Collaborating with a scientist on an art-science experiment to show concepts of evolution, I predicted our drawings would evolve in unexpected ways. What I didn’t expect was the accidental emergence of hieroglyphics.
Many years ago, working in Nicole Gerardo’s lab at Emory University, I had an idea for an art project that might elucidate some of the main concepts of evolutionary biology. At a lab meeting, I drew an organic shape on a paper and passed it to the person sitting next to me, asking them to copy it. Then I asked that person to pass their version to their neighbor and have them copy the copy, and so forth. About a dozen of us passed this visual game of “telephone” around the table. By the time it came back around, the original image had evolved quite a bit.
I thought there was potential in that idea for conveying how “errors in copying” (i.e. mutations) can over many generations lead to larger changes, until the original shape is unrecognizable. I knew that if I wanted to show radical transformations, such as have happened to species over evolutionary history, I would need a very large group of participants to make many generations of drawings. So now we have an opportunity; Nicole Gerardo and her evolutionary biology class have been engaging the public in a similar exercise of much larger proportions. Next weekend, the Atlanta Science Festival Expo will display our Evolution Project: An Art-science Experiment, and public participants can keep the lineages of drawings growing.
Nicole and her class have shaped the project. The most important change was prompted by a reminder that evolution acts on populations, not individuals. So instead of starting with just one organic shape, this project starts out with a population of shapes. We also added some copying rules that represent evolutionary forces like selection, drift, migration, and bottleneck events. Some of the lineages branch off and create new lineages of drawings, similar to the process of speciation. If you’re interested in learning more about these evolutionary concepts, this is a great place to start.
Collaborating with the students has been a joy. They gave a lot of input into the design of the project and have been wandering around campus and its environs soliciting participation to generate more copies of drawings. When I was stuck with solving some problems with the display, the students eagerly jumped in and worked to figure it out. They sorted themselves into think-and-do teams, worked with the materials at hand, and voila, now we have a ready-to-assemble display for the Expo.
I’ve been very curious to see how the drawing lineages change. I was apprehensive they might just decay into over-simplified shapes and get stuck, like maybe a collection of stars that get copied again and again. In some lineages, the drawings did evolve at some point into hearts, chili peppers, or odd little critters, but they keep changing in interesting ways. My favorite lineage is one in which the shapes became a kind of hieroglyph. It appears that one of the copiers got lazy and abbreviated a shape, resulting in something like an ideogram. Through selection and a bottleneck event, that lineage of drawings has now evolved to a population of ideograms. When I was in art school in Chicago, I was obsessed for a time with Japanese kanji, Egyptian hieroglyphs and the origins of written languages, so it was fun for me to revisit that curiosity, and to observe this tendency for visual abbreviation emerging in our experiment.
Thanks to Emory students, Atlanta Science Tavern volunteers, and all our drawing participants! If you want to see where our art-science project goes next, or put your pen to paper and participate in creating these lineages, join us at the Atlanta Science Festival Expo, Saturday, March 28 from 11am til 4pm, at Centennial Olympic Park. Look for the booth with the symbASA logo, and look for folks with the turquoise T-shirts that say: Evolution Project: An Art-Science Experiment.
Hope to see you there!