Screaming from the gallery

Yet again somebody’s parroted out that old mantra, “Evolution is not random because natural selection is not random.” The implication, of course, is that selection is the real creative power of the Neodarwinian theory, mutation just supplying, or more accurately renewing, raw materials. Let’s use a rather old fashioned kind of analogy to re-examine this, but then go on to incorporate some of the new biological insights and see how it works out in the brave new world.

“The great museums are the reason there is so much great art in the world today. Discuss.”

If you were set this in some kind of exam (it would have been on the despised “General Studies” paper in my kids’ school) you’d be forced to admit there was some truth in the proposition – after all, how would most of us ever see great art apart from the famous galleries? But you’d surely want to put in something about how Leonardo, Van Gogh or Pollock were rather more important than the Louvre or Tate Modern.

There would be some truth in it if art galleries worked like classical Neodarwinism, that is if paintings were produced by unskilled artists, selected or rejected by the quasi-intelligent process of selection, and the best passed back to the unschooled apprentices for modification. In this case the doubtful question is the same as that posed to Dawinism over the years – is it really possible that such a process would ever produce a single masterpiece, let alone the whole of the world’s art?

But, of course, we know art is not produced that way. Museums select from an existing corpus of skilled work – the fittest has arrived before it is selected. Museums may influence what survives, and may have a marginal feedback effect on how artists choose to paint. But creative, they are not.

Strange as it seems, this more realistic view of selection is gaining ground within the study of evolution, so my analogy becomes more applicable as time goes by. For a start the more recently discovered mechanisms operate on a much grander scale than Mayr et al ever conceived, so that our gallery can be seen to be selecting for, at least, different versions of a picture if not different pictures, rather than micro-managing every brush stroke. Then again, the importance of near-neutral mutations has become clear (that is, far, they are far, far, more common than beneficial mutations), which in our analogy would be represented by paintings undergoing gradual large modification out of sight in the studio before the gallery ever got a chance to judge them.

In the modern view, positive natural selection has been shown to be far less prevalent than was thought, purifying selection being mostly what happens. This means that relatively little selective effort is spent choosing the best, and a lot on weeding out the worst. So, much of our museum curator’s time would be passed in throwing out persistently bad art, rather than in honing the good stuff. Does this make for a world of great art? It depends on how busy the curator is, and (even more) on what proportion of junk to genius he receives. I don’t know of anyone in the evolutionary field even trying to quantify that, which is nothing new; in evolution the narrative of the plausible constitutes much of the evidence.

In fact, the evidence to which I drew attention in my previous post  suggests that the curator we called “Purifying Selection” is so busy that in advanced organisms he can’t keep up with the work. Non-advantageous changes to the genome build up in their small populations faster than natural selection can weed them out, resulting in very large changes to phenotypes which, it is said, account for most large events like speciation.

Analogically, this compares to the (commercial) gallery I visited yesterday, where the curator apologised about paintings tripping me up because there wasn’t space on the wall to hang them. At least in this case there was a surfeit of good art – but in a proper application of the analogy we would have a Metropolitan Museum of Art whose store rooms were overflowing with avant garde but worthless paintings, whose corridors were cluttered with canvases of spilled paint and primary school poster-colours, and where multitudes of incompetent daubs vied for wall space with any old masters that may have survived.

But where in this scenario would the old masters actually come from? At least in the original analogy the museum had some feedback in the creative process, implausible though the process appears. But if our overworked curator is not even able to keep up with the task of weeding out bad art, does his work not approximate to randomness? How can the inefficiency of a process, in the real world, be the main cause of its success?

If the museums of natural selection really were the sole creative reason for the existence of the “endless forms most beautiful” in our rich world, then our eyes are deceiving us. Such forms could not exist, for natural selection has been shown inadequate to select for them, and the mechanisms to create them have become even less likely to do so under the new paradigm than under the old.

How come I see them all around me, then?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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