Evolution Embedded in Symbols, Symbols of Evolution: Analyzing a few layers of a multilayered question about human symbol-making and its relation to e

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Evolution Embedded in Symbols, Symbols of Evolution: Analyzing a few layers of a multilayered question about human symbol-making and its relation to e

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 will not try to determine why the dinosaurs became extinct or what caused two prokaryotes to form the first multi-cellular organism. Instead, it will ask you that which is, perhaps, a more difficult question: Why did you write what you wrote in your notebook?

If human recorded history only represents 10,000 years of a universe which has been evolving for 15 billion years, then does a question pertaining to such relatively recent human practices as writing and artwork matter? Yes! These symbol making processes matter because of what they can tell us about our identity and our place in the evolutionary process. This essay will explore the notion that human identity is based almost entirely on representing life symbolically, and grapple with the idea that we exist because of the symbols which we create. It will then go on to explore how symbol-making resembles the biological process of evolution in the way it prizes and incites both messiness and reproduction. Finally it will synthesize these two ideas: symbol-making tied to human identity and symbol-making resembling the biological process of evolution in order to provide a backbone for the idea that humans might evolve in such a way that the cultural transfer of information could take place as a part of the process of biological evolution.

Reason I:
Because after all the discussion, something was still missing. It'd be difficult for me to tell you exactly what, because we discussed concepts about evolution quite thoroughly. But nonetheless, I was feeling empty. And so I guess what I was trying to do was tell myself a story on paper, trying to fill the emptiness that all the other stories created.

The only way that humans can communicate with each other is through words and signs. In his book entitled, Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler shows how large a part signs play in who we are by stating that "instead of thinking of life as something to which signs and texts are added to represent it, we should conceive of life itself as suffused with signs, made what it is by processes of signification."(Culler, 14) So, according to Culler, life is not just represented by symbols, its very core and essence is defined by symbols and the process of creating them. One literary symbol system, The Bible, can be used to help illustrate this idea. The Bible helps to indicate that the sign was the origin of all life by saying: "In the beginning was the Word." (John 1: 1-2) "The Word" and its connotations (God, life, pure symbol...) were the original sources of signification. It as if, people have continued the process of sign-making almost obsessively ever since this original source was established. To reduce the issue to its most basic level and then build upon it, one could say: In the beginning was the word, in the middle were more words, and in the end there were words upon words upon words; too many words for anyone to remember a single, signifying origin. Indeed, from the very start, people have been coming up with words to try and make sense of the world. There have been stories about observations, words about God, about everyday life, about mysteries of the universe. In light of this, one can find Culler's description of literature an "entropic force," (Culler, 40) to be quite an apt. Books, conversation, analysis and communication of any kind opens up an infinite space for more and more signifying practices.

The first way in which human symbol-making resembles evolution can be examined by comparing symbol-making to entropy. Like the energy distribution in the universe, the process of signification was destined from its start to be a messy and uncontainable process. Additionally, words are another type of what evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett has deemed, "universal acid." That is to say, one word invites another word, another analysis, another sign; the creation of words and symbols eats up more human energy than it can possibly return. You wrote in your notebook because all of the energy exerted in coming up with explanations and symbols still did not satisfy. The words of the class discussion simply made you want to bring more words into being.

So far we have looked at the importance of the symbols which we create. It is interesting to now look more explicitly at a question closely attached to our original line of inquiry. Do we exist because we create symbols? One manner of looking at this question is in terms of the way that the creation of symbols affects individual identity. The time that one does not spend sustaining life (eating, sleeping, reproducing etc.) is spent engaging the brain in the process of symbol making. What creates each person's unique human identity is not the way in which he or she eats, sleeps or reproduces but the way in which he or she thinks, communicates and engages his or her mind in various signifying tasks (making a gesture, solving a problem, telling a story). So if one sees the most essential quality of being human to be individuality, it is indeed our symbol making endeavors which make us human.

Before leaving this topic, let us explore one more angle for the extent to which we exist because we create symbols. Culler shows how in an autobiography, Rousseau described a deep love for someone whom he called Maman and how while in her presence he snatched a piece of chewed bread from her mouth so that he could become closer to her in the same way he imagined being close to her when she was not in the house. In describing Rousseau's act, Culler says that "Maman's presence turns out to be a particular type of absence, one requiring mediations and supplements." (Culler, 13) So too with language- it is as if language sets a standard for reality and the weight of this standard is more than reality can bare. In other words, the real world event still can leave the person participating feeling empty and a person must find a way of symbolically filling that empty space. The story or symbolic action that a person makes becomes more of a reality for that person than what happened in real time and space. It is the symbol of reality that has the power over our lives rather than the reality itself. In trying to create reality through symbols, the symbols gain power enough to create us.

Reason II.
Because I wanted to make it mine. I was moved in Art History class by Jackson Pollock's art and wanted to put it at the center of my notebook because it was meaningful to me. Also, it related to what I was trying to figure out about randomness, messiness and change.

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 (or in the case of the "Jackson Pollock squiggle" in your notebook, a pre-existing image that is beautiful) she can reproduce it on the canvas or paper. Similarly, 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 transfer of cultural information, its continuance and recombination. An image is created by someone who finds it to be beautiful and then that image is represented in the mind of the viewer. It has the chance to be passed on again if that viewer finds the image to be beautiful. To create a symbol of something with a string of words or with several brush strokes is to perpetuate and generate new versions of that which is beautiful for future generations.

Another interesting way that art supports and prizes the concept of reproduction is in the way that the formal properties of words and images are pleasurably sensual and intimate. 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 causes intimate and sensual excitement. For example, in a recent lecture at Haverford College, Writer Lynda Barry spoke about her desire to kiss a good book after reading it. An additional example of a connection between artistic reproduction and sexual reproduction is the myth of Pygmalion. The myth is about an artist who falls in love with the sculpture of a nude woman which he is creating. The symbol of beauty that Pygmalion produces becomes an actual beautiful woman. She is transported from the realm of representation and into the physical human world. This relates back to Rousseau's symbolic act. Maman was a symbol of a lost mother figure and, like Pygmalion trying to bring his sculpture to life, Rousseau was trying to bring his mother figure back to reality through his symbolic representations of and projections towards Maman. If one thinks deeply about these two examples, one can conclude that a large component of the entire symbol making process involves a journey towards turning the symbol into a piece of reality which was lost long ago or never existed in the first place.

In addition to a consideration of how symbols fill an absence is also interesting to consider whether or not the symbol-making process has served the purpose of inciting the biological reproductive process. Have there been any instances, besides Pygmalion, of art actually creating a human desire for sexual reproduction? Or has art, for the most part, remained in the sensual world without necessarily venturing into a more overtly sexual realm? One possible answer to this question lays in the fact that a large majority of the history of art (including visual representations of the Pygmalion myth) involves the representations of nude women. Such examples span across art historical periods. Examples include Venus of Willendorf, a female fertitlity sculpture dating back to 24,000 b.c.e., Praxiteles' sculpture, Cndian 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. According to some feminist art historians, within the symbol system of art, the nude woman came to allow for a penetrating male gaze. This gaze incited sexual desire in the viewer. Dennett states that it is a "misleading idea that the summum bonum at the source of every chain of [thought] is the imperative of our genes" (Dennett, 473). However, the above examples illustrate that, somewhat paradoxically, the subject matter of the artistic symbol-making process (that which distinguishes humans from animals) is determined by a genetic imperative or more animal-like urge to reproduce, to continue the human species by this act of reproduction.

The artistic process of Jackson Pollock is also a good example of spontaneity and chance, two key factors in the evolutionary process. Pollock's paintings seem to represent a sort of painterly entropy, a showcasing of disorder and randomness. His is a system which is based entirely on an intentional messiness. It is as if all of Pollock's messy splatters are intimately connected with one another and no one splatter is entirely comprehensible on its own. The energy within the painting is barely containable by the closed system of the canvas. All of this is related to the evolutionary process. 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) Like the prokaryotes mentioned in the beginning of this essay, in the context of their randomness, each splash of paint seems to interact with every other splash. In fact, all of the brushstrokes interact in such a complex way, that it is difficult to tell where one brush stroke ends and another begins. Like the evolutionary process, Pollock's paintings are both intensely messy and random and profoundly complex.

Reason III:
Because of a genetic imperative, for the future or, see reasons I and II., add an element of self and pass on what is learned.

We have discussed how symbols form our identity and help us to understand the world. We have also looked at the way in which like the biological principle of entropy, words provide a sort of universal acid, that with each new story, written or visual, there is a fundamental dissatisfaction which promotes the creation of new symbols, new stories. These stories try to fill in a gap, a longing within humans and perhaps even re-create what never existed in the first place. We have looked more specifically at the way which Jackson Pollock's paintings parallel the randomness of the evolutionary process and even at how symbols in a history of art have incited the biological imperative to reproduce. With the importance of these symbols to the human life process, why is it that symbol-making remains a part of cultural evolution and nothing more? Is it possible to suggest that cultural evolution and symbol-making processes could lead us to passing on symbols in the genetic material of our children?

It is interesting to note that the theory of cellular memory would point in this direction. Various web sites seem to indicate similar ideas about what cellular memory is and although the theory has next to no basis in large amounts of biological research (the web sites about this are often personal, rather than scholarly) the degree to which life resolves around human symbol-making makes such a theory seem less far fetched. The theory states that "virtually every behavioral pattern exhibited during routine activities of daily living results from data which is stored, or encoded as cellular memory." (McClasky) An example of cellular memory would be that the memory of traumatic events within cultural groups can be passed on to future members of the group which experienced them. For example, this theory would state that, without experiencing the Holocaust, the child of a Holocaust survivor might know about it on a cellular level without hearing about it or seeing a picture. The memory of the event and all of the signs and symbols that went along with it would be firmly imbedded within that child. This also brings up questions about the extent to which the concept of the collective unconscious might also have some basis at a cellular level.

In order to consider more explicitly, the question of whether cultural information could be passed on genetically more explicitly, let us consider technology. 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 transfer of the symbols which we make. We can look at one very recent art project which seems to illustrate the way humans have used technology to express the evolutionary process and discover the way in which it might help symbols to become embedded in the biological process of evolution.

An art project on the web entitled Life Spacies allows everyone who enters the web site to type an e mail message. It is the 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, as we have stated, it is a common assumption that even in humans, the words and symbols that a person makes in his or her lifetime are in no way transferable 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. Through the continual sharing of symbolic information, the symbol systems which humans create could 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.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997.

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 http://serendipstudio.org/local/scisoc/emergence/brain.html

McClasky, Thomas R. "Decoding Traumatic Memory Patterns at the Cellular level." The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc. 1998. http://www.aaets.org/ar30.html

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

Rosenberg, Harold. "The American Action Painters." The Tradition of the New. New York: Da Capo Press. 1960.

Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1999.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 1999.
Sommerer Christa, and Laurent Migninmeau. Life Spacies. 1997

Varnadoe, Kirk. "Open-Ended Conclusions about Jackson Pollock." In Jackson Pollock: New Approaches. New York: Museum of Modern Art. 1999.

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