Talk #01Ready to set off for Galapagos

Talk: August 2, 2017 Photographer/Biologist/Designer

Ready to set off for their visit to the Galapagos Islands, the exhibition team of photographer, biologist, and designer met to share thoughts and ideas before departure. Introducing perspectives such as what to look at, what “looking” is about, what exactly life is, and what form happiness takes, they discussed their hopes and expectations for the trip.


Designer Photographers climb a tree called photography to look at the world. Biologists climb a tree called biology, and designers, a tree called design. Even when we’re looking at the same things, we view them from slightly different perspectives, so I think that something interesting should emerge from the three of us making this trip to {Galapagos} together.

Photographer, I recently took a look at your forest photos—photos taken in a primeval forest on Canada’s border with the USA, the {forests of Yakushima}, the virgin forest of Nara’s Kasuga Grand Shrine, photos of forests that you’ve visited time and time again over the past few decades. However, even after viewing countless photos, I couldn’t see the point. I couldn’t tell what it was exactly that you were attempting to capture. But as I continued looking, it dawned on me that what you’re trying to do is capture the forest simply as it is, nothing more nor less.

Photographer Actually, I don’t know myself now. I’m probably going to have to go on dealing with this sense of not exactly knowing what I’m doing for the foreseeable future. This Galapagos trip too. I have a little information at hand, but I suspect I won’t really understand what I’m looking at even when it’s in front of me. That’s actually quite exciting.

Designer That’s what “looking” is about, I think. I can really relate to your desire to shoot the whole forest rather than any particular object. With Galapagos too, if we were going to go and film a documentary, we’d inevitably aim to take footage of some obvious kind of animal behavior, and attach the required commentary and so on, but that’s not our mission. We’ll probably end up taking the kind of pictures that have never been taken before.

Biologist, I also read your book, and I was bowled over by the sheer scope of the concepts you covered. I mean, here we are in the 21st century, and biology is still unable to answer the question of what exactly life is. In your book, you probe even the far ends of the universe for answers. It’s heartening to know that I’ll be going to Galapagos in the company of someone thinking on such a broad scale. I’m sure that your knowledge and curiosity will open our eyes to sights that we might otherwise have missed.

Biologist We’ve been talking about looking, but perhaps the key feature of humans is our huge brain. About one third of the world perceived by our brains comes through our eyes, which account for about one third of the nerves exiting the brain. Even so, the world that we see is actually only a snippet of the real world. Our eyes are geared to picking up only part of the range of wavelengths that comprise light. Other organisms see different wavelengths, and so see a different world. In Galapagos too, the {iguanas} and {boobies} probably see a different world from the one that we’ll perceive.

Photographer, many of your photos are black and white, aren’t they? It’s as if you’re trying to bring out the essence of your subject by extracting only certain information. You’re using your camera to take a snippet the world. You intentionally limit your view. Exactly what part of the world you see depends on personal choice, subjectivity, and coincidence. I think that all three of us will see Galapagos in different ways, since the universe inside our brains differs even if our eyes are basically the same in biological terms.

To live is to be constantly exposed to change

Biologist Photographer once said that Galapagos is a place where life has arisen. The islands emerged suddenly as a result of volcanic activity where there was previously nothing but sea. Land came into existence, and various forms of life arrived by some coincidence or other on its shores. Those life forms effectively constituted a new beginning. This makes Galapagos a prime example of the {founder effect}.

Contrast Galapagos with Continental Asia, for example, which has existed for billions of years. It was there when life began. In such an environment, the course of evolution is set by natural selection under the pressure of environmental factors and competition between organisms. But the first creatures to inhabit Galapagos managed to survive because there were no enemies to deal with. Creatures that would have had zero chance of survival in a normal environment were able to survive on Galapagos, and evolve in a distinctive way, owing to the paucity of genetic variation of the founding population. This is what is known as the founder effect. But this explanation is just dry theory, so I’m really looking forward to actually going there and immersing myself in such an environment.

Photographer Yes, it’s exciting.

Biologist Earlier, Designer touched on the meaning of life. As you say, it’s true that biologists haven’t even arrived at the definition of what life is. We can’t even make life. But there’s one thing we know for certain—that life is always changing. It is changing even during our lifespans, and that change becomes more visible with every generation. To live is to be constantly exposed to change. I think we’ll see that vividly on Galapagos.

Designer Do you think that the way life is destined to change as perhaps an embodiment of the wisdom of life itself?

Biologist No, it’s just the way things are. It’s {DNA}, the so-called blueprint of life.

Designer I’ve read somewhere that DNA’s double helix structure might be designed to facilitate copying errors. Aren’t such errors in DNA the cause of change?

Biologist Yes, it’s strange, isn’t it? After all, it should be possible to evolve in a way that eliminates errors, but it seems that these errors make organisms more adaptive, and lineages lacking errors died out. DNA replication errors can be caused by various factors, including radiation, chemical substances, or natural heat fluctuations. Replication errors occurring even in normal circumstances are adaptive. Mind you, too many errors would be fatal.

Limits to our thought processes

Designer I get the feeling recently that we human beings aren’t as clever as we like to think, and that we may well not last very much longer. Someone said that humans are “{thinking reeds}.” You’d think that we’re cleverer than reeds, but that’s not necessarily the case. Where survival is concerned, plants might in fact be more responsive, and humans with their impatient minds could well be less adaptive and less capable of survival as a species. When I ponder the future of humanity, I can’t help thinking that with the emergence of artificial intelligence and the way we brandish our beliefs or religion or country, we’re probably shortening our period of survival.

Biologist The chief feature of we human beings is our brains. Most of what you said just now was made in the brain, and doesn’t exist in nature. Even the theory of evolution and cosmology bear no relation to the natural world. However, we’re characterized by our big brains, and we have our brains to thank for our current domination of this planet. Our brains also cause us suffering and unhappiness, and conflict between ideas generated by our brains may even lead to our death.

By habit, our brains always seek causes. I think we’d all be better off if we were more aware of this bad habit. There’s no such thing as a temporal chain of cause and effect in this world. Everything is connected. As with the forest photographs, what’s there is there. I think it’s that simple. That’s the kind of awareness our brains should develop.

Designer Spot on. We need to become aware of the limits to our thought processes. To a photographer drawn to forests, or a biologist drawn to remote regions, going to Galapagos may hold similar appeal, the kind of place that both of you intuitively know will likely offer some new food for thought or inspiration. I suspect there’s nothing chaotic about Galapagos, that it displays an order or providence that bears no connection to humanity. I’m looking forward to what I’ll see when I set my eyes on Galapagos.

Galapagos: what to look at first

Designer Biologist, what do you want to look at first when you get to Galapagos?

Biologist The land. I’ve visited plenty of remote places up to now, including newborn volcanoes and volcanoes about to be born, barren lands and rough terrain, but I suspect that Galapagos is going to be something special. I’ve never been there before. I think it’s its isolation that makes it so appealing. Almost all of the places I’ve been to so far have been on continents, places where animals can come and go at will. That means that they all influence each other’s adaptation and evolution, which is not very interesting.

Designer Galapagos is an archipelago of volcanic islands created when magma spewed out from the Earth’s crust onto its surface as lava. I think that nothing on Earth gets closer to the mechanisms of the universe than the sight of lava pouring forth from a volcanic vent. I also get a sense of life from volcanic activities. I feel that places where volcanic activity is visible in the raw provide us with a vivid demonstration of the dynamism of the planet and the universe. Japan is also a volcanic archipelago. {I once went to shoot some footage in Iceland}, in a location where the terrain clearly showed two tectonic plates coming together and parting. It goes without saying that I want to see the {giant tortoises} of Galapagos, but I’d first like to take a look at the terrain itself. I’m also looking forward to seeing what kind of perspective Photographer applies to the terrain.

Photographer I’m hoping that I’ll be able to leverage the raw power of photography to take photos that expose my ignorance just as it is, rather than representing anything I know. Just as you said you couldn’t figure out what I was aiming for on viewing my forest photos, I myself hope to photograph Galapagos without expecting to be able to understand my subject. As they say, ignorance is bliss. I’m aiming to enjoy my ignorance rather than let it get me down. We’re all going to Galapagos for the first time, so when we first set out together, I’d like to think about what we look at, and notice what we feel.

Biologist The islands of Galapagos are not all the same age. Some are old, and some are new, so we’ll be able to see the process of transition. That’s also something I’m looking forward to.

The closest you can get to the universe

Designer All sorts of advances have been made in the field of astrophysics in interpreting the universe, but I get the feeling, intuitively, that life and the universe are probably the same thing. What does a biologist see the universe as?

Biologist I’ve always been interested in the universe. Up until recently, the universe was estimated to be 13.7 billion years old, but that figure was lately revised to 13.8 billion years. That update goes to show that we’re still learning even the basics. One of the interesting things about cosmology is that 97% of this universe is still unknown to us. We know about only 3%, but I think that knowing even that much is pretty amazing. You expressed the view just now that volcanoes were perhaps the closest places on earth to the universe, but I’d like to put in a vote for the Andes as well. Have you ever been there?

Designer I’ve been to {Bolivia, Peru, and thereabouts}. What makes you say the Andes seem close to the universe?

Biologist I visited the {Atacama Desert in Chile}, the driest place on earth. There’s very little water, the air is also thin, and with the high, jagged mountains, it looks just like Mars. It’s the kind of harsh environment that you would expect to find on {Mars}, and you really feel that it’s barren of all life.

Photographer When I visited {Lake Titicaca}, maybe because of the altitude, I too got this strong feeling of being closer to the heavens than any place I’d ever visited.

Biologist Yes, it’s 4,000 meters above sea, after all, isn’t it?

Designer At such an altitude, when the sky’s clear, it appears to be blackish blue rather than the blue we’re used to, doesn’t it? Almost as if the blackness of space is showing through. I also went to {Uyuni Salt Lake in Bolivia}, where it’s tremendously hot in the daytime and really cold at night. It’s totally flat and barren in all directions, and where there’s water, it’s saltwater, and it’s so calm that it’s like a mirror. When the sun and the moon are out at the same time, you see four orbs floating on the horizon, making it feel totally otherworldly. Biologist, I trust you’d love to visit Mars, right?

Biologist I do actually know of a plan to send people to Mars, but that’s a colonization plan, and I wouldn’t want to stay for good! If I could return to Earth, I’d love to go. 250 days one way, 500 days for the round-trip. I predict that the first expedition will leave in the 2030s.

Designer Maybe because I don’t have that many more years of life left, my view of the universe has changed. Rather than trying to figure out how things work, I find myself also pondering life and death when my thoughts turn to the universe. So I think that going to the Galapagos will probably feel like going to Mars for me.

Another look at right-angled socks

Biologist As a biologist, I too have tended to think very mechanically about life and evolution. In science, there’s one thing that you’re not supposed to do—search for purpose. In other words, you can ask how, but not why. However, when you reach my age, you come to want to think about purpose. Why is there life? And where is evolution headed? Evolution is generally said to be direction-less, but I’m not convinced. If I visit Galapagos, the birthplace of evolutionary theory, I think I might find some hints.

Photographer Yes, Galapagos is a really special place in that sense.

Designer MUJI does a lot of rethinking, for example creating {right-angled socks} and making {slippers that are easy to wear}. Humanity has filled the world with squares. We’ve carved naturally contoured land into squares, constructed square buildings, live in square rooms surrounded by square furniture, press square keys on square PCs. Our windows are also square. And so on.

That’s probably because our bodies are divided into right and left halves and our eyes are aligned with the horizon. It became the fate of the world to be shaped by mankind once we started walking upright and using our hands to do all sorts of things. If you fold a banana leaf in half, you get a straight line, and if you fold it again, you get a right angle. That’s how we made the world square. If you look at ancient stoneware, on the other hand, some artifacts have perfectly circular holes in them. I wouldn’t mind betting that the first people who rotated a hard stone on a softer stone were mightily impressed by the sight of the perfectly round hole that resulted. People discovered primitive forms and mathematical principles while using their bodies.

Design is the sum of wisdom that humans have cultivated through using their bodies to mold their environment. Human beings are the only creatures to completely modify their environments to their own convenience. That’s why design is all about the thought processes involved in shaping the environment.

I’m wondering what kind of peace we’ll find when we make it to some place in the Galapagos where there is no trace whatsoever of humanity. I want to lay my eyes on life in all its glory, and then take another look at right-angled socks.

Biologist I know what you mean. Most animals don’t think about anything. They’re probably just living. I think they’re living with all their might. They’re doing their best, trying this and that, making do when they have to.

The doings of the soul?

Designer Do animals feel desire or pride or happiness or some other sense of value?

Biologist I don’t know. However, I don’t think that they create the kind of logic in their brains that people do. The human brain has a layer of 2–3 mm called the {neocortex}, and both happiness and unhappiness all come from that part. Because it’s deeply folded, it occupies over half the brain even though it’s only 2–3 mm thick.

But what you Photographer said about ignorance being bliss, that doesn’t come from the brain. The neocortex derives pleasure only from logic. The part of the brain that feels pleasure, the part we tend to call the “soul,” is inside the brain, beneath the neocortex. The neocortex is present only in mammals, and is particularly well developed in people, but the part below it is present in all animals. I think you could appropriately call that part the “{soul}.”

Photographer That’s interesting. I didn’t know that.

Designer So it’s deep inside the brain that we feel things, is it? I really like traveling with Photographer, the way he’ll say “Wow, look at that!”—feeling rather than thinking.

Photographer So when I say “Aaah” or “Wow,” that’s my soul talking, right? I didn’t quite know where such feelings come from, so what you said was enlightening. On this trip, it looks like we’ll all be heading towards that central part together.

Designer None of us are young, and we each pursued our own specialty—photography, design, and biology. I like the idea that the three of us, each from a different world, are all looking forward together to what Galapagos has to offer us.

Photographer I think I may have misconceptions about Galapagos. I feel that with the photos and footage and such like that I’ve come across in the past, I may have been exposed to only a snippet. So I want to see it with my own eyes and be able to say, this is Galapagos as I saw it. My take on Galapagos might end up being mistaken, but I’ll be happy if I can look at it with new eyes.

Biologist You sometimes hear biologists talk about {evolutionary dead ends}, a favorite example being the {Irish elk}. The theory was that the Irish elk’s antlers evolved to be so big and unwieldy that they weren’t much use for fighting, and were also thought to be ill-suited to a life of wandering through forests, causing the eventual extinction of the species as an evolutionary dead-end, but this theory is mistaken. Irish elks survived with those antlers for more than 1 million years. When you consider that we human beings have been around for only 200,000 to 300,000 years, the Irish elk did pretty well to survive for over 1 million years with those antlers. The whole idea of evolutionary dead-ends may well be mistaken.

Strength from built-in variation

Designer Biologist, I’m looking forward to picking your brains about various things, such as whether we’re going to be okay with our population increasing like this. There’s loads of things I want to ask, all sorts of subjects I want to talk about, but maybe we should call it a day for today.

Biologist Business owners have a virtual universe—their company—inside their heads, and work for its long-term stability and growth. Mutations in biological evolution serve as an antidote to such stability. They’re always generating change and variation. In the living world, stability is the enemy, since if the environment were to change, everything would die. That’s why biodiversity, leaving as many different species as possible, is key to the natural world. MUJI too would be wise to create all sorts of stuff.

Designer I think you’re right. MUJI has an {Advisory Board} of 4 or 5 people who are close enough to management that they can offer their views whenever they want. I’m a member of that board, and I think it’s interesting the way MUJI uses such people. It’s important to have people who are ready to speak their minds and stir things up a little. Playing safe is in the end more dangerous. You need to expose yourself to risk and be ready to get hurt.

Biologist That’s great. Species too have variation built into them. That’s their strength.

Time to go

Designer I’ve heard that Galapagos is not that hot, {about 19–26°C} despite being so close to the Equator. There are {four ocean currents}, two of them warm, and two cold. It’s apparently the coldness of the water in the cold currents that keeps the temperature down. Because there are no ports or piers on most of the islands, you have to jump out of the boat into shallows, so sneakers aren’t practical. It’s apparently advisable to have sandals that fit the heel for such wet landings. Whoops, why all this talk about gear all of a sudden? Oh, and you’ll also need a jacket, since it can get quite cool.

Photographer I usually take both large-format {8x10} and 35 mm cameras. You can never tell what’s going to happen, so I aim to be prepared for all contingencies. In that sense too, it’s like heading into the unknown...... I have no idea what I’ll be photographing. I rarely use digital cameras, but I’ll be taking them too this time.

Biologist So you’ll be fully equipped camera-wise.

Photographer Digital enables shooting in really low-light situations where film is impossible. Will we be able to stay on the islands until sunset? I wonder what goes on there at night?