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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

Evolution Embedded in Symbols, Symbols of Evolution

Elizabeth Catanese

Two billion years ago two prokaryotes bumped into each other and formed the first multi-cellular organism. 65 million years ago an asteroid hit the earth and dinosaurs became extinct. Three days ago, in your notebook you drew a mess of squiggles which to you represented Jackson Pollock's painting, Number 1, 1948. You wrote the word entropy on the upper left hand corner of the page. On the bottom right hand side you wrote, Creativity is based on randomness and chance.

This paper is, in part, an exploration of the pictures and words that we place in notebooks; it is an investigation of the human fixation with the creation of symbols via art and writing. But is also about how the symbols drawn in one's notebook are just as relevant as the development of multi-cellular organisms and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Indeed human symbol-making relates to the entire spectrum of evolutionary processes.

If human recorded history only represents 10,000 years of a universe which has been evolving for 15 billion years, then how can such relatively recent human cultural practices as writing and art tell us anything about evolution? I would like to suggest that if we look at artifacts of human visual and written culture, we can find evidence of a human quest to understand biological evolution. Indeed, it seems that symbol-making allows humans to reconnect to their biological roots. It allows people to reenact and represent the biological principles of evolution. Ultimately, this paper will look at the way in which the brain allows for this symbol-making. It will discuss the way the brain itself is an evolutionary object, an emergent system capable not only of evolving but of representing evolution. But before going into an explicit discussion of the biological causation for the evolutionary processes imbedded in symbol-making, let us look at some of the inherent properties of art and writing which parallel the evolutionary process.

In her book, On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry states that "beauty incites replication" (4). Like a history of evolution, a history of human symbolic representation is heavily dependent on the act of reproduction. This reproduction has manifested itself quite literally. For example, when a painter finds something in nature to be beautiful, she can reproduce it on the canvas and when a writer finds a moment to be inspiring, she can transcribe the moment into "a set of instructions [i.e. words] about how [a reader] can imagine or construct [that moment]" (Dreaming by the Book, Scarry, 6). Like sexual reproduction which allows organisms to share their genetic material in order to continue species and to create new organisms, pictures and words help with a lateral transfer of cultural information, its continuance and recombination. To create a symbol of something with a string of words or with an art material is to perpetuate that which is beautiful for future generations.

According to Dennett, "before there were words, there were no word meanings, even if there were other sorts of meanings." (402) Dennett's hypothesis reminds us, at the most basic level that symbols mean something. To say that there are only a couple of meanings behind all artwork and writing would be to deny the complexity of the human symbol-making and meaning-reading processes. However, one commonality in meaning is derived from a shared subject matter of a great variety of artworks. Feminist Art Historians such as Lynda Nead in her book, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, Sexuality talk about the fact that a large majority of the history of art involves the representations of nude women. Such examples span across art historical periods. Examples include Venus of Willendorf, a female fertility sculpture dating back to 24,000 b.c.e, Praxiteles' sculpture, Cnidian Venus from the Classical period, Valazquez's The Toilet of Venus from the Spanish Baroque period and Manet's Olympia from the Impressionist period. Today installation and performance art pieces often feature an actual nude female body in the midst of other symbolic objects. Thus, one main thread of much artistic representation is once again, the idea of reproduction. But this time, reproduction is meant in a sexual sense. This is to say that females are represented because of their capacity for reproduction. It is interesting to note that while it is the uniqueness of human consciousness which allows us to make artistic symbols in the first place, the symbols which people make affirm our connection with the rest of the evolutionary process. That is, we are making symbols about what is needed in order for humans to continue evolving, symbols which somehow indicate and promote our need for sexual reproduction.

The final consideration in terms of the parallel between art and the reproductive process involves the formal properties of words and images. Elaine Scarry quotes Aristotle saying that "images are like sensuous content, except they contain no matter." (Scarry, 6). Images do, however, allow the matter that existed in the real world to be represented in the imagination. This imaginative excitement begins an internal creative process which has sometimes been described as sexual in and of itself. For example, in a recent lecture at Haveford College, writer Lynda Barry spoke about her desire to kiss a good book after reading it. Additionally, the myth of Pygmalion is about an artist who falls in love with the sculpture of a nude woman which he is creating. Symbolic arts themselves are sensuous because the materials used to create them are often intimate and messy. A brushstroke is a representation of intimacy between artist and canvas. A handwritten word on a page is the representation of intimacy between the writer and the paper. These gestures which were originally intimate are then made accessible to the viewer's imagination.

Let us now look more explicitly at how images within a history of art reveal a type of reenactment of the evolutionary process. To do this one could start with the origin of the first image and the stories that this image told, focusing on the instructional nature of for example, the earliest cave painting and then moving to the religious stories being conveyed in Medieval art. One could follow up by talking about the "evolution" of the quality of image during the Renaissance when artists became interested in accurately depicting ideal forms. One could then talk about the ornate quality of baroque images and continue by discussing the gradual dissolving of depth of field as evidenced in impressionism. A comprehensive account about how each art movement mirrors some evolutionary process could indeed be created. In his book entitled What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr states that "one must always remember that adaptation is not a teleological process" (149). Similarly the history of art is not teleological. Therefore to illustrate how the symbol-making process of art resembles the process of evolution, one does not have to move chronologically throughout all of art history. A key moment in the evolution of art can illustrate key patterns in symbolic parallelism between image-making and the biological process of evolution.

The connection between evolution and art can be illustrated by turning to a moment when art was radically changed, the abstract expressionist movement. In fact, if the history of art were seen as a teleological process, this particular movement could be seen as a sort of "de-evolution" in the trajectory of art. Let us look at the abstract expressionist art movement using the work of Jackson Pollock as a representative example of how art represents evolution. Mayr states that "quite different from steady extinction of individual species [were] the so called mass extinctions during which a large proportion of the biota [was] exterminated in a very short time on the geological timescale." (201) The abstract expressionist movement represented a sort of mass extinction in the subject matter and methodology of art. Rather than focusing on reproducing that which was beautiful, the artist's job became to use the canvas as a place for action and the subject of the symbolic representation became the paint itself. (Rosenberg) Indeed, Pollock was not afraid of doing anything to the picture plane, even destroying it or cutting it up. For example, Pollock cut out an abstract figurative shape from one canvas and affixed this shape to another canvas in two of his untitled works. Supporting the metaphor that the abstract expressionist movement was a mass extinction of what notions of art were in the past is the fact that during the period when this abstract art was being produced (that is, during the process of extinction of certain art ideologies) there was a relatively small amount of artistic speciation (forms of art that were not predominately expressionistic). The abstract expressionist movement dominated the artistic playing field in that the art produced was most often created through some sort of random chance process, most often manifesting itself in abstraction. The type of random chance manifested in most art of this period seemed to set the stage for the varying ideological threads in later art movements like Pop Art and Minimalism.

But although there is a lack of concrete symbolic reference in Pollock's paintings, the paintings have meaning. The meaning centers on the representation of a human unconscious preoccupation with the mysteries of the universe. This is evoked by the energy of spontaneity and chance in Jackson Pollock's work. In an article entitled Open Ended Conclusions about Jackson Pollock, Kirk Varnedoe states that "the high moment of modernism comes when the physical limits of painting are subsumed in a wild metaphysical dance" (311) Varnedoe compares the "lines hurtling across the picture surface" to comets and shooting stars. (311) In addition to the spontaneity in Pollock's work representing phenomena of the universe, the spontaneous nature of the work also seems to model a fact about human evolution, the second law of thermodynamics. This law stipulates that disorder (energy) creates order and that disorder in the universe exceeds the amount of order that exists. In his painting, Pollock showcases disorder and randomness. It is as if each of Pollock's brush strokes are intimately connected with one another but no one stroke is entirely comprehensible. The energy within the painting is barely containable by the closed system of the canvas. According to Mayr, "evolution is subject to a large number of interactions [based upon] genotypes within a single population responding differently [to different environmental factors]" (277) Each of Pollock's brushstrokes are also different and respond and enhance the visual plane of the canvas in a different way. Thus Pollock's paintings seem to indicate or mirror the unpredictability of evolution.

The second law of thermodynamics also stipulates that eventually the amount of disorder will increase so much that all of the world's energy will be used up and life will cease to exist. Pollock's system of symbolic representation shows the disorder and messiness in the universe and seems to predict this upcoming change in the history of evolution. This moment in the history of art shows a symbol-maker and symbol-viewer's unconscious preoccupation with what will eventually happen to humans in the evolutionary process.

In an article about the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin, Caroline Webb writes that "as psychic power, even the highly elementary psychic power of such basic things as molecules or prokaryotes, increases so the spontaneity or what we could recognize as creativity increases" (Caroline Webb) Just as a greater amount of spontaneous energy within organisms gave these organisms the ability to combine and form new organisms, the spontaneity in Pollock's work opened up the possibility for other creative and symbolic recombination and reduction in the rest of artwork. For example, after Pollock, pop artists like Warhol created multiple reproductions of a similar image onto a single canvas, artists like Jasper Johns made art out of casting beer cans and Frank Stella changed the shapes of canvas. In fact just as when the dinosaurs became extinct and other organisms which had previously not been able to survive had the chance to come to the evolutionary forefront, once Pollock destroyed the notions of what should occur on an artistic canvas, distinct art forms based on repetition, messiness and even hybridization could occur.

What does the production of this artwork say about the biological nature of the workings of the human brain? In a book entitled Why a Creative Brain?, William H. Calvin states that "the bootstrapping of new ideas works like the evolution of a new animal species- except that the neocortical brain circuitry can turn the Darwinian crank a lot faster, on the time scale of thought and action." Thus, if the brain is programmed to imagine and be creative in a way that parallels the Darwinian concepts of evolution (chance variation, spontaneity, and reproduction) it is only natural that symbols that humans create seem to have an evolutionary process embedded within them. It is only natural to show a fixation with the process of evolution itself.

Because of technology, (specifically the internet) there are a wide variety of ways that humans can interact. Online forums, e mail and web based interactive projects all allow for the exchanging of people's stories, a greater potential for the lateral transfer of the symbols which we make. To conclude, let us look at one very recent art project which seems to illustrate the way humans have used technology to express the evolutionary process. An art project on the web entitled Life Spacies allows everyone who enters the web site to type an e mail message. It is this individual words and letters of the e mail which create the genetic coding for a virtual creature to emerge. This creature then becomes part of a living system which is "based upon the human observer, his or her consciousness and the evolutionary dynamic and complex image processes of the work, which themselves are based upon principles of artificial life, evolution and dynamic non-local interrelations." (Life Spacies web page)

In addition to consciousness and imagination which distinguish us as humans, the ability to transfer cultural information to offspring becomes important once that offspring is born. Mayr points out that "in most invertebrates the parents die before their offspring hatch from the egg." (253) Thus, for many animals, a dissemination of information from parent to child via observed action and symbolic representation is simply not possible. However, it is a well known fact that even in humans, the words and symbols that a person makes in his or her lifetime are in no way transferrable into the genetic makeup of the child. This emergent web project is interesting because it suggests a possibility for the words to provide the genetic make-up of an organism. What if, through the continual sharing of symbolic information, the symbol systems which humans create became part of the genetic makeup of future generations? This would allow for a merging of the symbol making and purely biological parts of the human brain. It would represent a merging of a system which humans use to represent evolution with the evolutionary process itself.


Barry, Lynda. Haverford College. 31 Oct. 2003.

Burke, Tim. "Something to do with Emergent Art." Emergent Systems Working Group. 9 April, 2003.

Calvin, William H. "Why a creative brain?" Book chapter in draft (2003).

Dalke, Anne. "The Ramifications of Being Easily Distracted, or An Account of a Journey from Metaphor and Metonomy to Trees and Rhizomes."

Grobstein, Paul. "Emerging Emergence, A Report on Progress (October 2002- present): From the Active Inanimate to Models to Stories to Agency (and Back Again)." 29. Jan. 2003.

Grobstein, Paul. "From the Head to the Heart: Some thoughts on similarities between brain function and morphogenesis and on their significance for research
methodology and biological theory." Emergent Systems Working Group. 28 May. 2003

Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude: Art Obscenity and Sexuality. New York and London: Rutledge. 1992.

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Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 1999.

Sommerer Christa, and Laurent Migninmeau. Life Spacies. 1997

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Webb, Caroline. "Evolution, Creativity, Consciousness: A response to the work of Teilhard de Chardin with reference to various critics." May 2002.

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