Art, Evolution and Aquinas

Someone left stenciled handprints on Maltravieso Cave wall. Quite a few ‘someones,’ apparently.

Marking a wall can leave adolescent graffiti or murals like Orozco’s “Omnisciencia.”

I think it’s a very “human” thing to do. So do scientists. That’s why most figured the folks who made cave paintings were like us: Homo Sapiens. That may be so, but it’s not what a new analysis shows.

If those stencils are as old as the research says they are, we’re going to be reevaluating what “human” means. That got me thinking about art, being human, and a new species of bird that really is new. They didn’t exist until a few decades back.

Abstract Art: Yujian to Cubism

James Thurber wrote “I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like” as a caption for one of his 1939 cartoons. A whole mess of other folks said the same thing, pretty much.

My guess is that Thurber heard or read someone say “I don’t know…” — or something close to it. Someone said it first. I suspect the expression’s been around since long before we developed writing.

I’ve learned enough about art to see what’s well-made, even when I don’t like what I see. That doesn’t keep me from preferring “what I like,” or admitting that my likes and dislikes don’t reflect something’s quality. Not entirely. And that’s another topic.

Yujian created that landscape around the time European scholars were getting enthusiastic about Aristotle.

Too enthusiastic, in some cases. I’ve talked about 1277 and who’s in charge before. (November 5, 2017)

Some folks trace abstract art back to artists of the Song dynasty, like Yujian.

They’ve got a point, I think. I also think at least some cubist artists arguably got ideas from masks and other African art.

Quite a few folks were re-thinking Western attitudes about “primitive” folks around that time. That’s resulted in long-overdue reforms, along with equally-odd notions.

I’ve seen “abstract art” defined quite a few ways. Including the seemingly-inevitable efforts at finding psychiatric explanations for what happened.1

A definition I like places abstract art on a continuum, with photographic realism at one end and no contact with observable reality at the other.

I like some of what’s done near both ends, and some of what’s between them. I also think folks who say ‘it’s junk, my toddler can draw better than that’ occasionally have a point.

I don’t think all of what’s labeled “abstract art” is junk. Photorealistic, no. Imaginative, creative, and worth studying — yes. That said, some of what passes for “art” these days owes more to deep pockets, naive credibility and effective marketing. My opinion.

“Religious art” isn’t all masterpieces, either. Not by a long shot. (August 13, 2017)

What Is “Art?”

All representational art is, in a sense, a lie.

That’s what René Magritte’s “La trahison des images/The Treachery of Images says. It’s not a pipe. It’s an image of a pipe. That’s why he included “Ceci n’est pas une pipe./This is not a pipe” as a caption.

I don’t think all representational artists are headed for Hell because they’re liars. Partly because I think most folks can see differences between a pipe and a picture of a pipe.

On the other hand, some Christians seem to have made smashing statues an integral part of their faith. And that’s yet another topic.

I’m a Catholic, so I see art as something very ‘human.’ Art is “…a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches….” It is a sort of practical wisdom: something we do, using talent given by God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2501)

Interior Decorating, the Early Years

(From University of Kansas News, used w/o permission.)
(“In Maltravieso Cave, western Spain, Neanderthals stencilled their hands by blowing red paint over them”
(BBC News))

Neanderthals were capable of making art
Paul Rincon, BBC News (February 23, 2018)

Contrary to the traditional view of them as brutes, it turns out that Neanderthals were artists.

“A study in Science journal suggests they made cave drawings in Spain that pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years.

“They also appear to have used painted sea shells as jewellery.

“Art was previously thought to be a behaviour unique to our species (Homo sapiens) and far beyond our evolutionary cousins.

“The cave paintings include stencilled impressions of Neanderthal hands, geometric patterns and red circles….”

I’m pretty sure this paper will spark discussion. Just about anything about Neanderthals, art, and “human” behavior will. Scientists have, happily, come a long way since 1829. That’s when Schmerling found part of a Neanderthal child’s skull.

William King said Neanderthals were a distinct species in 1864. He also said Neanderthals had likely been “incapable of moral and theistic conceptions.”

I think that made a lot more sense in the Victorian era than it does now. To most “civilized” folks, that is.

We’ve learned a lot since then. Including, maybe, a touch of caution about making assumptions:

“Symbolic behavior among Neandertals are obscure….”
(“U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art,” Abstract, D. L. Hoffmann, C. D. Standish, et al.; Science (February 23, 2018))

We’re also not sure why folks left handprints on cave walls, or drew animals and people. Educated guesses include folks using them as educational aids or ceremonial images.

Science and Human Nature

These scientists used uranium-thorium dating on carbonate crusts in the caves.

It’s like radiocarbon dating, but compares the ratio of thorium to uranium.

Radiocarbon dating is good for organic stuff 50,000 years old or less. Uranium-thorium dating is good for a bit more than the most recent 500,000 years.

They figure the carbonate, and the marks, are more than 64,000 years old.

Humanity’s current model, Homo Sapiens, didn’t live near the caves until about 20,000 years later. That means someone else made them. Or at least a few folks of the Homo Sapiens sort arrived there earlier.

That’s what this team says.2

They may or may not be right about that.

I’m pretty sure that scientists will be discussing how accurate their uranium-thorium procedures were.

Another possibly-debatable point is whether or not the carbonate deposits and the paintings are associated. There’s also what they mean by “symbolic” and “behavior.”

There’s a considerable gap between those hand impressions and more recent paintings, like the ones in Lascaux cave. The last I heard, scientists still figured folks who looked like us made them.

More-or-less like us, that is.

Human nature being what it is, some scientist may say that the team’s uranium-thorium technique must be flawed.

Because it implies that Neanderthals made the paintings. And Neanderthals couldn’t have made anything that sophisticated.

Then again, maybe not.

That sort of circular reasoning may be more common in faculty lounge conversations than formal papers.

There’s also the matter of when Homo Sapiens moved out.


(From Israel Hershkovitz, Tel Aviv University; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“The teeth are in the upper size range of what’s seen in modern humans”
(BBC News))

Modern humans left Africa much earlier
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (January 25, 2018)

Researchers have identified the remains of the earliest known modern humans to have left Africa.

“New dating of fossils from Israel indicates that our species (Homo sapiens) lived outside Africa around 185,000 years ago, some 80,000 years earlier than the previous evidence.

“Details appear in the journal Science.

“The co-lead researcher, Prof Israel Hershkovitz, told BBC News that the discovery would fundamentally alter ideas of recent human evolution.

“‘We have to rewrite the whole story of human evolution, not just for our own species but all the other species that lived outside of Africa at the time,’ the researcher, from Tel Aviv University, explained….”

Maybe not “the whole story of human evolution,” since our story goes back far beyond the folks who lived near Misliya Cave. But it looks like we’ll be taking another look at what’s happened since someone started making Mousterian stone tools.

I’m not surprised. We’ve learned a lot since Nicolas Steno studied fossils.

Leclerc got in trouble with the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Theology for saying that maybe Earth’s story wasn’t what they said it was. (March 10, 2017)

Lamarck published his natural history books from from 1815 to 1822. Miescher discovered nucleic acids in 1869, a decade after Darwin’s “Origin.” The Human Genome Project started publishing their research in 2001. (January 19, 2018)

This hasn’t been a comfortable era for folks with a distaste for new ideas.

Interactive Humans

(From Mina Weinstein-Evron, Haifa University; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)
(“Misliya Cave is located 90m above mean sea level”
(BBC News))

“…The new scientific dating evidence raises the possibility that modern humans interacted with other, now extinct, species of humans for tens of thousands of years. It also fits in with recent discoveries of remains and genetic studies that also indicate an earlier departure from Africa….”

This also isn’t a surprise, or shouldn’t be. Folks interact with each other a lot. The trick, from some viewpoints, is to keep us from interacting.

We routinely share tools and ideas. It’s generally done by trading what we’ve got for something we don’t.

That bothers a few folks, but not nearly as much as what happens when youngsters from different groups have kids. I don’t share that attitude. Partly because I know my family history. As one of my ancestors said of another, “he doesn’t have family, he’s Irish.”

Some human “species” may actually be extinct.

We’ve learned that others, like Neanderthals and Denisovans, are no more “extinct” than the víkingr and Na hÉireannaigh. No longer particularly distinct groups, yes. Gone without a trace, no. (June 16, 2017; January 13, 2017)

I’m also pretty sure that scientists will be revisiting what’s meant by “species.”

New Chapters

Up to a decade or so back, most of what we knew about humanity’s family story came from studying bones and durable tools.

Stone tools last a long time. Bones don’t, usually. Sometimes a bone gets fossilized, the original material replaced by minerals.

Conditions have to be just right for that to happen. That’s why we find so many fossils in rock strata that started as mud or silt.

Humans can live near muddy water. Sometimes we do. But most of us prefer living away from swamps and marshes.

Bones, fossilized and otherwise, last longer if they’re in a sheltered area. That’s why so many human remains are found in caves. We’re no more ‘at home’ in a cave than a swamp. But we’ll use them for shelter and storage.

Mapping the human genome unlocked whole new chapters in our story, which we’ve barely started reading. Metaphorically speaking.

We’d pieced together some of the puzzle by that time. (June 16, 2017)

Forensic techniques that let investigators reconstruct a victim’s face from a skull give scientists a look at folks from earlier times. It won’t tell us much about how they lived, but can show how closely they resembled folks living today. Or didn’t.3

Adding genetic information to the mix is answering some questions. As usual, we’re finding a great many new questions in the process.

Pioneering Plants

(From Paul Kenrick, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Early plants would have looked much like this lava field in Iceland”
(BBC News))

Origins of land plants pushed back in time
Helen Briggs, BBC News (February 20, 2018)

A seminal event in the Earth’s history – when plants appeared on land – may have happened 100 million years earlier than previously thought.

“Land plants evolved from ‘pond scum’ about 500 million years ago, according to new research.

“These early moss-like plants greened the continents, creating habitats for land animals.

“The study, based on analysing the genes of living plants, overturns theories based purely on fossil plant evidence….”

“Overturns” may be an overstatement. The new analysis does mean taking another look at how plants moved onto land. And that means reevaluating how land animals developed.

As long as they’ve got access to minerals, sunlight, water, and a bit of carbon dioxide, photosynthetic plants get along fine on their own.

Animals can’t eat rocks, bask in the sun, and stay alive. Not for very long. Animals eat plants that converted sunlight to chemical energy, or eat animals that eat plants. Either way, we get energy from plants. Minerals, too; in digestible compounds.

I suppose animals could eat water plants, then obligingly move onto land so other critters could eat them. We’re finding some intriguing symbiotic relations, but nothing like that. Not as far as I know.

Which, granted, doesn’t mean the research isn’t there. It’s been some time since one person could read everything that’s been written about everything. Never mind trying to keep up with what’s currently published.

Molecular Clocks

Studying life’s long story would be easier if all cells had a little chronometer, or at least a timestamped log of major changes.

It’s not that simple. Not quite.

About a half-century back, new tech let scientists isolate and study homologous proteins: proteins found in different but related critters.

Data from those studies, and new genetic knowledge, made measuring changes in proteins and genes possible.

Molecular clocks aren’t hardware. They’re a sort of analysis using known mutation rate per generation and the number of nucleotide differences between two sequences.

That probably sounds simpler than it is, but it’s a pretty good way to estimate when major changes happened.

Pretty good isn’t perfect — I figure scientists will be fine-tuning their analyses for quite a while. The new research raises many questions, including just how valid its results are. ‘Molecular clock’ times generally place events before what fossils show.4

That may mean we haven’t found the earliest examples of assorted critters. Or maybe the molecular clocks need resetting.

One of the research paper’s headings is “Implications for Hypotheses on the Coevolution of Land Plants and Climate.” Jennifer L. Morris and the other scientists take a quick look at Paleozoic carbon dioxide levels and other major climate changes.

If they’re right, timelines for climate changes a half-billion years back will need revision. And that’ll mean taking another look at probable cause-effect relations. Maybe “overturns” isn’t far from the mark, after all.

Darwin’s Finches Strike Again!

(From P. R. Grant, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“This is an image of the Big Bird lineage, which arose through the breeding of two distinct parent species: G. fortis and G. conirostris”
(BBC News))

Galapagos finches caught in act of becoming new species
Rory Galloway, BBC News (November 23, 2017)

A population of finches on the Galapagos has been discovered in the process of becoming a new species.

“This is the first example of speciation that scientists have been able to observe directly in the field.

“Researchers followed the entire population of finches on a tiny Galapagos island called Daphne Major, for many years, and so they were able to watch the speciation in progress….”

Darwin’s evolutionary theory is at least partly an example of serendipity. He wasn’t much of a bird expert in 1831, when the HMS Beagle reached the Galápagos. There’s a story about how Darwin got on the ship, but that’ll wait for another day. Maybe.

His job was observing and recording geological features. He’d studied beetles back in England, but wasn’t a naturalist by any stretch of the imagination. That didn’t keep him from noticing and logging the occasional critter, and like they say: the rest is history.

We get the word “species” from a Latin translation of Aristotle. He defined species his way. Linnaeus added his thoughts, and we still don’t have a completely satisfactory definition.

Following Aristotle’s lead, we figured species didn’t change until a few centuries back.

We’re still not sure how new species start. Not exactly. Likely enough it’s not just one mechanism. We are fairly certain that a bunch of related critters being isolated is part of the process. That’s what makes the Galápagos so important.

The Big Bird Lineage

(From Movera, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Daphne Major, Galápagos Islands)

This new species started in 1981. Researchers noticed a large cactus finch arriving at Daphne Major. The newcomer and a female from the local medium ground finches produced fertile young. They were a bit like their parents, but not quite like either.

Males in new generations didn’t attract any finches from the island’s ‘established families.’ Most likely because their mating calls sounded — different. Their beaks weren’t the ‘right’ size and shape either. That matters to finches.

They could and did pair up with females from the original pair. That sort of inbreeding is why we don’t have Spanish Hapsburgs any more. In this case, though, the next generation grew up and hatched eggs of their own.

They’re bigger than the other Daphne Island finches. That helped them make their own ecological niche. Researchers dubbed them the Big Bird lineage. I don’t know if that name will be ‘official,’ but I like it.

Two generations after the first hybrid finches, researchers figured they were looking at a new species.

Fast-forward about four decades after the newcomer’s arrival, and we’ve got about 30 individuals that aren’t large cactus or medium ground finches. They’re surviving nicely, and keep producing new generations. Six so far. It looks like we’ve got a new species.5

I figure this will spark some lively discussion. Getting a new species in two generations shouldn’t be possible: if new species only happen through mutation. That’s not what happened here. The Big Bird lineage started with hybridization.

Even so, I suspect that scientists who think everything happens gradually may not like it. Scientists are human, so ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ matter. To individuals.

But facts and sound analysis outvote preference. Assuming that these researchers did their job, the Big Bird lineage shows that change can be fast. I’ll talk about catastrophism and uniformitarianism, again. Eventually. But not today.

Instead, I’ll look at how I see what we’re learning. And how finches fit into faith.

It’s (Not) Magic

I’ve seen what Pope Francis said in 2014 called “a significant rhetorical break with Catholic tradition.”6

That’s almost true.

I’ve known some Catholics who don’t like evolution. There may be some who don’t like Copernican ideas.

I can’t fault the commentator for seeing “Catholic tradition” as attitudes cherished by some ‘traditional Catholics.’

I certainly can’t blame him for not explaining that someone’s “traditions” aren’t “Tradition.” Quite a few Catholics don’t seem to understand the differences. (Catechism, 7494)

Here’s what Pope Francis said, in part:

“…When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality….”
(“Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences; inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XVI,” Pope Francis (October 27, 2014))

I don’t know how many Americans see Christianity and evolution as mutually exclusive. Or at least feel uneasy about what we’ve been learning in recent centuries.

Or, coming from another direction, think religion encourages ignorance. Folks in both, all, camps are often loud and zealous. Which doesn’t make them right.

I have no reason to reject our increasing knowledge of God’s creation, and good reasons for paying attention. That’s because I think God creates everything we can observe.

Thomas Aquinas had quite a bit to say about that. There isn’t an official patron Saint of nerds, as far as I know. But if there was, it could easily be St. Thomas Aquinas. And that’s yet again another topic.

Anyway, I’ve read that St. Thomas Aquinas coined “secondary causes.” In Latin, of course. There’s quite a bit about secondary causes in his “Summa.” Here’s something from his discussion of predestination and change. A very brief excerpt:

“…God’s immediate provision over everything does not exclude the action of secondary causes; which are the executors of His order, as was said above (Question [19], Articles 5, 8)….”
(First Part, Question 22, Article 3)
“…For the providence of God produces effects through the operation of secondary causes, as was above shown (Question [22], Article 5)….”
(First Part, Question 23, Article 5)
“…The fact that secondary causes are ordered to determinate effects is due to God; wherefore since God ordains other causes to certain effects He can also produce certain effects by Himself without any other cause….”
(First Part, Question 105, Article 1)
“…God fixed a certain order in things in such a way that at the same time He reserved to Himself whatever he intended to do otherwise than by a particular cause. So when He acts outside this order, He does not change….”
(First Part, Question 105, Article 6)
(“Summa Theologica,” Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1265-1274))

Backing up a bit, I think God creates everything.

I also think natural processes involve secondary causes, creatures acting in ways determined by their nature. God writes knowable physical laws into everything we can observe. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

Everything reflects a facet of the Creator’s truth. What it reflects comes from its nature. (Catechism, 301308)

Since I believe that God creates everything, learning about this universe gives me more reasons to admire God’s work. (Catechism, 159, 214217, 282283, 294, 341)

Perceptions, Platitudes

(From Gallowboob, via Reddit, used w/o permission.)
(A baby blue heron)

Thinking that everything reflects some of God’s truth doesn’t guarantee recognizing it.

Medieval bestiaries were more like today’s coffee table books than science texts.

For one thing, what we call “science” was more like natural philosophy in those days.

For another, they were made mostly for show: something a wealthy patron could put on display. Or enjoy perusing.

From what I’ve seen, books written by or for medieval scholars weren’t overly decorative. (October 27, 2017)

I’m not sure how the moral lessons associated with each critter lined up with then-contemporary theology and ethics.

My guess is that the agreement was about as close as we see between today’s Hallmark cards and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Or Currier and Ives prints and Rerum Novarum.

Which brings me to that baby heron.

My wife said ‘that’s an ugly bird.’ I think she’s right. I’ve seen adult great blue herons. They’re majestic birds. I’ve seen photos of little blue herons, not the birds themselves. They’re bigger than a crow but smaller than a goose.

Blue herons, great and little, are attractive in their own way. As adults.

I’m quite sure the yellow-billed bundle of attitude and claws illustrates some aspect of God’s truth. What that truth is, I don’t know. Which won’t keep me from speculating.

The photo on Reddit came with a message: “Wonder what happened to the dinosaurs? This is a baby Blue Heron.” I agree. For theropod dinosaurs, anyway.

Maybe the obvious — to me — continuity between today’s birds and yesterday’s dinosaurs says that change happens.

Some birds are beautiful. Maybe the lesson is that obvious beauty can come from not-so-obvious sources. Or maybe something completely different.

Platitudes about ugly ducklings and rough diamonds come to mind. Or maybe the fable we call The Cat and the Mice. Or the Ant and the Chrysalis.

On the other hand, like someone said, sometimes ugly ducklings grow up to be ugly ducks. And maybe ducks, ugly or not, show us we can’t all be swans. Or mice.

I’d better stop now.

Life, the universe, and everything; my view:

1 Art, abstract and otherwise:

2 Early art:

3 Learning humanity’s story:

  • Wikipedia
  • The earliest modern humans outside Africa
    Israel Hershkovitz, Gerhard W. Weber, Rolf Quam, Mathieu Duval, Rainer Grün, Leslie Kinsley, Avner Ayalon, Miryam Bar-Matthews, Helene Valladas, Norbert Mercier, Juan Luis Arsuaga, María Martinón-Torres, José María Bermúdez de Castro, Cinzia Fornai, Laura Martín-Francés, Rachel Sarig, Hila May, Viktoria A. Krenn, Viviane Slon, Laura Rodríguez, Rebeca García, Carlos Lorenzo, Jose Miguel Carretero, Amos Frumkin, Ruth Shahack-Gross, Daniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Yaming Cui, Xinzhi Wu, Natan Peled, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Lior Weissbrod, Reuven Yeshurun, Alexander Tsatskin, Yossi Zaidner, Mina Weinstein-Evron; Abstract; Science (January 26 2018)

4 Virtual clocks and life:

5 New birds:

6 An op ed and the Pope:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Art, Evolution and Aquinas

  1. I don’t understand art. For example; when I go to an art gallery like the National Gallery in London, or the Tate Gallery, or whatever; how long must I stand in front of a painting and admire it? Is it just five minutes and I move on? Or longer than that? I remember seeing a whole room full of paintings in five minutes. Did I do it wrong?

    Now I know what I like. I can look at a painting, or a sculpture, and tell you whether I like it or not. The same I suppose with food. I prefer some kinds of foods more than others.

    What I do not understand is why would someone pay so much money to own a painting by some master or other. I know it was painted by someone from long time ago, (or even perhaps still living). I know there is supposed to be only one original of this painting. But at the end of the day it is only paint on canvass, or paper, or wood or whatever. So why should it cost so much?

    The other day on TV they showed a Jackson Pollock painting. It was drops of paint on a piece of wood. Why did it cost so much to buy and own?

    If I were to paint something it would still be unique. A one-off. None original like it painted by me. It would cost you $1.00 to buy. Why is that?

    God bless.

    • 🙂 I don’t understand the hoity-toity side of art either.

      Or maybe I hope I don’t. What I see being done in some circles looks a lot like buying a fancy house or luxury car – to impress someone else. That didn’t make sense to me as a youth, and still doesn’t. Which may help explain how I successfully avoided having a ‘successful’ career. And that’s another topic.

      I’ve known a few serious artists and folks who take art seriously *and* know something about it. Selling overpriced junk to wealthy urban rubes doesn’t impress them. Or, rather, doesn’t favorably impress them.

      My guess is that some of what passes for “art” from the 20th century will be studied for centuries to come. By scholars specializing in psychiatry, psychology, and commercial marketing. And, maybe, get a brief mention in art history.

      The $1.00 for an original – may not reflect the actual quality and value of the painting.

      But it might be close to what a gallery might see as the market value of something by a new artist.

      I’m no expert. My guess is based on what I saw in a general-public gallery in Chinatown, back when I lived in San Francisco. I’ve still got a beautifully-done little semi-abstract oil painting of a bird and plant. Which doesn’t make me an ‘art collector.’ Just someone who ‘knows what he likes.’

  2. irishbrigid says:

    A Youtuber with a pet bird described the baby version of the critters as “helpless bags of flesh with a beak,” which is a bit more complimentary than the ‘noisy stomachs’ description I’d run into many years previously.

    Oh, and congratulations! I found no typos.

  3. Yea! Huzzah! Good news. And indeed: that’s a apt description of the little peepers. 🙂

Thanks for taking time to comment!