The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece.  Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).

This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”

I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.

I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.

Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.

Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but 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 also note that you evade my challenge on the status of  epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)

I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:

The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.

You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.

I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:

So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology.  I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.

Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”

I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.

I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:

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.

Not a peep from Adam!

Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:

So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled.   There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer.  – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’.  Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.

Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it.  It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development.  When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.

Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.

Gopnik continues:

Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid.  Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table.  We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.

Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science.  But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art   stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom.  We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.)   You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.

And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.

Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).

I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t.  This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.

A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:

One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”

Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.

Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,

Art is not optional.  It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.  On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.

I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!

Thursday art: Banana bruiser and ambidextrous artist

April 22, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Here are two people who do art in an unusual way.  First, Anna Chojnicka makes ephemeral art by applying different degrees of pressure to banana skins. Her art lasts about ten minutes before it disappears, and then she noms the fruit. She’s very good at what she does.

Note the mallard drake at 39 seconds in!


Here’s an ambidextrous Dutch artist named Rajacenna who can draw completely different pictures with her two hands. I have no idea how one can even do this. And she’s no slouch as an artist!

What is art? What is vandalism?

April 8, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

I think Jerry’s en route now, so here’s something to occupy us while there’s a brief hiatus in posting.

The New York Times reports today that an abstract art work being displayed at a mall in Seoul was “vandalized” by two passerby. As part of the art work, brushes and open cans of paint were displayed in front of it. The couple assumed it was a participatory display, and joined in.

Photo of art work that was “vandalized” in Seoul, by Minwoo Park (NY Times).

The artist, John Andrew Perello, was angered, and said it reminded him of how the graffiti he put up while a youngster in New York was not appreciated. Perello began his career as a tagger in New York.

The questions to be discussed are:

  1. Was this vandalism?
  2. Who is the better artist, Perello or the couple?
  3. Was the vandalism invited by Perello so as to generate publicity (and hence increase the value of his art)?
  4.  Can you spot the vandalism?

The answers are

  1. No. I agree with the South Korean police.
  2. The couple. They have said a lot more with their modest additions than the original did.
  3. Probably not, since being talked about is the next to worst thing that can happen to a person.
  4. No, I couldn’t. (It is visible in the picture above.)

Feel free to disagree!

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 6, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

For today’s post we return to the New York City Subway 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History,this time for the amphibians.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

My favorite of the amphibians is this brooding caecilian, curled round its eggs. These legless, short-tailed amphibians are found only in the tropics, and there is no real English vernacular name for them. (You can find a Sicilian in the subway, but I prefer Neapolitan.)

Brooding caecilian. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

What appears to me to be a reed frog (Hyperolius sp.), an African tree frog of sorts, hangs on the wall next to a station identifying sign.

Reed frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This looks like a ranid frog to me– a member of the family Ranidae, perhaps intended to be a Rana proper. Many species in this and related genera look much alike the world over. Note the nicely delineated tympanic membrane.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This generic frog (I won’t even try to name a family for it) is leaping out of the Signal Room. Interestingly, the subway workers here believe in free will, apparently of the libertarian sort. A scratched note on the door reads, “Use other door→ | or this one– up to you”.

Frog. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

These well-rendered salamanders provide detail enabling specific identification. On the left we have a Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), a species of eastern North America (including the New York area), and on the right we have a Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), a species widely distributed in Europe. The American Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum; found in the New York area) is also black with yellow markings, but the yellow markings (quite variable in both species) look more like Salamandra to me, and the evident parotoid glands at the back of the head (making it look wide) are conclusive. Ambystoma and Salamandra are similar in size and body shape, and are sort of continental ecological analogues.

Salamanders. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

The Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) is one of the few surviving lobe-finned fishes, and as such is one of the tetrapods closest living relatives, and so is included here as an honorary amphibian. I don’t know why there is a question mark on its tail; in fact I never noticed it there before till just now.

Coelacanth. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finally, we have a group of patently Paleozoic fish. The artist has rendered them neither strictly from above (as though we were looking down on them in the ‘water’ of the paving tile) nor from the side, but in a sort of twisted view, allowing us to see various aspects. The bottom four may be intended to be the same type of fish (I’m not sure what kind), but the top one (which seems to be more of an exclusively side view– see the partly opened mouth) looks like one of those strange Paleozoic sharks, with a spiny first dorsal fin, and a heterocercal tail. You can also see more clearly in this photo how the lighter brown granite-like stone is integrated with the darker paving tile.

Fish on the floor. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There are other taxa represented in the tiles (e.g., ants), and other forms of art, including larger tiled murals, and casts of in-situ fossils projecting from the wall. Many of these works are depicted in a gallery at, a subway fan/history site. Some of those depicted I’ve never seen in person, because I always exit the station at the south (Museum) end, not at the north (81st Street) end.

(Looking at one of the pictures in the gallery now, I see the undersea mosaic mural has  a coelacanth-shaped gray silhouette in the otherwise colorful tiles; could the question mark noted above be related to the coealcanth’s absence here?)

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 5, 2021 • 8:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Today’s post features subterranean wildlife, but not of the fossorial kind. It has wildlife you can see in the New York subway, but it’s not “pizza rat” or his later avatars: it’s the wildlife art of the 8th Avenue local (B and C trains) station at 81st-Museum of Natural History.

81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Elegant tile-work has long been a signature note of the New York subways, and when the station was renovated (reopening in 2000), the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority collaborated in creating extensive artwork for the station, one of whose exits goes directly into the Museum.

We’ll start with my favorite, what is clearly a hatchling Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis; the proportions, especially the large head, show it’s a hatchling). The Museum clearly had significant input on the designs, although it’s not always clear if the artists followed exact specifications for species identification, but in this case I’m confident. Important work on anoles was done by former curators James Oliver and G.K. Noble, and the latter’s anole work was mostly on this species.

Hatchling green anole (Anolis carolinensis). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll continue with the rest of the lizards. The next is clearly a monitor lizard, and it’s bulk indicates it’s a Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis).

Monitor lizard. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next up is a basilisk or Jesus Christ lizard (Basiliscus sp.), famed for their bipedal locomotion, which includes the ability to skitter Christ-like across the surface of bodies of water for short distances. This mosaic introduces an element common to the artwork, the depiction of extinct forms as grayed “ghost” silhouettes, often paired with an extant form. In this case we have two bipedal diapsids: the basilisk and the theropod dinosaur Deinonychus (note the ‘terrible claw’ and short snout); the latter is about life size, but the basilisk is greater than life size. (This is an estimate, but I think the white tiles are either 4″X4″ or 5″X5″; if anyone knows the size–or can measure!–put it in the comments.)

Basilisk with ghost Deinonychus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

There’s a chameleon (Chamaeleo sp.). I’ve not attempted to determine the species. (It could be intended to be a species in another genus in the family Chamaeleontidae, but Chamaeleo is the type genus, and will do as at least approximately correct.) A nice detail is that the zygodactlous left front foot (‘hand’) can be seen grasping the black tiles, as though the latter constituted a tree branch. (The hind feet are curiously stubby-looking.)

Chameleon. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Snakes are, of course, just glorified lizards. This one’s head and neck, and the fact that it hangs from the ‘branch’ make it look like a vine snake, but I’ll offer no more of a guess than that. Note how, as in the Chamaeleo above, the artwork can ‘overlay’ the regular wall design.

Snake. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is a fairly nondescript snake, superimposed on the long tail of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. The whole dinosaur looked like Diplodocus to me.

Snake with ghost sauropod dinosaur. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Having finished the order Squamata, we move on to the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), not a lizard, but the sole living member of the order Rhynchocephalia. This is another of my favorites.

Tuatara. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

This broad-snouted crocodilian looks like an alligatorid, and is nicely paired with a Stegosaurus. Were it black, I would readily identify it as an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), but the greenish-brown color makes me hesitate. The details of form in this one are not as satisfying as they are in most of the others. Note how the tail tip, which extends on to the dark paving tiles of the floor and trim, is rendered in a different type of tile.

Alligatorid with ghost Stegosaurus. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Next is another favorite, an adult male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). The two things I like most about this one are the inclusion of the narial excrescence, a rarely depicted seasonally-present secondary sexual character of male gharials, and that the dark paving tile stones are treated as the ‘water’, from which the Gharial emerges. The dark stone is replaced with a lighter brown granite-like material to indicate the parts ‘underwater’. If you enlarge the image and look carefully, you can see that the outline of the Gharial is also continued into the glossy black enamel tiles. Although not visible in this photo, the body curls through the enamel tiles, and the Gharial’s tail re-enters the paving tiles, to again be represented by the granite-like stone.

Male Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus). 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

Finishing up the reptiles we have a giant tortoise. The surviving species of giant tortoise are from Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. The somewhat high front opening of the carapace is more characteristic of some of the subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) than of the Aldabra Tortoise, and so I will go with that as a species identification.

Giant tortoise. 81st St.-Museum of Natural History station, New York subway, July 17, 2019.

We’ll finish off our subway tour with the amphibians and a few fish tomorrow.

White translator cancels himself after criticized for translating Amanda Gorman

March 1, 2021 • 9:00 am

We’ll have a series of short takes today, as I’m unable to brain. Bear with me. Several of the items may be about race (I haven’t yet decided what to post), but of course that topic is now foremost in America’s consciousness.

The headline from the Times of London below is deeply misleading, implying that a white translator doesn’t want to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Gorman, of course became famous after reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Biden and Harris’s inaugural. Truth be told, I found her poem superficial and trite (as I’ve said, this kind of verse doesn’t strike me as real poetry), but she’s only 22 or 23.

Regardless, the headline is just wrong. What the title really means is that a well known Dutch writer had already been commissioned to translate Gorman’s Inaugural poem, and had done so, but then they (note below) withdrew from the project after criticism that a white translator shouldn’t deal with the poems of a black woman.

The translator is Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who won the International Booker Prize at 29 for their novel (Rijneveld uses plural pronouns) The Discomfort of Evening. Because the Times is paywalled, I’ve put the details below, but if you have access you can see the article in this screenshot.

An excerpt

“We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation,” the 22-year-old American poet Amanda Gorman proclaimed in her celebrated performance at President Biden’s inauguration last month.

Yet this appears to be precisely what has happened to the author chosen to render Gorman’s poem into Dutch. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 29, the youngest person to have won the international Booker prize, has pulled out of the project after critics suggested that it was inappropriate for a white person to translate an African-American poet’s works. Rijneveld’s translation of The Hill We Climb was due to be published on March 20 by Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands.

Janice Deul, a Dutch cultural activist, said an opportunity had been missed by handing the contract to Rijneveld. “She . . . has no experience in this realm but is still, according to Meulenhoff, the ‘dream translator’,” Deul wrote in the newspaper Volkskrant.

Yesterday Rijneveld renounced the deal, saying: “I understand people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s choice to ask me.” The publisher said it “hoped to learn from the experience”.

De Telegraaf, a conservative newspaper, said that Rijneveld had “kowtowed to woke activists”.

Well, first note the publisher’s contrition, as if it had done something wrong. Or maybe it just learned to commission only translators of the same gender and ethnicity of the author they’re translating, and if you don’t do that you’ll get into trouble.

But you don’t have to be a critic of Wokeism to question what kind of mentality finds a white person unfit to translate the poems of a black person, or vice versa. Is Gorman’s poem (see link above), somehow so deeply infused with the black experience that only a black translator could do it justice? I don’t think so; read the text and see for yourself. (My German is good enough to translate it into that language, but I wouldn’t risk it.) Moreover, the prose is simple and would seem to be well within the ability of any writer fluent in both Dutch and English and who writes very well (nearly all Dutch people are fluent in English!).

Tell me if my view is off base, because of course Gorman’s poem deals with racism. But I think Deul’s objection is wrongheaded, representing a view that members of a given race are simply the only people who can translate works written by members of that race. This implies, of course, that there is a homogeneity of experience and thought, including artistic thought, within races that makes such a move necessary. Would a black translator, according to these lights, be unfit to translate the poems of Sylvia Plath? Yet reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist (I’m almost done), I see that this view is diametrically opposed to Kendi’s own claim that there is no such thing as “black culture.” (It’s actually hard for me to guess what Kendi would say about this translation, as he sometimes takes contradictory stands in his book.)

At any rate, this event really nothing new, as we know from the use of “sensitivity readers” for young adult literature. Still, I find it sad to think that people of one background can’t empathize with those of another sufficiently to translate a poem. But that seems to be the way the world is going.

World’s oldest representational art: an Indonesian warty pig from 45,000 years ago

January 23, 2021 • 1:45 pm

Here from Science Advances via National Geographic, is the painting of a wild pig from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. AT 45,000 years old, it’s world’s oldest cave art, and in fact the oldest known representational art of any sort.


Here’s the paper reporting it (click on screenshot), and a free pdf is here:

The very oldest art comes not from Europe or Africa, but from Indonesia; but surely there was much earlier representational art. The subject is presumably a Celebes warty pig (Sus celebensis), a species still with us, and the artist presumably an anatomically modern human (H. sapiens sapiens).

Here’s the subject. Not a bad representation, eh?

From Wild Pig, Peccary & Hippo Specialist Groups.

And a few words from the authors (“AMH” means “anatomically modern humans”)

On the basis of the presently available evidence, we are unable to definitively conclude that the dated figurative rock art depiction from Leang Tedongnge is the handiwork of cognitively “modern” members of our species. However, this seems to be the most likely explanation given the sophistication of this early representational artwork and the fact that figurative depiction has so far only been attributed to AMH everywhere else in the world.

If so, the dated pig image from Leang Tedongnge would appear to provide some of the earliest evidence, if not the earliest, for the presence of our species in Wallacea. The minimum age of this artwork is compatible with the earliest established indications of AMH from excavated deposits in the Lesser Sunda islands, which formerly provided the oldest archaeological evidence for H. sapiens in Wallacea (~44.6 ka cal BP). Hence, dating results for the Leang Tedongnge painting underline the view that representational art, including figurative animal art and depictions of narrative scenes, was a key part of the cultural repertoire of the first AMH populations to cross from Sunda into Wallacea—the gateway to the continent of Australia.

Reader’s wildlife paintings

December 25, 2020 • 9:15 am

I wasn’t going to put up a readers’ wildlife feature today, but Jacques Hausser from Switzerland sent me a series of lovely beetle drawings that he did to illustrate Christmas cards. So here’s his Christmas card to us. Jacques’ commentary:

Just before the era of digital photography, I realised that I didn’t know anything about entomology. To begin with insects, I decided to draw (and to try to identify) some coleopterans. This virtuous decision didn’t survive the arrival of my first digital camera, and I turned to photography.  During this cloudy and rainy December, I looked back at these old drawings, and I thought it was a good idea to use them to make some Christmas gifts. Then, as I hadn’t sent any valuable photos to Jerry for a long time, I thought I’d submit the result to “Readers’ wildlife photos” even if they are not photos. I arranged the drawings in three plates without respect for the relative size of the beetles or their systematic position. And a caveat: some names may be old, and I cannot exclude a mistake!
There are three plates (in order), and I’ll put the identifications of the beetles below the fold. Click to enlarge.
Plate 1:

Plate 2:

Plate 3:

Click “read more” for the IDs:

Continue reading “Reader’s wildlife paintings”

Joyce Carol Oates eulogizes her late husband in a science journal

December 11, 2020 • 11:30 am

This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.

I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.

This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.

I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):

An excerpt:

If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.

Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.

. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.

For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.

Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.

Bryce Canyon at twilight:

Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:


Charlie in Antarctica, photo by Rowena Gross:

Our auction is still running with three days to go: a multiply autographed and illustrated copy of Faith versus Fact

December 6, 2020 • 9:00 am

As I noted a few days ago, Kelly Houle and I are running an eBay auction for charity, with the object up for bid being a multiply-autographed hardback copy of Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.  The copy for sale has 28 signatures of famous secularists, including the three surviving “horsemen”: Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, as well as others like Steve Pinker, James Randi, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, and Julia Sweeney. It’s also signed by three Nobel Laureates: Harold Varmus, Adam Riess, and David Gross. See all the signers on my post or the auction site itself. It’s also signed by Kelly and me (I added a crude cat drawing.)

Further, the book has been illuminated with the calligraphy and artwork of our favorite natural-history artist, Kelly Houle, who did a superb title-page drawing and also a few cat drawings. Her artwork on the book can also be seen at the two sites.

Kelly and I did this previously with Why Evolution is True, earning more than $10,300 for a charity, in that case Doctors Without Borders. This year all auction proceeds go to Helen Keller International, an efficient and highly-rated charity that helps alleviate blindness and malnutrition throughout the world. (Peter Singer highlighted it as one of his favorite charities.) As a bonus, the Friends of Helen Keller International have pledged to double any donation, so whoever buys the book will have the satisfaction of contributing twice what they pay to a good humanitarian cause.

The price, with three days left to go, is still lower than I expected, as you can see from the screenshot below (click on it to join the fun). Remember, I schlepped that book around for five years from meeting to meeting, all to collect signatures for this auction. And Kelly labored through long nights doing the artwork. It’s worth more!

Kelly’s illumination of the title page (there are others) and one page of autographs.

One page also has Kelly’s anamorphic mirror drawing of James Randi, one of the signers; the mirror comes with the book:

If you have the dosh and want a unique book with great artwork and a collection of signatures never to be repeated (remember, Randi passed away recently), go over and bid. Or call the auction to the attention of those who might be interested. Remember, neither Kelly nor I make a penny from this, and Helen Keller International uses 82.5% of the donations for its programs—a very high proportion.

How can you overlook a book recommended by The Pinkah? (He also reviewed it favorably in Current Biology.)