Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Rhetorical and Demonstrative Modes of Visual Argument: Looking at Images of Human Evolution

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Rhetorical and Demonstrative Modes of Visual Argument: Looking at Images of Human Evolution

Article excerpt


Visual argumentation is pervasive in modern life (Fox, 1994). This is true not only in the public forum, in which visual display is used to persuade people to buy an advertiser's products or subscribe to a propagandist's point of view, but also in the scientific community, in which visual display is used to illustrate inferences or to communicate ideas to the general public. In both cases, the visual medium may be employed in more than one way to achieve whatever communication is desired.

For example, advertisements typically present certain visual images that are meant to persuade consumers to buy certain products. The persuasion may be brought about by the arguments visually embodied by the images. Consider the statement from the Shanghai Liberation Daily (6 May 1996), which verbalizes the argument contained in many ads currently directed towards new Chinese consumers:

Advertisements featuring blonde-haired blue-eyed people increase every day, as if a product which has been accepted by foreigners must be good. (Reuters, 7 May 1996)

Visual arguments are useful for their ease of comprehension and their emotional impact on the viewer, a fact which motivated the complaint just quoted. These qualities also motivate the use of visual argument in scientific discourse (see Myers, 1988) - compare the statement just quoted with the observation of Gifford-Gonzalez (1993, p. 31) regarding the portrayal of men and women in depictions of Paleolithic life:

Fully 84% of the pictures [examined] include adult males, while under half show women, 43% contain children, and 18% portray elders. . . . The cumulative message appears to be that where adult men aggregate and act is worth viewing, and those places where they do not may be overlooked.

Visual arguments of this kind may also be conveyed by single images. Consider the picture of Pithecanthropus alalus shown in Figure 1. These engaging creatures were posited by prominent German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel as an intermediate stage between "man-apes" and modern humans. Haeckel (1911, p. 726) had no fossil evidence for them, but relied on his famous evolutionary principle that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" - that is, that the development of an organism from embryo to adult closely resembles the evolution of its ancestors from single-celled creatures to the present. Therefore, because human infants go through a stage in which they acquire the advanced trait of walking upright before they learn to speak, there must have been a recent human ancestor that could walk but not talk (Pithecanthropus alalus = non-speaking ape-man). This conclusion is made plausible and concrete by the representation of several of these premises in the figure: both adult individuals are small and pudgy, like modern infants, while the male on the right is leaning against a tree rather as a modern infant would lean on a table while learning to walk. Also, the portrayed individuals look as though they have something they want to say, but can't quite get it out, thus justifying Haeckel's nomenclature and evolutionary principle. Verbal knowledge of Haeckel's theory is necessary for the viewer to grasp the argument conveyed by this illustration. This representational strategy, in which visual and verbal forms of argument interpenetrate, may be termed the rhetorical mode of visual argument (cf. Groarke, in press).

Some visual arguments in scientific, and other, areas of discourse require a different mode of visual presentation. For example, it is sometimes necessary to convince the reader of a paleontology article that a fossil skeleton should be reconstructed according to one pattern and not another. An illustration can be the most efficient and convincing means of doing so because the process of skeletal reconstruction is more easily demonstrated visually than it is described verbally. This is an important contrast to the visual rhetorical mode of argument mentioned above. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.