By Terry Poulos, Scientiquity founder
(Editor’s note: This blog was originally published November 13, 2019)
`It’s hard to put into words. You have to see it with your own eyes.’
How many times have we all verbalized those sentiments? Countless. The reality is, some concepts cannot be conveyed by word alone. Maybe the verbiage will be invented some day but until such time we’re forced to `paint you a picture.’ Perhaps there’s sound logic as to why this here scribe evolved into an artist (hold the jokes please!).
An incontrovertible, elementary axiom of science is that the single most vital mechanism of navigation for humans is our eyes. We don’t “see” with echolocation like many marine mammals or bats, albeit sound is an important secondary mode of navigation as is vibration. That said, if we did not visually recognize predators in the three dimensional space we inhabit, we’d have died long ago. If we couldn’t see food, we’d have reached an evolutionary dead-end almost as soon as we arrived.
We also know art stimulates the optical senses, and thus the brain. When we gaze at art, we absorb it visually with our mind’s eye constructing the aggregate image while simultaneously our instincts construct a corresponding gut “mammalian” emotional reaction. That scales up via a fractal-like heirarchy to alter our consciousness. Neuronal links mutate to form new connections – good, bad, or indifferent.
With this knowledge, we ask – is art just a luxury? Or is it a necessity to evolve higher intelligence and a requisite to the future viability of the human species?
The short answers: No, yes, and highly-likely yes. Let’s take a closer “look.”
Mainstream dogma has it that tool-making combined with crude forms of early verbal communication were the primary drivers of evolving complexity. However, before any commonly-understood language ever formed, there were only grunts, screams, yelps and what have you. This isn’t what a reasonable person would term “effective” communication considering there existed no group common consensus. There was a ton of miscommunication among neanderthals, to be sure!
Early in the human lineage, the more effective and expeditious mode of communication would easily have been physical gestures, including the use of the face and hands to convey messages. Want someone to come over, simply wave your hands. Hungry? Point to your mouth.
Ergo, visual communication must have preceded the spoken word as the primary method of coordination among hominids. If you were the bold type, you might even call these gestures a form of visual art. Anyone who’s ever played charades can relate. It’s an art! Then would it be accurate to assert that “art” jump-started evolution? Hmm.
Over time, language matured. There are twenty-six letters in the modern English alphabet, exponentially more degrees of vocal chord freedom than the near monosyllabic cave-dwelling homo sapien. Modern humans have at their disposal a million or more words. No more “ug ug, me Tarzan, you Jane” for contemporary suitors, although there are exceptions.
This evolved complexity greatly advanced our ability to express concepts and achieve higher complexity, and invent things that better our chances for survival including weapons, agriculture, and medicine. Nevertheless, the visual almost certainly came before the verbal in communication. To this day, visual imagery still speaks to what auditory wordplay cannot and may never.
Visual representation, in this light, must always be thought of as more than a mere secondary driver of ever-more-complex intelligence. But do we require art? Our very future may depend upon the evolution of artistic expression. If the past is any indication, the answer is a firm yes!
Are not geometers “artists”? From the Pythagoreans to Euclid, Plato’s “Forms” and the seeds of geometric calculus sown by Archimedes, to da Vinci’s depth perception and “smufato” realism, the xy planes of Fermat and Decartes, Mobius involution, full-on Newtonian calculus and Reimannian nonlinear geometry, to Escher’s fractal art and Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry, and all the way through the curved space and hidden dimensions of General Relativity and on through Feynman diagrams and Quantum Electrodynamics, scientists and mathematicians have been and continue to be intuitive visual artists, and always will be.
What do the scientists say?
“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” — Albert Einstein.
“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin…or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.” — NASA astronaut Mae Jemison
“Science and art sometimes touch one another, like two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which is our human life, and that contact may be made across the borderline between the two respective domains.” — M.C. Escher
“Only art and science can raise men to the level of God.” — Ludwig von Beethoven
“I’m convinced that art and science activate the same parts of the brain.” — Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek
We’ve now come full circle where visual artistry is arguably on equal footing as an evolutionary stimulus (although it never really did take a back seat). When the world is at a loss for words or equations or philosophical insight, the `visualist’ steps in to fill the void. Visual imagery was the alpha of our initial evolution and remains the stop-gap for all that cannot and may not ever be expressed in the spoken word or via mathematical symbolism.
In this way, the future of the human species is inextricably linked to art. Evolution of complexity in the human organism is reliant on the art of the optical senses. And with that, art is not nearly “just a luxury.”
Terry Poulos is a Chicago-area writer, archaeological historian, artist and geometer whose investigations focus primarily on physics, fractal topology, and Number Theory
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