April 10, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Art as Propaganda for Evolution

Should a scientific theory be propagated by appeal to scientific evidence, or by appeal to emotions through visualizationNature this week contained two articles that shamelessly praised art as propaganda for evolution.  Surprisingly, one of them mentioned Charles Darwin as someone “at the cutting edge of visualization.”

  1. Endless Forms:  Carl Zimmer reviewed an exhibit currently at the Yale Center for British Art, Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts.1  The title is taken from the last sentence in the Origin where Darwin said that endless forms most beautiful are being evolved from so simple a beginning.  Zimmer said that in the 19th century, “artists shaped the way scientists saw nature, and thought deeply about how science changed the nature of art.”
        The exhibit examines the history of art as Darwinism was overtaking traditional religious beliefs.

    The exhibit does a good job of showing how differently people saw the world at the dawn of the nineteenth century.  Nature was replete with signs of divine design.  A painting of Noah’s flood was considered historical art.  Yet Darwin was able to learn a great deal from art of this time, whether he was studying illustrations of geological formations or marvelling at the paintings of French�American naturalist John James Audubon, who Darwin met as a teenager.
       As Darwin developed as a scientist, he made some modest art of his own.  On his journeys in South America, he painted the rock strata of the Andes in watercolour.  On his return to the United Kingdom, he began to scribble odd little tree diagrams in his notebooks – a visual expression of his great epiphany that species are related through common descent.  Darwin worked closely with artists to illustrate his books.  This may surprise readers of On the Origin of Species – a book with a single illustration showing the branching of species.  But his other books were lavishly illustrated….
        Darwin was at the cutting edge of visualization.  His 1872 work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was one of the first books ever to be illustrated with photographs – including pictures of faces distorted by electric currents, produced by the work of French physician Guillaume Duchenne.

    Zimmer claims that Darwin did not use pictures merely to illustrate ideas, but to investigate them.  For instance, “the very notion of beauty was something Darwin wanted to explain: the beauty of orchids actually masked a complex contrivance for getting pollen onto insects; the beauty of an Argus pheasant’s feathers was the result of sexual selection.”  Artists, in sympathetic vibration, paid attention to Darwin.  “They replaced sentimental scenes of nature with bleaker portraits of the struggle for survival.”
        Zimmer was glad the exhibit did not shy away from difficult subjects.  “….some [artists] wrongly took it [evolution] as justification to elevate whites over other races, cloaking their freak-show voyeurism in the guise of anthropology.” Why Zimmer gives the exhibit “great credit” for this was not explained.  Is he glad that the dark side of evolutionary thinking is being exposed?

  2. Scopes Cartoons:  Another article by Michael Hopwood in Natureapplauds an account of how US scientists used images to counter creationism and promote public understanding of evolution in the 1920s.”2  Sure enough, artists during the Scopes trial, rather than being scorned for misleading the public, are praised in this book review of God – or Gorilla: Images of Evolution in the Jazz Age by Constance Areson Clark (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008):

    God – or Gorilla hints at a larger clash of visual cultures between modernists and fundamentalists: Neanderthals versus Adam and Eve, church frescoes depicting ascent from protozoa against a ‘picturable God’.  That would be a great topic for further research, which would need to pay religious icons more attention, but this highly readable book is valuable as it stands.  It is also timely.  The 1920s shaped pictures of evolution, and of evolutionary debate, that are still in our heads.  As biologists work with illustrators to communicate science, and creationists attack textbook icons,3 it is helpful to reflect on the struggles of that decisive decade.

    Hopwood thus identified the evolutionist imagery as useful to science, whether or not it was accurate.  Clark, for instance, said “Cartoons played on images of the Scopes ‘monkey trial’, and people joked about missing links.”  In museums, tree diagrams and misleading sequences like the fossil horse series were presented as “unvarnished facts.”  Hopwood did not condemn any of this.  For instance, he disparaged the attempts of Henry Fairfield Osborn to imply that evolution was compatible with religion.  “This theistic evolutionism repelled secular scientists and fundamentalist Christians alike, but was often presented as the scientific consensus.”  Hopwood seems to imply that the scientific consensus allows no such accommodation – it must be anti-religious and materialistic.


1.  Carl Zimmer, “Drawing from Darwin,” Nature 458, 705 (9 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458705a; Published online 8 April 2009.
2.  Nick Hopwood, “A clash of visual cultures,” Nature 458, 704-705 (9 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458704a; Published online 8 April 2009.
3.  This seems to be a direct reference to Icons of Evolution by Dr. Jonathan Wells (Regnery, 2000).

Visualization is one of several pedagogical aids that can enlighten or propagandize, depending on how it is used.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with cartoons, simplified illustrations, and diagrams if they illuminate the truth.  However, wrong inferences can be made – such as Darwin’s photos of people expressing emotion being used to infer they inherited these capabilities from apes.  Art and visualization can distract, mislead, mischaracterize, or create emotional responses in lieu of scientific evidence.  Darwinists have been very skilled at this propaganda since their master wrote his materialist manifesto.  They should be scorned, not praised, for pretending that peppered moths prove humans had bacteria ancestors, or for piecing together unrelated fossils into a story of evolutionary progression.  Awareness of the danger of visualization is the best defense, and the best offense is to unmask it as propaganda.  Truth needs illumination, not varnish.

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