A clash of visual cultures

Nick Hopwood applauds an account of how US scientists used images to counter creationism and promote public understanding of evolution in the 1920s.

God — or Gorilla: Images of Evolution in the Jazz Age

Johns Hopkins University Press: 2008. 312 pp. $35, £23.50 9780801888250 | ISBN: 978-0-8018-8825-0

Pictures, as God — or Gorilla reminds us, have been central to the public communication of evolutionary biology, and its enemies have prominently exploited their ambiguity. In 1925, when a Tennessee court tried John Thomas Scopes for teaching in a public school that “man has descended from a lower order of animals”, the address by prosecutor William Jennings Bryan peaked in his denunciation of a diagram. 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?”

An early museum mural depicts Neanderthals as innovative and alert, unlike popular portrayals of 'apemen' at the time. Credit: C.R. KNIGHT/AMERICAN MUS. NAT. HIST. LIBRARY #618

Historian Constance Clark helps uncover the larger processes that made the Scopes trial significant by investigating the role of images in American scientists' responses to the anti-evolutionism of the 1920s. The 'jazz age' of her title alludes to the culture wars in which traditionalists painted modernists as Bolsheviks, atheists, evolutionists — and jazz-lovers. There is little music here; the reference is to the practice of 'jazzing up' or enlivening science.

Palaeontologist Henry Osborn saw a place for God in evolution. Credit: GRANGER COLLECTION/TOPFOTO

Clark's theme is how ideas were condensed into symbols that were viewed in light of “the pictures in our heads”, as journalist Walter Lippmann called them, and added to our stock of images of the distant past. She engagingly explores the dissonances between changing ideas, images that were evocative but hard to control, and audiences' divergent expectations. The book is not a detailed analysis of the practicalities of producing and reproducing pictures, or making science news. Rather, it reconstructs the attempts of influential evolutionists to get their messages across in a world of unruly images, competing voices and fragile authority.

The 1920s were riven by conflicts about the status and limits of science. Evolution was particularly awkward for biologists to defend. Although many researchers accepted that humans and other organisms evolved, they were deeply divided about the mechanisms, and most kept their heads down. Clark focuses on the palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of New York's American Museum of Natural History, which at that time received two million visitors a year. The museum's educational mission and the media preference for established figures gave the conservative Osborn a platform for dated and increasingly controversial views. When evolution came under attack, he and a few like-minded senior scientists announced that it was compatible with their own Protestant religion, and gave “a sublime conception of God”. This theistic evolutionism repelled secular scientists and fundamentalist Christians alike, but was often presented as the scientific consensus. Scopes's legal team drew on a large literature reconciling science and religion. Osborn became isolated only after his distaste for simian origins led him to put so much distance between humans and apes that many saw him as selling out.

The museum led the production of textbook figures, charts, lantern slides and plaster casts. Effective visuals embodied theories, even hypotheses. Clark shows how tree diagrams and image series communicated understandings of descent, but accusations of guessing pushed Osborn to pretend they illustrated unvarnished facts. He commissioned murals and book covers that ennobled cave-painting Cro-Magnon man (as pictured, left), but well-known sequences confirmed the connection to brutish apemen more strongly than he could deny. Cartoons played on images of the Scopes 'monkey trial', and people joked about missing links.

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, it is helpful to reflect on the struggles of that decisive decade.

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Hopwood, N. A clash of visual cultures. Nature 458, 704–705 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/458704a

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