Saturday, April 10, 2010

4/10: Evolution and Visual Culture in Non Western Cultures

Last Update: 04-12-2010 12:24:39

04-10-2010 04:01:15
As an astronomer I am very aware of how our ideas about the evolution of the universe are embedded in a several thousand ( at least) year history of concepts of how the universe is structured and the forces at play.Here in the Mediterranean the flow of ideas across geography, culture and the centuries has been very complex. I recently saw a play about the egyptian mathematician Hypatia which articulated the conflict of visions of the world between the Hellenestic, Hebrew and Christian cosmologies. In reading through the posts this morning here in Marseille I was struck by the way we have focused on a particular set of interactions between ideas about evolution. Concepts about nature are deeply embedded in all philosophical would be interesting to discuss how the ideas of evolution interact with visual culture, and culture in a larger sense, in the indian subcontinent for instance.

04-10-2010 11:21:34
Dear Richard,

This is quite a fascinating subject, however. However, my expertise in this area is quite limited.

These are a wonderful set of articles that Nature published in 2009 in celebration of Darwin's centennial. Another related question I have is concerned with how Darwin's Centennial was celebrated in various countries. Certainly in the UK, there were a large number of events, exhibitions, lectures, and the like. Even a contemporary play was hosted as part of a symposium at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Although there were some events in the USA, Darwin has had a much chillier reception here. Anything in France?

Global Darwin: Revolutionary road
James Pusey
Nature 462, 162-163 (11 November 2009) doi:10.1038/462162a Opinion

Global Darwin: Contempt for competition
Daniel Todes
Nature 462, 36-37 (4 November 2009) doi:10.1038/462036a Opinion

Global Darwin: Eastern enchantment
Marwa Elshakry
Nature 461, 1200-1201 (28 October 2009) doi:10.1038/4611200a Opinion

Global Darwin: Multicultural mergers
J├╝rgen Buchenau
Nature 462, 284-285 (18 November 2009) doi:10.1038/462284a Opinion


04-11-2010 10:35:06
Dear Kevin and Roger,
I think this is a very important thread that was brought up, particularly in light of our globalized world.
What this lack of response may mean is that this set of ideas has not been thought through by our panelists. However, I am sure there are scholars out there that can open this dialogue.
Is this an "opportunity knocks" card that we can borrow from TV game shows and ask the audience?

04-11-2010 13:01:34
Perhaps as a further prompt and in keeping with many of the other threads so discussed here so far, there are several ideas intrinsic to looking at evolution and visual culture in non-western cultures. The influx of technology, particularly, the use of telegraphic cables, linked diverse land masses such as Western Europet o India to China and the like. This transformation through communication (later described by Marshall McLuhan as the Gutenberg Galaxy) was also a significant force in disseminating Darwinian ideas. Through misinterpretation, mistranslation as well as culture's ability to absorb new ideas into its established thought, various configurations and reconfigurations of Darwinian thought were interpreted into concepts of change, political and otherwise. Philosophical and religious beliefs concerning natural law, the great chain of being and "survival of the fittest" were propagated in culture specific ways and in some cases remain so to this day. Several recent events underscore these considerations and differences. In October, 2009 ( a few months after several of us on this panel gave our talks at the Courtauld Institute of Art) a conference entitled "Darwin and Evolution in the Muslim World" was held at Hampshire College. Differing opinions with regards to humans' place in evolutionary theory were posed.

The theory of young-Earth creationism , was cited by Professor Salman Hameed, as being compatible with the Qur'an's concept of time, which he maintained was more ambiguous, than the Bible's six days of creation. And in Egypt, in November of 2009, "scientist's from around the world" stated Riazat Butt's piece in the Guardian, questioned whether religion was getting in the way. Of course the American discourse on evolution/creationism continues in the political arena.

04-11-2010 14:52:36
We held an Art, Culture Darwin conference in Marseille:
one of the speakers was Jacques Arnould, a catholic priest who work also for the french space agency CNES
His talk was entitled from neuroaesthetics to cosmo ethics:

(article is in french) where he unpacks the shift in view of man's relationship to the universe from greek to christian era = the conference particularly sought to address how neurobiology , Changeux in particular, is addressing the questions of the role of culture as a factor in evolutionary selection none of the papers however addressed the history of the idea of evolution in

other cultures

04-11-2010 15:53:18

Thank you for those posts on global Darwinism. On what about France, there was a four-part exhibition in Paris's botanical gardens called Dans les pas de Charles Darwin. Here is the link


04-11-2010 17:28:06
Suzanne, thanks for tabling this topic. I itch thinking about how to respond to the young-Earth creationism concept. Honestly, it warps my sense of reality and spacetime, like an event horizon of a black hole. Let me try to explain what I mean by that, so I’m not misunderstood and ridiculed for this crude little simile.

“In general relativity, an event horizon is a boundary in spacetime that surrounds a black hole, beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. [A black hole is a celestial object so dense that no matter or radiation can escape its gravitational field.] Light emitted from beyond the horizon can never reach the observer, and any object that approaches the horizon from the observer’s side appears to slow down and never quite pass through the horizon, with its image becoming more and more redshifted as time elapses. The traveling object, however, experiences no strange effects and does, in fact, pass through the horizon in a finite amount of proper time...” (

So who's the observer and who's the observed?

Whenever I try to converse with a devout creationist, I feel like I’m standing at the edge of an event horizon as ‘an outside observer,’ gazing into the distance at what appears to be a ‘traveling object’ [or individual] who’s on his way to his home in a black hole. This individual can no more reach me than I can reach him. At this moment, we’re just coming from different places, and one of us can never leave the place we’re coming from…

Maybe I’ve misinterpreted the astrophysics. Or maybe I’ve transmuted the facts, to avoid getting sucked into some theological debate that I can’t escape. But the implication remains the same.

Roger, I'm sure you can clarify what I’m trying to say. Or you can simply correct this misperception.

On a positive note, I’d like to add this one book to your reading list, concerning evolution and visual culture in non western cultures:

Alain Danielou’s The Gods of India: Hindu Polytheism (1985) provides a detailed and fascinating account of evolution that encompasses the structure of the cosmos in the context of consciousness, and vice versa (p.55). This Indic scholar relates how “all existence is conditioned by 'three fundamental qualities of Nature [prakrti] and orders of being.” (p.56) I also touched on these Hindu perspectives in my book, Breaking the Mind Barrier (Simon & Schuster, 1990); “Branches #2,” pp.348-351.


04-11-2010 20:44:07
It is noteworthy that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted in Feb 2010 found that the theory of evolution was more widely accepted by Hindus and Buddhists (80 and 81%) as the best explanation of origin of human life compared to Muslims (45%) and evangelical Protestants (24%).

These differences in the religious acceptance of Darwinian evolution as an explanatory framework for understanding the origins and development of life on earth has, I would suggest, much more to do with the extent to which these faiths have existing explanatory frames that cohere with evolutionary explanations than with them having theories that are similar to evolution.

For example, Hindu notions of time and of life as iterative reincarnations of successive living forms of increasing complexity (albeit with less karmic attachments) is ostensibly coherent with the concept of evolution though far from being similar to it. It is also useful to consider that unlike the Genesis narrative of the Bible that is widely accepted by Christians as the most dominant one on creation, there is no single creation narrative that is consistently accepted by Hindus.


04-12-2010 11:17:36
Another thought: the relationship between evolutionary discourse and religion is always complex and unstable. In the 18th-century, emergent evolutionary discourse was closely related to ideas of progress and perfection, which had ties to millennial and Arminian strands of Christian theology. In some ways, and in some versions, evolutionary discourse retained the deep narrative structure of some Christian eschatologies. Many early evolutionists came from Quaker or dissenting Protestant religious backgrounds. Later on, there were a variety of Christian responses to Darwinian evolution. The two major Presbyterian centers--Belfast and Princeton--split, with Belfast adopting a hard oppositional stance and Princeton attempting to reconcile Christian doctrine and Darwinian theory.

The whole issue is obviously of great importance nowadays, with Christian creationism providing a model for Islamic creationist opposition to the teaching of evolutionary theory. The teaching of evolution and belief in evolutionary theory is a kind of discursive effigy that is available for anti-globalists and anti-modernists to perform opposition to Western ways, and links the anti-evolutionary movement in Islamic countries to the insistence on the subordination of women and advocacy of Sharia law.

(However, I'm not sure how all of this relates to the visualization of evolution or evolutionary structuring of visualization.)

04-12-2010 12:24:39
In the west in the late nineteenth century, there was an attempt to combine evolutionism with Hinduism and Buddhism, found notably in Theosophy. Oddly, theosophy emerged in the U.S., but seemed to gain its greatest foothold in various quarters of Europe, in particular among Symbolists and early twentieth century abstract artists, including Mondrian. In terms of how does this pertain to visual culture, the attempt to combine evolutionary references with eastern religions was a significant part of visual culture within the fine arts. Eastern philosophies felt compatible with evolutionism for theosophists. I feel I have given short shrift to Symbolism, which one of my areas of study and later today will add more information about this in another strand.

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