A fascinating book review draws attention to the way images were used to promote evolutionary theories during the 1920s. According to the book's author, images were "central to the public communication of evolutionary biology, and its enemies have prominently exploited their ambiguity". Two case studies appear in the review: the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the influence of Henry Osborn, President of New York's American Museum of Natural History.
The Scopes trial charged John Scopes with teaching that "man has descended from a lower order of animals". The prosecutor William Jennings Bryan gave an address which "peaked in his denunciation of a diagram". This, presumably, fits the 'exploiting their ambiguity' description of those opposing evolutionary transformation.
The picture, in a state-prescribed biology text, represented the relations of animal groups by circles of size corresponding to number of species: huge for insects and tiny for mammals. That "little ring" appalled Bryan, who later objected that "no circle is reserved for man alone". "What," he demanded to know, "shall we say of the intelligence, not to say religion, of those who . . . put man with an immortal soul in the same circle with the wolf, the hyena, and the skunk?"
"The Neanderthal Flint Workers" by Charles Knight (Credit: American Mus. Nat. Hist. Library #618, Source here)
The mural depicted above was commissioned by Henry Osborn and created by Charles Knight. It shows a family group of Neanderthals making tools, using spears, and portrays them as innovative and alert. This was unlike contemporary portrayals of 'apemen' which made them more brutish and animal-like. This mural is significant because it provides a reminder that different scientists interpret the same data in different ways. In the context of origins, these interpretations are heavily dependent on the presuppositions brought to the research by scientists. Thus, the "secular scientists" portrayed Neanderthals as brutish apemen, emphasising their continuity with ape-like ancestors. Osborn, however, described as a theistic evolutionist, thought that the evolutionary process gave "a sublime conception of God". He wanted to emphasise the humanity of the Neanderthals and "put so much distance between humans and apes that many saw him as selling out".
There is a puzzling error in Hopwood's review. The image annotation correctly identifies the family group as Neanderthals, but the text of the review refers to Osborn commissioning "murals and book covers that ennobled cave-painting Cro-Magnon man (as pictured, left)". To my knowledge, Cro-Magnon man has always been perceived as mainstream humanity, and the picture referred to (reproduced above) depicts Neanderthals.
The message of the book is that images had a significant role in the way American scientists responded to evolution-doubters in the 1920s. The author "reconstructs the attempts of influential evolutionists to get their messages across in a world of unruly images, competing voices and fragile authority". Hopwood adds:
"The 1920s shaped pictures of evolution, and of evolutionary debate, that are still in our heads."
The power of images to shape the way people think is a timely and important subject. The two examples provided in the review raise questions that go far beyond "promot[ing the] public understanding of evolution". The image from the biology textbook used in the Scopes trial clearly offended Bryan, who thought it undermined the uniqueness of humanity. The mural commissioned by Osborn consciously moved away from presenting Neanderthals as apemen. Scientists will inevitably differ in their judgments depending on whether they are secular evolutionists, theistic evolutionists or some form of creationist.
Illustrations may be used to present the anticipated findings of science (as has occurred with feathered dinosaurs - but see here), or to fit data into a predetermined mould (as often occurs with the cladistic analysis of characters), or to convey the concept of progression (as in the classic portrayals of horse evolution). Darwin, himself, can be framed as the model scientist, building theory from empirical data - for further comment on this, go here. This is a potentially fruitful area for educationalists to explore. Students can be helped to understand some of the agendas in origins science by considering the images used by scientists (and science popularisers) to communicate with others.
A clash of visual cultures
Nature 458, 704-705 (9 April 2009) | doi:10.1038/458704a
Abstract: Nick Hopwood applauds an account of how US scientists used images to counter creationism and promote public understanding of evolution in the 1920s.
BOOK REVIEWED- God - or Gorilla: Images of Evolution in the Jazz Age, by Constance Areson Clark, Johns Hopkins University Press: 2008.
Martin, L.D. An Iconoclast for Evolution? World and I, February 1, 2001
Tyler, D. Evolution, Museums and Society, ARN Literature blog (15 November 2008)
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