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February 2014
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 9    

 Maximilian Werner, photo by Zoe Rodriguez

Literary Arts: Book Review
Chronicles of a Pleistocene Mind
Maximilian Werner's Evolved

In an interview with 15 Bytes on the occasion of its publication, Max Werner explained that his fourth book, Evolved: Chronicles of a Pleistocene Mind, was actually written before the three that preceded it into print: Black River Dreams, a collection of literary essays about fishing, Crooked Creek, a novel about settler experiences in 19th-century Cache County, and Gravity Hill, a memoir of growing up in suburban Salt Lake. In fact, Evolved had taken seven years to reach bookshelves.

Topics in the sciences tend to lie fallow for decades, even centuries, then change overnight, often being completely rewritten in a few brief years. Such change overtook Natural History following the publication of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in 1858. Early efforts to adapt his ideas to human behavior led to the clumsy and discredited notions called ‘social Darwinism,’ a hodgepodge of justifications and excuses for the social and political inequities of the 1870s. After that, respectable scientists pretty much turned their backs on attempts to use easily misunderstood concepts like ‘survival of the fittest’ to account for human behavior. All that changed a century later, when instead of species-wide principles, it became fashionable to explain narrow, if universal, human behaviors in terms of their survival value to individuals. To take just one example, the traits that make men and women attractive to each other could be explained in terms of the need to perpetuate their DNA.

It’s important to understand here that while Evolution is a theory, a comprehensive model that explains biological facts and is accepted and used by scientists in their work, a proposed role for survival fitness in grooming, deportment, or other behavior is a hypothesis, meaning at best an informed guess. Such hypotheses are rarely supported by evidence, and depend for acceptance on seductive reasoning. Werner believes his insights are genuine and could be helpful, so he builds his case slowly and carefully.

Speaking of his theory at the end of On The Origin of Species, Darwin writes, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” That was not an easy claim to accept then, and for many, particularly in religious countries like the United States, it still isn’t today. Raised to think themselves angels, many find it hard to accept that human nature is overlaid on structures that served apes so well. Maximilian Werner argues that beyond choosing what we’re comfortable believing, we have to accept the facts of our evolutionary origins if we are to survive our failure, up till now, to evolve beyond them. In a sense, his book could have been called Un-evolved, because while he begins with Evolution, he recognizes something that may not have been evident yet to Darwin’s contemporaries. Evolved structures and behaviors are durable. They don’t just disappear when no longer needed. Beneath our skins we carry the bones of a vestigial tail. Beneath our elegant logic and creative arts, our impulses are grounded in brain structures that evolved during the Pleistocene Era. It’s probably obvious that both the violence disrupting society and the reaction of those who think the solution is for everyone to carry a gun for personal protection are examples of the Pleistocene mind at work. What Werner wants, though, is to move beyond these obvious examples in search of more subtle, potentially far more pervasively influential examples.

Readers of his previous books will know to expect richly detailed observation of nature in Evolved, and in fact the opening chapter, Arachnophilia, contains some of the best, least pretentious writing by a naturalist since Ed Abbey. Set in Werner’s own back yard, it takes readers along as he channels Aristotle, crawling around in the underbrush while observing the numerous spiders he finds, cataloging their elaborate, sophisticated, and mysterious behavior, all along holding back his urge to generalize prematurely or accept some expert’s opinion too soon. Unfortunately, some readers—in particular those who feel compelled to read the parts of a book in the order of their binding—may give up on Evolved before they get that far. If the book has a flaw, it lies in its architecture (an irony in a book located primarily out of doors). Whoever decided to print Wandering and Wondering: A New Story for the World in the place of an introduction should have marked it as such. That way, readers who like their story first, and who can just as well wait for the theory that it means to illustrate, would know to skip it, read the book, and then come back to it later.

The wonderland of Arachnophilia is followed by two long sections. The first, A Field Guide to Habitat Theory, offers a walking tour of Werner’s efforts to identity the residue of the Pleistocene experience in human consciousness. Readers who have read The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton, will probably be reminded of his argument that art draws much of its power from our tendency to enjoy works—he particularly stresses landscapes—that reverberate with what our ancestors learned as they came out of hiding and began to spread around the globe. Werner’s hypothesis is more inclusive, and in general less tendentious, than Dutton’s. He isn’t trying to convince readers that certain flora and fauna make better art; rather, sounds at night sound louder and feel more threatening than those heard in the daytime, and it’s not hard to believe that cavemen felt the same way, or even more so, about it as we do. 

In his final section, Implications of an Ecochildhood, Werner applies habitat theory to his own life. How compelling this is will vary; those who share his Utah background will get more out of it, as will those who have children and agree with him about the importance of deliberate, self-conscious parenting. By the time he gets around to sharing his final example, though, the amateur scientist has faded from sight, replaced by the powerful story-teller who is one of Utah’s treasures. Or, if we’re paying attention properly, he hasn’t gone away: he’s just blended back into the voice of the man who chose to pry him out and show him to us in the first place.

Artists of Utah News
2014 15 Bytes Book Awards

In its second year, the 15 Bytes Book Award competition is open to Utah authors and authors of literary or visual arts books with a Utah theme or setting. Awards are given in three categories: Fiction, Poetry and Art.

Nominations for the 2014 Book Awards are due February 15.

To nominate a book for this award, visit our 15 Bytes Book Award page at: http://artistsofutah.org/15Bytes/index.php/15-bytes-book-awards/

Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah


Julie Nester Gallery UP: Primary by Erik Gonzales. At the core of Erik Gonzales’ abstract paintings lie the concepts of line, form and color.|1| In these paintings, layer upon layer is built up and at times removed to expose what once lay beneath. The evolution of his work is a sequential process where each painting builds upon the preceding one taking with it principal roots that thread the work together in a collective system.

Gallery MAR UP: Wonderland, one-woman show featuring new work by Amy Ringholz.

Kimball Art Center UPCOMING: Art of the Timepiece explores the history of our incessant journey to progressively master time, as well as the art and science of making and adorning timepieces. Featuring works from the expansive collection of Karol Renau as well as exceptional watches on loan from O.C. Tanner, as well as the timepiece-based jewelry of artists Krysia Renau and Stacy Sheers.

Meyer Gallery UP: New work Barbara Pence, who creates multi-paneled works that adhere into one large, intruiging narrative.|2|

J-GO Gallery UP: Winter Sol celebrates the upcoming winter season with the unveiling of our 2014 collection which includes new work from each of the gallery's 20+ artists. AND: Sparkle, annual art jewelry exhibit.

Terzian Galleries UP: New work by Matt Larson.

Bountiful/Davis Art Center UP: People & Places, featuring work by Gibbs Smith|3|, Carol Berrey, Carl Oelerich, Fidalis Beuhler, Lester B. Lee, Joyce Rawson, Carole Nylander, Emily King and Sandi Olson.


Whitespace Contemporary UPCOMING: A photography exhibition curated by the Standard Examiner. From among the thousands of photos taken by staffers each year, some 21 exceptional images have been curated into a traveling exhibition. The photos capture the diversity of life and memorable moments in Northern Utah in 2013.|4| AND: NEW3, a group exhibition will introduce new artists, as well as new work from favorite artists including Jaime Treadwell (PA), David Nakabayashi (NY) and Mark England (UT). Each takes a different approach, but ultimately presents his expressions of human dis/connection, and questions of visual expectations and cultural identities for our consideration.|5|

Eccles Community Art Center UPCOMING: The 14th Black & White Statewide, a juried competition is open to recent works by Utah artists. Original work in all media, including paintings, prints, monoprints, drawings, graphics, photographs, pottery, sculptures and textiles are eligible. Works displayed will be in black, white and/or shades of gray. The juror for this competition is Salt Lake City artist Stephanie Saint-Thomas. AND: Jerry Hancock’s early inspiration was the domestic animals which he grew up with on the dairy farm where he was raised. He has since fired his imagination to paint additional subjects: American Indians, African People, Still Lifes, Landscapes, and others. He works to be historical and anatomically accurate. He can be easily recognized for his up-close, personal, and colorful style of painting.

Gallery 25 UP: Paige Barth presents an abstract, mono chromatic palette knife collection. Kevin Parsons, guest artist- potter, will also exhibit several abstract piece.|6| Shaw Gallery (at Weber State) UP: School Days: Annual Juried Student Art Exhibition.

Brigham City Museum UP: The Bison: American Icon. For 500,000 years until the early 1860s, 50 million bison roamed the plains of North America. By 1890, there were fewer than 300. The exhibit dramatizes the emergence of the bison as an “American icon” with kiosks, banners, photographs, sculpture and such objects as a bison skull, a contemporary painted bison hide and a shield designed and painted by Allan Houser, a renowned Apache artist. Also on view are artifacts made out of buffalo hides, including a berry pounding bowl, a beaded child’s dress and moccasins, and a powder horn.

Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: Female + Form, a selection of works from the museum's permanent collection embracing a diverse range of forms and showcasing work by important women artists. AND: New Acquisitions 2013 features nine works of art recently donated to the museum by the late Joe Austin. AND: LUX, exploring how artists have used light as a medium or subject, including several large pieces by artists featured in the Pacific Standard Time exhibition from Los Angeles who are considered to be leaders of the light and space art movement of the 1970s.

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