01
Scientific ideas have always functioned within the cultural realm. The ancient artists of Lascaux certainly had a systematic knowledge of animal anatomy and even behavior gained through observation in order to create such accurate depictions. Likewise, artists and scientists have always been inspired by nature and living systems. Numerous hybrid artist-scientists are found throughout Western History. In our time, Suzanne mentioned the "Process and Metaprocess" exhibition involving artist’s working with living organisms. Interest and utilization of life-forms and living systems as artistic material itself beyond depiction has been a growing stable in arts practice since the 1960s’s. A basic understanding of scientific knowledge is required to maintain living material in artificial conditions (e.g. Museums, Galleries, studios). Likewise a knowing of plant and animal husbandry is inherent to sustaining an arts practice involving living systems.

Much of the Ecological arts practice over the past four decades has sought to share understanding of living systems with a larger non-specialist audience (For review see Spaid ‘EcoVentions’ 2002). Here there is a history of artists directly implementing ‘scientific ideas’ into their practice, even making scientific ‘discoveries’ along the way. For example the ‘Lagoon Cycle’ pieces by Helen and Newton Harrison

, whereby the artist team developed an aqua-culturing technique for rearing Sri Lankan crabs in artificial habitats. This began as artist inquiry into a subject, along the way relationships with the animals formed increasing the artists’ knowledge of the arthropod behavior and inspiring the artists processes. Poetic narratives were created, drawings, photographs, collages were generated to make a kind of ‘journal’ of the multi-year project. The Harrison’s presented ‘Lagoon Cycle’ (even the breeding tanks and live crabs) at art venues, sharing their acquired knowledge with a larger audience and breeding methodologies were shared with the scientific community.

Many practitioners in today’s BioArt field by necessity have a high-level of understanding of biological sciences, techniques and methodologies. A fundamental difference is that professional biologists typically have a background of training for perceiving living systems through a focalized viewpoint and rationalism that is fundamental to this approach. Whereby generally arts education (would be nice to hear Suzanne’s opinion here) are sensory-based investigating by looking, hearing, touching---experientially- the approach is different as is the perspective. In current art and science collaboration (and cooperation) potential new models for understanding and influence are emerging though, Jonah Lehrer refers to this as the “Fourth Culture” even suggesting works of art may inspire future science experiments inspiring more art, etc. to etc!

My own work with amphibians falls into a transdisciplinary approach. This way of working involves both the utilization of artistic and scientific techniques. There is a constant mental feedback loop for me between the art making and scientific inquiry- neither could happen without the other. The art is an expression derived from the experience with animals in nature or even artificial conditions. Scientific methods and standards are rigorously followed while conducting primary research biological studies and question are answered through experimentation. The creation happens from the seemingly divergent techniques informing one another. I can achieve a better understanding of natural phenomenon and organisms in nature through scientific techniques, thus further substantiating my art about these organisms. Although my field trip and much of lab work is open for public participation, the physical artworks (such a photographic prints) can carry knowledge to a wider lay audience. This dualistic practice has continued throughout my professional career.

Another thought…One potential danger that arises from the utilization of scientific ideas in art is the work falling into pure science communication or mono-interpretative illustration. Though art can deliver messages and share knowledge, being open to interpretation is fundamental. Although, an important social function to both EcoArt and BioArt is the creation of public discourse around often complex ‘real-world’ subject matters. Art historian Lucy Lippard calls this ‘Framing’ of environmental and other issues and delivery to the realm of the public. Proximate to our discussion is Eduardo’s glowing green bunny, which worked to captivate hundreds of thousands of people through reproductions in newspapers around the world. Here the artist became provocateur, even if not inventor, that relayed biotech reality to people’s everyday lives. The photographs were experienced- so the readings were open-ended- the ensuing discussions, debates and overall reactions demonstrate a value of artistic images beyond didacticism.


04-14-2010 04:06:45
To add another footnote to Michael's and Suzanne's discussion on evolution, revolution and entropy, the word entropy as a descriptive tool for art is historiographically significant as it ties to post 50s attempts to rethink new forms of art derived from experiementation as art historically significant categories. Arneheim's work Art and Entropy is an example in this direction and it is also important that Arnheim references and is linked to L.L. Whyte physicist and 'art theorists' and his writings on science's own turn to complex phenomena which should, he advises, also inform art education. Whyte was involved in the Journal Leonardo as well in which a few things became published but in which he was a significant point of reference.

To say also that one of the earlier incidents in transfers of evolutionary ideas from the domain of 'nature' into art, Pitt River's excercises in classification, to some extent intact in the displays of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, mobilized, and I like this word Michael uses, this very rhetoric of evolution, as manifest via the re-ordering of things and material things rather than natural specimens, as revolution. The rhetoric of progress that invested much of the social aspirations that Victorian science was seen to possess has been discussd by many authors and it is one that to some extent might seen to inform current discourses on science's impact on culture. In this respect Danto's entropy is a break, historiographic, if not actual.

04-14-2010 07:59:31
I think Michael’s question about whether or not evolutionary ideas have influenced the succession of art movements is an important one. I am particularly interested in the degree to which ‘chance’ might have played a key role. I am also interested in the way artists represent chance in their art in the context of evolution. Groups such as the dadaists and surrealists certainly placed great emphasis on the part played by chance and randomness as distinct from the idea of purpose on their art works. Darwin of course placed great emphasis on the role of chance in evolution. To what extent has evolutionary theory placed a new emphasis on the important of chance in art and science? The artist Julie Rrap has drawn attention to this in her work, ‘Overstepping’ (2001) which offers an image of a woman’s legs whose heels have extended to form fleshy stilettos – they have literally evolved into high heels. Has this happened by chance? Or has this strange form of evolution taken place in response to sexual selection. If men find spiked heels so attractive, then it makes evolutionary sense for woman to grow her own pair of stilettos. Another Australian artist, Patricia Piccinini, who has acknowledged the influence of evolutionary ideas on her work, explores the vexed issue of created life-forms through her creation of a post-Darwinian bestiary. She believes that we have a responsibility to look after the creatures that we create now and in the future. In ‘The Young Family’ (2002-2003), she explores the issue of creating species through genetic engineering to farm human organs. A mother lies on her side feeding her litter of babies. She is both human and animal – a human body with a porcine face. Three of her babies suckle while a third rolls on its back looking adoringly up at its mother. The scene is somehow grotesque yet elicits a strong sympathetic response. Piccinini describes this as ‘human-assisted evolution’, and asks how does this differ from ‘natural evolution’? This is not the kind of evolution Darwin had in mind. There is room for chance to play a part here, which is one of the reason why the scenario is also quite chilling.
Julie Rrap, ‘Overstepping’ (2001), digital print.

Patricia Piccinini, ‘The Young Family’ (2002), silicone, polyurethane, human hair, leather, plywood.

04-14-2010 09:24:42
Barbara is right, chance played an important part in the making but also re-presentation of surrealist hybrids in the context of surrealists' own discourses. The use of chance associations at times referenced earlier forms of literary based games such as the cavadre exquis but assumed a viewer who could not be possible in the pre-Freudian world and notions of visual evidence that in the example of found objects drew heavily on the imagery but also rhetoric as Breton's own writings show of natural facts.

On another point, I think Art History had its own internal share of controversy with regard to the acceptance or not and its precise form as a means of expanation of evolutionary narrative and one such instance is the Kubler-Ackermann controversy over 'style' of the late 60s, quite appropriately for the art and science context of the discussion, witn regard to Thomas Kuhn's work and his new take on historical time and periodisation in the Structures.

04-14-2010 17:08:08
Brandon’s remarks earlier about the “new models for understanding and influence” in art and science “collaboration (and cooperation)” and his description of “seemingly divergent techniques informing one another” offer powerful images to fold into our final discussions. Added to Suzanne’s comment that artists produce both “subjective and inter-subjective propositions in relation to the way they see the world,” Brandon’s remark that “being open to interpretation” is fundamental to his work demonstrates the essential creative role played by intellectual receptivity in the arts, science, and humanities.

Similar openness applies (or should apply) to history. We follow evidence, confirm, triangulate, reconfirm, but should always remain open to regarding an accepted narrative as re-interpretable … or reframable, as I have said in my work on John Thomas Scopes, who turns out to be a far more complex character in the anti-evolution fight than historians had assumed. If I had the skills of an artist or filmmaker, I might develop a new interactive biography of the man, with old versions and new evidence viewable through a prism (perhaps I should collaborate?), rather than follow the accepted academic style of either “accumulative” history or using Scopes like an ideological weapon (historian Gordon S. Wood has made this point much more eloquently in the April 2010 issue of the American Historical Association’s newsletter).

Each of us works, therefore, according to our discipline’s current standards, attempting to convey an “accurate” representation of whatever corner of the universe we study. Brandon, however, then added a provocative postscript about the “potential danger that arises” when scientific ideas are utilized within art yet perceived by audiences (or perhaps misrepresented by someone other than the artist?) as “pure science communication or mono-interpretative illustration.” Here is where the issue of perceived accuracy (as opposed to internalized standards) becomes so important, because within our disciplines and specialties we too often speak primarily to our peers, and many of us do not always convey clearly the standards that inform our work (I believe this is something that several people have now mentioned in the final group of posts). We do not always emphasize to outsiders the extent to which we continually re-evaluate standards (it seems so wishy-washy to be re-considering and re-evaluating…so much more comforting to appear sure of ourselves). Acknowledging science’s own deep receptivity to change is an essential step for improving public understanding of the larger political and social debate that has long dogged the study and teaching of evolution, just as it is in writing the narrative of that debate or capturing its complexity within a piece of art.


04-15-2010 15:52:17
Christina, your observations here makes so much sense to me: ‘It’s very hard to separate science from culture; how we look at the data, what we see or don’t see, is strongly influenced by culture/belief/training. The history of science shows this so well. It is equally difficult to separate culture from science, at least in our current scientific age,’ as you’ve said.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on how the current culture of science, or today’s “science culture,” still describes and models its conceptions of natural systems using idealized, classical [Euclidean] geometry rather than Fractals—specifically, statistically self-similar structures—that more closely represent a realistic, or true-to-life, geometry of nature. (I’ve included a few visual aids here to highlight what I’m trying to say as clearly as I can with my clumsy words.) Anyway, I think this antiquated conceptualization of nature continues to create some significant problems in the way we see, understand, represent, and contribute to the design of material systems (physical, biological, technological, etc.). Invariably, this problem of perception tends to influence the way we think about the relationship between all of our binary, complementary concepts, such as “simplicity / complexity,” “order / chaos,” “predictability / unpredictability,” “generalization / specialization,” and so forth.

I don’t want to assume that everyone reading this post knows what Fractals are, so I’ll just add this quick definitional note: “A fractal is generally ‘a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is, at least approximately, a reduced-size copy of the whole," a property called self-similarity. The term was coined by BenoĆ®t Mandelbrot in 1975 and was derived from the Latin fractus meaning "broken" or "fractured." A mathematical fractal is based on an equation that undergoes iteration, a form of feedback based on recursion.’ ( ; For further reading: Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature. (W.H. Freeman and Company, 1982) ; John Briggs, Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos. (Thames and Hudson, 1982); and WolframResearch & webMathematica3 (

To return to my point: Consider our “Artist/Scientist Conceptions” of viruses. The way these visualizations are drawn, you may be inclined to see-n-believe [as many people do] that they’re pretty “simple” looking things. Surely, their elegant simplicity must be one reason why they’ve been so successful since the beginning of life on Earth. But maybe we need to rethink our notions of simplicity altogether, beginning by using a different geometry of thought to help re-envision the complexity of this “process/structure,” which is anything but “simple.”

When you consider the fact that “we’ve only discovered over 2,000 species of viruses,” and that “the origins of viruses is unclear”—and, that the life cycle of viruses differs greatly between species but there are six basic stages in the life cycle of viruses” (Collier et al., 1998, pp. 75–91)--- it’s probably a good time to go back to the drawing board with our intuitions, open minds and new data to mine.

I won’t venture any further down this path at the moment, but I’m hoping this exchange will spark some other thoughts and insights into your question: ‘Why do we presume that evolution moves always toward greater complexity…’

Michael and Rick, could you please percolate on this, too... I'm curious to know if this arrow of thought is heading towards the right target...

A simplified diagram of the structure of a virus (Source: ; GrahamColmTalk )

Two rotaviruses: the one on the right is coated with antibodies that stop its attaching to cells and infecting them (Source: