Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Biology & Art: An Intricate Relationship

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Biology & Art: An Intricate Relationship

Article excerpt

I recently read an essay on biology and art that presents the best case I've ever seen of integrating the two. Most examples of biology and art influencing each other describe what amounts to little more than a one-way street, with artists being inspired by living organisms, by biological research, or by the results of such research. It's more difficult to find examples of scientists being assisted by artists beyond producing illustrations. The case I want to describe involves an artist who is also a biologist, and who has found his art to be essential to his research. He is Jonathan Kingdon, an authority on African mammals in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford in England. Raised in Africa, he remembers picnicking at Olduvai Gorge and spending vacations on the Serengeti plains. He trained as an artist at Oxford and then began teaching at the University of East Africa. There, Kingdon conceived the idea of studying the evolution of African mammals. Not surprisingly, he began by drawing them and, thus, by comparing the morphology of related species. He soon went on to investigate behavior, ecology, anatomy, and biogeography, but his work was always rooted in his art.

Kingdon describes in detail, and with the aid of many illustrations, how he used drawing as a way to observe these mammals closely and to correlate behavior with anatomy. He argues that photography couldn't do the job: it didn't force him to observe but did the work of looking for him, and in an inferior way. In addition, he makes a more novel argument: that a camera doesn't see in the way a human does and so doesn't create the kind of image that is most familiar to the human mind. A camera processes all points of light in the same manner, whereas the brain finds edges and creates constructions that are based on past experience. Kingdon continues: "If the brain is unlike a camera in actively seeking outlines, there is the strong implication that 'outline drawings' can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent" (Canfield, 2011, p. 139). This is an interesting argument for drawing as an adjunct to photos if not a substitute for them. Kingdon's essay is filled with wonderful sketches to illustrate how he used art to learn about African mammals. These studies resulted in several major contributions to the zoological literature, because along the way Kingdon learned a great deal about the biology of these animals. His art and science really do create a "seamless whole," to use an overworked term that I dislike, but in this case it's definitely apt.

Kingdon's essay is in Field Notes (Canfield, 2011), one of the best books I've read recently, the kind that makes you glad that you're a biologist and involved in such a great observational enterprise. The contribution that follows his is by Jenny Keller, a science illustrator who teaches at California State University, Monterey Bay. This is a perfect location for her because she specializes in drawing marine organisms, from jellyfish to dolphins. She notes that "drawing requires that you pay attention to every detail" (p. 161), an argument for having our students draw as well.

In fact, Field Notes would be a wonderful book for students to read. There's a great deal here on the importance of keeping good records, both written and visual. A broad range of disciplines is represented, from archaeology and anthropology to ornithology and ecology. The work of Joseph Grinnell is described, including his method for taking field notes. He was the first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California Berkeley and suggested keeping three sets of notes: a journal with a narrative account, a catalogue of specimens collected, and descriptions of the species, including observations. This is obviously a tall order, especially while in the field. The first two elements are more often used than the third, and the list of specimens is obviously the most essential. …

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