March 26, 2011

Sarah Cuming on Dazzled and Deceived

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Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage

by Peter Forbes

White Siberian Tiger from Birmingham

Having grown up in a house with a zoology graduate father, Darwinian theories and the basic principles of evolutionary history have constantly seeped into my environment. As a child, many of the books found around our house were far too serious, far too complex and detailed to hold much interest for me, and the language they employed was far too academic for me to be able to fully appreciate their meaning. I am a lot older now, and I daresay that, should I wish it, I could make my way through all the big, heavy books with serious covers and tiny writing and even batter the most difficult scientific terminology into submission – but it’s nice not to have to.

Peter Forbes’s Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage may tackle some of the major milestones in evolutionary theory and zoological experimentation that have occurred during the past two hundred-odd years, but in a style that makes it palatable to people who don’t walk around with a scientific dictionary stashed away in their head. There is inevitably some use of scientific language, of course, otherwise the book would have been impossible to write, but Forbes explains what each term means in a way that sticks. What makes Forbes’s writing particularly engaging, brings it out of the dry world of academia and into sparkling life, is his use of imagery. Interesting yet complex theories are rendered comprehensible via the use of skilfully drawn similes and metaphors, leaving the reader with a very distinct impression of what it is the author is trying to teach them. This may sound like a trivial compliment, with descriptive language surely being an expected and natural tool within a writer’s repertoire, and yet I think it is one which is largely underappreciated. And, considering the subject matter of the book – glorious creatures using vivid colour and clever trickery to send out falsified messages to the world in dazzling displays of natural mimicry – could there be a more appropriate way of simplifying scientific theory for lay readers than the use of imagery?

The theme of images, both benign (or seemingly so) and malevolent, is the constant thread that weaves its way through the centre of Forbes’s artful tapestry. Other narrative threads work their way in, such as art and warfare and history and science, each topic dancing in and out of the intricate pattern. It is hard, sometimes, to see where the dividing line falls between nature and human ingenuity, with understanding of one often feeding back into understanding of the other, but Forbes tells the story in such a way that the blurred lines do not matter; one aspect of a topic leads smoothly into the next, even if for the discoverers of different theories it was a far rockier road.

Forbes follows the development of camouflage and mimicry theories through history, from the first early Victorian forays into identification of mimics and their possible evolutionary methods, to the most modern understanding of genetics and the ways in which small variations in these codes can influence how a creature functions. The theme of nature in relation to humanity continues by illustrating how we as an intelligent species have adopted camouflage through artifice rather than genetics.

Art and science meet in an unlikely and sometimes uneasy partnership, employing various theories of camouflage, deception, and misdirection in numerous conflicts. This is an interesting comparison to make, because we rarely think of animals as being at war – a term which seems so very human – and yet, as Forbes so successfully illustrates, their struggle for survival can be seen as nothing less: a war between predator and prey in which the most effective deception wins. The fact that we have become our own predators, preying on each other, our territories far bigger than those of any animal, is perhaps a sign that there is simply nothing else we have left to be frightened of. And is perhaps the reason, if it could ever really be called that, why we as a species have never developed a physical form of mimicry or camouflage that would serve as a warning to or an escape from potential predators.

That is perhaps the only thing I would have liked to see expanded upon in Forbes’s work: why human beings have had to consciously develop their own camouflage and deceptions when other predators have not. Why we have had to go through tortures of scientific and artistic breakdown of structures and perspectives before we have managed to achieve something which nature seems to do so easily. Many major predators, tigers being the obvious example and one that Forbes refers to, have evolved some form of camouflage or patterning that makes them less likely to be seen by their prey, even though they themselves might not be consciously aware of it. We have not. On the most obvious level, this must be because natural selection has not required us to do so, yet the reasons behind this still seem unclear.

Forbes’ accounts of natural history imply some possibilities, such as how various creatures cover themselves in the surrounding vegetation in order to remain hidden, suggesting that humans have sometimes acted in a similar manner. These implications provide a possible, though unspecific, theory as to why humans act the way they do and why it has taken us (apparently) such a long time to delve into the idea of concealing ourselves. Perhaps it really is as simple as the fact that we are such effective predators that we never needed to evolve camouflage or deceptive techniques, and that when we did, against each other, our astounding intelligence led us gradually into a more comprehensive method of fighting via stealth. Perhaps it is simply that I am asking questions that cannot be answered yet, because the scientists themselves may not know? Or perhaps the answer is there already and I am merely making life complicated for myself by not accepting suggestions as fact.

Either way, this is undoubtedly a beautifully written and skilfully assembled book, with so much fascinating knowledge contained within its pages that it is sure to pique the interest of just about anyone. The interplay of different disciplines that have enabled us to reach such a thorough understanding of evolutionary history with regards to mimicry and camouflage is an elegant and thrilling one to observe, and one which reveals some truly remarkable aspects of nature to the human eye.

All in all, I would say that this is a very thorough and detailed account of the development and effectiveness of different images within natural history, and it is one which, due to Forbes’s approach to the material, would be appreciated by an audience with a wide range of interests. My only final quibble, given the subject matter, is that we didn’t have a few more of the stunning photographs found at the centre of the book.

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