Neo-Cabrian Imagination, 2007

Neo-Cabrian Imagination, 2007

Jae Chun Choe / professor of EcoScience at Ewha Woman’s University and Director of University’s Natural History Museum


All life appears to have originated in water, and for most of history, animals were limited to an aquatic existence. Then, fairly recently in evolutionary time, a few fish evolved into amphibians, and thus the first land animals appeared. The reasons for this great leap forward remain elusive, and have been subject to much creative speculation. A cartoon entitled Great Moments in Evolution by Gary Larson depicts three fishes pondering what to do after accidentally hitting their baseball on to land. Larson inspires us to imagine what might have happened after this scene played out one too many times, after the fishes got tired of losing their toys. One day, a pioneering fish may finally have scraped up enough courage to venture out the water after the ball, accidentally leading to the evolution of a creature adapted to terrestrial life. In Larson’s world, if no fish had dared to jump out of the water after that baseball, we humans might never have appeared on this planet.

What was the greatest moment in evolution? Was it the instant when the first spiralling strand of DNA, the very source code of life, was completed? Was it the appearance of the first cell, the creation of a whole new world wrapped in a protective membrane? The appearance of the first multi-cellular organism, a miracle of art and engineering? The first moment when an animal soared aloft on wings? Or was it the moment when man first stood up two legs to look over tall grasses at the horizon beyond? How did life achieve all these revolutionary changes?

In the atelier (or rather, the laboratory) of Hyungkoo Lee, unimaginable evolutionary innovations occur at a scale and rate so immense that Lee’s creative process may rightly be called another Cambrian explosion or neo-Camnbrian explosion. It isn’t hard to imagine Lee being reborn as palaeontologist in 50 million years, and making a career out of studying the skeletons of animals from a huge fossil bed, equivalent to the Burgess Shale, that he himself will discover. Geologists predict that in 50 million years, the giant East African Rift Walley, Which includes Lake Tanganyika, will widen, separating a wedge of eastern Africa containing Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of Ethiopia and Mozambique from the main body of Africa. The reborn Lee could lead the investigation into the evolution of fossil vertebrates discovered on the coast of this new continent, Lemuria.

In this imagined future, the skeletons that Lee studies imply, human volition will play an important role in driving and shaping our evolution over the next 50 million years. According to traditional views, there should be no purpose or pre-ordained direction in evolution. Rather, evolution should stumble forward as a series of fortunate accidents. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, likens the process to the fate of a watch in the hands of a blind watchmaker. As the blind watchmaker is unable to perceive the overall plan of the timepiece, or the nature of the problem, he will be forced to make random adjustments, hoping that somewhere along the way, a solution will occur by accident. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that your watch wi1l actually be repaired. This inability of evolution to plan ahead may explain why the magnificent diversity of life that we see around us currently preserves only a tiny portion of the biodiversity that this planet has known.

Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass contains a scene in which Alice finds herself running around a tall tree, hand in hand with the Red Queen. Alice is amazed that they run until they are out of their breath, yet they remain in the same place. To the bewildered Alice, the Red Queen explains that just to stay in one place, they must run as hard as they can. Leigh Van Valen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, uses the analogy of the Red Queen to explain the process of evolution. Living organisms, according to Van Valen, are not actually advancing toward a better future, but rather must exhaust all of their energy and creativity simply to avoid extinction. The majority of the now extinct life forms are those Who could not keep pace with Bed Queen, and in the end lost their grip on her hand.

Nobel laureate Francois Jacob calls evolution a ‘tinkerer’, by which he means that natural selection is not an engineering process leading to the invention of the most effective machine, but rather, is nothing but a blind watchmaker making the best out of a bad job. The birth of the human species resulted from a long series of fortuitous events. The probability of this sequence of events occurring is unimaginably low, and yet somehow, here we are. In his book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould boldly asserts that if we could recreate die original conditions of life for the filming of the documentary Life on Earth, the probability of man ever appearing in the new version would be close to zero.

Nonetheless, in Lee’s laboratory, evidence of revolutionary evolution is scattered everywhere. the beak of Geococctx Animatus(the Warner Brothers’ famed Roadrunner) has evolved a permanent gape from a lifetime of laughing at the misadventures of Wile E. Coyote (Canis Latrans Animatus). Is this the ultimate evidence of Lamarckianism, i.e., the inheritance of acquired character? Is Lamarckian evolution possible, despite its contradictions with the theory of natural selection and the principle of Meridelian genetics?

Lamarck explained evolution as resulting from the interplay between form, habit and desire. According to Lamarck, the giraffe’s neck lengthened from the modest feature with which most creatures are equipped to its current spectacular form as the result of concerted effort across generations, as giraffes strove to reach upward to greater and greater heights in the trees toward the tender leaves on which their lives depend. Lamarck, long disparaged by evolutionary scientists, has not yet been proven right, but evidence is accumulating that some forms of Lamarckian evolution may be possible. If Lamarck showed up at Lee’s exhibition, he would surely be pleased with what he saw.

Modern humans live in an age in which we can and do reconstruct ourselves into the forms that we want to present to the world, and that we ourselves long to see in the mirror. Jaw bones are sculpted and reshaped, the bridges of noses are elevated, and silicone bags are inserted into breasts. In the not-so-distant future, we may be able to make changes in the very genes of our unborn children. Finally, we will be able to recreate a new kind of self without using a knife. If these events actually come to pass, and genetically designed children are born and prove reproductively successful, human evolution will take a very different course. The post-2003 world, or the world after the completion of the Human Genome Project, will be a world like no one has ever seen, truly a Brave New World, even more outlandish than the one Aldous Huxley imagined.

Is necessity the mother of invention? The fossil bones investigated in Lee’s creative laboratory are full of the markers of evolution by necessity. The legs and feet of Geococcyx Animatus, strengthened by decades of flight from the ravenous Canis Latrans Animatus, have become so greatly enlarged that they are now even more enormous than those of Canis Latrans Animatus. The jaw bones of Canis Latrans Animatus have been lengthened and strengthened by the coyote’s eagerness to catch and devour Geococcyx Animatus. While it is not clear who will be the ultimate victor in this predator-prey relationship-and indeed the tables may turn, revealing the hunter as the hunted-it is obvious that the wills of their ancestors have been clearly reflected in the evolutionary patterns of both animals.

What may the future hold if indeed necessity dictates the direction of evolution? Everything seems possible in the world of Hyungkoo Lee. Will this world become more efficient if men are born equipped with bodies perfectly suited for their future professions? Will the world be a better place if future professors are born with megaphone-like mouths, and pianists with fingers long and strong enough to gracefully bridge several octaves?

As unimaginable as it may seem, such a world already exists on this planet. In the forests of Central and South America, visitors can easily spot caravans of leaf-cutter ants diligently transporting cut leaves to their nests. Contrary to all appearances, the ants do not actually eat the leaves themselves, but rather use leaves as fertilizer in the cultivation of edible fungi or mushrooms. Scientists using a DNA-based ‘molecular clock’ estimate that the mushrooms that comprise the ant’s stable foods have been cultivated for an incredible 60 million years. Therefore, not only are leaf-cutter ants members of the very exclusive club of animals (including ants, termites, and humans) who have invented agriculture, but they are clearly founding members, their accomplishments having preceded human agriculture by tens of millions of years.

Leaf-cutter ants have adopted an assembly-line-style division of labour, analogous to that used in automobile manufacturing. An automobile frame is placed on a conveyor belt and then assembly workers perform their own specific tasks as the frame passes by. Leaf-cutter ants divide tasks on their mushroom farm in a similar manner. Some ants cut and transport leaves to the farm, where others toil to chop leaves and to cultivate, harvest, and store mushroom. In a perfect example of harmony between form and function, leaf-cutter ants occur in four morphs of differing body size and shape. Exaggerated body parts allow each morph, or ‘caste’ to perform their appointed task with maximum efficiency. Once an ant is born as a given caste, her body size and shape remain the same throughout her life.

The front teeth of Lee’s Lepus Animatus are not the teeth of au ordinary rabbit, but rather recall Bugs Bunny’s famously oversized incisors. The disproportionately large jaws of Canis Latrans Animatus, and the gaping beak and leaping legs of Geococcyx Animatus also exaggerate the features of ‘normal’ animals. The enlarged hands, legs, and skulls of Lee’s Homo Animatus also stand in sharp contrast to their disproportionately small bodies. Evolutionary adaptation works by favouring varying degrees of exaggeration of a basic set of features. Individuals displaying a structure and function particularly well suited for a given environment are favoured, while others are cruelly weeded out by natural selection. The repetition of this process across generations produces an optimal level of exaggeration of those features most critical for survival and reproduction. The peculiar animals in Lee’s laboratory may not have survived the process of selection, succumbing to extinction, and leaving behind only fossils and memories. We see the future in Lee’s works, but Lee himself may have travelled to the far future and looked back at the past to imagine these fantastic creatures.

Lee’s imagination cuts across time, taking in the view from 550 million years ago to 50 million years in the future. May we call this epic view a Neo-Cambrian imagination? Lee concentrates on bones, which may be described as the most honest part in an animal’s body. After death, it is usually only the animal’s bones that remain, leaving indelible marks on the landscape far into the future. Scientists divide the animal kingdom into creatures with skeletons and those without skeletons, and animals with skeletons are then subdivided into beings with external skeletons (exoskeletons) and those with internal skeletons (endoskeletons). Animals are further classified by the type of symmetry that their bodies display. Some animals, such as humans, are bilaterally symmetrical, with the right side of their body being more or less mirroring the left, whereas others, such as starfish, display radial symmetry, with congruent body parts radiating out from a central point. Therefore, in this scheme, animals in our own phylum, the Chordata, are characterized as having bilaterally symmetrical endoskeletons. The fossils from the Burgess Shale represent the body plans or Bauplans of all 26 phyla of organisms, so these modern body plans were already represented in the fossil record in those days. Palaeontologists call this magnificent increase of biodiversity, the Cambrian explosion.

The actual scale of the Cambrian explosion may well be beyond our imaginations. Only animals with a skeleton are likely to leave their mark. After death, soft-bodied animals often disappear without a trace. Indeed, a 1978 study of animals living in the intertidal zone revealed that only 40% of those animals are represented in the fossil record. Lee, too, works within this limitation, but the fact that he only studies bones does not prevent him from presenting important questions about his subjects. Careful observers will discover that the number of fingers and toes in his study animals is not five, the pattern with which we are most familiar, but rather only three or four. If Lee’s animals don’t represent unusual mutants, then they possess a both plan rather different from those of most living animals. All of the Animatus that Lee studies were originally characters in cartoons. Therefore, their novel features may result from either practical or aesthetic considerations. The cartoonists might have felt it tedious to draw five fingers or toes, or alternatively, they might have found three fingers or toes to be more aesthetically pleasing than five.

Still, some aspects of these creatures remain mysterious. It is difficult to explain why Homo Animatus has only three fingers and four toes. Here again, there is the possibility that personal will, rather than the limits imposed by nature, is reflected. In his work entitled Enlarging My Right Hand with Gauntlet 1 (2002) one can feel Lee’s will to improve human hands in terms of structural elegance and function.

Of course, in nature, some changes in animal structure also seem to lack any clear meaning or importance. The sloth, arguably the slowest animal in the world, comes in two types, one two-toed and the other three-toed. Evolutionary biologist have not come up with clear explanation for this difference, but rather regard it as simply the legacy of the quirky evolutionary history of sloths. Similarly, the African rhinoceros has two horns, whereas the Indian rhinoceros possesses but a single horn. Science has yet to determine the importance, if any, of the number of horns on the face of a rhinoceros.

How can such fundamental changes in body plan occur? Darwin in described evolution as resulting from the gradual accumulation of small changes. His theory of natural selection remains by far the best explanation for evolutionary change based on differential fitness of existing variations. Nevertheless, Darwin’s work leaves many important questions unanswered. As Hugo DeVries pointed out at the turn of the 20th century, ‘natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest but not the arrival of the fittest.’

In recent years, however, scientists working in a new field of research are attempting to solve this problem, by providing genetic explanations for the arrival of the fittest. Evolutionary developmental biology, aka Evo-Devo, has yielded the discovery of genes that control developmental processes in animals from fruit flies, to snakes, chickens, mice and men. Homeobox genes, a set of relatively short DNA segments, work like master switches that determine the fates of cells in fruit flies. Surprisingly, homeobox genes are present not only in fruit flies but also in mice and men. Mutations in such master genes, however small, can have enormous impacts on the form of the organism. The Animatus animals that Lee studies must have experienced interesting changes in their own master genes at some point in their evolutionary history.

Lee identifies himself as having been influenced by Rodin and Giacometti, but one can also clearly sees the Da Vincian legacy in his artistry. Lee makes detailed sketches of every Animatus he studies. His sketches are not merely dessin, but also include calculations of structural mechanics and discussions of function. His analysis of the parts of the animal that did not fossilize provides clues to his understanding of the behaviour, structure and function of Animatus in a manner reminiscent of Da Vinci’s sketches.

In particular, Lee’s analysis of the eyeball of Lepus Animatus is a magnum opus. This detailed investigation allows us to c1early imagine the behaviour of Lepus Animatus, capturing the dynamism of the Animatus so vividly that it seems that it could spring to life at the flip of a switch. This lifelike portrayal of the kinetic nature of the Animatus testifies to the fact that Lee’s study includes not only structure and function, but also behaviour and movement. All of his Animatus appear to be trapped in time, visibly radiating their desire for freedom to make their next move.

The scene in Jurassic Park in which T. Rex chases the jeep, arguably the most magnificent scene in the movie, has stirred up a heated discussion about whether T. Rex was actually capable of running so fast. Before making the film, Steven Spielberg actually hired leading dinosaur specialists to estimate the potential speed of T. Rex based on its anatomy. The debate about the realism of the film is ongoing, but it is clear that the detailed investigation of skeletal structure and muscular function was an essential step in Spielberg’s creative process.

Fantasy and reality exist side-by-side in the world of Hyungkoo Lee, and the chasm between them is filled by science. There may still he people who think that science diminishes artistic inspiration, but art history proves otherwise. Music, western art music in particular, was created on the basis of Pythagorean mathematics, and the contribution of Da Vinci to the arts is incalculable. Art, which is creative human activity, belongs in the realm of the humanities, but art can only move forward through productive interaction with natural science, as Edward Wilson so forcefully argues in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. An appreciation of the connections between apparently disparate endeavours and the destruction of artificial barriers between ‘science’, ‘life’, and ‘art’ is the right direction for the pursuit of truth in the 21st century.

Collaboration between Lee and Dougal Dixon, palaeontologist and the author of the book called After Man: A Zoology of the Future might prove particularly fruitful in bringing together disparate branches of art and science. While Lee’s art follows in the footsteps of Lamarck, Dixon has attempted to imagine the evolution of animals in the next 50 million years based on the concept of Darwinian selection. It has been nearly a century and a half since the publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species resulted in a near-burial of Lamarckism. Recently, however, Lamarckian ideas begin to re-emerge in different areas of the arts and sciences, including Lee’s subtle but eerie animated inspiration. In Lee’s world, where Darwin and Lamarck come together, the illogic of science and the logic of fantasy dance together in midair.