Disappearing Art of Science

by Dr. Boris Zakharov


Dr. Boris Zakharov

Dr. Boris Zakharov

Professor Boris Zakharov began his professional career in the “Kedrovaya Pad Natural Reserve” (Far East State University, Vladivostok, Russia) as a research scientist, where he participated in and performed various scientific projects in field zoology. Dr. Zakharov's Doctoral research was on horse flies (Diptera, Tabanidae), beginning in 1983 at Novosibirsk Biological Institute. The results of this study were published in his papers and concern systematics, ecology, biogeography and cattle protection from blood sucking diptera in Siberia.

After his arrival in the United States, Dr. Zakharov participated in a project on ground spiders of Australia and New Zealand in the American Museum of Natural History, where he has worked from 1996 to 2005 as a Curatorial Assistant in the Spider laboratory in a Department of Invertebrate Zoology. Currently, he occupies the position of a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, where he continues the study of ground spiders of the world.

Professor Boris Zakharov began to teach in 2005 at Hostos Community College/CUNY. Boris joined the Natural Sciences department at LaGuardia in 2009.


“Drawing is not what one sees but
what one can make others see.”

– Edgar Degas.

From the ancient times, science and art go together and inspire, support, and fertilize each-other. Here I would like to talk about the art of drawing and its influence on the scientific progress in Biological Sciences.

The relationship between science and art is not accidental. Both are sprung from a mythological consciousness of our ancient ancestors in which they try to understand the World and themselves. Via art and “scientific reasoning” our forefathers explore this world and pass these discoveries to their descendants. And we can say that for the cave men both art and “scientific reasoning” were the major means to build and pass through generation knowledge about the world and themselves. At some point these two pathways were separated, but they continue to maintain a deep intimate connection with each-other.

In Biological Science, an especially deep relationship was established between knowledge and drawing. The major reason for that were exclusive complexity and specific diversity of Life phenomena, which (and this is still true in nowadays) is difficult, if possible at all, to express in symbolic scientific language like mathematics. The obtained biological knowledge needed to be supported by some visual materials that may clarify and in a simple form present biological concepts and ideas. It is this connection that allowed Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Georges Cuvier to lay the scientific foundation of Comparative Zoology, understand the relationship between form and function, and the unity of organisms’ structural organization. From that time, Comparative morphology became a major tool in development and proof of major biological concepts.

Observations and drawings, for example, lead to discovery phenomenon of metamorphosis in individual insects’ ontogenesis by Maria Sibylla Merian. A development via body stages, sometimes dramatically different in appearance and way of living.

Scientific drawing became especially important in the field of biological classification and taxonomy, where written description of species obviously cannot clearly and unambiguously describe the observed species and other taxa characteristics. For example, can you describe your observation of differences among shells of different mollusks? Try it and you will find that the best way is to make drawings and accompany them with a minimal wordings that point attention of your colleagues on particular characteristics you found important. That is why, if you open any book on systematics or taxonomy you will find there a minimal text with species and higher taxa description and big number of body parts’ drawings.

Scientific drawing has some special requirements that give it a particular status: 1) it has to be precise to demonstrate real object characteristics, 2) it does not have to have accidental or unimportant details to clearly demonstrate at what exactly the character(s) author wants to point your attention to. In this sense, every scientific drawing is not an exact reproduction of the object, but a message to colleagues about the researcher's personal understanding and discoveries. That's what makes scientific drawing particularly difficult: a draftsman has to possess a basic drawing technique together with good knowledge of the object. As you can see, it is different from an “objective” reproduction of the image with a photo that includes every minute detail.

Scientific drawing for particularly very small objects requires a special drawing technique and use of microscopes. But leave the technicalities behind, and let us think about the fundamental purpose of drawing and art. Both pursue to find the harmony in the World. I emphasize this: find the World’s harmony. This urge to search for harmony in the world is inbuilt in human nature. From the first month of life newborn looks carefully in the world around trying to understand and make sense of what he/she see, hear, touch… Child search for relations among surrounding entities, i.e. search of harmony in this world. In this sense, art, drawing and analytic thinking have the same driving force and goal. The difference between them is in a ways how they search this harmony. Science search harmony via rigorous logic thinking, whereas art – via emotional comprehension.

A basic nature of human learning is to study in combination with doing activity. A recent discovery of mirror neurons showed a relationship between muscular activity and observation. Mirror neurons were originally defined as neurons which “discharged both during a monkey’s active movements and when the monkey observed meaningful hand movements made by the experimenter”. Thus, the key characteristics of mirror neurons are that their activity is modulated both by action execution and action observation, and that this activity shows a degree of action specificity. This distinguishes mirror neurons from other ‘motor’ or ‘sensory’ neurons whose discharge is associated with either execution or observation, but not both. Mirror neurons were first described in the rostral division of the ventral premotor cortex (area F5) of the macaque brain, and have subsequently been reported in the inferior parietal lobule, including the lateral and ventral intraparietal areas, and in the dorsal premotor and primary motor cortex. Thus, when biologist does a drawing of the object of study, they begin to better understand it and can effectively build knowledge about the object. It creates feeling that you think through drawing. That is why, medical and biological students in 19th and beginning of 20th centuries, together with special scientific courses took drawing classes. Open Grey’s Anatomy and you will see beautiful, precise, and very detailed pictures of human body construction. Now, this practice is almost completely forgotten and modern doctors and biologists not only cannot draw, but also write with clear calligraphy.

We began with the idea that drawing and biological science are both two ways of comprehension of the World’s harmony. This was, from my point of view, a primary force of both endeavors even though later they go their own ways. The fundamental relation between them persists. Nowadays we look more and more at each in a different way: art's purpose often presented as a means of attraction, whereas science – a means of pursuing the creation of high tech inventions for life comfort. These completely change driving forces and purposes of both. Will art and science survive such dramatic changes? I do not know.

Let’s look at the learning process, which is definitely a core part of any research activity. According to recent neurobiological studies, the major responsibility for this process is curried by the cerebrum – a large part of the human brain. To be more precise: the cerebral cortex – a tissue coat of the cerebrum. Cerebral cortex mapping demonstrates that it has three major functions: sensing, integrating, and motor, which have particular locations. The sensing area is concentrated at the back side of the cerebral cortex, covering parts of parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. This area collects and consolidates all sensory input from the eyes, ears, skin, mouth, and nose. The integrative area is mostly located in the temporal lobe and insula. Its responsibility is the integration of particular senses into a complex meaningful feeling, that later may become ideas, thoughts, and plans. The most fundamental result of this integration is production of a plan for actions. The motor area is located in frontal lobe and constructed of motor neurons (including mirror neurons) able to execute earlier created plans. Ultimately, motor functions include highly sophisticated movements such as speaking and writing or drawing.

One can see, that the flow of external information, including the learning process, moves from the back side of the cerebral cortex (sensory regions) to the middle located temporal lobe and insula (integration) and finally to the anterior region (motor functions). Most neurobiologists agree that this flow of information in the learning process is in a closed loop, because any kind of motor activity creates a new situation, which again is perceived by the senses and the whole cycle repeats. If we disrupt this cycle on its last step, i.e. if we do not accomplish sensed information by actions, the learning process will not happen: the received information will be received, processed, and converted into the meaningful feelings, but the absence of motor activity based on the understanding and planning is absent. The learning individual, receives information without the ability to manipulate it and use in practice. Moreover, because the absence of motor activity terminates cycling, the received information will remain information that does not lead to further mental development.

On the other hand, when motor activity (such as drawing or writing mathematical formulas) completes the process, it generates a new cycle of sensory input leading to the new integrative ideas and motor activities. And this cycle may continue many times and become internal self-maintaining process. So, what happen in this situation? A primary external sensory input generates some activity, which creates a new, but this time internal source, of sensory input. Thus, a person who originally received external sensory impulse may process this information again and again, every time in a more and more independent from the external environment level. The primary external sensory input becomes a knowledge now completely belonging to the learning person. One can see the difference between information and knowledge. In our teaching practice we often face a situation when students demonstrate their knowing of some particular information they see in on the Internet or hear somewhere. But when we try to ask details, we find that student cannot apply this information to “real life.” I think this happens because the received information does not become knowledge due to the absence of mandatory required motor activity to convert the information into knowledge.

Now you understand, why I doubt if science will survive in absence of such important for human understanding processes like drawing, writing, or doing experiments. All these are indispensable elements of human learning and understanding process. We can, of cause, delegated most of these functions to “artificial intellect,” but that will be another story, where human as a Homo sapiens will be not needed.