Taxonomy through art

Within paleoanthropology, we often witness taxonomic clashes. Species that were named on the basis of a single fossil are later discarded. Now with genomics, we can see that the fossil “species” we named for Late Pleistocene humans in fact extensively interbred with each other. I have found it interesting over the last year to talk with artist reconstructors about the way they incorporate this information into their works.

I was pointed to an essay by James Prosek, a biological artist best known for his books illustrating fish (James Prosek’s Amazon page). As he matured as an artist, he discovered that the lines in nature are sometimes blurry, and science sometimes changes much more than nature. The essay was originally printed in the March 2008 issue of Orion (“The failure of names”).

As I painted trout through my late teens, major shifts in trout taxonomy were taking place. Through genetic analysis, which was fairly new in the early 90s, it was discovered that rainbow trout (from the Pacific coast) and brown trout (introduced from Europe) were not as closely related as once thought. The genes showed that the rainbow trout was more closely related to Pacific salmon, fishes that die when they spawn, of the genus Oncorhynchus. The brown trout was more closely related to the Atlantic salmon, and remained in the genus Salmo. The native trout of my home state, Connecticut, the brook trout, was actually a whole separate genus, Salvelinus, more closely related to the Arctic char than to the rainbow or brown trout. Technically, it was no longer correct even to call the book I was working on Trout. I found myself wanting to ignore the namers because they were getting in the way of my own personal vision.

The essay recounts how Prosek surpassed this clash with taxonomy. He travelled extensively during the research for his second book, Trout of the World, and explored the variability within (and continuities among) taxonomic groups. His artistic process led him to experiment with visual forms that could communicate both the natural variation and science’s

After drawing curvilinear lines, first emanating from the points on the body of a seahorse, I realized the lines were helpful as visual aids to point out particular parts of a creature that I wanted to bring attention to. The lines activated the space around the animal in a satisfactory way, erasing the need for the name to be written beneath. In this way, the lines became a very personal visual taxonomy, replacing the lingual one.

(via Karen James)