Some time ago, I saw a cartoon that poked fun at perceived versus actual scientific progress. The first panel showed a graph with “Time” on the x-axis and “Progress” on the y-axis. The line on the graph was perfectly straight and, of course, had a positive slope. The caption stated that this graph showed how scientists present their work. The second panel contained a similar graph. The line in this graph started and ended at the same points as the line in the first graph. The same amount of “progress” occurred. This line, however, was far from straight. It went up and down. It was horizontal for a significant period of time. As I recall, it even contained a few loops. The caption for this panel indicated that this graph better represented the actual scientific process.
This cartoon couldn’t be more accurate. Despite the very neat, very linear scientific process that students learn in middle school, science is messy. When conducting experiments, we don’t know where we will end up. A surprising result may cause us to modify our original hypothesis. A surprising result may cause us to scrap our original hypothesis entirely and develop a new hypothesis. A surprising result may cause us to consider myriad new questions and our research focus may bifurcate into many new areas. This messiness is a necessary part of the process. This messiness makes science fun.
This messiness also typically doesn’t appear in the scientific literature. When scientists write about their research, they present it in a very linear fashion. A clear hypothesis is stated in the Introduction. The results from a series of experiments are presented. Each experiment follows very logically from the previous experiment and leads, logically and linearly, to the conclusion. We tell a story. The major journals expect us to present our work in this fashion. Journals generally don’t publish negative results. Journals generally don’t publish rambling accounts that detail every misstep in the process.
As Charissa and I have been planning Gut Instinct, our online exhibition for the SciArt Center of New York, I’ve been contemplating this process. When looking at a piece of art, it’s easy to imagine that the artistic process is linear and logical; the artist starts with a fully formed idea and simply creates it. Of course, the artistic process, like the scientific process, probably is very messy. I’m sure that the initial idea changes throughout the process. It may be transformed or reimagined. For the artist, like the scientist, progress isn’t linear.
Charissa and I currently are looking at submissions to be included in Gut Instinct. Over the next few weeks, we will need to consider the various pieces. We will need to explore how to present them. We will need to carefully consider what we want this exhibition to say to the audience. We will need to tell a story. Hopefully, the story will be compelling. The process, however, will be messy.
Guts to Embryology – The Intellectual Messiness of a Scholar in Pursuit
My collaborator Dave Wessner writes deftly about the nonlinear messiness of intellectual production. With reference to our exhibition Gut Instinct, the on-line exhibition about art and the micriobiota of the gut, he muses, “for the artist, like the scientist, progress isn’t linear.” Today’s blog will be an exercise in such nonlinear scholarly scrappiness.
Like so many of us, I am juggling several projects. My book Art as Organism: Biology and the Digital Image comes out in March; I submitted the files two weeks ago for the Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture, an anthology I am coediting; Wessner and I are co-curating Gut Instinct; I am punching through application deadlines for various conferences and visiting professorships; and tomorrow I will sit down to rewrite an essay for Technoetic Arts, “Learning from Embryology: Situating Bioart in Complexism.” Today’s blog is devoted to the last – what it means in art to ‘learn from embryology.’
The essay emerges from a double panel I put together for the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in Vancouver in August, 2015. It was titled COMPLEXISM: Art + Architecture + Biology + Computation, A New Axis in Critical Theory? It unfolds around the premise that a new hybrid paradigm fusing art, science, and technology is afoot within the humanities. My colleague and friend Philip Galanter coined the term “complexism” to identify this shift, which in the most basic sense is “the application of a scientific understanding of complex systems to the subject matter of the arts and humanities.”
By way of complexism, Galanter and the rest of us are attempting to see distributed organization, emergence, coevolution, chaos, connectionist networks, feedback, statistical truth which is known to be incomplete, generative networks, etc. as a means to collectively define a new way of understanding cultural expression and intellectual production beyond modernism and postmodernism. Instead of the binaries set in place by modernism and postmodernism (absolute versus relative, hierarchy versus collapse, truth versus no truth), complexism proffers a cybernetic paradigm to guide us through the muddle.
The question begs, however, where does one find agential footing (viz. a place from which to pose critical analysis) in a system that is multi-vectored, bearing distributed forces, nonlinear, and emergent?
And this is where embryology comes into play.
In “Learning from Embryology: Situating Bioart in Complexism,” I am writing about the critical function of embryology in two bioart projects, Jill Scott’s Somabook and Adam Zaretsky’s DIY Embryology. By “critical function,” I refer to two primary ways in which complex-systems thinking – framing art practices by way of embryology – can provide a mode, or a platform, if you will, for critical thinking.
First, when bioart imparts basic scientific knowledge it offers a mode of critical thinking. Thus, basic scientific literacy provides individual agency: knowledge of evolution, for example, is empowering. Scott’s Somabook and Zaretsky’s DIY Embryology provide the viewer with a sense of how embryos are used in laboratories and the basic function of embryology.
Scott F. Gilbert and Marion Faber argue that one arrives at such basic knowledge often through awe and yügen, both of which one experiences, they argue, while looking at embryos. In the last term, yügen, Scott and Faber extend their aesthetic rubric into an Eastern vocabulary, as the term names the Japanese concept connoting “cloudy impenetrability…exceptional elegance or gracefulness.” It describes any shape or form that is in the process of change, characterizing “movement in stillness” and “the embodiment of form in changing substance.”
Second, embryology occupies an important position in the history of biology. The politics of embryological aesthetic come from deeper within the discourses of genetics and evolution. They are inscribed by the deep grooves of binary thinking rooted in the split between embryology and genetics that emerged with neo-Darwinism and the Modern Synthesis, unfolding over the forty years from roughly 1890 to 1940 that continue to influence scientists and science writing in the present. The Modern Synthesis combines population genetics, Mendelian genetics, and evolution by natural selection. For Neo-Darwinists and scientists practicing according to the Modern Synthesis, “heritable variations have small effects, and evolution is typically gradual,” and unlike epigenetic relations, “evolutionary divergence is…tree-like, not web-like.” Shifting from the visual to the conceptual aspects of the aesthetics of embryology, Gilbert and Faber compare embryology to genetics, unpacking the commanding political resonances within each field of expertise.
Based on the above diagram from Gilbert and Faber’s essay, we can deduce that if embryology celebrates diversity, acknowledges complexity, emphasizes organicist models, is interested in interaction and epigenesist, bears multiple analytic methods, humility before problems, and an emphasis on becoming, then genetics celebrates underlying uniformity, assumes simplicity, emphasizes reductionist models, is interested in information flow and preformation, bears a single major analytical method, great confidence before problems, and an emphasis on being. FOOTNOTES  Galanter, Philip, “Complexism and the Role of Evolutionary Art,” in The Art of Artificial Evolution: A Handbook on Evolutionary Art and Music, eds. Juan Romero and Penousal Machado (New York: Springer Books, 2007) 311.  Scott F. Gilbert and Marion Faber, “Looking at Embryos: The Visual and Conceptual Aesthetics of Emerging Form,” in The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science, Alfred I. Tauber, ed. (Dordrecht, NL: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996) 133.  Gilbert and Faber, 133.  Schrey, Richards, Meller, Sollars, and Ruden, 1. See also Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Boston, MA: Belknap Press, 1985).  Jablonka, Eva and Marion J. Lamb. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005) 389-390.  Gilbert and Faber, 135.