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      Laura Cassidy's Commentary

The Challenge of Seeing Evolution

Laura Cassidy Rogers
Independent Curator and
Ph.D. Student, Modern Thought and Literature, Stanford University

Jenny Rempel (Interviewer): “I think a lot of the problem [with communicating science] comes down to this issue of time horizons…[because of] our tendency towards short-term thinking, we [scientists] really struggle with the messages or the realities of biodiversity loss and of rising CO2 levels…we want to convey this sense that there is some urgency, some need to act.”

Paul Ehrlich
(Interviewee): “Particularly when we can’t see it. If a lion jumps out of the bush at you, you don’t have to do a lot of thinking about whether you have an impending crisis, what to do, and so on. We evolved to deal with that essentially automatically. [However] we can’t see the rise of CO2. If CO2 was bright red and the atmosphere was getting perceptibly redder every day, then we might be able to deal with it more readily…It’s amazing how little people know of science…how many people think there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I believe in evolution.” Scientists certainly all accept evolution as the best explanation we have now of where we came from and so on; but, nobody should believe it. We’re always skeptical about such things…scientists are willing to change their minds when data comes in.”

– Jenny Rempel, Earth Systems major at Stanford University interviewed Paul R. Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University for Generation Anthropocene, a podcast for our new geologic age (27 June 2012).

This essay is driven by a sense of urgency to communicate the science of biodiversity loss and climate change, amongst other known human impacts on earth systems (e.g. biological, chemical, and geological processes), the magnitude of which was recognized a decade ago when the Nobel-Prize winning scientist Paul Crutzen first suggested we are living in a new geologic age called, Anthropocene. The geologic term itself is intended to transform human perception, to incite a major shift in our thinking about the reality that we are constructing for ourselves. Now more then ever, humans are equipped with the technology to significantly modify the evolution of life forms, and yet we still lack the means to see the complex ecosystems in which they and we are embedded, and to act in a way that will sustain rather than degrade those systems.

“Windows on Evolution: An Artistic Celebration of Charles Darwin,” is a virtual exhibition that primarily celebrates the power of art and technology to communicate the fundamental principles of evolutionary science with a broader public, however in doing so, it also encourages dialogue around the urgency of seeing the magnitude of our impact on earth. What is the role of the visual imagination in understanding our place in evolution? What media technologies exist as aids for humans to see our impact on earth systems? How might artists work with scientists to maximize the potential of such media, to find the right distance and scale from which to base our perspectives on the past, present, and future?

In Western art history, much has been written about perspective and the ‘beholder’ – a term used variously to describe one who observes the world, one who creates a painting of that which he or she observes, or one who views the finished work of art. In the late 14th and early 15th century milieu of Renaissance Italy, Filippo di Ser Brunellesco (Brunelleschi) is attributed as the inventor of perspective in painting, having publically demonstrated a novel technique for composing realistic pictures with three-dimensional depth on a flat surface. Brunelleschi developed a technique for positioning the Renaissance ‘beholder’ with a precise fixed point of view. Today, fixed-point perspective continues to function as a foundational principle for realism in painting and drawing, celebrated now as it was in the 1400s by Brunelleschi’s biographer Antonio Manetti, as “part of that science which aims at setting down well and rationally the differences of size that men [and women] see in far and near objects, such as buildings, plains, mountains, and landscapes of all kinds and which assigns to figures and other things the right size that corresponds to the distance at which they are shown.”

“Windows on Evolution” shifts its focal point from that part of realism aimed at setting down geometric principles in the 1400s, instead responding to the contemporary challenge of setting down precise evolutionary principles in the 2000s. The “Windows on Evolution” jury has selected 40 works of art from a field of 70 open-call submissions to feature in the virtual gallery (the remaining 30 will be added March 31). Considering the exhibition’s digital architecture, it is surprising that only seven of the top 40 selected works are composed with digital media (e.g. Adobe Creative Suite software and Cinema 4D modeling, animation, and rendering software). An additional six artists have modified their handmade compositions with digital tools; still, the decisive majority of the top 40 selected works are composed of traditional analog media including oil paints, acrylic paints, watercolors, tempera, pastel, graphite, colored pencil, pen and ink, collage, and scratchboard etching, than scanned into a digital format.

Hans J. Geuze, Scales, Pointillism on a Butterfly Wing, 2011, watercolor; 13 x 9"
Courtesy of the Artist and Science Art-Nature <>

There are several explanations for this bias towards analog media as a means to render realistic images of the natural world, and specifically painting and drawing. For one, the open call for participation circulated in networks extending from the exhibition organizers, who are skilled painters and drawers themselves. However, this is also a direct outcome of the history of art and science communication with its roots in the tradition of high quality scientific investigation, fieldwork, and illustration. Scientific illustrators have developed an unyielding commitment to precise observation in the lab or field, and accurate representation on paper or some alternative canvas. Illustrators hone their hand-eye coordination with attention to the most minute of morphological details. A successful illustration is devoid of rhetoric, conveying a clear and concise sense of objective translation. While a handful of works in “Windows on Evolution” do stray from realism, such as Scales, Pointillism on a Butterfly Wing (2011) by Hans J. Geuze (Kockengen, The Netherlands) with its characteristic impressionistic technique, evoking Georges Seurat, these artists do not stray very far, retaining conviction in the realistic portrayal of pattern and form as recorded by evolution in its myriad species, which in the case of Hans Geuze is the Silver Y moth (Autographa gamma).

The top 40 artworks that are featured in “Windows on Evolution” explore a range of adaptations of Brunelleschi’s fixed-point perspective, positioning the contemporary ‘beholder’ at varying geospatial coordinates around the world, with subtle shifts in distance from the subject at hand – near and far, on dry ground and underwater – to illustrate how closely species are linked, or not, in scientifically described evolutionary processes including natural selection, sexual selection, mutation, coevolution, mimicry, and camouflage. In Punta Suarez (1995), for example, viewers are transported to the southernmost island in the Galapagos chain, known as Hood Island or Española, though the artist herself, Kim Diment, lives in Grayling, Michigan, USA. In the attending caption, Diment explains how the fauna on Hood Island is distinct from all others in the archipelago due to a process called deviation, a process that famously inspired Darwin’s evolutionary theory whereby animals and plants that descend from a common ancestor evolve into different forms when living under different conditions.

At Punta Suarez, Diment visualizes the process of deviation by composing a rocky shoreline scene inhabited by: three inquisitive Marine Iguanas looking directly back at the beholder, with bright red and blue gray acrylic patterns in paint that mimic their actual skin; two Masked Boobies, who seem comparatively less interested to meet the beholder’s gaze; a flock of Red-billed Tropic Birds variously in flight or perched on rocks in the middle ground of the composition, presumably hunting for food; and specks of orange where the ocean surges onto land, specks that are barely discernable by the unaided human eye, but identified in the caption as a collection of Sally Fight Foot Crabs. Diment’s color palette is relatively accurate to the species thus indicated, however she adds an aesthetic of tranquility amidst an otherwise harsh intertidal zone where solid rock, saline waters, and daily exposures to the dynamics of ocean waves create austere environmental conditions for survival. For the beholder that settles her gaze on this acrylic painting, observing the ecology of Hood Island appears pleasant, like a calm afternoon picnicking with an eco-tourism outfitter or scientific research expedition.

Kim Diment, Punta Suarez, 1995; acrylic; 18 x 36"
Courtesy of the Artist and Science Art-Nature <>

Just a few clicks left of Punta Suarez on the screen presenting the exhibit by artist name, another window on evolution transports viewers to the Great Plains of the American Southwest, revealing a panoramic acrylic painting of a Prairie Rattlesnake uncoiling to attack the hind leg of an American Bison, one of two subspecies of bison on the continent that humans have reduced to near-extinction. Carel P. Brest van Kempen (Holladay, UT, USA) completed this painting in 2003, with the suggestive title Prairie Sentinel that likens the rattlesnake to a soldier or guard who keeps watch – over what is not explained, but likely its own survival. Compared to Diment’s Galapagos landscape, Brest van Kempen’s rendering of the Great Plains appears dry and demanding with sparse vegetation, highlighted by a few white vertebrae bones amidst a tuft of green weeds in the upper left quadrant, the preserved leftovers from a mammal, perhaps one that perished in a long recurrent drought common to this red earthen terrain.

Whereas Diment represents the Galapagos as a picturesque scene, Brest van Kempen’s vision of life evolved to the prairielands is disquieting. The perspective shifts in his painting from a casual interlude to an uncomfortably close confrontation. Beneath the underbelly of a massive American Bison, the beholder is positioned as if lying on the ground at eye level with the snake, precariously in its line of attack. There is some reassurance of protection from the muscular and wooly pelage on the bison’s front legs and its hooves firmly pressed into the ground, though the large mammal is clearly vulnerable to the potential onset of toxic venom entering its blood stream and compromising its circulatory system.

It is unclear whether Diment or Brest van Kempen were present in the flesh to experience the geospatial moments they depict in paint, much less whether they have rigorously and systematically explored the Galapagos or Great Plains regions from varying scales and perspectives to locate the optimal composition. However, the method of capturing the image is much less important than the artists’ ability to match the visual imagination of their paintings to the scientific record of rigorously instantiated species, their morphology and behavior recorded in high quality scientific investigations. However, some artists do acknowledge that they were indeed there on scene, co-present with their evolutionary subject.

Carel P. Brest van Kempen, Prairie Sentinel, 2003, acrylic; 15 x 40"
Courtesy of the Artist and Science Art-Nature <>

A third window in the virtual gallery, positioned four rows beneath Diment and Brest van Kempen, enlarges to an acrylic painting by Rob Mullen (West Bolton, VT, USA) wherein an African Hippopotamus glides through the tropical flat water of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Mullen writes, “This hippo has just tried to upend our skiff and seemed to be glaring at us,” asserting his presence on scene as a first-hand observer. And, Mullen effectively conveys this piercing feeling of hostility in paint. Framed by water lilies, the composition bears a striking resemblance to the ubiquitously reproduced paintings by Claude Monet. Though Mullen’s scientifically informed illustration, Gilding the Lilies (2012), evinces an acute attention to detail and animal behavior that is antithetical to Monet’s impressionistic effort to capture the ephemeral quality of light and color.

Unlike the rattlesnake poised for attack, Mullen’s hippo is slowly gliding away, along the shallow line of perspective, onward towards a distant vanishing point. The stillness of the image allows the viewer to linger in its presence, to examine how Mullen has carefully rendered the warm-blooded mammal in relation to the cool surface of the river. The hippo and the water lilies are bathed in tropical sunlight, casting symmetrical liquid reflections in the Delta water. The scene is set either at dawn or dusk, and the painting effectively evokes the feeling of twilight or, more generally speaking, the feeling of being in between two different states – day and night, above water and underwater.

The water lilies serve strictly as a frame to the African Hippopotamus, which is equipped with a unique gravity to sink, walk, or run along the riverbed. Moreover, this semi-aquatic mammal expresses a compelling example of homoplasy with a head design that parallels the Nile Crocodile. In the accompanying caption, Mullen articulates the central evolutionary force of Gilding the Lilies as homoplasy, or convergent evolution. He illustrates how some species that are remotely related, of divergent ancestry, nonetheless adapt similar traits due to similar environmental conditions. Homoplasy is opposed to homology, which instead explains similar traits due to a common ancestor. The African Hippo and the Nile Crocodile share similar features including their horizontal snout with upward facing nostrils, and their eyes and ears are placed higher on the roof of their skull allowing their bodies to be almost completely submerged in the Delta.

Rob Mullen, Gilding the Lilies, 2012, acrylic; 16 x 26"
Courtesy of the Artist and Science Art-Nature <>

Perched on a rock, lying on the ground, and nearly upended on a skiff - the selected artworks in “Windows on Evolution” situate the beholder at varying geospatial coordinates as well as varying points in time, or the history of Earth. The three artworks I have just discussed invite exhibit visitors to travel amidst the data-rich complexity of the contemporary life world, while other artists have submitted works that suggest a means of time travel. Artists interested in the deep time of evolution have interpreted data sparse fragments of the lesser-known past to methodically show the links between living species and their ancestors, and to speculate on those ancestral forms of species gone extinct long ago.

In the acrylic painting entitled, A Sea Without Fish (2008), John Agnew (Cincinnati, OH, USA) depicts intricate assemblages of species that “predate the appearance of true fish” inhabiting underwater landscapes from the Ordovician period roughly 400 – 500 million years ago, a period defined by an explosion of families within existing phyla. As none of these species resemble the fish we know today, Agnew must have drawn extensively from the fossil record to generate an accurate and realistic ocean community. In a related acrylic work entitled, Spence Shale Fauna (2012), he depicts a comparable realistic underwater scene, this time from the middle Cambrian, the period that preceded the Ordovician and popularly known for being the greatest explosion of biodiversity on earth with scores of novel phyla in the fossil record (phylum being a taxonomic category that ranks above class, order, family, genus, and species, yet below kingdom in the system of scientific classification).

Rather than compose ocean communities, Quade Paul (Conifer, CO, USA) focuses his attention on reconstructing the forms of individual organisms from deep time like Orthozanclus reburrus, Anomalocaris, and Diania cactiformis. Each of his three works in “Windows on Evolution” present an ancestral organism cloaked in a haze of color that bleeds outward towards the edge of the compositions, alluding to the quality of these creatures as figments of the human imagination. Paul’s work is notable for its use of Cinema 4D modeling, animation, and rendering software (C4D) along with Adobe Photoshop to reconstruct these enigmatic forms. Although the final compositions are ultimately not very distinct from acrylic paintings, the reconstructions are noticeably less constrained by the observational real. Any vision of the earth 500 million years ago appears in some sense to be a virtual reality rather than grounded in direct observation, a virtual reality defined by Oliver Grau as “a hermetically closed-off image space of illusion.”

Quade Paul, Orthozanclus reburrus, 2012, C4D, photoshop; 5.5 x 4.7"
Courtesy of the Artist and Science Art-Nature <>

Overall, “Windows on Evolution” demonstrates great aesthetic skill and knowledge of evolutionary principles as well as a diverse array of realistic perspectival techniques in painting and drawing. While primarily it is an exhibition that celebrates the power of art and technology to communicate the fundamental principles of evolutionary science with a broader public, it also presents a persuasive argument for expanding the interdisciplinary production of public discourse about our role in evolution. For artists are not merely illustrators of scientific truth. More than ever before, in the new geologic age called Anthropocene, our communication about and understanding of evolutionary science has the potential to reach a broad global audience and incite dialogue about the urgency of seeing the magnitude of our impact on Earth. Crutzen’s introduction of the new geologic term ‘Anthropocene’ a decade ago has reinvigorated debates about how to transform human perception and shift our thinking about the reality that we are constructing for ourselves in the face of environmental crises like biodiversity loss and climate change. How might artists continue working with scientists to maximize the potential of analog and digital media, to find the right distance and scale from which to base our perspectives on the past, present, and future of life on Earth?



1 Antonio Manetti, Vita di Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, ed. E. Toesca, Florence, 1927. Translated by Creighton Gilbert in Italian Art 1400–1500, Sources and Documents (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992), 170.

2 See Lorraine J. Datson and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2010).

3 Oliver Grau, Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003), 5.


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