Category Archives: –biosemiotics

The Past Decade in Science and Certainty


A link to my essay on Lynn Margulis, “Evolutionary ‘Naturalism,’ Chance and Conspiracy,” was shared in this month’s Environmental Evolution newsletter.

Also, watch the preview of Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis rocked the boat and started a scientific revolution

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Celebrating Humanities NY

I spent last week with fellow Public Scholars as our service (2015-2018) with Humanities New York comes to an end.    Going forward, I may continue with my work, now acting as consultant on planning grants and action grants in art-science-humanities projects for any New York state based non-profit. Interested? Please apply here.  From left to right: Ellen Gruber Garvey, Scarlett Rebman, Sally Roesch Wagner, Barbara Tepa Lupak, Anne Mosher, Susan Goodier, Dave Ruch, Victoria Alexander, Hallie Bond, Verdis LaVar Robinson, Antonio Pontón-Núñez, and Ryan Purcell.

The Artist as Scientist: Nabokov and Insect Mimicry, talk by VN Alexander

It’s a commonplace to say that good science requires imagination, yet scientist aren’t really encouraged to read poetry or to take up painting. Maybe they should. This talk presents the example of Vladimir Nabokov, renown Russian-American novelist and butterfly scientist who used his artistic knowledge to understand how evolution can work. He went against the prevailing theories of his day and was attacked for being unscientific, but recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic guesses were amazingly accurate and precise.

Nabokov didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots. He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty Viceroy species butterfly look like the bitter tasting Monarch, allowing it to survive better. Although he believed that natural selection had shaped many of nature’s forms, he thought the one thing natural selection could not create was mimicry, which could be better explained by other natural mechanisms. This heresy infuriated scientists who thought insect mimics were the best illustration of the gradual powers of selection. More than fifty years later, Nabokov’s genius is finally being recognized. What was it about Nabokov’s way of thinking that allowed him to see what others could not? And how did his understanding of nature inspire his fiction?

Talk based on “Chance, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the “Non-utilitarian Delights” of Butterfly Mimicry” by V N Alexander, in Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art. Eds. Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Last chance to book VN Alexander for a free talk through Humanities NY

My term as Public Scholar for Humanities NY comes to an end in March.  This month will be your last opportunity to get me to come speak to your New York based non-profit group — for FREE!   I offer three different talks — on Propaganda, Artificial Intelligence or Insect Mimicry. All three talks have in common the theme that science and art need to be integrated to develop real critical and creative thinking skills. Great for all ages. To book, apply here.

Propaganda & Art: How we think when we aren’t using logic

We have been hearing a lot about “fake news” and “propaganda” lately, and it is as important as ever to use our critical thinking skills. But we also need to understand how propaganda works and why it is so difficult to counteract with logic. Propaganda takes advantage of the way our brains function when we are not paying attention. When we are paying attention our analytical skills are engaged.  When we are not, our brains go on processing information in a non-analytical way, using what might be called a poetic logic, based mainly upon similarities, coincidental patterns, associations, repetition, and emotion. There are sound biological reasons for this mindless type of processing, which actually helps us learn faster, retain memories longer, and make appropriate decisions without really thinking.

In this presentation, we will explore how and why art and poetry may actually be more helpful in developing critical thinking skills.  Art also works with the poetic logic of subconscious processing, but does so in a way that is not manipulative, deceptive or dishonest.

What Can Art Teach Us About Artificial Intelligence?

Every time we use Google, purchase an item on Amazon, write an email with Gmail, or post something on Facebook, we interact with computer algorithms that adapt to our Internet activity. Apps can translate spoken English sentences into spoken Chinese. “Deep learning” programs find patterns and can help doctors diagnose cancer or help singles find mates. In the court system, judges can use software to analyze patterns in criminal behavior before passing sentences. We call our phones and our weapons “smart,” and all of these advances in technology are said to use artificial “intelligence.”

We may wonder, What is intelligence? What’s the difference, if any, between an organism and a machine that can seek an object, read signs, or identify a pattern? Both can obtain goals, set either by evolution or design. Do organisms and machines use similar methods for learning, classifying, remembering and interpreting? Are animals and people really just organic machines? If so, could science eventually make machines that can learn to make up their own minds as robots do in science fiction? In this presentation, we will talk about some of the differences between the present-day artificial intelligence and biological intelligence. Specifically, we will learn about biologists studying cell signaling who say that even the simplest unit of life can make interpretations in ways that smart machines do not. Animals can take advantage of chance associations, which machines are usually designed to ignore, and machine learning programs are not designed to invent new knowledge–not yet anyway.

Examining smart technologies can inspire us to learn about our own learning processes and help us decide whether or not it’s a good idea to rely on machines to make judgements.

Nabokov’s Unorthodox Theory of Insect Mimicry: why science needs more artists

It’s a commonplace to say that good science requires imagination, yet scientist aren’t really encouraged to read poetry or to take up painting. Maybe they should. This talk will present the example of Vladimir Nabokov, renown Russian-American novelist and butterfly scientist who used his artistic knowledge to understand how evolution can work. He went against the prevailing theories of his day and was attacked for being unscientific, but recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic guesses were amazingly accurate and precise.

Nabokov didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots. He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty Viceroy species butterfly look like the bitter tasting Monarch, allowing it to survive better. Although he believed that natural selection had shaped many of nature’s forms, he thought the one thing natural selection could not create was mimicry, which could be better explained by other natural mechanisms. This heresy infuriated scientists who thought insect mimics were the best illustration of the gradual powers of selection. More than fifty years later, Nabokov’s genius is finally being recognized. What was it about Nabokov’s way of thinking that allowed him to see what others could not? And how did his understanding of nature inspire his fiction?

This presentation will look at “artistic” versus “scientific” ways of understanding nature. Art and science lovers in the audience will be encouraged to share their experiences in different styles of analysis. We will try to break down the false barrier between the “two cultures” and examine how critical thinking, keen powers of observation, wit, logic, and imagination are necessary for both art and science.

V. N. Alexander, PhD is Public Scholar with Humanities New York. She is a noted researcher in the field of biosemiotics, facilitating interactions between art and science, and a novelist whose most recent work is Locus Amoenus, a political satire set in upstate New York.

2016 Top 20: Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art

The Book/Arts blog of the prestigious journal Nature has included Fine Lines in its top 20 book list for 2016.

natureblog

 

Fine Lines was also review in Doppiozero in Italy, Haibun in Romania, and science and art blog, and made the top 20 list bioteaching.com

doppiozero

 

haibunscienceandart

bioteaching