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Evolution as Artist

Thomas S. Ray
ATR Human Information Processing Research Laboratories
2-2 Hikaridai, Seika-cho, Soraku-gun, Kyoto, 619-02, Japan
Tel: 81-774-95-1063, Fax: 81-774-95-1008,,


Evolution is a creative process, which acting independently, has produced living forms of great beauty and complexity. Today, artists and engineers are beginning to work together with evolution. In the future, it may be possible for artists to work in collaboration with evolution to produce works of art whose beauty and complexity approach that of organic life. A variety of styles of creative collaboration between humans and evolution are discussed.

The human arts: painting, sculpture, music, cinema, etc., are creative expressions. Similarly, life forms: plants, animals and humans themselves, are also creative expressions. In the case of the arts, the creative force is the human imagination, whereas in the case of organisms, the creative force is evolution.

Human artists express themselves in many media: oil paint, clay, stone, music, cinema, etc. Until recently, the creative expressions of evolution have been known only from a single medium: organic chemistry. Life on Earth is the creative expression of evolution by natural selection working in the medium of carbon chemistry.

The creative products of evolution include the human body and mind, the cheetah running down its prey, the mahogany tree, the humming bird pollinating a flower. These living works of art exceed in beauty, and depth of structure and process, anything produced by the best of human artists. In fact, human artists themselves (and therefore human art) are products of evolution.

When we observe the creative products of evolution with our naked senses, we see only a single level, for example, the visual surface of an orchid. On this surface we can see great beauty, richness, subtlety and complexity of structure. However the richly organized structure of living systems is much deeper than what meets the eyes.

Evolution has organized the form and process of matter and energy on Earth from the molecular level up through the level of the ecosystem, spanning a range of twelve orders of magnitude of scale. At each level of this range, evolution has created complex forms and processes, with each level being built hierarchically from those below and forming the basis of those above.

At every level, the forms are as rich and beautiful as what we see with the naked eye, though at most levels the aesthetic is less conventional. Our unaided vision allows us to directly observe living structures of sizes ranging from small individual organisms, up through landscapes which can encompass entire ecosystems. These images are in the domain of conventional aesthetics to which we are well tuned.

As we move outside of the range of what we can normally visualize, we encounter forms in living systems with a similar quality of richness, subtlety and complexity, but which require an unconventional aesthetic to appreciate. For example the forms of ecosystems and metabolic pathways are based on the flows of matter and energy through these systems. These are rich organic forms, but they can not be directly visualized. Probably most scientists who study these systems develop an aesthetic appreciation for them. However, this is a rare aesthetic, based on a specialized education in the life sciences.

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Next: Evolution in other

Thomas S.Ray
Wed Apr 16 17:02:37 JST 1997