“Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it.” — Stuart Sutherland (1927-98), in The International Dictionary of Psychology (1995), entry on “Consciousness”
A simple book with some complex illusions. It’s aimed at children but scientists have spent decades understanding how certain arrangements of colour and line fool the eye so powerfully. I particularly like the black-and-white tiger set below a patch of blue on page 60. Stare at the blue “for 15 seconds”, then look quickly at a tiny cross set between the tiger’s eyes and the killer turns colour.
So what’s not there appears to be there, just as, elsewhere, what’s there appears not to be. Straight lines seem curved; large figures seem small; the same colour seems light on the right, dark on the left. There are also some impossible figures, as made famous by M.C. Escher and now studied seriously by geometricians, but the only true art here is a “Face of Fruits” by Arcimboldo. The rest is artful, not art, but it’s interesting to think what Escher might have made of some of the ideas here. Mind is mechanism; mechanism can be fooled. Optical illusions are the most compelling examples, because vision is the most powerful of our senses, but the lesson you learn here is applicable everywhere. This book fools you for fun; others try to fool you for profit. Caveat spectator.
“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).
The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.
And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings. But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.
Continuing reading The Power of Babel…
An attractive book about animals that are mostly attractive, sometimes strange, always interesting. It devotes photographs and descriptive text to all the reptiles and amphibians found in Europe, from tree-frogs to terrapins, from skinks to slow-worms. Some of the salamanders look like heraldic mascots, some of the lizards like enamel jewellery, and some of the toads like sumo wrestlers with exotic skin-diseases. When you leaf through the book, you’ve moving through several kinds of space: geographic and evolutionary, aesthetic and psychological. Europe is a big place and has a lot of reptilian and amphibian variety, including one species of turtle, the loggerhead, Caretta caretta, and one species of chameleon, the Mediterranean, Chamaeleo chamaeleon.
But every species, no matter how dissimilar in size and appearance, has a common ancestor: the tiny crested newt (Triturus cristatus) to the far north-west in Scotland and the two-and-a-half metre whip snake (Dolichophis caspius) to the far south-east in Greece; the sun-loving Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni), with its sturdy shell, and the pallid and worm-like olm (Proteus anguinus), which lives in “underground streams in limestone karst country along the coast from north-east Italy to Montenegro” (pg. 55). Long-limbed or limbless, sun-loving or sun-shunning, soft-skinned or scaly – they’re all variations on a common theme.
And that’s where aesthetic and psychological space comes in, because different species and families evoke different impressions and emotions. Why do snakes look sinister and skinks look charming? But snakes are sinuous too and in a way it’s a shame that a photograph can capture their endlessly varying loops and curves as easily as it can capture the ridigity of a tortoise. At one time a book like this would have had paintings or drawings. Nowadays, it has photographs. The images are more realistic but less enchanted: the images are no longer mediated by the hand, eye and brain of an artist. But some enchantment remains: the glass lizard, Pseudopus apodus, peering from a holly bush on page 199 reminds me of Robert E. Howard’s “The God in the Bowl”, because there’s an alien intelligence in its gaze. Glass lizards are like snakes but can blink and retain “tiny, barely visible vestiges of the hind legs” (pg. 198).
Other snake-like reptiles retain vestiges of the fore-limbs too, like the Italian three-toed skink (Chalcides chalcides). The slow-worm, Anguis fragilis, has lost its limbs entirely, but doesn’t look sinister like a snake and can still blink. Elsewhere, some salamanders have lost not limbs but lungs: the Italian cave salamander, Speleomantes italicus, breathes through its skin and the lining of its mouth. So does Gené’s cave salamander, Speleomantes genei, which is found only on the island of Sardinia. It “emits an aromatic scent when touched” (pg. 54). Toads can emit toxins and snakes can inject venoms: movement in evolutionary space means movement in chemical space, because every alteration in an animal’s appearance and anatomy involves an alteration in the chemicals created by its body. But chemical space is two-fold: genotypic and phenotypic. The genes change and so the products of the genes change. The external appearance of every species is like a bookmark sticking out of the Book of Life, fixing its position in gene-space. You have to open that book to see the full recipe for the animal’s anatomy, physiology and behaviour, though not everything is specified by the genes.
The force of gravity is one ingredient in an animal’s development, for example. So is sunlight or its absence. Or water, sand, warmth, cold. The descendants of that common ancestor occupy many ecological niches. And in fact one of those descendants wrote this book: humans and all other mammals share an ancestor with frogs, skinks and vipers. Before that, we were fish. So a plaice is a distant cousin of an olm, despite the huge difference in their appearance and habitat. One is flat, one is tubular. One lives in the sea, one lives in caves. But step by step, moving through genomic and topological space, you can turn a plaice into an olm. Or into anything else in this book. Just step back through time to the common ancestor, then take another evolutionary turning. One ancestor, many descendants. That ancestor was itself one descendant among many of something even earlier.
But there’s another important point: once variety appeared, it began to interact with itself. Evolutionary environment includes much more than the inanimate and inorganic. We mammals share more than an ancestor with reptiles and amphibians: we’ve also shared the earth. So we’re written into their genes and some of them are probably written into ours. Mammalian predators have influenced the evolution of skin-colour and psychology, making some animals camouflaged and cautious, others obtrusive and aggressive. But it works both ways: perhaps snakes seem sinister because we’re born with snake-sensitive instincts. If it’s got no limbs and it doesn’t blink, it might have a dangerous bite. That’s why the snake section of this book seems so different to the salamander section or the frog section. But all are interesting and all are important. This is a small book with some big themes.