Chance and Possibility

According to Stephen Jay Gould, the usual mode of human enlightenment “…is…not by global creep forward, inch by subsequent inch, but rather in rushes or whooshes, usually following the removal of some impediment, or the discovery of some facilitating device, either ideological or technological.” As far as my own enlightenment is concerned, I can verify the point. Gould means to equate biological and intellectual evolution, but his picture also implies that potentials can build in advance of release, and that the removal of impediments may simply actualize possibilities already present in abundance. All well, but I’m sure that the spreading out of the avant-garde, it’s lateral expansion following the historic period of innovation in the early twentieth century, represents a settling in behind a new impediment. By the avant-garde I mean global conceptualism, not modern painting. To put it simply, society doesn’t change, so the avant-garde can’t either. It can diversify within a basic plan, and so artistic evolution (always remembering that the word evolution does not imply progress) follows the same pattern as biological. These drawings, from Gould’s Wonderful Life, explain his very interesting view of evolution. The drawing on the left is the standard view, in which evolution is progressive in the sense that it means always increasing diversity. The drawing on the right shows that there have been many truncated initiatives. The survivors are not necessarily superior—chance plays a big role. Evolution gives us increasing diversity on an ever less diverse range of basic plans, not the progressive unfolding of the best plan. Apply that to the flourishing of the avant-garde since Duchamp. Let’s hope the new organisms don’t entirely crowd out peripheral tendencies that may have a future when certain impediments are removed.

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