Resolving the avian form : At the border between science and natural history (2005.6.1[Wed])


Many of the cont ours of the physical world manifest in fractal dimensions composed of complex, iterating patterns that retain the same degree of complexity at any scale. This has implications for the visualization of animal forms, the precision of which is contingent upon a number of somewhat arbitrary factors including the goals and intentions of the observer, the mode of observation and the observer's own artistic ability (or technology used). Taxonomic studies require depiction of the specimen in toto and the occasional unaided exploration of gross anatomy, while forays into histology and cytology necessitate calling the magnifying glass and optical microscope into play; at even minuter scales, the electron microscope opens up the world within the cell itself, and molecular techniques now make it possible to reveal genes at single-nucleotide resolution.

 This range of representation, of endeavors to portray the world as it truly is, is rooted in observations made in modes that we tend to categorize as either those of the scientist or of the natural historian. And while it may seem trite to suggest that the distinction between these approaches is merely a question of image resolution, as with most commonplaces, a kernel of truth dwells within. John James Audubon's Bird of America, which the author compiled by sketching specimens of birds he himself had shot and posed in an effort to achieve the greatest possible precision in his portraiture, provides a telling example. This practice of mounting freshly killed wild birds on his desktop resulted in depictions that inevitably included elements of the fanciful and the contrived, and so tend to jar with our understanding of the world as it is. (I refer those interested in learning more about Audubon to Lynn Merrill's The Romance of Victorian Natural History.E What's relevant to our argument here is Audubon's practice of creating life-size renditions by naked-eye observation alone, which identifies him as operating squarely within both the ethos and the praxis of the Golden Age of natural history in Victorian England. In fact, it was Audubon's insistence on full-scale reproduction that forced him to print his work in England, as publishers elsewhere balked at the costs of producing such large watercolor plates.

 Printing technology has come a long way since the 19th century, and the modern day reader tends to find that the Audubon studies are characterized by a disconcertingly simple touch. For some of the studies, the painter's eye discriminated between the individual flight and contour feathers, but not the finer plumage or down. Today's imaging technology makes it possible to visualize in much greater detail, and indeed there are a number of atlases now that far surpass Audubon's in both precision and accuracy. That said, on browsing the Birds of America, one is left with the impression that the studies represent a kind of non plus ultra in their level of detail, and there's an almost naïve purity in the artist's resolve not to strain against those bounds. In a sense, Audubon's conception of natural history as an undertaking distinct from science proper shows a willingness impose limits on its exploration of fractal dimensions that are by definition limitless.

 Merrill shows that, to a certain extent, Victorian natural history was necessarily exclusive of natural science, and that its practitioners feigned ignorance of or consciously shunned both Leeuwenhoek's lens and Linnaeus's taxonomy to allow them to indulge in the poetic freedoms demanded by a pastoral sentiment. Natural historians embarked on a fateful course once they began defining themselves solely in terms of what they were not, with statements to the effect that Magnifying lenses and microscopes are tools of scientists, not of students of natural history, or Scientists may be quick to kill the animals they study, but we are obliged to observe the living creature in its habitat, and ultimately it was Darwin's The Origin of Species that completed the estrangement of these two approaches to the study of the living world. Birds of America it seems has been left to us as a relic of a bygone age when, for Audubon at least, the definition of natural history was one of the visible world seen at human resolution and rendered at a scale of exactly 1:1.

Reference : ”Birds of America (Original title : AUDUBON'S Birds of America)”