Can we ever know what it is like to be a bird? As poetic as the question may appear to be, it’s fascinating how the question has fascinated a bunch ofCan we ever know what it is like to be a bird? As poetic as the question may appear to be, it’s fascinating how the question has fascinated a bunch of cientists and artists ranging from neurosurgeons, ecologists, physiologists to bird illustrators and medieval travellers. The fascination with bird flight is possibly as old as language itself. Birds are among the early cave paintings, be it in the subterranean caves discovered by teenage boys at Lascaux, or the paintings of Genyornis in cave paintings in Northern Australia that could be 40,000 years old, dating to the time when man set foot on that continent. In Bird Sense, Tim Birkhead who has written fascinating stuff on history of science, birds and birdwatching and has edited the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology, makes a narrative synthesis of the historical and contemporary knowledge on what it is like to be a bird. An extremely intriguing question throwing up questions such as “Is this know-able?”. Such philosophical meanderings have clearly not deterred several scientists from designing simple and elegent experiments to try and understand this.
The book begins with a set of questions that Birkhead claims the book will answer. Just seeing the list captivated me to start reading the book (see video intro by Tim Birkhead below, where he outlines some of the questions he attempts to answer in the book). The chapters, organised according to the five senses that we know - seeing, listening, smell, taste and touch - and two of which we don’t know fully understand (at least among birds!), magnetism and emotions - are a treasure of stories of early anecdotes and discoveries.
The chapter on seeing begins with the attempts of early falconers in Europe attempting to perform experiments with shrikes to understand the range of falcon’s vision. Among these early experiments, the falconers of Valkenswaard in Netherlands stand out. Falconry, with its possible origins in Central Asia matured in the middle-east, eventually tracing northwards to Europe. In the book, the experience of English naturalist and falconer, James E. Harting, who was supposedly very often seen in London with a hawk on his fist, and known for his experiments in a falcon hunt in 1877, where traditionally migratory falcons used to be trapped, are described. Later studies on the structure of the eye particularly the cellular structure of the retina and the fovea, the high-density receptor pit on the retina, are described in a beautiful story. The story of Casey Albert Wood, an ophthalmologist who was also interested in the eye of birds (among other animals) is described, how he pored into early literature on avian sight by falconers [As an aside, Wood has no article (yet) on the English Wikipedia (the Dutch one has an article though) and the scarce material on him on the Internet I went through include an inventory of his items handed over to the Osler Library of the History of Medicine at McGill University, Canada. This interesting inventory includes some of his contributions to the New York based Charaka club - see the proceedings on Archive.org]. The structure of the eye has been an object of great fascination from historical times, the debate spilling over to the contemporary creationism-evolution debates, with creationists often drawing from William Paley’s flawed teleological arguments in favour of a creation or being inspired by the intricate structure of the human eye to infer irreducible complexity and hence an intelligent designer. The fact that we see with our brains rather than our eyes is illustrated by recalling an extreme experiment of getting used to image-reversing glasses while riding a bike, an unreal experiment actually carried out by Irwin Moon in 1961 [turns out though that the good Dr. Moon was a man of God though]. Later on beautiful stories of bird gifts to one of those Louis kings and expeditions to understand lekking behaviour of a curiously named South American bird, the cock-of-the-rock and the Bowerbird’s decorative nests are used to convincingly tell us the story of sight in birds. Darwin’s ideas regarding how female preference for colourful birds (as a proxy of reproductive success) could have driven run-away evolutionary processes culminating in peacocks train of colourful feathers and such are described. Pierre Broca and his work find mention. He was known for his discovery of the hemispheric nature of control over our speech through dissection of the brain of a man with a speech defect who succumbed to Syphilis.This led him to conclude that the disease-mediated damage to particular hemispheres of the brain could have led to the speech defect; wonderful stories that are missed out in textbooks of medicine, for example. Quite recently, this aphasic brain of the man who couldn’t speak too much was identified to belong to Louis Victor Leborgne, possibly one of the most famous patients of the last century, in an article in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. The consequence is the amazing phenomenon of lateralisation or “sidedness” in birds [see lateralisation in bird song as well as in flight path], which for a century was supposed to have been thought to be unique for humans. Apparently, such sidedness among birds could be both at the level of individuals, wherein some individual parrots’ bill use or leg preference for tool use by those extremely intelligent New Caledonian crows. Similarly, entire species could exhibit a sidedness too; the Peregrine Falcon which swoops down upon its prey along a wide arc mainly use their right eye!
On hearing in birds, Birkhead begins with an illustration of hearing among Barn Owls, which can hunt in near darkness. The chapter progresses to describe arly explorations as to how particularly loud birds (listen to the extremely loud corncrake or the capercaillie) protect their own hears from damage of their nearly 150db calls. Later on, he touches upon the recent work on songs which blur the black-and-white nature-nurture debates and divides prevalent in the last century. The story of birds songs beautifully shows us how learning and genes are intricately involved with each other in manifesting what we see, this perhaps being a phenomenon across taxa, including humans. Later on, while describing the historical work done on the inner ear, the story of the Swedish physician and anatomist, Gustav Retzius, whose pioneering work on illustrating inner ears of several species including birds led to great insights into hearing in general (and among birds too). In spite of his geographical proximity (he was a Swede!) and a 12-time nomination, apparently he didn’t get a single one, possibly the Ivan Lendl among the Nobels! (Retzius did some work on botany, embryology, histology and craniometry, talk the modern specialisation fad within medicine let alone in science!). The ability of avian hair cells to regenerate and the asymmetrically placed ears in owls and how this helps 3-d localisation of prey is beautifully described. In fact, hearing is quite sophisticated among birds; nightingales in Berlin supposedly sing a good 14db louder to make up for the noise, while Birkhead in a subsequent section wonders if the introduced Dunnocks and Blackbirds in New Zealand’s relatively silent forests sing softer. The early hypothesis of Hamilton Hartridge on whether bats could be using high frequency sounds to echo-locate and the subsequent experiments conducted by the (then) Harvard undergraduate, Don Griffin on oilbirds which also navigate in total darkness [see and hear Oilbird echolocation in the dark] and finding that they also use echolocation are beautifully woven into a story.
The chapter on hearing begins with John Weir’s early experiments with offering possibly unpleasant tasting bright caterpillars instead of the cryptic ones that birds were eating and how the birds found these “distasteful”, an experiment he is supposed to have performed at the behest of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, following up on their own fascination with colouration in animals. Apparently, taste in birds was a hotly debated topic in Darwin’s day and age, although clearly Darwin and his ilk were quite convinced of it and the role it has played in the evolution of mimicry seems to have been clear to them. Among all the relatively older historical anecdotes, the more contemporary one that happened to Bruce Beehler (known locally for his work on Indian birds and biogeography with Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley), whose PhD student Jack Dumbacher found in late 80s and early 90s, the first-ever distasteful bird, the New Guinean hooded pitohui (pit-oh-wheez), because of its toxic feathers. On hearing this, Beehler is supposed to have exclaimed that this could be the cover of Science magazine, which it seems it did with a cover photo of Science in October 1992! Like in many such instances, this piece of information was quite well known to the local people who had in fact named the bird wohob, bird whose bitter skin puckers the mouth! Turns out from Dumbacher’s future work that the toxin in the birds feathers comes from its diet of melyrid beetles and is a kind of batrachotoxin, now known to be stronger than strychnine. Other birds in New Guinea are now known to be similarly toxic. Their experiments, of course being much more sophisticated than Audubon’s “experiment” of feeding ten boiled carcasses of Carolina Parakeets to cats to see if they are unpleasant or toxic!
The chapter on smell explores the amazing capacity of the Kiwi to smell earthworms inside the soil. Experiments seem to have focused on whether the Kiwis hear the worms or smell them when they dig into the soil. The chapter also explores sense in birds through the early life of the “larger-than-life” bird illustrator, John James Audubon, who was, as the book describes “a dynamic, erratic and charming illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a servant girl” born in Haiti. Audubon’s initial article “exploding” the then held belief that American Turkey-buzzard smelt carrion, and instead declarign though his experiments that they actually saw carrion sparked a lot of interest on the ability to smell among birds. It turns out that Audubon’s experiments were actually flawed and indeed, the buzzards do indeed have a sense of smell, one of the explanations being that Audubon might have mis-identified (or mis-reported?) Turkey-vultures, a similar looking species as Turkey-buzzards. It seems the former does have a poor sense of smell….talk of bad identification by the veterans! Like in many cases with birds (and biology!), it was somebody in the “medical” community to the rescue. Birkhead attributes a lot of progress in the study of avian olfaction to an medical illustrator in Johns Hopkins, aptly named, Betsy Bang, with her article in Nature in 1960 focusing on avian olfaction. Later on in the chapter, the unexpectedly good ability of sea birds such as albatrosses in smelling is also described though long stories and experiments that showed this.
The last two chapters, one on magnetism and the other on emotions are relatively less “developed” than the above five, possibly showing the dearth of work on these two. That said, the chapter on magnetic sense in birds begins with a fascinating of work done by the famous British ecologist, David Lack, then a school teacher and Ronald Lockley on islands and their experiments with taking away birds and releasing them far away and how long it took for the birds to return to the island. With better technology, the sense of direction in birds and how they possibly “sense” earth’s magnetic fields has improved but it is one of these those things that we will never fully appreciate, because of our own sense of not being able to know what it is like to sense this. The last chapter on emotions gives some insights into social behaviours among birds.
All in all a great read both for a lay reader and possibly for the sciency ones. A great introduction to several hundreds of years of experiments and stories about birds and their senses....more
I picked up Pankaj Mishra’s latest book “A great clamour: Encounters with China and its neighbours” at the Raipur airport, on my way back to BangaloreI picked up Pankaj Mishra’s latest book “A great clamour: Encounters with China and its neighbours” at the Raipur airport, on my way back to Bangalore from a short consultation on tribal health. I have discovered a deep interest in China, after my month-long stay in Beijing and my conversations with several public health researchers from China. Initial conversations were around trying to understand the politics and governance. Apart from the more development or politics oriented discussions in Amartya Sen’s works, I began to be more interested in contemporary and recent history of Chinese people. A recent book on Tibet (the book named after the country) by Patrick French and William Darlymple’s classic In Xanadu (the first of Dalrymple I think from his student days, as much a travelogue as a historical essay) had both tickled my curiosity of contemporary Chinese society. Beijing was as much a cross-section of Chinese society as Delhi or Mumbai are of Indian, or perhaps representing China much lesser than Indian metros.
The book offers travelogue-like but richer stories weaved into curious diversions on recent history of various countries. Miishra offers appetisers of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Japan are presented, albeit after a substantive portion focusing on China. He starts off with a quick introduction on why he looked east, and gets into the business of describing encounters with various Chinese city and especially a variety of people he meets. The introduction keeps the Indo-Chinese connection “real”; discussing the great interest and several historical exchanges, but at the same time, the relatively distant relationship with our neighbour. A large initial chapter focuses on Shanghai and its particular unique cultural milieu affected strongly by European presence. Well-chosen excerpts from Chinese works expose an uncanny similarity (to India) in how middle-class China developed a fascination for a Western pretence as a high class act. He traces the similarities of some of the characters described in contemporary Chinese works (for example, the character Fang from Fortress besieged by Qian Zhongshu) to Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August. Mishra goes on to explore various political themes travelogue-style, through descriptions of meetings with dissidents and academics. In reading about these encounters, one begins to appreciate the several events in Chinese history (the revolutions included) through more local perspectives and often varying ones. Mishra finds an interesting form that dissent takes, where it manifests as intellectuals holding the regime to account without necessarily becoming individually known for dissenting voices, but rather introducing powerful narratives often in literature, theatre or in academia; narratives that create a counter-culture and become the regime’s conscience. He brings these out through review of various books of the Mao era.
With that, he abruptly shifts gears into Mongolia, and then jerkily flitting about south-east Asia, stopping over episodically in Hong Kong, Tapipei and Kuala Lumpur. These read much more as short travel essays in their own merit and are not well woven into the larger “encounters with China” narrative. Indonesia chapter is quite well developed though and possibly very interesting to many Indians of my generation wherein current ties political or cultural are nearly non-existent. To discover an ancient fascination that Indonesia had for Nehruvian India and what the political developments thereafter, which push the country further and further away from its initial moorings in good governance. The chapter on Japan is also somewhat better than the other small ones in between; again exploring Japan through authors and books and starting off post-WWII. All in all, a nice easy read for those looking for a politico-cultural appetiser to China and its neighbours. Shayan Rajani sums up the book rather well (and perhaps a bit hyperbolically) in this Dawn review:
What Mishra’s final assessment of India’s neighbours to the east might be is an open question, since the book’s conclusion remains unwritten. However, the picture that emerges is of an Asia populated by rival siblings. Those ahead of India best serve as cautionary tales in her own experiment with liberalisation. The more ambitious project of a common response to the challenges of modernity or the even more daunting task of charting out alternatives remains to be taken up. However, by orienting attention away from an increasingly stagnant West to the great din in the East, Mishra has taken the first step towards formulating an intellectual response to the new world condition.
With a foreword byhis better known grandson, Amartya Sen, this Penguin
[caption id="attachment_998" align="alignright" width="195"] Detail of mother aWith a foreword by his better known grandson, Amartya Sen, this Penguin
[caption id="attachment_998" align="alignright" width="195"] Detail of mother and child from 5th century AD now at the LA County Museum of Art[/caption]
paperback 2002 reprint of Kshiti Mohan Sen's 1961 book. With only 138 pages for a very grand title "Hinduism", the book seems overambitious from its cover itself. Yet, I found it to be a fairly comprehensive account of the history and (then in the 60s) present of this religion with which many people in the subcontinent identify themselves with. As Sen clarifies in his foreword,
I was not surprised that Khiti Mohan's conception of the book was driven by his interest in writing something that could be read, as he put it in the preface, 'by those with much else to do' and by his determination not 'to add to the number of fat tomes on Hinduism'.
The book is possibly better suited to a busy "outsider", giving a no-nonsense and much less romanticised account of the various influences on Hinduism than many others that I have read. At the same time, it tends not to under-play or be cynical about the rich history and traditions in terms of music and culture that have shaped the religion as we see it today. His focus on many influences that are not spoken about, such as the Sufi influences, many folk traditions with little written histories exemplified by the Bauls, a tradition of Bengali mystics, an extremely short section on non-Vedic influences, help improve our understanding of the diverse inputs into the potpourri that has been ossified as a single religion much like the large monotheisms. The mutual sharing of cultures, traditions, music and ideas between Islam and Hinduism particularly engage (the elder) Sen, while the younger one, in his foreword, contrasts this with the rather "...standard generalisations made not only by combative exponents of religious politics, but also by serious experts on cultural history who have been inclined to neglect these constructive interrelations". He is talking of Nirad C Chaudhuri's works on the history of Hinduism.
There is a lot too on the influence of early Buddhism and Jainism, with the upper-caste Hindu pre-occupation with vegetarianism being traced to these periods. In fact, A Sen points out that KM Sen possibly saw Buddhism and Jainism, "at least to some extent, (as) intellectual continuations of heterodoxies within Hinduism itself". Gautama Buddha's agnostic philosophy may have had origins in several (then) prevalent agnostic and atheistic streams of thought in the then (Hindu?) society (see for example the Lokayata movement, which drew upon various forms of materialism, religious indifference and philosophical skepticism). From here, he traces back Hindu heterodoxy further back to the Vedas itself, quoting the Nasadiya hymn of the Rg Veda as a case in point.
"Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?"
One major departure for me is the somewhat apologetic stance on the caste practices, where he points out the scarce scriptural backing, in addition to open criticism of the idea in some instances. This is of course pointed out by the (then) younger Sen in his foreword (p. xv).
All in all, it is a nice and concise and critical introduction to many of the associations of modern day Hinduism without too much romance nor cynicism. Much recommended as an introduction to students of religious studies, but certainly not for people with an already deeper engagement. That said, if you are looking for more critical an eye at the religion than has been provided by Hindu missionary accounts, then this is a go-to book, in my opinion. Sen draws from wider sources than the classical texts that are quoted ad nauseum.
Kshiti Mohan Sen's Medieval mysticism of India (with a foreword by Rabindranath Tagore) is available as PDF here.
A rather short account of Kshiti Mohan Sen by Amartya Sen at his 130th birth anniversary is in this rather poorly written article in the Telegraph.
A short UNESCO introduction to the Bauls is here ...more
Superb collection. I had read many of the stories that are a part of this collection. Was nice to sit down and read these stories one after another. ISuperb collection. I had read many of the stories that are a part of this collection. Was nice to sit down and read these stories one after another. If you are contemplating reading this and want a sample, listen to "The Open Window" here: http://www.loudlit.org/audio/window/p... and see for yourself. An excellent choice for a long train/bus journey. ...more
Meanwhile, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"] Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French[/caption]
Meanwhile, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"] Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French[/caption]
Angeles, the Dalai Lama blessed a new Shi-Tro mandala (a three-dimensional religious sculpture) in front of a large, paying audience. The mandala had been created by a Tibetan monk who ran a local Buddhist centre, assisted by his American wife, who worked in creative marketing for Warner Brothers Records Inc. She had generated volumes of publicity, using the slogan “Shi-Tro Happens.” The Los Angeles Times described this as “marketing the mandala in a hip and humorous way.” So, there was the Dalai Lama, up on stage, Shi-Tro happening, the ceremony compered by the requisite Hollywood star, in this case the actress Sharon Stone, famous for lacking underwear in the movie Basic Instinct, but this time wearing a feather boa and bare feet. After musing aloud for a while about how she might introduce the Dalai Lama, she finally settled for, “The hardest-working man in spirituality … Mr. Please, Please, Please let me back into China!” The fact that the Dalai Lama came from Tibet was momentarily lost….
- p.122, Tibet Tibet by Patrick French
Patrick French's 2003 book on Tibet was my first book on this fascinating region. Having just returned after 6 weeks behind the great firewall, my eagerness to read more about Tibet had only increased. For, in a premier University campus, no less, was I prevented from reading the Wikipedia article on Tibet, leave alone any Dalai rant that sought to destabilise the "national unity of the motherland". Apart from several experiments with proxy servers and overconfidently trying to set up Tor, I finally came to terms with the stupendity of the Great Firewall of China, despite Winter & Lindskog's spirited efforts (PDF from arxiv) at "understanding of China's censorship capabilities and ... more effective evasion techniques".
So, what I wanted was not some Hollywood Tibetophile version of great oriental discovery of eastern stoicism and spirituality. I was already quite familiar with the "other side", having read and heard Hitchens on numerous occasions launch scathing attacks on the Dalai Lama for his "holier-than-all image", seeking donations from apparently dubious entities and other things summarised in "His Material Highness", an article Hitchens wrote in 1998. I sought a more information than opinions and discourses. And I was quite pleased with Patrick French's Tibet, Tibet.
The book starts and ends at McLeod Gunj, that place in Himachal where all Tibetan roads lead to. In a 1987 visit that he recalls, back in the days when pro-Tibet demonstrations were at their peak, Patrick recalls Ngodup, who cooked for guests at the monastery guest rooms. He later describes how he watched with horror on TV, this introvert Tibetan set himself ablaze in protests in Delhi. So begins his journey of wanting to go back into Tibet. With time, the initial magic and awe of all things Tibetan, also understandably wore away for the author and he too sought to see the "real Tibet", the one offered to him beyond the popular books of the Dalai Lama and the speeches of Gere and Segal. So, he undertakes a journey backpacking through Tibet and the provinces around the present-day Tibet, that at least at some point in history were united under Tibetan kings.
In all the places he visits, he brings in a bit of travel writing, narratives of people
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="550"] The Potala palace in Lhasa. Major Francis Younghusband marched the British troops after the 1804 invasion of Tibet.[/caption]
who went through Mao's purges and revolutions and lived to swallow their tales with humorous titbits of daily life. Some of the accounts are chilling (such as how many Tibetans suffered during several phases of Mao's rule) and others informative (Francis Younghusband's campaign to Tibet from India, Tibet's former military might, the corruption and decadence in Tibetan royalty and the extreme poverty of a large portion of its people). Of course, while doing a remarkable job keeping his (previous?) biases of Tibet (what he calls the mind's Tibet - he was after all once the head of UK's Free Tibet movement), his disdain for the Han people does come through. While getting a rich picture of the oppressed Tibetans from very different regions first-hand, the one-kind stereotype of the Han is quite evident and one wishes there could have been a richer detail of them too. Yet, a self-critical account of the Free-tibet movement and its Dalai-centredness is also given. Indeed, at various points he revisits his own ideal notion of "mind's Tibet" versus the real one, grey and lifeless towns in reality recollected quite differently in narratives. GOing further, he analyses historical misjudgments of the Dalai Lama in resolving the issue and even brings it up in a final meeting with the Dalai Lama in the last pages.
French's reporting is excellent and this is an enjoyable and informative tour of Tibet. His conclusions, though, invite some questions. The Dalai Lama himself regards it as self-evident that his decades of efforts to come to an agreement with China have borne no fruit. But it seems a little harsh to assume that this is solely through his own naiveté or mismanagement. China in the decades since 1949 has hardly been a stable or rational interlocutor for anyone attempting to negotiate - especially from a position of weakness. A more generous observer might congratulate the Dalai Lama that Tibet still exists at all, rather than rebuke him for failing to tame the dragon.
The Dalai Lama does not claim infallibility, whatever his followers or his western supporters might claim for him, nor have the majority of Tibetans ever auditioned to be characters in a western fantasy. That does not diminish the injustice they have suffered or render them any less deserving of support.
Patrick French's was the chosen one for VS Naipaul's The World is what it is biography. He refused the OBE to "guard his independence as a writer".
A funny interview by Larry King (CNN) with the Dalai Lama that belies the depth of understanding of the Dalai, in contrast to the noise made in the US about him. In the interview, Larry asks him what he thinks on the new year of 2000 "as a leading Muslim". A later interview where Larry seems to know of the Dalai's Buddhist faith is as funny with strange questions on DNA and such. As Patrick French notes: "This time, the host knew that his guest was a Buddhist, but it was a sorry spectacle, the Dalai Lama, the bodhisattva of compassion, being forced by the exigencies of global politics and celebrity culture to compete for airtime with the passing flotsam of high-speed television …"
Madhuri Dixit's posters were apparently the most popular draw among the several foreign celebrity posters adorning sections of Lingkhor (the outer pilgrim road at Lhasa) especially in the red-light district, where Chinese gangs run flesh trade with girls from Sichuan and Qinghai (p. 224).
French describes a meeting and interview with Ugeyen (p. 183), one of the Tibetan Ragyabas who in Tibet were outcastes who have faced historical injustice and discrimination (much akin to Dalits in India). I immediately wondered if "we" exported more than Buddhism.
Indian teachers Santarakshita and Padmasambhava went to Tibet on invitation somewhere in 8th century CE. Wonder which route they took.
The spiritual undertones (did I say undertones) were quite loud. Often preacy at times, the skeptic in me wanted to scream out loud sometimes. DescripThe spiritual undertones (did I say undertones) were quite loud. Often preacy at times, the skeptic in me wanted to scream out loud sometimes. Descriptions were long, yet not so boring for me. The journey of Pi after the shipwreck is a bit too long, but the beginning and the end are beautiful. Perhaps, the only time I could have read this book was during the times when I was so frustrated with "reality". I doubt I would have finished it at any other time but for this. Thankfully, I picked it up just when I needed something surreal. And that was what it was. The book is quite interesting because, I am sure people can take very different messages from it, often even conflicting ones. For me, it made me question some deeply held convictions, improved my understanding of "faith" (in other people though and not myself!). All in all, a nice rambling story - at times funny, at times boring and at times dramatic. ...more
Thanks to a recent British library membership acquisition, I got hold of this book by Peter Forbes - Dazzled and deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. TheThanks to a recent British library membership acquisition, I got hold of this book by Peter Forbes - Dazzled and deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. The book effortlessly leads the reader through a journey that begins in earnest with the comma butterfly flying across a garden and slowly winding its way through personal lives of luminaries in biology, through the private struggles and public lives of the proponents of various sorts of camouflage for both sides in the two world wars, artists and naturalists. In fact, there has been much talk about the role of camouflage nets in the winning of the Second battle of El Alamein has been much talked about. The battle was quite important - it got Churchill to apparently ring bells all over Britan, signifying the impending end to the war.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="370" caption="A disguised truck during the Battle of El Alamein. Disguise and camouflage supposedly played a major role, and so did artists, naturalists and biologists"][/caption]
Some of these people are very well-known, at least to biologists. The correspondence between Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace and their journeys together and apart in the Amazons and their pre-occupation with trying to explain why among such a diversity of butterflies (over 700 species), there was uncanny similarities between apparently unrelated species of butterflies.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="The Viceroy butterfly (above) which is non-poisonous and "bland tasting" and potentially a prey is also avoided because it is similar to the toxic and bitter tasting Monarch butterfly (below) - one of the best known examples of Batesian mimicry"][image error][/caption]
Here begins an interesting question that fascinated biologists on one side and inspired artists on the other. Many such models of mimicry are found in nature and our own Kallima is perhaps the best ones among butterflies, often unspottable among the leaf litter. Darwin and Bates had hypothesised based on their observations that the “odourless and palatable” Leptalis might be mimicking the boldly patterned and brightly coloured Heliconius, which advertised their bad taste with their bright colours and patters. Much before genes were known of, or even named such, the explanations and experiments to understand the evolution of such mimicry progressed fast. Tempers ran high in those days - biologists even tasted a few Heliconius to prove their point, with a bitter taste in their mouth. One of these was Thayer, whom Forbes dedicates at least two chapters to. Apparently, Thayer is the only(?) artist to have a law named after him - Thayer’s law of countershading. This Thayer turns out to be a very interesting character. Suffering from what he called “Abbott’s pendulum”, he had terrible mood swings (because of his bipolar disorder) and these moods often catching him in the middle of passionate wartime advocacy did not help matters. His passion for “finding camouflage” became so severe that he was publicly rubbished by (among others) Theodore Roosevelt. Here’s one such response to Roosevelt by Thayer.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="302" caption="The underside of the Orange Oakleaf, found in many parts of India is a superb example of disguise"][/caption]
For my assertion that white on objects' upper slopes, under an open starry sky without the moon or any artificial light far or near, is an absolute match for the sky, Col. Roosevelt can hardly find words to express his contempt, saying many things which must some day look very funny to him when he finds out his error.
It turns out that Thayer was extremely convinced that white upper coloration is one of the best camouflages to provide to anything in the sun. Roosevelt brought to this debate, his own hunting experience from African trips and indeed was invoking sexual selection arguments in days when it was out of fashion - as summarised by Norman Johnson here.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="313" caption="The countershaded bird on the right is not seen, as opposed to the "comouflaged" left one that is visible - From Thayer's experiments to prove countercolouration"][image error][/caption]
The two world wars provided plenty of opportunity for biologists and artists to cross swords at war offices, where they invoked various laws and rules of nature to help hide ships or disguise buildings. A British artist, Norman Wilkinson has been credited with being the first to show how to hide ships using dazzle camouflage, although he had to win this recognition after a legal battle. His painting Plymouth harbour sank with the Titanic. Initially, devised to decrease ship damage from torpedo attacks from German U-boats, the coloration was inspired by the sort of patterns seen on zebras. Apparently, the discuption caused by the lines and patterns which breaks the shape of the object makes it very difficult to even predict which direction the object is moving making it difficult to target during wars. See this boat from Arnhem for example. More recent work by marine biologists has confirmed similar observations in cuttlefish and other marine fauna.
The book has so many other colourful descriptions of colourful characters - people included. Peter Scott, John Cott, Jonathan Kerr and of course the “other” mimicry scientist (other than Bates), Fritz Muller, of the Mullerian mimicry fame. Interesting accounts of Vladamir Nabokov and his early history are also provided, as are the details of letter exchanges between Bates and Darwin. Hugh Bamford Cott is credited with coining the term “arms race” to denote the adaptations and counter adaptations such as in predator-prey who are engaged in a continuous shruggle of “bettering” the other. Cott’s explanation of mimicry and camouflage is indeed simple and elegant. He saw three main categories - concealment, disguise and advertisement. His application of these categories to explain a lot of observations across diverse species is apparently still the best available book on the topic - Adaptive cooluration in animals. The work of Miriam Rothschild, a code breaker for Enigma based out of Blethley Park in unravelling the origin of the toxicity of many of the butterflies through exploring which plants they got it from in the first place. She found that the imperviousness of butterflies to the toxins they imbibe from plants is species specific and this she found through rather difficult experiments of feeding some plant substances to unsuspecting starlings. Madam Rothschild’s contributions are many - finding out the mechanism of jumping among flies, setting up Schizophrenia research fund, and campaigning for the legalisation of homosexuality - and in the meanwhile writing 350 papers on entomology and zoology!
All in all an amazing book that sends the reader in multiple directions - there are many I did not pursue - the cubists and their role in this discourse for example. Amazing research and scholarship and no surprises in the book bagging many awards and good reviews. Peter Forbes’ Warwick memorial lecture “Science morphing into Art” is a good teaser if you are considering the book. The link is http://www.youtube.com/embed/iQ0XEsxm...
And on a lighter note, if you want to try some dazzle for your scooter, here’s how it will look. As one of the comments says, this could be one perhaps to “confuse the navel artillery”. :p...more
Superb novel, but perhaps needs at least some understanding of global politicking and/or African politics and neo-colonial narratives - at least if thSuperb novel, but perhaps needs at least some understanding of global politicking and/or African politics and neo-colonial narratives - at least if the reader is informed a bit on these, s/he will love the book. Intense and like many of le carres, fast-paced. Yet differs from most of his other spy thrillers in the fact that it delves much more into few characters and their personal lives.
It reads almost like a biography of Bruno Salvador, half Congolese boy (other half Irish) who "somehow" ends up in London. His early life in war-torn Kivu in Eastern Congo, his later life in a mission school and still later as an interpretor employed by various services in London presents interesting details of growing up African-British in London. His apparently "superficial" metro marriage and his later passionate affair with a Congolese nurse and of course the central theme of the story - key political actors from international organisations, governments and Congolese politicians and the facade of development that they weave through politicking and his role as an "interpretor" weaved into intricate details of the lives of these global actors makes for a superb insights into these aspects.
It's amazing as to how imperceptibly, at least three independent stories are interwoven into one novel - almost like a good slow-cooked meal with the ingredients coming together nearly inseparable to their original character! ...more
An unexpectedly rivetting book giving a much better account of post-independence India than I have been able to gather from most other sources. He triAn unexpectedly rivetting book giving a much better account of post-independence India than I have been able to gather from most other sources. He tries to separate the "legend" behind Nehru and Indira from the people they were. Good supplementary reading to India after Gandhi by Guha, which sorta seemed to completely neglect these people's personal lives. ...more