The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Arts and Science

How is science different from older ways of using reason to understand the world? One difference is its connection with the arts, in the sense of mimesis. The Greeks tried to explain things in the world, or to prove things about it. But science explains or proves only pragmatically and indirectly, because scientific understanding is not, in itself, either explanation or proof: it is image, likeness, imitation.

The beginning of science is the principle that things which behave alike, are alike – even at disparate scales, under disparate circumstance, or for disparate ends. Either one is a version of the other, or both are governed by the same law. Gravity alike draws moon to apple and apple to moon; selection produces the artificial breed and the natural species; circulating information knots into systems like ecologies and minds.

Science is not a form of art; but no society has produced a scientific discovery unless its arts were already mature. The periods of Arabic scientific discovery were also periods of toleration for the representative arts – to explain the pulmonary circulation, Ibn an-Nafis had to draw a diagram. A scientist does not have to be an artist; an artist does not have to be a scientist; but philistine scientists and superstitious artists lose something. Great as they may be, they could have been more.

Brunelleschi, as a painter, created perspective, and mathematicians caught up with projective geometry. Chemists created new pigments and Impressionists, who saw the world in “patches of color,” saw a new world.

More characteristically, the sciences of anatomy and natural history were created by, and still depend on, artists. The work of the anatomist is to reconcile a body, a continuous and not always clearly differentiated mass of cells, with the Body; the work of the naturalist, to reconcile the adaptive and adapting ramifications of a common descent, with a scheme of Species; but the human Body, the animal Species, are abstractions made by art – anatomical drawings exhibit the plan of the Body, naturalists’ drawings exhibit the scheme of the Species, to show what is meant by the name before the compromises of embodiment.

Leonardo called himself the disciple of experience; Galileo looked to the book of nature; the formulations are interchangeable because arts and sciences are both equally vulnerable to the same danger of self-regard. Original art is original not by breaking with tradition, but because it returns to the “master of masters,” to nature; and original science is not done by pressing on with the questions in hand, but by looking to nature, not to extract an answer, but to learn the right question.