Intersectional and Interdependent: the Interwoven History of Art and the Biological Sciences

Intersectional and Interdependent: the Interwoven History of Art and the Biological Sciences

One of the biggest cliches in creative expression is “art imitates life.” Even uttering the phrase increases your chance of an eye roll within the direct vicinity. However, art and the sciences have a long-interwoven history of dedication and creative expression. Much of what propelled the sciences and arts forward was the fascination with how the world works. As a result, the art became a reflection of centuries of progress in humanity’s desire to elevate knowledge, an illustration of infinite possibilities. Describing art as only an imitation can undermine the crafts that generations of scientists and artists worked to achieve.

 

Calling it an imitation implicates that art is dependent on the knowledge of scientists. In reality, artists and scientists continue to innovate and illuminate discoveries while still working within the bounds of human knowledge. Even more so, referring to biological art as a mimicry of the sciences implies that the two fields can survive without one another. In reality, artists and scientists have worked in cohesion to understand the world around us better before the field even had a name.

 

One prominent figure associated with the arts and sciences is, of course, Leonardo Da Vinci, who was incredibly enamored with the human body. His first biographer in 1520 described his meticulousness when studying bodies, stating that “he paid attention to the forms of even very small organs, capillaries, and hidden parts of the skeleton." As a result, his methods when approaching art and his scientific studies became more developed and even reflected a lot of what the modern scientific method looks like today.

Da Vinci sketch
Da Vinci sketch

Humanity’s fascination with life entered the depths of the ocean in 1893 when the first underwater photograph was taken. The image included an early model for a scuba suit and was taken by Louis Boutan. This opened the world to a whole new array of possibilities for research and development with a single shot; it represented a new area of intersection between biology and art—the art of photography.

 

The illustration of nanoparticles and atoms became more realistic than ever with the improvement of computer modeling and electron microscopes. The curtain veiling the mystery of the microscopic world vanished when humanity gained the capability to see photos of objects so small it is nearly incomprehensible. Some even decided to use this technology to shift particles into shapes and text. At IBM, scientists moved copper atoms with a needle to create the Star Trek logo—proving that the building blocks of life can be shaped and manipulated with the push of a needle. As the canvas for discovery and creative expression expanded, the possibilities for knowledge became endless.

Darwin
Darwin's finch heads sketches

More colleges and universities are reinforcing the bridge between art and biological sciences by offering classes based on the intersection. At UNC-Chapel Hill, students have the opportunity to explore biology through printmaking by analyzing cell samples under a microscope and translating them into manual press styles. The course description emphasizes the goal for students to achieve and understand “meaningful connections between art and science as well as disciplinary differences, especially with regard to what constitutes creative and scientific research and interpretation/analysis of visual information.” From paintbrushes to microscopes, the biological sciences have always existed and flourished with the unhindered dedication of artists, and classes like these in academic settings help strengthen generations of scientists and artists by helping them better understand their connection.

 

Scientists from the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium were able to assemble genetic sequences from 47 people from different backgrounds to develop the human pangenome. A pangenome represents a core set of genes common in most individuals. The breakthrough shed more light on the problems in other attempts to collect data on human genetics, such as the Human Genome Project, as many could only represent about .2% of the world’s population due to a lack of diversity in sample sizes. Over 70% of the Human Genome Project’s data came from one man of Afro-European descent. This led to the streetlamp effect, where studies could only be understood only as far as referenced data could take them. The only way to curb a streetlamp effect is through more diverse data sets and studies.  SciTechDaily describes the recent discoveries within the human pangenome as “A Crystal Clear Image of Human Genomic Diversity,” as this breakthrough could lead to a better understanding of the relationship between genetics and disease.

Electron Microscope of pollen
Electron microscope image of pollen

As more science and technology news platforms picked up coverage of the breakthrough, the images chosen developed a pattern. When we think of genetics, we typically think of the classic double-helix model. With the publication of these scientists’ findings, these platforms chose to allude to that model instead of depending on it. Platforms such as Science magazine and Science News chose to include drone images of large groups of people standing in the shape of a double helix to emphasize the potential of an understanding of genetics that captures more of humanity than ever before. SciTechDaily chose to focus on a single person, half of their face concealed by masses of genetic data. While all of these news outlets used different approaches to discuss these findings, they all uniquely emphasized the potential for unifying the world’s understanding of hereditary conditions, echoing past efforts from the intersectional nature of the biological sciences.

 

When people hear Alan Wilson’s quote “Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself,” they usually think of space as it is incomprehensively vast and ever-expanding, larger than life, and yet still connected to each and every one of us. The same logic can be used to investigate biology and microbial life as we look inward to discover what exactly connects us to the rest of the universe. Fascination with the biological condition has remained the same throughout human history, with artists capturing its mystery with paintbrushes and computer models alike. The art reflecting these biological discoveries exemplifies a field dedicated to learning about life. The intertwined relationship of art and biology reflects the same wonder we feel when we look at the stars, but the wonder comes from just how attainable its understanding has become.


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