Thursday, April 8, 2010

4/8: Early 20th century change that influenced general discourse on evolution

Last Update: 04-09-2010 06:17:23

04-08-2010 15:45:04
Frederick Lewis Allen once described the intellectual community of the 1920s as composed of men and women who had “heard of James Joyce, Proust, Cézanne, Jung, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Petronius, Eugene O’Neill, and Eddington” but who “doubted the divinity of Henry Ford.” They embraced modern science yet were suspicious of technology. They were especially dismissive when technology enabled mass diffusion of ideas (what Jonathan Smith earlier referred to as the “visual traffic between elite and popular science”). Meanwhile, the rest of society—that great aspiring class lampooned by Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt—cherished their Model T’s and flocked to the movies. Spectacle, sports, and stunts drew larger crowds than scientists’ lectures; the distraction of new technologies made it hard to capture mass attention with lofty complexity. Yet those same devices brought intellectual and scientific debate within every individual’s reach. The people who tuned in live broadcasts from the 1925 Scopes Trial, who poured over grainy newspaper photographs of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, were also racing to buy books about evolution and listening to five-minute radio talks about relativity and astronomy. Science’s intellectual insights were being incorporated, adapted, and accepted by those who loved the movies as well as by those who said they read Proust.

Science’s deft authoritativeness, the exotic nature of its topics and language, enhanced its power to capture popular imagination through illustration in mass-circulation magazines and books. The word “evolution” set artistic minds in motion, spawning images of progressive change, of creatures moving upward on social and economic ladders, out of the muck, into the clouds, rejecting status quo with a dangerous proximity to (r)evolution. Nevertheless, “evolution” could never shake the taint of its origins, and monkeys persisted in cartoons and comedy. When George S. Kaufman’s “The Cocoanuts” opened on Broadway at the end of 1925, dancers whirled to the “Monkey Doodle-Doo” and no one needed to explain the reference.

The power of experts—whether professional intellectuals or professional photographers—was beginning its long slow erosion into our current web-based era, where each individual can scissor or grangerize her message and images ad infinitum. In the first decades of the twentieth century, an explosion of amateur photography, for example, transformed the visual record. Professionally produced and technologically enhanced mass media—especially the newspapers—offered an array of created, selected, cropped, altered, designed images of Darwin, evolution, monkeys, and scientists. By 1925, ordinary people were also routinely memorializing events with their own cameras. Eastman Kodak suggested “Take a Kodak with you!” And people did.

Amateur photographs of the Scopes trial (such as those viewable on the Smithsonian Institution sets in Flickr Commons) show another side to evolution’s visual culture in the early twentieth century. At the trial’s seminal event, when Darrow confronted Bryan, science reporter Watson Davis framed the scene as if it were a play, with spectators in the distance as “audience,” while local college student William Silverman peered over the shoulders of the crowd and celebrated democratic participation. Here are ordinary women and men enthralled by a complex debate. The grand discussion about evolution thus becomes just another part of life, another part of Roger Malina’s synergistic, human-created “collection of visual artifacts.” Able to be either ignored or accepted, rejected or enfolded. Opened to debate.

Photograph by Watson Davis. Image number SIA2007-0124. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Photograph by William Silverman. Image number 2009-21077. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

04-08-2010 16:30:34
Marcel points to the transformation of the techno-visual environment in the early decades of the 20th-century, a time when people were experiencing an acceleration and proliferation of views and visual cultural productions. (See Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space; and Werner Gumbrecht, 1926.) In this period there was a widely held sense that humanity had entered a new era of "mass" life in industrial technology, a feeling that through science humanity was now channelling the dynamic forces of nature and that dynamic forces were taking hold of humanity. And that this was an irresistible evolutionary current. This structure of feeling, a kind of industrial dynamism, might be aestheticized, as in futurism, and in another way in industrial design, as Christine Cogdell has shown. It could also be seen in representations of evolution itself, as in these vernacular, non-theorized illustrations published in Fritz Kahn's popular science series Das Leben des Menschen (1922-31).

Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen, vol. 5 (1931). Artist: Grundner

Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen, vol. 5 (1931). Artist: Roman Rechn

In the above illustrations there is a convergence between evolutionary development and industrial design. The sea creatures are glossy (in German, Glanz), streamlined, have an internal industrial technology. (And are radiant, in a peculiarly modernist idiom.) Industrial technology in turn explains them. And they in turn are a model for modern industrial design. So compare, now, Raymond Loewy's 1930-something evolutionary chart of object and clothing design.

04-08-2010 22:34:04
Marcel has anticipated the next question I was going to pose about how technology was producing new tools for visual culture and making existing tools more widely available. I'm going to launch this discussion with a new topic on Friday morning, so please pick up the thread there.

The chart by Raymond Loewy that Michael introduced is a wonderful illustration of the evolution of visual imagery and of how a visual theme can be manifested in a wide variety of objects. I wonder if he saw his own design for the Avanti as a straightforward evolutionary step or a brilliant mutation.

And the Fritz Kahn pieces suggest lots of possibility for cross-breeding between the organic and mechanical realms.

More on technology in tomorrow's topic.

04-09-2010 06:17:23
I should like to comment on the significance of the Scopes (“Monkey”) Trial of 1925, which Marcel so vividly introduced. This is a subject of deep interest to me, not only as a biologist and historian, but also because my hometown is just 30 miles from Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the trial. My father was born and raised in Dayton and (as a teenager) actually attended one of those outdoor sessions at the trial – as seen in the photographs displayed in Marcel’s posting.

As indicated by Marcel and others in this forum, in the post-Darwin age, the idea of “evolution” was introduced (rather portrayed and distorted) to the public, not by scientists, but by journalists, cartoonists, satirists, social commentators, populist politicians, and religious zealots. By the early 20th century, the theory of evolution (by then, personified in Darwin himself) was seen as the epitome of secular humanism – the “scientific revolution” gone rampant in its assault on revealed religion and the sacrosanct role of humankind in the natural order of things. Science vs. secular humanism came to a grandiose head in Dayton, putting in place a mise-en-scène with an ensuing mise-en-train that continues at play today – with an “evolution” of its own!

Most folks don’t know that the Scopes Trial was a “staged” event from its very inception. Immediately after the Tennessee legislature passed the “anti-evolution” law for public school teaching, the American Civil Liberties Union went in search of a city that would “stage” a challenge to the law. None of the big cities would risk it. Business leaders of the sleepy (but endearing) little town of Dayton, Tennessee, approached the ACLU and agreed to take-up the cause. The motive of these townspeople was to boost the economy of Dayton. (It didn’t work.) John T. Scopes was persuaded to be the straw dog. For me, the symbolism of the Scopes Trial is summed-up in a retort that William Jennings Bryan issued to Clarence Darrow, during their closing duel before the enraptured local populace. When challenged by Darrow on the validity of Biblical scripture vs. science, Bryan hailed that, “I don’t care about the ages of rocks, I only care about the Rock of Ages.”

The Dayton Courthouse is there today, much as it was in 1925. The basement is now a museum, where one finds lots of memorabilia – including a wealth of photographs, popular illustrations, and news items of the kind displayed in Marcel’s posting. For those interested, Edward J. Larson’s prize-winning book, Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, is a masterpiece. (See also

04-10-2010 05:42:18

The photograph that Michael posted of Raymond Loewy is a great example of the convergence of industry and evolution. Let me provide another (see the attached jpg), which points to the legacy of Taylorism. When Darwin surveyed the natural world he observed that “all true classification is genealogical.” Todd’s passionate comments about Tesla (in section Art and visual culture leading up to and into the 20th century) showed how, as Todd put it, " each innovation was a hallmark of evolution, in so far as it showed how Tesla adapted his knowledge." It points attention as well to how cultures have evolved systems of innovation. Like the participants here who have noted many similarities between biological and cultural evolution, historian Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles and I, as an artist, pooled our common interest in evolution and art by perusing almost 300 years of images of inventions, identifying a new cultural corollary in the realm of patent drawings. Diagrammatic images, like those of Tesla, reflected the societies they hoped to enhance, displaying the way machines and the styles of drawing them, evolved. Some of the styles showed the evolution of artistic conventions, and many reflected the changes in technologies available to artists after the introduction of photography and photogravure, inventions that, because of their ability to make copies profoundly impacted the US Patent Office – and the evolution of technology.
This chart of the Evolution of paper clips was made by Conrad Morton and is in the collection of Henry Petroski


04-11-2010 06:12:53
I like Marcel's comments a lot, especially her suggestion that here are the beginnings of our contemporary cut-and-paste pastiche-y culture, and the reminder that Scopes was a much-photographed event. I think we tend to forget how new a thing this still was in 1925: that the availability of small cameras that amateurs could use was in some ways as revolutionary as the introduction of photography itself had been.

1 comment:

  1. Please feel free to check out the rest of the Smithsonian Institution Archives' Scopes trial photos in this Smithsonian Flickr Commons set:

    Catherine Shteynberg
    Smithsonian Institution Archives