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Art and Evolution: a Work in Progress

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The word evolution comes from the Latin evolutio, meaning to unroll. This notion of opening out or unfolding gave way to a general sense of development, which is why evolution means so many different things to different people; it can refer to the gradual change of a consumer product, society’s tolerance of civil liberties or the characteristics of a finch in the Galapagos.

The evolution of species is the specific idea that all life evolved from a common ancestor through spontaneous genetic variation, sometimes providing individuals with traits that assisted their reproductive success, which then became fixed in the population. This type of change is driven by outside forces and was first explained by Darwin in his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, yet it’s an idea that’s been explored by society for centuries¾with some help from artists.

Consider art dating back as far as 1000 B.C. that depicted mermaids: this provides evidence of humans exploring the notion that we might have evolved fins instead of legs. Or take mythological creatures such as Pegasus, the horse with wings, or the centaur, a man with the body of a horse: however inaccurate they seem given what we now know, these ideas represent the way we have imagined species change.

The tradition continues today. Common Descent, an art exhibition open until June 8 curated by Maddy Rosenberg of Central Booking in New York City, explores the interpretation of Darwinian evolution. On Friday May 2 the gallery hosted a panel discussion of artists and local scientists entitled “Art and Evolution: a Work in Progress,” which explored some of that art while trying to understand—and put to bed—some of the common misconceptions about species evolution.

Left to right: curator Maddy Rosenberg, moderator Yasmin Tayag, Giacomo Mancini, Lynn Sures, C Bangs and Brent Wells.

On the panel were evolutionary biologists Giacomo Mancini and Brent Wells from New York University as well as two artists featured in the exhibition: C Bangs, who investigates life and its cosmic origins in her work, and Lynn Sures, who uses print and papermaking to depict the fossil records of early human evolution.

In a short primer on evolution, Mancini described the role art has played in the development of evolutionary theory, using classic examples of art in science. John Gould’s sketches of Darwin’s finches were among them, as was Ernst Haeckel’s famous drawing comparing the embryonic development of several species. In showing that early-stage embryos all share the same appearance, Haeckel echoed Darwin’s findings, correctly suggesting the idea of a common ancestor.

The relationship between art and evolution continues to change as we understand it further. For Sures, who spent countless hours drawing hominid skulls in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, what’s important about exploring evolution through art is that it allows us to pay homage to our origins.

Variations by Lynn Sures

In her work, Variations, Sures juxtaposed her drawings with woodblock prints inspired by the jazz album Pithecanthropus erectus by Charles Mingus, which itself traces the rise of humankind through its hominid roots and warns of its downfall due to arrogance. The symbolist figurative art of C Bangs, notably Horse Rider Prehorse, which was featured in the exhibition, goes even further into our evolutionary past, looking at our molecular origins in the cosmos.

Horserider Prehorse by C Bangs

This unique meeting of minds presented the opportunity for the scientists to offer their own interpretation of the art at hand. Mancini suggested that C Bangs’ work depicting evolution and the cosmos evokes the feeling that we are one with and a product of our world and, by extension, the elements of the universe it came from and shares. On Sures’ work, Calculation, Mancini commented that it represented a visual approximation of evolution by way of trial and error, which he and Wells explained is perhaps the most basic characteristic of evolution.

Calculation by Lynn Sures

Wells and Mancini also interpreted other works on display, suggesting that they spoke to the direct effects of nature on genes. For example, Evolution at Work, a chromosome-printed silk jumpsuit by Sarah Stengle, highlighted that we do in a sense “wear” our genes, and the delicacy of the fabric hinted at their fragility and susceptibility to the environment.

Returning to the idea of mermaids, Suzanne Reese Horvitz’s Robert’s Mermen reminded Wells and Mancini that, had chance mutation and environmental pressures been slightly different, our reality could have changed drastically.

LEFT: Robert's Mermen by Suzanne Reese Horvitz. RIGHT: Evolution at Work by Sarah Stengle.

The discussion between artists, scientists and audience was opened up with a single question: what are some of the most common misconceptions about evolution? They included the belief that evolution takes a very long time (for bacteria and viruses, it most certainly does not), but most troublesome was the idea that evolution is leading us to a genetic “peak”. We so casually discuss winning the “genetic lottery,” but this notion does not exist; evolution is a never-ending process of adaptive change that, importantly, has no end goal.

Speaking to this idea, Wells suggested that modern medicine and technology have stripped evolution of its principal driving force¾the elimination of genetically “weak” individuals from the reproductive pool¾and that any further human evolution would be a response to environmental conditions too extreme for today’s population, resulting from our own use (and misuse) of the planet.

Exploring ways that artists might depict our evolutionary future, C Bangs added that the transformation of our world into an uninhabitable one might necessitate the evolution of humans into a space-faring race whose bodies could deal with long-term microgravity and increased calcium loss in space.

We should consider, too, that as we build upon our current theory of evolution, the art inspired by it will also change. One forward-thinking audience member brought up the existence of epigenetics, a field that explores changes in gene regulation that are heritable but not DNA-based, which could well lead to modifications in our current evolutionary theory and in the art that follows.

It’s no surprise that views and interpretations of evolution are so diverse. As products of nature’s great experiment in variability, we are all unique, which is, literally, the very thing that has strengthened us as a species. One thing is certain: while the future may bring evolutionary pressures only seen before in science fiction, the outcomes will be based on a biological process as old as time.

About the Author: Yasmin Tayag is the copy editor at Nature Chemical Biology, The Last Magazine and U+Mag. She also occasionally hosts videos for the Scientific American series Instant Egghead and writes book reviews. She blogs about her encounters with science in everyday city life at scienceinthecityNYC.com. Follow her @yeahyeahyasmin.

Brent Wells is an evolutionary geneticist at New York University studying principles that guide evolution to achieve similar developmental paradigms in geographically and temporally disparate species; the idea that certain modes of development are more desirable for life than others and that evolution can improvise in order to find those sweet spots. Outside of the lab, Brent maintains a science blog at scienceunderthescope.com and enjoys cooking and making a little art of his own in the way of furniture.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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