16 November 2008


Ruben said...

"pretty apes and ugly Australians" LOL

However, how is this art, let alone science..?

Dirk said...

This is art in the sense that the artist, Ernst Haeckel in this case, used his artistic skills to humanize apes and apefy humans. See for example humans 5 and 6, who in a sense seem more apelike than apes 7 and 8 who look very humanlike. All very unrealistic of course, as is the 'Ideal Head' (fig.1) which goes back to Goethe. As for how this is science, nineteenth century taxology and evolutionary hierarchy scales were part of the booming evolutionary late nineteenth century science. Beauty was thought to be the defining factor in scaling the different races. The overall argument of art influencing science and vice versa has also a present relevance. Is not every contemporary scientific theory or model valued for its inherent beauty which in most cases is based on simplicity, intelligibility, comprehensiveness, concisiveness, practicality etc?

Ruben said...

How art influences science is a really interesting question! How did scientists react to Haeckel's drawing? Of course these early social sciences fall victim to these accusations of being non-scientific more easily than others. But are today's theory's in sciences like physics really appreciated for their inherent beauty? Often they are highly complex, only really understood by a handful of physicists on the world; the idea for a Theory of Everything has been around for decades but got never realised, and these highly theoretical constructs usually stand far from a practical application. Art is appreciated because it speaks to people, their emotions and thoughts. Scientific theories seem to do everything opposite.

I have been thinking about examples of this in China, but don't seem to be able to come up with an example like the man-apes. But philosophy surely did influence Chinese scholars. Throughout Chinese history there was the principle of harmony between man and nature. For example, concepts of universal qi, yin and yang were adopted by Chinese medicine, not because this philosophy is so beautiful, but because it showed the relation between man and the environment and moreover was useful in the recognition of disease and the categorisation of diseases and treatments. This aspect of practicality is always present in Chinese sciences.

Dirk said...

Haeckel, himself a natural historian, was very well received in his time. For his evolutionary scale drawings he relied a lot on the work of T.H. Huxley. His "science" was received as science, although Darwin thought it sometimes went too far and clouded the nuance of the theory of evolution. But then again, people like Huxley, who courageously popularized science were important, even Darwin thought.
As for the beauty. It, of course, is a really subjective notion. But is science rely that different? Contemporary scientific theories may be very complex, but it is believed vital for a theory to explain as much by being as precise as possible. Or, in Popper's words, on which this, for a large part, is based, a scientific theory should be falsifiable; it should try to explain a lot and be vulnerable to counter-evidence. The vulnerability is basically empircism, or the grounding of a theory in sense data. As for the beauty, a theory which can explain as much or more with less words and exceptions is usually preferred as the better theory, I would like to think [Ockham's razor]. That is not to say that most theories are still very incomprehensible, only that an easier, way of explaining it is not available yet.

Science is also appreciated because it speaks to people, their emotions and thoughts. F.e. Darwin's Origin of Species is piece of written work which is rich in language and meaning. I can refer to Gillian Beer, 'Darwins Plots', who argues Darwin was a writer as well as a scientist. His use of the metaphor of "natural selection" and words like facts was thick with Victorian culture. It resonated in different ways with a lot of different people.

As for your Chinese science; practicality is a beautiful thing. Harmony, as it was for Kepler, depended on the beauty and order of the universe. I guess the Chinese were no different in this than Western natural philosophers in the early modern period.

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