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The road to objectivity in science is paved with subjectivity. Einstein, who is often quoted as saying that in creative science, “imagination is more important than knowledge,” also noted that despite the objective nature of scientific results, “science in the making, science as an end to be pursued, is as subjective and psychologically conditioned as any other branch of human endeavor.” The object of experiment, proof and analysis is to expunge this subjective residue from the final statements of scientific fact. But to ignore the subjective, even idiosyncratic origins of imaginative ideas in science is to cripple its creative potential.
Figure 1. Desmond Morris’s The Presentation,1976. (Paintings reproduced by permission of the artist.)
Consider the work of maverick Desmond Morris as an example of how unusual the beginnings of ideas can be. Morris is perhaps best known as the author of The Naked Ape (1967), Manwatching (1977) and similarly unconventional studies of human and animal behavior. Science is only one of his loves; the other is art.
Morris is a surrealist painter and filmmaker. A measure of his success is that he took part in a three-person exhibit with one of the greatest of all surrealists, Joan Miro, at the truly tender age of 21. He is currently regarded as a reputable professional with a long list of major exhibits at some of the finest galleries. He even did the jacket painting for Richard Dawkins’s well-received book The Blind Watchmaker (1986).
Morris actually began pursuing art before he began science. In fact, one of his primary motivations in studying animal behavior with Niko Tinbergen was to improve his observational and drawing skills. In consequence, Morris’s scientific style draws a great deal from surrealism. In both, there is the ineluctable element of chance, whether it is the random process of evolution or the unforeseen way in which his subconscious informs a painting.
There is also the “joy of exaggeration,” which is equally a cornerstone of surrealist art and of Morris’s approach to understanding human behavior. Compare Magritte’s painting of a woman’s face in which the eyes are breasts and the mouth the pubic hair with Morris’s discussion in The Naked Ape of the lips as facial vaginas or noses as facial penises. There is in these examples a shock of juxtaposition as well, which again forms one of the foundations of most surrealist art.
Figure 2. Morris’s The Agitator,1976.
What happens, Morris asks, when we take mundane things out of their usual context and look at them from an unexpected perspective? Finally, Morris’s art and science share the invention of images. His scientific work, whether it is on the role of human and animal sexual displays or nonverbal forms of communication, the evolution of art or the history of human fashion, is fully as visual as his painting.
The connections between Morris’s art and science have a methodological basis as well. Like any surrealist, Morris uses dreams to draw images from unconscious feelings. The artist, rather than directing the image that appears, becomes merely the means by which the images are expressed. As a teenager, Morris had a dream that led him to use the same approach in his science. In his dream, he became an animal, experiencing nature as the ani mal did. This is also how he does his science: “I at tempt ... to put myself in the animal’s place, so that its problems become my problems, and I read nothing into its lifestyle that [is] alien to its partic ular species. The dream said it all.”
In some cases, Morris’s art and his science even overlap in content. Almost all of his art work concerns the evolution of a subconscious universe of biomorphs that populate his pictures. These biomorphs eventually became the subject of Morris’s1983 novel, Inrock. What Morris even tually realized was that he was using his imaginary world to explore the principles of evolution.
Figure 3. Desmond Morris in his studio,1986.
Figure 4. Leaves changing color in the fall,as captured by the lens of Thomas Eisner, an ecologist who studies chemical
The “bizarre” inhabitants of Inrock courted,fought, bred and behaved just like the the inhab itants of any real–world environment. The result ing paintings are therefore just as full of depic tions of aggression displays, territorial fights, courtship rituals, sex acts, sexual habits and sex ual organs as is Morris’s popular science writing.
To Observe, Not Just to See
Morris’s art suffuses his science as well. He is jus tifiably known as one of the pioneers of the study of “infra-human” or animal art, collecting and analyzing hundreds of paintings and drawings by chimpanzees and gorillas. His evolutionary study of the origins of artistic expression, The Bi ology of Art (1962) is a classic.
He also executed more than 5,000 line draw ings for his book on The Art of Cyprus (1985), a seminal contribution to “archaeo-aesthetics.” It is an interest he shares with another pioneer of evolutionary biology, Mary Leakey, who also be gan her career as an artist, drawing archeological finds for other scientists. She later wrote another classic of archaeo-aesthetics, Africa’s Vanishing Art: The Rock Paintings of Tanzania (1983).
Finally, Morris, like Mary Leakey and many other scientists, says that his art has trained his scientific eye to observe, not just to see. As neu roanatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal once wrote,
The act of depicting something disciplines and strengthens the attention,obliging us to cov er the whole of the phenomenon studied and preventing, therefore, details from escaping our attention which are frequently unnoticed to or dinary observation.... It is not without reason that all great observers are skillful in sketching.
Certainly art has helped Morris to develop what fellow ethologist Konrad Lorenz once de scribed as the “secret of looking.”
To really understand animals and their be havior, you must have an esthetic appreciation of an animal’s beauty. This endows you with the patience to look at them long enough to see something. Without that joy in just looking, not even a yogi would have the patience.
As eccentric as he is, Morris is far from being unique in his methods. Many ethologists, includ ing Lorenz, Dian Fosse and Roger Kingdon, have said that aesthetic considerations and empathizing are keys to their success. Jane Goodall, for exam ple, has written that many of those studying the chimpanzees of Gombe developed a degree of empathy that allowed subtle communication clues, and thus clues to complex social practices, to be more readily detected. She goes on to caution that any insights gained in this way must, of course, be tested rigorously by repeated observa tion. Empathy yields the insight; testing validates (or invalidates) it.
defense and communication systems in insects.
The surprising thing is that one need not be an ethologist to partake of the fun stemming from empathy. Thomas Eisner, an ecologist who has pioneered the study of the chemical defense and communications systems of insects, has had dreams just like Morris’s. Born in Uruguay, he became so familiar with the local insects that he says he used to dream that he talked to the ants in Spanish. “Once I [even] dreamed I was an in sect talking to insects and telling them I dreamed I was human.” Also like Morris, he has a highly refined aesthetic sense (instilled in him in part by his artist-mother), which in his case is ex pressed through award-winning photographs.
Barbara McClintock, who received a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, also empathized with her material. She talked often about having a “feeling for the organism” that extended even to identifying with kernels of corn or the indi vidual chromosomes within them. Like Morris, she often lost herself in these reveries:
I found that the more I worked with [chro mosomes], the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn’t outside, I was down there. I was part of the system…. As you look at these things, they become part of you. And you forget yourself. The main thing about it is you forget yourself.
Acting, Imagining, Inventing
This ability to empathize with objects of study is
extremely widespread, even among those who study inanimate nature. Biologist Joshua Lederberg and physicist Jacob Shaham have both writ ten that the scientist needs the ability to become an actor in a play, taking on a part so completely that he can bring it to life. How do genes behave? What is the physical meaning-even more, the physical feeling-of a set of equations? Jonas Salk spoke of becoming a virus and imagining the response that the immune system would make, Jacques Monod of identifying himself with “a molecule of protein,” chemists Peter Debye and Robert Woodward of getting a literal “feel” for what carbon atoms “wanted” to do.
Insights, according to these people, proceed not from words or equations, but from feeling and visualizing the object of study so completely that one empathizes with it, becomes unified with it. As Einstein once wrote,
The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are … in my case, of visual and some of a muscular type. Conven tional words or other signs [presumably math ematics] have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage.
Similarly metallurgist C. S. Smith has said that “The stage of discovery was purely sensual and mathematics was only necessary to be able to communicate with other people.”
In short, Morris and his fellow iconoclasts are telling us that there is more to doing good science than the textbooks let on. Logic can prove, but it cannot invent. Scientific insight and inspi ration stem from empathy, feelings, dreams, vi sions or, more simply, what Max Planck (himself a concert-calibre pianist) has called the “artisti cally creative imagination.” Cyril Smith sums it up this way:
I have slowly come to realize that the ana lytic quantitative approach I had been taught to regard as the only respectable one for a sci entist is insufficient…. the richest aspects of any large and complicated system arise from factors that cannot be measured easily, if at all. For these the artist’s approach, uncertain though it inevitably is, seems to convey more meaning.
Morris knows this too. He not only admits to “leakage” between his art and his science; he en courages it. He says his artwork allows him to in vent and explore what might be, whereas his acute observing skills and ethological studies allow him to see what is. Both are essential to doing science if one believes that science is, as Francois Jacob has written, a “game … of continually inventing a pos sible world, or a piece of a possible world, and then comparing it with the real world.”
Morris advocates teaching people purposeful ly to combine “the imaginative and the analyti cal-the artist and scientist- … to be both at once.” Only in this way can current dogmas be challenged, the unknown imagined and the realms of the possible explored.
Robert Root-Bernstein received his A.B. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University, did his postdoctoral work with Jonas Salk and is currently professor of physiology at Michigan State University, where he works on autoimmune diseases. He is also a visual artist and cellist with a strong interest in sci ences-arts interactions. Address: Department of Physiology,
108 Giltner Hall, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1101. Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org.