Over at The Conversation site, I’ve posted a response (“Letter 7”) to New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in our continuing debate about the question posted by the title below (click on screenshot). This is my last response, as I started the sequence and each of us gets four “letters”.
In his last letter (“Letter 6”), Adam emphasized that I hadn’t answered several of his challenges, including his demand that I weigh in about two sub-fields of evolutionary biology: epigenetics as a means of adaptation, and evolutionary psychology. As Adam said, “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.”
I didn’t have the space to respond to both of these, as they’re tangential to our exchange, but I did defend the field (though of course not all the work) of evolutionary psychology. As for epigenetics, I don’t think it’s been shown to be an important cause of adaptive evolution in organisms, although there are cases where environmentally-induced epigenetic modifications of the DNA can persist for several generations.
Adam’s last letter also began his defense of the claim that abstract art and music can convey “knowledge”. I took issue with that, as I think it’s palpably false. But you can see my arguments in Letter #7. I also issued my own challenge to Adam:
But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.” And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet? If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.
Needless to say, I am not denigrating the value of literature, music, and art, as those who follow this site know that I’m a big booster of the arts. I am simply arguing that neither the purpose nor the effect of art like this is to convey “knowledge”.
I look forward to Adam’s final letter. After that, our discussion will have reached its end.