June 6, 2011

The Monkey Puzzle

By Bethany Christiansen

We were standing at the top of what looked like a pyramid made of mud blocks, about thirty meters tall, which had a broad, dusty plateau at the top. The half pyramid was located rather incongruously in a wealthy residential district, rather like a dung beetle caught napping in a lingerie drawer. Our tour guide had told us that at the turn of the century, there had been more than two hundred such mounds in Lima, and now fewer than one hundred remained. They had been used as a means of communication with other pyramids – which loomed over the desert landscape -- and religious worship. From our vantage point, we could see sky scrapers, banks, private condos, and (another incongruity) lines of drying laundry. I pointed out a strange looking tree, asking no one in particular what it was. The guide answered that it was a monkey puzzle tree. I thought it was an apt name: the branches were arranged like spokes around a central axis, each frond positioned for optimal sunlight. As I stood looking at the trees, I thought about how odd they looked, and I reached for my sketchbook to whip out a quick drawing before we had to leave. Then one of the biology people on the trip asked the scientific questions: what climate did the tree flourish in? What organisms relied on it? Was it a native plant? At that point, I had a miniature epiphany.

Even though the other student and I were looking at the same object, our different disciplines and interests lead us to have very different experiences with the same tree. We occupied the same world, but that world had a doubleness to it -- they would see the tree as an organism, as part of the complex web of life, as a thing that functions in a certain way to achieve a certain end. On the other hand, as the self-described “art person,” I saw the tree for its appearance – for the shapes and colors and how it was set against the white background of the buildings. As a “literature person,” I saw the tree for what it represented: a symbol of the life that thrives despite pollution, despite being choked by cramped alley ways and concrete and refuse. A thing of beauty tucked into an ugly world, subject to the same hardships as the inhabitants of Lima.

I began thinking about how the scientific mind observes the world in contrast with the humanistic mind. If one sees the world in terms of function and metrics and the physical, and the other sees the world as a complex arrangement symbols and truths that humans create, then what can form a bridge between the two?

The study abroad trip itself provided the answer: communication is the bridge. Though we see the world with two different lenses, we experience the same world. We´re able to touch the leaves and examine the trunk and take photos. We talk about what we see and feel and reaffirm the oneness of physical place.

This may seem like an incredibly obvious point to some of the readers, but others may understand the difficulty I´ve faced in trying to reconcile the aims of science and art. Like many others across the countryside, our university is reassessing how and where it allocates funds. Each discipline feels it must defend itself against budget cuts; unfortunately, the result is often that one discipline tries to downplay the usefulness of the “other” to emphasize its own value.

This is lamentable, in my opinion. We need a variety of voices and perspectives to tackle our problems. As one of the faculty members on this trip said to us many weeks ago (I remember it because I thought it was such an insightful phrasing of the issue), “Science and art are complimentary and equally valid ways of investigating our world.” The monkey puzzle tree is a sadly one-dimensional creature when I look at it from a single perspective – artistic or otherwise. 
 


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The Biodiversity Institute is home to about 60 graduate students and 30 research scientists and curators. They participate in field expeditions to all seven continents and represent areas such as entomology, ornithology, paleontology, parasitology and herpetology. As the authors of this blog, they share their experiences and adventures in collections-based biological research all over the world.

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