thanks for your thoughts on the colloquium in Marseille. Here are my
Some Reflections from the on the recent Colloqium
" The Arts in the Context of the Darwinian Theory of Evolution"
We had three days of rich presentations and discussions on the theory of
evolution, neurobiology and the arts and culture. We might inscribe the days
under the comment made by speaker Jacques Arnould: quoting Socrates who
apocryphally transformed the motto written on the temple in Delphi from "
Know yourself, leave the world to the gods" to " Know yourself and you will
know the universe and the gods" as the nub of the debate. Arnould taunted
our keynote speaker neuro-biologist J.P Changeux with the search for
"neuro-theology"; can one from understanding neurons derive human culture
and behaviour in its most general manifestations. Evolutionary theory, 150
years after the publication of "The Orgin of the Species" is still a hot
social and philosophical issue.
The three days created a true polyphony of perspectives from researchers and
artists, including neurobiologists, physiologists, anthropologists, literary
theorists, ethologists and archeologists and artists from play writers to
painters to new media artists.
A number of debate topics emerged, unresolved, they would warrant many
1) The search for invariants, universals. A basic approach in science
which is perhaps at odds with the search for creativity. The search for
universals in art interests scientists but not art theorists today.
2) The debate on reductionism. Can one from understanding neuronal
processes derive cognition and on to higher level processes such as
consciousness. This is of course the hard problem in the science of
consciousness, whether the bottom up and the top down approaches meet.
Neurobiologist Viond Dury articulated the shifting evidence and difficulties
in building a consistent story. Neuriobiologists study on the sub-second
scale, how to extrapolate to "culture' that evolves over decades.
3) The debate on what makes human different from other primates, or
rather viewing humans as part of a smooth continuity with other forms of
live. Is there a "rupture" in kind between humans and other forms of life.
If we count genes, humans are close cousins to earth worms. If we count
neuronal connections, the human has a very much higher level of complexity.
Ethologist Dominique Lestel took Changeux to task for always trying to
isolate humans as different in kind.
4) Our ontologies and taxonomies, and the inevitable "hierarchies" they
create in concept. Do our taxonomies make us blind to fundamental questions.
Louis Bec gave a great "performance" illustrated with the art-taxonomy
system he has created and his imaginary life forms.
5) Homo-centrism. The incredible variety of life forms on our planet,
both know and over the past few billion years. But our, understandable,
myopic focus on understanding human evolution. Ramon Guardans argued
forcefully for looking at the evolution of plants as a much richer source of
how life adapts to changing conditions.
6) Understandably we understand far better the cognition and
neurobiology of vision that we do of other senses, or other modes of
perception and cognition. Many of the artists present were uncomfortable
with the scientists focus on painting to the exclusion of the whole variety
of artforms, particularly interactive media and other experimental arts. The
whole body as sentient vs the sum of the senses.
7) The concept of the brain as an "input output" device and the use of
information processing theories, communication theory. Versus the view of
the brain as a "projection creating system' which interacts with the outer
world via the senses, in cybernetic cycles that allows the brain to settle
on 'consensual' realities. The misuse of information theory.
8) The debate on subject/object, and whether the individual experience
can ever be scientifically mapped; the problem of enaction and its
specifity. Changeux argued that there were objective correlates of
subjective experience. Martin Timsit talked about how the act of "averaging'
to obtain scientifically stable categories inevitably discards the
"outliers' and unique examples which are perhaps where artistic creativity
resides. The role of the anecdotal or rare examples ( the chimp that can tie
9) Is aesthetic experience isolatable as a specific experience. Natural
beauty versus beauty in artifacts; is there a neuronal difference ? Is
aesthetic experience a stable category ( cf an experience such as hunger).
10) The idea of progress still lurking. Changeux stated that science
progresses, art doesn't: it re'invents itself in each period. "trees" of
life. There are dead branches in evolution that can be reviced, but not in
art ? Impressionism makes sense as a response in 1900 not 2000. What metric
to use ? Complexity ? Suvival robustness?
The colloquium failed to resolve the key question whether there is strong
scientific evidence on how 'the arts and culture' have developed in an
evolutionary picture. Has evolution selected individuals or groups; does art
and culture create an evolutionary advantage in human societies. Changeux
took the optimistic position that they do ( with ethics and truth-seeking)
and indeed are survival traits in the centuries ahead.
It was an intense few days. We will be meeting in Marseille in a couple of
weeks to debrief and brainstorm next steps. Two strands on evolution and the
arts, and on neuro-aesthetics. A book. Maybe another symposium next year.
If you are interested in being involved contact me at rmalina(at)
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