But where does art intersect biology?


Dinner inside the belly of Iguanodon.

My fellow scibling Jonah Lehrer has a new piece in SEED extending the argument from the end of his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist called "The Future of Science... Is Art?" It's pretty interesting, exploring the relation between physics and neuroscience to art, but biology (outside of the biology of the brain) is left out. I can't speak about fields like genetics and microbiology, areas where I lack expertise and a sense of history for the discipline, but as far of my own interests (particularly zoology and paleontology) art has often been essential to science. Truly, art and science have become so intertwined in the field of paleontology that the marriage is sometimes problematic, pop-culture dinosaurs sometimes overshadowing the real animals. Paintings, sketches, sculptures, taxidermies, mounts, and various other representations of the natural world have often helped introduce the public to zoological sciences, but all too often they are regarded as kitsch (as stated in The Last Dinosaur Book).


An illustration of the shark head dissected by Nicolas Steno.

With the exception of collections of Audubon paintings, much of the illustration associated with anatomy and zoology isn't viewed art, at least not "respectable" art. Despite this sort of disregard by some critics and aficionados, visual representations of exotic animals, extinct creatures, geological formations, etc. have been vitally important in science and public understanding of science. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of art intertwining with biology comes from the famous dinosaurs created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins; the artist was commissioned to make great sculptures of the dinosaurs Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, and Hylaeosaurus (among other extinct creatures) and in a famous stunt Hawkins held a celebratory dinner on New Year's Eve inside the "belly of the beast," a nearly-completed Iguanodon (see above). Such early endeavors were attempts to effectively recreate the dinosaurs as they were, but dinosaurs have not been constrained to scientific reconstructions alone; artist Jim Gary, who died in 2006, made famous sculptures of dinosaurs and other creatures from car parts.


From Juan Valverde de Amusco's Anatomia del corpo humano

Still, Hawkins' dinosaurs did not stay accurate for long and the way we see the natural world in terms of both art and science changes, historian Martin J.S. Rudwick chronicling the evolving images of the past in Scenes from Deep Time (dinosaurs receiving their own treatment from different authors in Dinosaur Imagrey and Paleoimagery). Such themes were recognized by the late paleontologist and essayist Stephen Jay Gould, too, and the intersection of art, history, and science forms a running theme throughout his work (especially Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle). From architectural and biological marvels being presented together like in Britain's Natural History Museum to the detailed artwork of old anatomical books, science and artistic skill have fed into each other to present absolutely beautiful works celebrating natural history, and even old taxidermy mounts can contain artistic treasures (as shown in Windows on Nature). Given such successes it's no surprise that the marriage of art and science continues to this day, Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu's beautifully-illustrated Evolution, and even the stunning Planet Earth series effectively melding fine aesthetic sense to science. Even the largely-replaced curiosity cabinets still hang on here and there, the Museum of Jurassic Technology (read Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder) being an example of an institution that actively stretches the boundaries between art, science, and myth (as does the current Mythical Creatures exhibition at the AMNH).


A Smilodon fending off vultures at what would become the Rancho La Brea tar pits in California by Charles R. Knight

Zoology and paleontology often require scientists to be historians of their discipline (especially in paleontology, where stories about the founders of the field are cherished), appreciating old ideas and images as well as the latest research. Thus, the active integration of science with art of various mediums will continue. Oftentimes paleontology is not invited up to the scientific "high table" as physics and neuroscience, but in my view at least some of the biological sciences have not only integrated themselves into art and pop-culture, they've received vital contributions from the artistic realm, even serving to recruit future scientists. I'm sure many paleontologists (as well as other people) can trace their love of science to a trip to a museum, a particular illustrated book about animals, or even a favorite documentary/movie featuring their favorite animals. Indeed, the integration of art with biological science has often been overlooked because the two seemingly disparate areas of skill and expertise are practically inseparable; it's up to other disciplines to find ways to follow suit.


Durer's "Rhinoceros," which is still striking even though it was based upon little more than a written description of a live animal.

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I like the smilodons at La Brea picture, quite accurate I think.
During extended wetter periods, sabercat forms evolved,
during extended drier periods, pack-like wolves & lions evolved afaict. I'm still puzzled by the saber-toothed "kangaroos", can't figure if their niche was somewhat between hippos and fanged deer, but possibly more omnivorous and defensive against crocs.