Baillieu trimmed

Friendship and vanity account for my writing the introductory essay to Peter Lyssiotis’s latest book, Men of Flowers. The vanity is in my desire to be associated with the creativity of one of our country’s premier visual artists. Before we met, I admired Peter’s marriage of technical excellence with political perspicuity. I do not praise his achievements because we have become friends, but rather welcome his friendship because of the qualities in his work, qualities which speak to character.

When he reflected on his inspirations for the magazine of the Socialist Alliance, Seeing Red, he tied his practice to the German anti-fascist photomonteur, John Heartfield:

Photomontage has the sort of enemies that ordinary people do.

Political photomontage allows you to read between the lies.

When you act in the interests of your class, it’s an absolute necessity. It’s not an act of bravery.

That manifesto illustrates that Peter is more than capable of providing his own texts, for he is a prose poet, whimsical and sage.

Throughout our encounters, Peter kept saying that he wanted to match a piece of my writing with his image-making. Our collaboration on Men of Flowers began by his asking whether I could suggest someone to provide an essay to accompany a florilegium. Only later did it occur that this plea for advice might have been bait to get me to fulfill my promise to collaborate – one day. Unable to suggest an appropriate author, I did offer to help out by writing a parallel text, not a botanical commentary on the species he was reworking. ‘Something on Darwin’ was as precise as I came, spurred by the commemorations that year starting with the exhibition from the New York Natural History Museum at the National Museum in Canberra.

2009 was also the sesquicentenary for two of my other favourites - Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Jacques Barzun had brought that trio together in 1941 with an assertion of Gallic superiority and Philosophical Idealism. Pondering Barzun’s disparagement of Darwin, Marx and Wagner for being mechanical materialists is a way to grapple with them as exemplars of issues that dominated the long twentieth century. Darwin was the odd man out, certainly a materialist but no dialectician.

My promise gained substance after finding Michael Gishelin’s The Triumph of Darwinian Method (1969) in the second-hand bookshop at Swifts Creek and Loren Eiseley’s Darwin’s Century (1958) on my own shelves – unread. If I had to recommend only one book on Darwin it would be the superbly crafted and open-minded Darwin’s Century, which led me to Eiseley’s brief paper ‘How flowers changed the world’ (1957), which no one should leave school without enjoying. These two volumes introduced the puzzles around which I developed the essay for Men of Flowers.

Eiseley’s account of Darwin’s responses to the two toughest challenges to natural selection is itself a challenge to Gishelin’s claim that Darwin triumphed by hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Nothing that the likes of Bishop Wilberforce flung at On the Origin of Species came within coo-ee of the damage wrought by William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) and the engineer-mathematician Fleeming Jenkin.

Thompson came up with an estimate of the earth’s age at less than 100 million years, which allowed too few generations for single cells to evolve into homo sapiens. To make up the lost time, Darwin back-pedaled from natural and sexual selection into acquired characteristics. Meanwhile, Jenkin pointed out that every initial variation would be swamped through blending, the prevaling notion of inheritance. Here, Darwin did attempt a re-conceptualisation by advancing pangenesis, long acknowledged as his biggest mistake.

What do Darwin’s divergent reactions reveal about his method? His hypothetical-deductions did not protect him from making two gross errors. To what degree were they the outcome of what Marx called ‘the crude English method of development’ inbibed from Sir John Herschel, who anyway dismissed natural selection as ‘the law of higgledy-piggledy’.

‘Something on Darwin’ was a chance to draw on two of my long-standing and interlocked concerns: the first is the place of colour in Australian life; the second is historical materialism where teleology is the Great Satan. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge had exposed the god-structured thinking among the perfect adaptationists. Atheists now have to hunt down remnants of teleology in writings by Marxists and neo-Darwinists. To be historical materialists, Marxists must be a-telic. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Marx was a proto-Popperian and Popper a closet Marxist.

Colour intersects with the teleology of the perfect adaptationists. Darwin’s account of sexual selection pictured flowers as a device to attract insects and birds for the pollinations that result in stronger progeny. This botanical process crossed my research into the place of colour in Australian life – human pigments, vegetation, Wunderlich roofs and Don Dunstan’s shorts. Although my concerns are socio-cultural, I had to bone up the physics and physiology of perception to understand why ‘redness’ is not a primary quality of a Jonathan apple. Hence, what an insect registers is not necessarily what the human eye-brain perceives. In addition, the Stephen Pinkers have to be reminded that, until eighty years ago, pink was for boys.

Historical materialism
Ever since reading Gould’s Ever Since Darwin (1977), I have been alert to the biological dimension of human activities for, as Marx stressed, we are part of nature. Gould’s oeuvre served as a model of what it means to be a materialist and to reason dialectically.

Although historians must never judge the rightness of any explanation about the natural world, we are experienced at interrogating what people say, a knack applicable to how scientists describe the world. In particular, we can dissect their logic and weigh their choice of words.

A materialist historian refutes any Philosophically Idealist explication of scientific advances by great minds encountering each other across a vacuum: ‘If only Darwin had read Mendel, sixty years of delay and bickering in reaching the neo-Darwinian synthesis could have been avoided’. Nonsense. No one in the nineteenth century had the mental tools with which to rescue natural selection from blending or pangenesis. The way forward awaited more than the mathematising of the life sciences prevalent in 1870.

After Marx’s first reading of On the Origin of Species, he rejoiced that Darwin had both vanquished and grounded teleology –an Hegelian Aufhebung:

not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to ‘teleology’ in the natural sciences but its rational meaning is empirically explained  

This view was shared by Charles and Francis Darwin and Thomas Huxley for whom natural selection has no goal beyond survival. The colour in plants was for propagation, not to convey the creator’s benign aesthetic. Nonetheless, any recasting of purpose leaves the door ajar for perfect adaptationists to slip back into god-structured thinking, often turning natural selection into an actor.

By late June 2009, I had to accept that I had run out of time to work out whether a want of dialectical reasoning in Darwin’s method was why he had retreated from his great insight. The essay stopped short at a survey of how flowers changed Darwin’s world, aided by his closest friend John Hooker, while the defeat of ‘blending’ came to be identified with a third man of flowers, Gregor Mendel.

Limited editions
Peter’s admirers puzzle over why he confines so much of his finest work to limited editions. Artist’s books embody a conflict between reaching the masses and becoming a creature of mass marketing. Post-war artists around New York either went in for abstraction - Pollock and Rothko - to avoid the capitalist realism that is advertising, or they mocked its totalitarian reach through mimicry, as with Warhol and Oldenburg. The extreme was the Conceptualists’ refusal to produce objects. Peter’s meticulous practice is far from that reaction yet richer in thoughtfulness than most who sought refuge from commodification by eschewing the maker’s hand. Artists’ books are a collective labour between the image-maker, printer and binder. Typically, Peter encouraged an apprentice to bind one set of his montages with her idea of the Madagascan moth that fertilises Darwin’s orchid.

That unique volume is in the Baillieu’s rare book collection. By 2,111, will all printed books be rare? It is becoming harder to find commercial publishers for books about teleology. Websites offer access to such writings, as the ebook might do. But can we know Capital, On the Origin of Species or the score of Tristan without scribbling in their margins? Colour is side-lined in projects for digitalising. Looking back to the elephant pages of David Roberts and John Gould, the models for two of Peter’s projects, will it be possible to encounter their glories on an i-Phone?