Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Why I can write a book about science even though I’m not a scientist

2013 . 05 . 22 - Comments / Commentaires (5)

My credibility as the author of Crime Against Nature, a book about science, has been called into question now and again.  (Most recently, here.)

According to those who challenge me, the reasons to doubt me are:

1) I’m not a scientist.

2) I’m not affiliated with an academic institution.

3) I didn’t provide a full bibliography for my book.

Though it irks me to have my integrity questioned, I get where these concerns come from, so I’m going to answer them here:

-———In response to #1———-

I’m glad I’m not a scientist.  If you think it’s hard to find funding for an art project, check out the chapter in Michael Stebbins’ Sex, Drugs, and DNA about the scientist’s life.  It’s a wonder there’s any innovation or honesty in scientific research in the US with all the competition and bureaucracy surrounding grants, publishing, and seemingly all aspects of a scientist’s career.

-———In response to #2———-

Excuse me if I have a hard time seeing how anyone would find me more credible if I had an MFA.

Also, if this sort of thing really matters to you, I graduated from Willamette University summa cum laude with a BA in studio art, art history, and French while also earning membership in Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honor society. 

Of course, I did all that ten years ago, and in the meantime I’ve been independent, without institutional oversight or backing for anything I’ve done—unless you count the numerous grants I’ve received and the multitude of venues in which I’ve shown.  That I’ve spent that decade making my living as an artist with the help of individuals who pay me for my work with their hard-earned cash probably means nothing to someone who cares only for academic accolades, but it means the world to me.

-———In response to #3———-

I regret not keeping better notes about my sources as I did my research.  Part way through the project, I started to, but, in the end, with only half a paper trail, I opted for a further reading page at the end of my book instead of a full bibliography. 

Still, I didn’t make that choice because I was too lazy to retrace all my steps but because almost none of the information presented in the book is questioned by the scientific community.  The majority of it is readily available from a variety of sources.

In other words, maybe a female komodo dragon can make male babies without the help of a mate.  And maybe plenty of females are larger than the males of a species (like with this one, this one, and this one).  And maybe Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is a girl.  But, to anyone who knows much about biology, none of that should be surprising.

What’s new about Crime Against Nature is the presentation.  I am juxtaposing simple scientific facts with each other to help prove a social fact that we don’t like to admit: that we—scientists and laypeople alike—are more influenced by traditional notions of gender than we realize.

And though the narrative arc of my book is entirely my own and a number of my animal examples come from combing through the life cycles of umpteen species, I’m certainly not pretending I did this all on my own.  I was originally inspired to look at nature in this way by Joan Roughgarden first and then by Bruce Bagemihl, both of whom also provided many of the animal examples I use and both of whom I cite in my further reading section.  O ya, and Dr. Roughgarden, evolutionary biologist, felt good enough about Crime Against Nature to provide the foreword for it.

As I said, it’s easy to track down most of the facts I presented in my book, but I did have a little trouble with the creature depicted in the above painting process video.  White-throated sparrows come in four genders, distinguished by their sex and their behaviors as well as by their appearance.  Some females have white stripes above their eyes, while others have tan stripes; the same goes for males.  The colors of the stripes correlate with behavioral tendencies in both sexes, and the optimal pairings for these sparrows seems to be a female-male team with one tan-striped bird and one white-striped bird.

painting of white-throated sparrows

Gwenn Seemel
Mr. and Mrs. Right, Mr. and Mrs. Also-Right (White-throated sparrow)
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches

In order to be sure I was painting these birds correctly, I had to do a bit of detective work.  Remember, as a layperson, I didn’t have access to an academic library with all its research goodies—in fact, it became important to me that I not rely on those sorts of sources since I wanted the book to be about information we all have access to. 

So I contacted a birding society and asked members if there was a size difference between females and males in this species.  I was told “no” and that the only way to tell the difference between the sexes from a distance was by observing behavior.  The “no” was useful, but the rest of the answer was telling.  Because that’s the point of including white-throated sparrow in this series: white-striped birds of either sex are more aggressive and territorial, while tan-striped birds of either sex are less so.

painting of white-throated sparrows

detail from Mr. and Mrs. Right, Mr. and Mrs. Also-Right (White-throated sparrow)

Still, I wasn’t surprised.  A brief visit to a fishing forum online will reveal that many who enjoy this sport don’t know that jack salmon aren’t confused juveniles but full-grown males with a special ecological niche to fill.

The other animal that gave me some trouble is the one depicted in this painting process video.  Mandrills remain something of a mystery.  What seems to be widely accepted—and what I had confirmed by one of the keepers at that Oregon Zoo through the “ask a zookeeper” form they had on their site—is that males are more colorful than females.  The males’ facial markings are more intense and they’re the ones walking around with the equivalent of a neon sign on their rumps.

What’s less understood is why the males have these technicolor dream butts.  Like many of my sources, the zookeeper indicated that, since all males can get the coloration but it’s more pronounced in dominant adult males, it’s probably to help guide a male’s troop of females through dimly lit forests.

painting of a mandrill

Gwenn Seemel
Males and their technicolor dream rumps (Mandrill)
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches

The problem with this notion is that according Natalie Angier in “In Mandrill Society, Life Is a Girl Thing,” an article originally published in The New York Times and reproduced in The Best American Science Writing 2001, males only spend time with females when they’re in estrus.  Otherwise, the boys are off on their own—and I mean completely on their own, not in bachelor groups.  What’s more the females live and travel in groups of 800 individuals foraging for food as they go, so I sort of doubt that one male is going to lead the group with or without the help of a colorful behind!

Again, from Angier’s article, when it’s time to mate, males approach the females and compete for access, fighting violently and harming each other quite a bit.  Though mandrills are often compared to baboons, this violence is very different than that of baboon society.  Among baboons, males maintain a harem and their violence tends to be directed at their females, but, among mandrills, females are rarely abused by males.  In other words, there seems to be strength in the female bond, and the males’ neon butts are still a very pretty puzzle.

painting of a mandrill

detail from Males and their technicolor dream rumps (Mandrill)

None of my research is earth-shattering or even particularly hard to find.  And that means it doesn’t matter whether or not I have a BS: the point is that I was not full of it either as I studied my subject or as I put the project together. 

To those who still think I lack the qualifications to write a book about science, I have only this to say: you are narrow-minded and it’s your sort of separate-silos only-those-with-institutional-backing-can-speak-with-authority vision of the world that’s getting us into trouble.  The knowledge that scientists and others discover won’t reach its full potential until someone with a real understanding of communication—like, say, an artist—comes along and introduces it to a wider context.

- On inspiring questions / Inspirer des questions
- Sex and procreation / Les relations sexuelles et la procréation
- Ira Glass in the looking glass

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(5) Comments / Commentaires: Why I can write a book about science even though I’m not a scientist

-- Ignacio Gallo -- 2013 . 05 . 22 --

I think “Crime against nature” is great: I like the art, the science, and the underlying social message.

Just to give my two cents, let me say that maybe you should think of the “not a scientist” remark in


in terms of your own interpretation of the importance of communicating science.

By its own nature, your work gives the opportunity to make a lot of specifications, and unfortunately it is only too human to phrase these specifications as “she’s not a scientist, so I’ll explain it better”.

Of course it would be better to deliver messages sweetly like you say, but for some reason the only two modes of communication available to science are “I’ll kiss you ass because you are my ally, or because I need your money” or “asshole”.

Everybody does that, no matter how nice they may be as people (I’m including myself, btw). I think it has something to do with the need to protect oneself from charlatans, and especially to avoid becoming one. And usually it doesn’t even work. Hopefully through improved access to knowledge the situation will eventually improve.

And that’s actually my bottom line: the issue of the huge diversity reproduction, and of its the very nature, is hyper-timely even within the scientific community. And for 90% of people it is simply a completely new intellectual continent, and you’re making them a huge service in helping open it up for them.

So, even though it’s unavoidable to play the reputation game to some extent, don’t ever seriously think that people will actually question the value of of your contribution. Just keep it up smile

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 05 . 22 --

Thank you for giving me some perspective, Ignacio! 

I get the need to protect oneself from charlatans and the need to avoid becoming one.  Though the modes are very different, truth is at the heart of science and of art, so both areas are sensitive to the “out there” elements that take away from the entire community’s credibility.

Mostly, I wrote this post because I wanted to talk about the description of the scientist’s life in Stebbins’ book.  It shocked me, even though I consider myself a moderately well-informed person (especially with regards to science).  And I think it’s important for more people to understand the fragility of science—both by its nature and in the way we do and don’t support it in society—so that we can do a better job of nurturing it!

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-- Ignacio Gallo -- 2013 . 05 . 23 --

I can only agree with you.

I think that, by necessity, science and art have become cluttered with a lot of preconceptions, a salient one being the idea that they are two essentially separated things.

Right now there clearly exists the potential to shake up this state of affairs, but like you say science and art are very fragile, so the power of communication can destroy them as well as help them to thrive.
I mean, they will always come back, but we might just miss the opportunity we have right now.

It might be the cliché of clichés, but it’s true: we live in times that are both exciting and frightening.

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-- Gwenn -- 2013 . 05 . 23 --

Exciting and frightening times: agreed!  Then again, I wonder if all generations feel this end-times or on-the-cusp feeling.  Are we really at a crux point or does the very act of being alive and conscious make it feel like a crux point? smile

Also, I came across this piece in Wired on how to write about science.  It made me very happy.

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-- Ignacio Gallo -- 2013 . 05 . 25 --

Lovely piece, thanks for the link smile

Good point: the other day I was watching the movie “the candidate”

where there’s a ‘70s politician moaning about the same exact things we’re struggling with today.

I guess in 50 years people will still be have an end-of-the-world feeling while communicating telepathically… and maybe the digital generation craves telepathy in the same way that I craved a more powerful internet back in the day.

By now, though, I just hope I’ll get to keep at least my brain for myself :D

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