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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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power Reviewed by Amy Ione

Book cover. Soul of a NationReview:
Mark Godfrey, Zoé Whitley, Curators

de Young Museum, San Francisco, 9 Nov. 2019-8 Mar. 2020
Exhibition organized by Tate Modern
Catalog by D.A.P./Tate; 2017, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-1942884170.

In balancing a range of art practices with socio-political realities, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 effectively demonstrates that there isn’t a Black art per se but rather a Black experience that informs what, how, and where Black artists present and re-present. The project also superbly presents the rich contributions of African American artists are an important and integral part of American Art, despite their often being underrepresented in art histories. While the catalog expands one’s understanding of the exhibition immeasurably, I was glad to have the opportunity to engage with the actual size works so as to optimally experience the interweaving of artistic insights and materials with concepts like Black Power, Black Pride and the array of social realities that informed the work (e.g., the Watts riots) [1]. Still, the catalog is invaluable. Reading curator Mark Godfrey’s essay on Black abstraction in the publication before visiting the exhibition primed me to see the socio-political elements through the eyes of individual artists musing about material objects and black identify in tandem. In essence, his essay, co-curator Zoé Whitley’s essay, and the recollections from a number of people associated with this art in the documentation, all of whom were black participants, further underscored that there is a black American culture to celebrate, one that has thrived despite its peripheral place within institutions. Furthermore, the written material demonstrate the value of critically engaging with objects on a number of levels.

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Book Review: The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce

Reviewed by Amy Ione.   

The Technical Delusion: Electronics, Power, Insanity by Jeffrey Sconce is a robust and multidimensional reminder of the complexity of human consciousness. Moving from Enlightenment studies of electricity and human anatomy to our 21st century digitally-connected globe, this interdisciplinary study asserts that delusions of electronic persecution have been a preeminent symptom of psychosis for over 200 years. One impressive feature of the study is how deftly Sconce weaves together case studies, literary source material, court cases, and popular media. Through this material he argues that we are moving toward an increasingly psychotic reality in which data practices will produce a world in which thought, reflection, and doubt will be disrupted by the very structures humans are putting in place. In his view, the current melding of big data and political power is creating a situation in which it is becoming more difficult to isolate precisely how (or perhaps where) bodies, the mind, electronics, and information intersect. He draws a parallel between psychotic disembodiment and electronic simulations:

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Review of A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species

Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2019
Published: Leonardo Reviews

A Different Kind of Animal is based on two lectures Robert Boyd delivered in 2016 at Princeton University as a part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. In these lectures Boyd introduces his theory that biology and culture are both evolutionary, a topic he’s been working on with Peter Richerson for three decades. Needless to say, this is a broad topic, a point brought home by the four Responses to the lectures also included in the volume. All four commentators endorse the contours of Boyd’s theory and their critiques also raise valid questions: Is Boyd too reductive? Does Boyd’s view of social learning and cooperation rely too much on copying others? Does he adequately define the ways that norms arise and change? Is he ignoring how individuals manipulate norms?

At the beginning of the book Boyd points out that his lectures are about human uniqueness and cumulative cultural adaptation, not the inventive capacities of individuals. He writes:

“We are much better at learning from others than other species are, and equally important, we are motivated to learn from others even when we do not understand why our models are doing what they are doing. This psychology allows human populations to accumulate pools of adaptive information that greatly exceed the inventive capacities of individuals. Cumulative cultural evolution is critical for human adaptation.” (p. 16)

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Book Review by Amy Ione: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

Reviewed by Amy Ione, January 2018

Although creating a mess is not qualitatively the same as creating an original mathematical equation, what the word ‘creating’ denotes in each case is nonetheless clear. I cannot answer why we easily comprehend the meaning in both instances, but I do know that creativity’s amorphous and multidimensional reality is tantalizing even if our use of the word spans a spectrum of activities. In terms of discovery and human psychology, a good touchstone is a graphic that the creativity researcher Robert Sternberg put together titled “Cognitive Characteristic of Creative Persons” [1]. In it he summarizes the views of 16 authors who contributed to an anthology he edited on this subject in 1988. One striking feature of the chart is that each author stressed multiple traits and yet no single trait was postulated by every one of the renowned contributors. Among them were Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Howard Gardner, Howard Gruber, and Dean Simonton. Equally striking 30 years later is that the distribution of the 20 relevant characteristics they identified seems dated now. Nine of the experts, the second highest number for any trait, argued for specialization (or creativity in a particular domain) in 1988. Given the emphasis on transdisciplinary work in the 21st century, I would guess that this factor would not rank as high today. By contrast, the top characteristic, stressed by 11 of the 16 authors, seems to still hold. This is the use of existing knowledge as a basis for new ideas. Even so, at under 70% it was nonetheless not universally chosen.
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Book Review: Amy Ione reviews A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

Review of  A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman

Reviewed by Amy Ione, posted in Leonardo Reviews,August 2017
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As a fan of biographies, I was excited to learn about A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. Not only is it a timely biography, this well researched and easy to read book also captures the imagination. Because Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take care to situate Shannon’s contributions in their cultural context the volume encourages the reader to explore their broader implications. Claude Shannon’s legacy is no doubt of particular interest to Leonardo readers due to the range of his work. If Shannon’s training and conception of Information Theory brings the current elevation of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to mind, many of his lesser known projects clearly align with projects associated with the STE(A)M (the inclusion of Art) community, although the authors never speak of STEAM per se. These include the playful spirit evident in his ongoing tinkering with electronic toys, his multi-faceted studies of juggling, and his unicycle experiments.

So, who was Claude Shannon? Born in 1916 in Michigan, by all accounts Shannon had an ordinary childhood. Noteworthy traits included a love of math and science, a dislike of facts, and mechanical inclinations. These proclivities led him to purse a dual degree in mathematics and engineering at the University of Michigan. After Michigan, Shannon was hired by the well-connected Vannevar Bush, then at MIT and later founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help with his differential analyzer. This was a mechanical analog computer that depended on combinations of equivalent equations, using a wheel-and-disc mechanism for computation. A major problem was that the equations needed to be reconstructed for every problem, in effect annihilating the very efficiency the machine was intending to add to problem solving. The resounding question was how could it reassemble itself on the fly? Shannon, who was conversant with both symbolic logic and electrical circuitry, produced a landmark master’s thesis with an innovative solution. Titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” the young Shannon tied Boolean logic and circuitry together, conceptualizing a path where 1’s and 0’s could represent logical operators of Boole’s (AND, OR, NOT) system, with an on switch standing for “true” and an off switch for “false.”

After a brief stint at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey) Shannon joined Bell Labs to work on World War II projects. Here he found an environment that fostered cutting-edge discovery and even met a visiting Alan Turing, another key figure of the Information Age. The sections discussing the shared interests of Shannon and Turing are among the book’s high points, particularly in light of the role of computers in contemporary life. Both probed machine intelligence, feedback and programming commands, and cryptology. The authors tell us that, according to Shannon, much was also left unsaid between them. He did discuss his notions about Information Theory with Turing, but they needed to avoid cryptography because of security concerns.

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Book Review: The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene

The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene
by Oswald J. Schmitz
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016
256 pp. Trade, $35
ISBN: 978-0691160566.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute

Posted on Leonardo Reviews March 1, 2017: Download PDF

Although global-scale human influence on the environment has been recognized since the 1800s, the term Anthropocene, introduced about a decade or so ago, was only accepted formally as a new geological epoch or era in Earth history in August 2016. Then an official expert group said that humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – should be officially declared. Ironically, this geologic term, frequently associated with ecology in the public’s mind, is generally attributed to Paul J. Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. Crutzen, who is obviously neither a geologist nor ecologist, explains its beginnings as follows:

“The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.” [1]

Perhaps it is because Crutzen and Oswald J. Schmitz, the author of The New Ecology: Rethinking a Science for the Anthropocene, come from different backgrounds that there is a noteworthy difference in how each embraces the term. Schmitz’s emphasis in The New Ecology is on optimism despite what many see as a global environmental crisis. Crutzen, by contrast, sees more reason for concern, claiming that the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica served as defining evidence that human activity has moved us into a new epoch. Indeed one of the defining features of The New Ecology is Schmitz’s assertions that the idea that Earth’s biota is doomed is incorrect: “[t]he New Ecology reveals that species may rapidly evolve and adapt to their changing environmental conditions,” and, perhaps more importantly given the concerns of many today, “[t]his gives hope that the future may not be as dire as it is often portrayed” (p. 104). In other words, while some see a grim picture, Schmitz, a professor of ecology at Yale University, declares, “the realization that evolutionary and ecological processes operate contemporaneously offers some hope that species have the capacity to adapt and thereby sustain ecological functioning” (p. 102). In support of this view Schmitz further argues that new computational tools now allow us to account for feedbacks and nonlinearities. With the ability to understand the dynamics of complex ecological systems, he claims, we are able to use models to predict how feedbacks propagate throughout food webs in response to disturbances, such as harvesting. Researchers can also explore different scenario outcomes.

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Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited (Reviewed by Amy Ione)

Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited
Editors: Catelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael Lynch, and Steve Woolgar
Reviewed by Amy Ione

Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited offers an explicit sequel to the discussion featured in the 1990 book Representation in Scientific Practice [1]. I use the word sequel because this more recent volume is not an update so much as an effort to show that the questions surrounding representation inhabit a quite different theoretical and conceptual landscape 25 years later.

The 1990 book grew out of a workshop on “Visualization and Cognition” held in Paris in 1983 [2]. Although a compilation of already published articles, the book is now remembered as a contribution that helped to coalesce the late 20th century discourse on scientific visualization among historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science on visualization and representation. In some ways it was also representative of how Kuhnian paradigms had changed thinking. Thomas Kuhn introduced paradigmatic thinking in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [3]. His thesis about distinctive ways of thinking in historical eras, in turn, laid the foundation for a focus on scientific context and a more nuanced approach to ideas and practices. With the first Representations volume it was clear that the discussion had shifted accordingly and included enhanced sensitivity to how humanists and social scientists perceived and modeled reality. Within this framework, epistemological thinking and practices were elevated.

The second volume demonstrates that this sea change brought about a focus on ethnographic studies within Science and Technology Studies (STS). The systematic study of scientists working and the environments in which they practice is so predominant in the articles of the second volume that an unacknowledged subtheme of the book is the degree to which practices within environments are now representative of what Kuhn might call a “normal” approach in historical, humanistic, and sociological investigation. Indeed, as author after author explained the design of his or her ethnographic study it is hard to miss how standardized the approach is. No doubt this is why some of the authors ask if the time is ripe for a shift from an epistemological to an ontological treatment of the representations concept.

Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited itself is comprised of 14 lengthy papers primarily by younger scholars and seven brief, reflective pieces by established academics.

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Video Review: The Loving Story

Reviewed by Amy Ione, The Diatrope Institute, Berkeley, CA 94704 USA

Ironically, as I was wondering where to begin this review today, I noticed a car with two bumper stickers matching the sentiments I was tossing around in my mind. One read: “Hate is easy. Love takes courage.” The other said: “Got Constitution?” Both relate to the details of the Loving case, in which the United States Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage [or, held laws against interracial marriage to be unconstitutional, (prompted by a suit brought against the Commonwealth of Virginia by Richard and Mildred Loving)]. The Lovings, the key figures in this case, are captured in The Loving Story video, a film produced by Nancy Buirski and Elisabeth Haviland James and available through Icarus Films.

Married in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter returned home to Virginia where their marriage was declared illegal because he was white and she was black and Native American. At that time, anti-miscegenation laws – laws against interracial marriage – existed in 16 states. These kinds of laws are a typical consequence of states rights in the United States, a mechanism that allows different geographical areas to reflect the mores (and biases) of specific parts of the country.

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