Al Teleki

In search for the way out of the labyrinth of creativity.

Month: August, 2012

Book review: Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne

ImageThe book recounts the modern view of the evolutionary theory in its two flavours: the mechanisms for evolution, and the historical recounts of the diversity of light, that is the specific examples that show the relation between species, ranging from bacteria to humans. The book focuses in convincing the reader that the evidence for evolution is strong and non-ambiguous (point that in my opinion he achieves successfully). These examples are frequently contrasted with creationist and/or intelligent design (C/ID) claims that intend to disprove evolution. Dr. Coyne limits his arguments to concrete and down evidence and when a speciffic problem turns out to be of speculative nature he points it out explicitly, together with the possible solutions to the particular issue.

There is a marked emphasis in that although evolution deals with historical reconstruction, the theory give clear cut predictions that are and have been verified, and how these predictions would be easily “violated” if C/ID “hypotheses” were plausible. This is a very strong point, since as the author admits, his goal is to convince the reader that evolution is not “just a theory”. The text is full with recounts of prediction that were made, sometimes by Darwin himself, and how these were verified. Coyne uses this sensitive method to highlight the scientific status of the evolutionary theory. At the same time he shows -between lines- why if we were to consider C/ID as a hypothesis, then the observed patterns about the diversity of life and the relationships among species would be inconsistent with what we would expect following the dogma.

In this sense, as the context of the word “theory” is on purpose miss-interpreted by C/IDers, he intentionally abuses of the term in the tile: “evolution is true” (my emphasis). As Steven Pinker writes in the back-cover “Scientists don’t use the word ‘true’ lightly”. For which I add that if “evolution is just a theory”, then Coyne surely proves it true with this book.

The organization of the book is excellent. It builds up with plenty of exciting examples from the fossil record, then he moves to the relationships among species as indicated by traits. But he achieves two levels of information. Not only he provides this anecdotal information, but at same time he accustoms the reader with the methodological way of thinking that he uses in the rest of the book. Then he discusses and reviews evolutionary evidence from the geographical distribution of species and how the interdisciplinary science is at work, for example when he shows that the organization of the species actually “correlates” with geological processes. Then having convinced the reader with plenty of evidence about the veracity of the evolutionary process, he proceeds to the major task of explaining the actual mechanisms of evolutionary change. This is achieved in a surprisingly intuitive and entertaining way.

The last chapters become somewhat emotional to the reader when Coyne recounts the evolution of humans. This is presented in a very simple way, given that our current knowledge about the subject is somehow disorganized (which he also discusses). At this point, the writing is more anecdotal about the history of the human lineage, because actually little is known about the evolutionary causes. Nevertheless stressing out that although we do not know exactly what promoted an evolutionary change leading to humans, it is clear that it actually happend by gradual evolution. In this chapter, the C/ID is barely touched. But this is actually good, since at this point of the book, the reader should be quite well trained in the scientific logic that he has been using in the preceding chapters, and gives a sense of independence and maturity from the side of the reader which feels capable of understanding and even building the arguments by themselves.

Finally and the moral and ethical sides of having a conviction of evolution is discussed. This is an excellent ending, because it separates very well that evolution is a science and not a dogma, and that the fact that there are explanations about how we got here, has little to do with the fact that we have moral systems.

The reading flows very well, is amusing, and well documented. The figures are very entertaining and tender, although not always necessary or informative, and in that sense a bit inconsistent. For the unfamiliar readers, the book contains a glossary that might be of great use (although there is no hint which terms appear there, making it tedious to check it often). The book is well complemented with footnotes of varying informative content, from anecdotal to scientific, which also include web references to documents, images, and youtube videos that complement the reading with a more direct experience of the subjects being read about. The work cites key references for the curious reader, which are certainly of accurate scientific value, in two organizing tastes: further reading (books, articles an web addresses) intended for general reading of the distinct subjects covered in the book, and cited references (organized by chapter) to back up his claims and arguments.

The tone of the book, not because its recurrent references to C. Darwin’s Origin of Species, but rather the magniloquent praises to the seminal author, sometimes gives an uncomfortable prophetic feeling. Not that it is not founded, or that Darwin deserves less! But on the other hand, since these are scientific predictions, it balances the arrogant and omnipotent “predictions” of the C/ID thesis. Thus from this perspective, the exacerbated admiration can be an enjoyable curiosity. Nevertheless, it could confuse the general audience giving the taste that Darwinism is a dogma where the proponent is necessarily right. Although there are some examples where the author indeed states that in occasions Darwin has been mistaken or has made a wrong prediction, etc. alleviating any religious stress, which in the final discussion on morality and ethics this feeling is released, and left with a good “spiritual” feeling.

In general I would recommend this book for two main reasons. It achieves giving a very good comprehensive understanding of evolution (as history and as a process) which is great as both, an introduction for the general reader that knows little about evolution, and in outlining and clarifying the issues that the C/IDers raise against evolution This is achieved but without making any stringent or tiring debate on the subject. The last I consider the best strategy against the C/IDers theses, since it simply points out that it is wrong, without any emotional charge that might give it importance or scientific seriousness.

Check out the site of the book, and Jerry Coyne’s blog:


Exhibition review: Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern

Damien Hiirst Exhibition at the Tate ModernI can make sense of Hirst’s exhibition on the premise that he wants to make the mortal and ephemeral, lasting and timeless. Dead animals that would have normally lasted a few weeks are suspended in formalin, and will remain there for as long as we keep the piece. Pills that last a swallow and cigarette that are smoked in a puff are protected from their final fate by being locked away in the cabinets.

Hirst uses the living and “once lived” in an aesthetic attempt. This is an important aspect, because it does confront you with the nature of being: your inside is something like this –as gory as it might seem-, it questions: how superficial is your sense of beauty?- Stimulants, Mother and child (divided), directly expose you with the inner structure of the animals, and even The physical impossibility […] and The Kingdom (sharks suspended in formalin) have the effect that visitors incline to see inside the mouth of a shark, or to see how they look underneath, awaking our most basic sense of curiosity that is what drives science.

A turn to this comes with the anatomical ready-made in the vitrines (so and so), which are glorified in the 6 mt. tall Hymn, a bronze replica of one of such anatomical models (ready-made as the rest of the items in the pharmacies), and the Anatomy of an Angel, which demystifies an otherwise classic type of sculpture by showing an angel as any other creature with inner organs.

All these pieces question our notions of beauty, and of transcendence, which are reinforced by A Thousand Years, a magnificent installation that is biologically dynamic and shows the process of decomposition of a cow’s head, albeit not in an isolated manner, but in its trophic interaction with a stock of living flies.

Actually, guts and dead and rotting animals did not disturb me. Although in the beginning they attracted me, they didn’t raise a particular interest after a second look. The reason perhaps, is that they are too obvious, and little is left to be questioned or interpreted. Sure: there is death, its meaning and all the classic dilemma, approached from a perspective that is more biological than spiritual or philosophical. Admittedly, this is a substantial advance, although Hirst is hardly pioneering the subject.

The Incomplete Truth

The Incomplete Truth, 2006. On the background: Remembrance, 2008.

On the other hand, the simplicity of Hirst’s ideas is one of the elements that makes Hirst’s art interesting, which is something that also applies to the rest of the exhibition, not only to organic media. As in everything in art, there is a fine balance between the intention and the representation. Hirst manages to confront us with basic ideas in such a way that we can relate immediately, either negatively with a sense of disgustingness and rejection (carcasses), or positively with a sense of beauty (butterflies arranged in harmonious ways Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven, Sympathy in White Major, or even alive In and Out of Love). In fact, these two ways of relating to Hirt’s art evoke our instinctive emotions for life and death: we accept life and we reject death in a natural way.

But there is also another turn to this dichotomy, perhaps in a more subtle way: the use of flies (dead as in Black Sun and alive as in A Thousand Years) which in the classic imagery of the still life represents evil or death, versus a white dove with spread wings (The Incomplete Truth), which we clearly relate in Christian tradition as the holy spirit. These elements are also addressing the fundamental subject much explored in classic and modern art of good and evil, or heaven and hell.

Art & Science.

Hirst employs techniques for the morgue and from the lab in order to build certain pieces. But all this could equally be Art & Butchery, Art & Fisheries, Art & Phamacy. However, Hirst uses creatures with which, again, he intends to evoke in us the basic instincts about life and death. Cows and sharks are perfect examples of these two extremes. Yet, does the use of these methods make his art, science? If they do, it is science as in school, not as in the lab of a research institute, or as in Celera Genomics. We might call this superficial (many do). Even if that might be the case, Hirst’s installations brings us back to the most basic element of what science is about: it makes you question about facts and processes of the natural world (as is the transition from life to death, discussed in several of Hirst’s pieces). And this is the core of what science is: questioning and understanding by observation. Hence, it is not the methods that he is using what make the intersection with science, it’s the purpose what does it. The methods are inevitably needed by the nature of the organic medium he is using.

Video art and pop.

The exhibition contains a series of videos that have been produced or directed by Hirst. These are very varied in their style and nature. Whilst the older videos have an artistic nature, addressing subjects such as accidents or suicide, the later ones have a focus that demands not an artistic audience but a pop audience.

In general lines, the exhibition was kind of repetitive. Nearly every room has dot paintings, dot paintings, and also some other dot paintings. The monotony of these gave me the feeling of the lack of development of the ideas of the dots and pills (which are not unrelated pieces, as the dot paintings bear chemical names of pharmaceuticals). Also the organisms suspended in formalin are recursive. Together, the dots, pills and animal suspensions dominate the exhibition. But you do find a much wider range of pieces.

Often, the use of colour stroked me as exaggerated and unnecessary, giving the feeling of being in a circus (spinning paintings, Loving in a World of Desire, Boxes, and even the pills), which was only reinforced by his video A Couple of Cannibals Eating a Clown. Although in the dot paintings and the butterfly pieces achieve a more balanced color harmony.

Hirst manages to challenge your idea of what art is. Ai Wei Wei comes to my mind; he said that Art is about an attitude.

This is why what Hirst does is art.

Hello world!

Yet another blog, to satisfy writers, to satisfy readers. A needle in a haystack. Anything so special that I want to say? Maybe, not up to me to judge. But I do have many thoughts and I’d like to share them. As the poet Huidobro said <<create, that is the signature of time>>.

What kinds of things do I want to post here? I’d like to use this platform to share my thoughts and ideas about art, science, and science&art. These are my two professions and dedications. Passions? Hardly, its a matter of producing. Its a personal and internal search for my Ariadne, that element which becomes the drive of curiosity, the internal click, the way out of the labyrinth of locked in thoughts and ideas to an external world.

Call me pornographic if you wish, but I want to expose this internal process, as if I was an aquarium and my thoughts were the fish inside; as if I was a maze with a rat finding its way out. And you, the reader, can peep inside my mind and the course of my thoughts.

Dada: Too stupid to be schizophrenic. C.G. Jung.