Monday, December 17, 2012

Thumbs Down: Ancient Clues or Cultural Constraints?

Last week at Harvard's Sackler Museum I photographed and took notes on what I considered to be a remarkable artifact of ancient Egypt--a single wooden arm. Several things about it fascinated me. First, its superb form, the dimensions stylized but perfect. Second, the fact that it was flat on the inside part, where it would have been attached to a larger sculpture. Third, the fact that it was made from wood, ostensibly a rare and precious commodity in a desert country. Perhaps the most amazing feature of this arm, which belonged to a striding figure, was its partially fisted hand with a beautifully tapered thumb aimed straight downward. My "find" merited several minutes of observation and a return visit.

Call me naive. I am. And easily swayed by the visual. But I found this particular object fascinating, inviting me to think on it more.

Fast forward to today when I stopped at the MFA for lunch with my friend Nancy Berliner. Waiting for our noontime rendezvous I was cornered by a herd of school kids guess where? In the ancient Egyptian rooms.

Taking a minute to observe what was there, I found myself mano a mano with a whole series of wood sculptures of striding figures, all proportioned stylistically but beautifully, all with hollow arms articulated at the shoulder, and all with thumbs pointed elegantly downward. It occurred to me that my Sackler arm was perhaps not that unique, in fact I considered the possibility that it may have been an ancient copy of an ancient copy of an ancient copy. Maybe the downturned thumb means something and maybe it's just a style. A stylized constraint that was de rigeur for Egyptian statuary of a certain time and place.

Why am I writing about it here in the context of botany instead of in my other blog, (Scientist/Artist) where I explore the connections between art and science, cognition and aesthetics? Why is it here in Botany Without Borders?

In my opinion the copy of copy of copy syndrome is emblematic of much of my experience as a botanist. Lucky to be ensconced in the botanical libraries at Harvard, I familiarized myself with classic texts that reached back hundreds of years. Studying many of these texts it became apparent to me that the scientific images in them persisted, almost identically, in series of editions by generations of authors from all over Europe. Images we had come to take for granted in the late 20th century had, in many cases, originated in the 17th century or earlier. There were even examples of images copied from Greek texts by the Roman Dioscorides, that had persisted all the way into our own time! This represented a deeply conservative strain in science that I came to understand only gradually, a mindset with unmistakable consequences.

If a picture is worth a thousand words imagine the hidebound character of a science meant to enlighten and discover. Imagine my response when I came to understand that the accepted concept of species, evidence for evolution, was a pre-Darwinian phenomenon that glided over the inconvenient fact of descent with modification.

Last month I reviewed a paper on the fascinating Galápagos Islands, the spot where Darwin had one of his "eureka" moments about the evolutionary process. The authors of the paper I was reading used dozens of journal pages to discuss the fact (to them) that no new species of their study group exist in the Galapagos. They didn't deny evolution in their paper, just implied that it didn't happen in their neighborhood, not with the species they studied. The pile of words, descriptions, measurements, dates, elevations, and specimen numbers was a kind of filibuster intended to make their point.

In the same way, thousands of wood arms were manufactured in ancient Egypt, but the artisans didn't dare waver from the stylistic constraint determined by unwritten, perhaps unspoken cultural rules.

Whether we are doing art or science or anything in between I think it's our job to learn the rules, then learn why we have them, and finally, to apply critical thinking to our decision about just how much we want to figure them into our practice. The alternative is to continue, potentially at least, misguiding generations to come.

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