March 8, 2014 @ 1:53 pm
Continuing the previous review of John Gurche’s Shaping Humanity; also taking a look at Hiyao Miyazaki’s latest (last?) animated film.
I sometimes say to my students that evolution is a sculptor more than a painter. What I mean when I say something so simplistic (but memorable) is that natural selection removes individuals from a population the way a sculptor removes wood or stone or clay from a block, using death as its chisel. It’s an analogy, and it doesn’t apply so well to the way John Gurche sculpts in clay and silicone, building up from bone to muscle to skin to hair.
However, if we look closer, he does engage in selection. He chooses which sets of measurements to use, out of all the measurements of all the bone features that people have taken, only some of which are good predictors of flesh and cartilage dimensions. How does he know which are good predictors? He did the science, comparing skulls with death masks in two different museums.
Scientists are careful to talk about discoveries, of things that already existed. There’s a certain amount of humility built into the culture (not enough, but some). Engineers talk about designs and tests rather than hypotheses and experiments, but the selective nature of the process is the same. I’ve harped on this in other contexts, like here, so I won’t repeat that part of the argument today.
Today I want to talk about the inspiration for designs. Artists and engineers both get a lot of credit for designs that work well, and a lot of blame when they don’t. The flight tests that take place several times during The Wind Rises are high-stakes events, with fortunes on the line. Investors don’t want to hear about the engineer’s dreams, during which he talks to other airplane designers, or his drawings of mackerel bones (how would we pay royalties?)
Sometimes we can identify the sources of our ideas, like this quote from Gurche:
“Over a two-month period, the reconstruction progressed like a dissection in reverse. It was reminiscent of a time years ago, when I first dissected the face of a great ape (an adult female orangutan). After those long sessions, once I finally lay down to sleep I would be bombarded by afterimages, which inexplicably were sequencing in reverse, so that what I saw on the interior of my eyelids was a face being constructed.”
[Chimp, not orangutan. See below.]
That’s pretty explicit. Gurche stored a model of the orangutan’s facial muscles in his long-term memory. Whenever he creates something new, it is modified from that model, plus other dissections, plus later experiences. In the movie The Wind Rises, when Jiro Horikoshi borrows a leaf spring to strengthen a strut, or loans his friend the idea for flat-headed rivets to reduce drag, it’s equally explicit. The leap comes when we assume that because we can’t identify the source so easily, there is no source. Such logic may be convenient for inventors and investors, but it’s not how cultural evolution actually works. Most ideas (I won’t go so far as to say every idea, because I’d be making the same mistake) are related to some previous idea, some previous piece of information from outside the inventor’s head. Creativity is mostly mutation and recombination. Our social circuitry, evolved for assigning credit and blame as ways of enforcing cooperation, misleads us as to the nature of creativity. The lone genius is just more receptive to ideas than the rest of us are.
Dissection of a chimp's face (not an orangutan)
And a how-to-manual!Share | Comments