Evolution Embedded in Symbols
Two billion years ago two prokaryotes bumped into each other and formed the first multi-cellular organism. 65 million years ago an asteroid hit the earth and dinosaurs became extinct. Three days ago, in your notebook you drew a mess of squiggles which to you represented Jackson Pollock's painting, Number 1, 1948. You wrote the word entropy on the upper left hand corner of the page. On the bottom right hand side you wrote, Creativity is based on randomness and chance.
This paper is, in part, an exploration of the pictures and words that we place in notebooks; it is an investigation of the human fixation with the creation of symbols via art and writing. But is also about how the symbols drawn in one's notebook are just as relevant as the development of multi-cellular organisms and the extinction of the dinosaurs. Indeed human symbol-making relates to the entire spectrum of evolutionary processes.
If human recorded history only represents 10,000 years of a universe which has been evolving for 15 billion years, then how can such relatively recent human cultural practices as writing and art tell us anything about evolution? I would like to suggest that if we look at artifacts of human visual and written culture, we can find evidence of a human quest to understand biological evolution. Indeed, it seems that symbol-making allows humans to reconnect to their biological roots. It allows people to reenact and represent the biological principles of evolution. Ultimately, this paper will look at the way in which the brain allows for this symbol-making. It will discuss the way the brain itself is an evolutionary object, an emergent system capable not only of evolving but of representing evolution. But before going into an explicit discussion of the biological causation for the evolutionary processes imbedded in symbol-making, let us look at some of the inherent properties of art and writing which parallel the evolutionary process.
In her book, On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry states that "beauty incites replication" (4). Like a history of evolution, a history of human symbolic representation is heavily dependent on the act of reproduction. This reproduction has manifested itself quite literally. For example, when a painter finds something in nature to be beautiful, she can reproduce it on the canvas and when a writer finds a moment to be inspiring, she can transcribe the moment into "a set of instructions [i.e. words] about how [a reader] can imagine or construct [that moment]" (Dreaming by the Book, Scarry, 6). Like sexual reproduction which allows organisms to share their genetic material in order to continue species and to create new organisms, pictures and words help with a lateral transfer of cultural information, its continuance and recombination. To create a symbol of something with a string of words or with an art material is to perpetuate that which is beautiful for future generations.