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Pantone, Plato & Creative Evolution- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Pantone, Plato & Creative Evolution- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Pantone, Plato & Creative Evolution


Just a couple of days ago, this year’s Pantone color of the year was released. It’s described as periwinkle blue with a touch of red-violet undertone. Nancy likes it, being partial to red-violet.

It is patented and protected by its parent company, so we’ll have to settle for talking about it. Even though talking about color is like dancing about architecture.

This got me to thinking, always a dangerous thing.

Is this year’s color better than last year’s?

Or is it just lovely but different, perhaps driven by a consumerist engine that takes advantage of the hip-ocracy (pronounced “hypocrisy”) that must have the latest and greatest at all costs, the moment it becomes available. 

The previous years’ goods are summarily pitched. The engine thrums on.





I don’t think artists think all that much about the color of the year, they roam freely through the rainbow whenever they feel like it. Presumably even if they chance upon the exact color mix that is this year’s color.



Oil paints


That got me thinking about the historical arc of art. Once you start thinking, it’s hard to stop.

Is art progressing towards an ideal? Is Still better than Picasso better than Turner better than Rembrandt? Stravinsky better than Brahms better than Mozart better than Bach?

Somehow it seems like not. Successive generations of artists create evocative and memorable works of art, but there does not seem to be a progression towards an optimum, nor any way of measuring such progress.

It’s more an encapsulation of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, that captures peoples’ attention. 


The Olympics & Engineering


It’s different than other human pursuits such as sports or technology, where the Olympic dictum holds, “Faster, higher, stronger.” Runners run faster, bicycles get lighter, planes fly higher, skaters twirl more, microchips get smaller.

There is a clear sense of direction and drive. Reversals are rare, at least in the quarter-millennium or so since the Industrial Revolution began or sports records started being kept.



Start of swimming race


Evolutionary Improvement


In the 1970s, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould set out to answer the question of direction and optimization in evolution. Is there a drive towards “higher” life forms? Is biology getting more complex and sophisticated?

His answer was, “not really,” at least in any time in the last several hundreds of millions of years. His proxy for complexity and advancement was the number of genes in an organism’s DNA.

Gould claimed there was no clear direction towards more. In fact, organizations could evolve towards simplicity, particularly parasites. (Hello COVID-19 and all its variations!)


It seems rather that evolution proceeds away from things rather than towards things. 


What this means is that evolution explores by variation and selection. Variation starts with an existing organism and generates variations on a theme, entities that are close but not the same, entities that have the original clearly in their rear-view mirror. The very definition of the adjacent possible.



Rear-view mirror


Instead of evolving towards a goal, it is moving away from something worse. Evolving away from an anti-goal.

But what lies ahead? The unknown. There is not a clear definable goal, either pre-stated or of-the-moment. Just to keep on keeping on. The goal of the moment is influenced by all the other members of the ecosystem also exploring *their* adjacent possibles. Everybody is pulling the rug out from everybody else, all the time. 


Plato and Ideals


For those of you who love the clean linear architecture of classical philosophy, this may be disturbing. 







This is because the concept of a Platonic Ideal becomes blurry. A Platonic Ideal is supposed to exist outside of the scrum of life’s struggles, intransigent and immutable and perfect like a geometrical form, accessible only by renouncing sensation and entering the realm of pure thought. 




Planar geometric form



But the Platonic Ideal of evolution is like the inside of a black hole. It may in principle exist, but it is not accessible, even by unlimited contemplation.



Artist’s drawing of black hole


Zeno’s Paradox


Is this depressing news? I don’t think so.

It means that we are not approaching an ideal, where incremental improvements become smaller and smaller in the style of Zeno’s paradox. It’s not like squeezing the last erg of energy from an engine.

Zeno’s paradox is illustrated by a person who is instructed to cover half of the distance to a goal in each successive step. They get infinitely close, but they never get there. They just get more and more frustrated at what lies outside of their grasp.

Rather than the frustrated Zeno, we are moving away from the momentary known into the unknown, infinite in all directions. 

I assert that art is more like evolution than engineering. An endless story, not proceeding towards a goal, but rather keeping on keeping on. The goal is the process.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


Begin 2022 with the adjacent possible. Grab a copy of Book #1 in the series, The Adjacent Possible, available in print and ebook editions HERE. 



Access a sample of the book. Listen to The Adjacent Possible Book Reading HERE.






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