Book Review of The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience by Mathew Rampley

Reviewed by Amy Ione, May 2020

It is not surprising that Mathew Rampley’s book, The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience, caught my eye since the volume touches on a number of topics covered in my own Art and the Brain: Plasticity, Embodiment, and the Unclosed Circle. [1] What did surprise me is that, despite analyzing many of the same subjects (cave painting, evolutionary psychology, art history, neuroaesthetics, neuroarthistory, etc.), the two books are worlds apart, even as we share similar goals. Both of us state that we seek to encourage humanistic thinking and voice reservations about the scientific and philosophical research surrounding art, neuroscience, and evolution. Yet, while I agree with Rampley’s premise that efforts to construct a “unity of knowledge” theory are misconceived, I found that his book read like a polemic, with arguments more along the lines of “not this, not that” than a humanistic probing of the contours of art, evolution, and neuroscience. This reaction is one the author himself acknowledges as possible, writing: “[m]uch of the discussion will come across as polemical in tone” (p. viii) and “[i]t would be reasonable to conclude, given the polemical tone adopted in this book, that I see neo-Darwinian approaches as having little value” (p. 140). Thus, my principal take-away was a humanistic-type question: Why is it that two people who review much of the same range of information can come away worlds apart? He is clear that, “It might be objected that I am relying on a reductive and overly empirical notion of inquiry, one based on the testing of hypotheses, and that this approach is particularly problematic when applied to the humanities” (p. 139); consistent with this statement, I take a more dialogical humanistic type of approach to the issues.

The Seductions of Darwin itself consists of an informative introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The bulk of the book outlines what Rampley sees as persistent weaknesses in theories of art that assume (presume) a Darwinian or neuroscientific perspective. What was most prominent within this is that he is looking for a unifying explanatory methodology (despite his claim that efforts to construct “unity of knowledge” theories are flawed). This paradoxical strategy lands him in a space that largely mirrors the theoretical problems inherent in the arguments he rejects.

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Was Kandinsky a Synaesthete?

Take a look at  Dyedra K. C. Just‘s paper “Was Kandinsky a Synaesthete? Examining His Writings and Other Evidence,” which examines a subject also examined by Amy Ione and Christopher Tyler  in their paper “Was Kandinsky a Synesthete?
Below is the abstract for the D. K. C. Just paper:

Wassily Kandinsky is widely regarded as one of the most prominent examples of a synaesthetic artist. However, in the scientific literature there is disagreement on the genuineness of his synaesthesia. This paper investigates whether Kandinsky had inborn synaesthesia, while acknowledging that there are also types of induced synaesthesia which he may have cultivated. As these two types of synaesthesia are seen to work additively in some synaesthetes and not to be mutually exclusive, this is not seen as an argument against the view that he was a true inborn synaesthete. Whether Kandinsky was a synaesthete is examined through a detailed study of his primary writings (e.g., On the Spiritual in Art, Point and Line to Plane, and Reminiscences), in light of the modern diagnostic criteria. The experiences described in those writings indicate that his synaesthetic perceptions were genuine and inborn and not just a theoretical endeavour. Given the genetic dimension of synaesthesia, this view is further supported by the fact that Kandinsky’s uncle Victor Kandinsky also described having synaesthetic experiences.

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Call for Artists: Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS) Residencies

Open AIR 2020 Artist-in-Residence Opportunity Spotlight: Summer and Fall sessions available at the Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS).

Stay in a quaint cabin.  Learn about the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi with access to researchers, undergrad and grad students, interns, taxonomic collections, analytical Lab, sensor lab, tool shop and more!

Flathead Lake Biological Station, University of Montana is one of the oldest active biological field research stations in the United States. It was established near Bigfork in 1899 by its first director, Dr. Morton J. Elrod, UM Distinguished Professor of Biology. It was moved to Yellow Bay in 1908.

Applications Due: March 1st.

Call for artists! Rising: Climate in Crisis Residencies at A Studio in the Woods

Apply for Rising: Crisis in Climate Residencies by April 13

A Studio in the Woods is now accepting applications for Rising: Climate in Crisis Residencies. The call is open to artists of all disciplines who have demonstrated an established dialogue with environmental and culturally related issues and a commitment to seeking and plumbing new depths. Residencies are 6 weeks, will take place between September 2020 and May 2021, and include a $2500 stipend and $2000 materials budget.

Proposals are due by April 13th and residencies will be awarded by June 12th, 2020. Direct questions to Cammie Hill-Prewitt at info@astudiointhewoods.org.

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RIP: Jonathan Miller (1934-2019)

Jonathan Miller (1934-2019) was an English theatre and opera director, actor, author, television presenter, humorist and medical doctor. After training in medicine and specializing in neurology in the late 1950s, he came to prominence in the early 1960s in the comedy revue Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. He died 27 November 2019 at the age of 85. Obituary here.

At the age of 12, at the St. Paul’s School, his lifelong friendship with Dr. Oliver Sacks began. Indeed, the neurologist’s journey to international fame began when Mr. Miller showed the original manuscript of Dr. Sacks’s book “Awakenings” to a London publisher.

Another noteworthy interdisciplinary project was in 1983 with “States of Mind.” He interviewed the art historian Ernst Gombrich, the philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett and others about consciousness and the brain.

In 1978 he presented “The Body in Question,” a 13-part BBC series about human biology during which he performed an autopsy on a dead vagrant. The book from that series, The Body in Question, is available here.

Nature Essay: 150 years of scientific illustration by Geoffrey Belknap

Image-making, research and visual technologies have shaped each other over the past century and a half, argues Geoffrey Belknap, marking Nature’s anniversary. here

From the essay:

“Over the years, Nature adapted through its succession of editors, with, in recent decades, ‘sister’ journals carving out their own space in increasingly specialized scientific disciplines. Images remained central throughout. For instance, in 1896, Nature published physicist Wilhelm Röntgen’s first X-ray plates1; in the 1920s, maps to debate Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift2; and in 1968, the graphs that described astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars.”