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:

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