Looking With Darwin, for the Darwin and Twentieth Century Culture working group convened by the Darwin Trust (Wellcome Trust, 2005)


A closed consultation on developing Down House and other outreach activities of the Darwin Trust, this event convened a group of about 25 scientists, authors, academics, artists and broadcasters under the direction of Jon Turney.  The intention was to assist the Trust in the orientation of its stewardship of Down House and other of its outreach and science communication activities.

I was invited to speak for about ten minutes as one of several kick-off presentations for what became a lively and productive day.  The following are excerpts from that contribution:


In the same way that genes will express very differently in two different chemical environments, visions of life will express differently from one culture to the next.

This projective nexus of “multiple allusions” in which animals are caught up, this nexus of anthropomorphisation, denigration, lionising, fear, idolatry and so much else, is something that has to be tackled in order to truly see the life which we share. In Steve Baker’s important book The Postmodern Animal — about animals, philosophy and contemporary artists’ practices — he makes the point that “the representational, symbolic and rhetorical uses of the animal must be understood to carry as much conceptual weight as any idea we may have of the ’real’ animal, and must be taken just as seriously.”

Like the production of scientific knowledge, works of art are the product of sustained observational practices and sometimes overlap directly the purposes and interests of science. Sometimes works of art extend the arenas of science and even the methodologies of science. Visual art is not just an interpretive tool or a communicative tool in its long relationship to scientific practice. I identify with one of the few skills that the modest Charles Darwin knew to be key about his work: the skill of close and sustained observation. It is not just the stunning accuracy of Durer which makes his work ’scientific’, but the fact that he chose at that moment in time to do something as unusual as to spend an entire week observing an insect such as a stag beetle.



One of the things I find most moving about Darwin’s work is the awe in which he held the organ of sight. This awe has been seen as a weakness by both Darwinists and opponents. Dawkins has called the eye “the most formidable cliff Mount Improbable has to offer.”

A very great deal of research — not least by Dawkins himself, and people like Mike Land at the University of Sussex and Andrew Parker at Oxford — has gone into understanding the eye and its evolution since Darwin first admitted freely that its depths were unfathomable to him. His statement never led me personally to doubt that the theory of evolution was a sound proposition. I am not one of those who think the rainbow is unwoven by what science can tell me, or that complexity is always irreducible. But there is a nuance: I am one of those for whom scientific knowledge is, however often unimpeachable and amazing in itself, only a part of the picture. I have friends and colleagues at the Institute of Ophthalmology, others in quantum optics, and still others who design photon-detectors. But, if asked by Edge Magazine — as many senior scientists were last year — to articulate a belief I hold which is not yet provable, I would say that I believe that the eye emits a ray of some kind.

Though some colleagues admit that it is very likely that there are both particles and radioactivity that we don’t yet know how to detect, most people in science to whom I have confided this belief think it’s preposterous, a throwback to the Pre-Socratics. It is quite possible that even expressing this hunch will mean that you will discredit everything else I have said here — in much the same way that some people discredit the entire theory of evolution based on Darwin’s own expressed concern that the eye’s complexity was so great as to set it outside a process of evolution.

What I am trying to say is that there is as much potential science in doubt on the one hand and in persistent belief on the other hand as there is in actual scientific proof. I am trying also to draw your attention to arenas which have become so polarised that they are avoided, when in fact their very messiness — like that of our relation to animals or our feelings about sight — offer exciting potential to explore ideas that do not stop being science just because they enter a cultural realm.

It is important to remember, in defending the theory of evolution, that there are complex human beliefs — not any of them religious — which engage contrapuntally with, live alongside, and sometimes even produce science. One of the most trenchant ripostes to the tenet that folk belief is just pre-science comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.”

The new Darwin Forum would do well to pay attention to the contiguity of belief and proof. What and how we see and how we feel about this is bound up in what we make for each other to look at. This has physiological, cognitive and phenomenological underpinnings; effects and affects.  It is something we do with our bodies. The electromagnetic radiation of light is a deep driver of evolution and possibly part of the origin of life itself. An exciting programme at the Darwin Trust would put visual art, light and the eye close to the heart of its activities, not just as an instrument of communication, but as a means to nurture conjecture.



Further Links: The Charles Darwin Trust; Down House

[Image References: Rabbit, by Albrecht Durer (1502); Rabbit, by Jeff Koons (1986); the eye of a squid; visualisation of the evolution of the eye as a landscape in which height represents optical quality and the ground plane evolutionary distance by Professor Mike Land (1996)]