At the same time, my natural history editing was introducing me to mimicry, warning coloration and camouflage in nature. Here were butterflies masquerading as dead leaves; an alligator with a tiny pink protuberance on its tongue that it used as lure; Ityraea bugs that collected in large numbers on twigs to choreograph an imitation flower stalk. These creatures were clearly Martian poets avant la lettre or perhaps Magrittean surrealists: “These insects are the petals of a flower stalk” or “This is not a flower stalk”.
This convergence seemed to me very productive: there was at the time the first hints of the emerging science of biomimetics, in which some of nature’s creatures were beginning to furnish technical solutions such as self-cleaning surfaces inspired by the sacred lotus plant, the leaves of which never get dirty. It occurred to me that the biomimetic scientists, looking for new phenomena, ought to cultivate the Martian habit. Similarly, poets might profit from looking at nature through the lens of mimicry and camouflage.
Armed with this new mindset, I thought I’d discovered a new case of mimicry in the form of the sperm whale’s lower jaw. This is a strange, pencil-thin organ beneath the enormous bulging head of the whale. Sperm whales do battle with and eat vast quantities of the mysterious giant squid. The narrow lower jaw with its serried teeth looks suspiciously like a squid tentacle. Could this be a case of luring behaviour, like the alligator and its little pink worm-like lure?
I wrote the idea up as a column in New Scientist under the title. ‘Martian Science and the Sperm Whale’s Jaw’ but just to show that the Two Cultures divide was alive and well, all references to Martian science were deleted by the magazine. It was published under the blandly uninformative title: ‘Science and the sperm whale’s jaw’.
I then discovered, of course, that cross traffic between art and mimicry in nature was not entirely new. The art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich had written about the way in which representational images existed in nature long before the first easel was set up or even the first bulbous fertility goddess was carved: the butterfly masquerading as a dead leaf; the alligator signifying wriggling worm on its tongue, the fresh water mussel that fashions a fish- shaped mass of eggs on its shell to attract the fish it needs to incubate the eggs – all of these were examples of nature creating symbols that stood for something else. Gombrich wrote:
The art historian and critic could do worse than ponder these miracles. They will make him pause before he pronounces too glibly on the relativity of standards that make for likeness and recognition.
So mimicry was a useful weapon against postmodernist relativism. Gombrich went further: of the eyespots that appear on so many insects, he wittily observed: “They . . . . represent, if you like, the Expressionist style of nature.”
Another pioneer of the relationship between form in nature and art was the maverick Scottish biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948). Thompson was a mathematician and a classicist as well as a biologist regarded as being outside the biological mainstream because – contra Darwin – he thought that physical forces directly acted on living things to shape them. Actually Darwin and Thompson were both, in a sense, right.
D’Arcy Thompson’s work also had an aesthetic component. He regarded beauty as the product of graded curves that shift in a smooth manner from one radius to another in response to the conflicting tug of different physical forces.. In this he was anticipated to some extent by the 18th century painter and print maker William Hogarth and his Line of Beauty. In The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth regarded the serpentine S curve as the type of beauty. In reversing the curve to create the S shape the radius has to morph smoothly from one value to another. Hogarth was in fact a proto-D’Arcy Thompson, an artist with a scientific temperament, relishing the shapes that nature fashioned in human bones, muscles and flesh. Writing of limbs he observed:
…you will see how gradually the changes in shape are produced; how imperceptibly the different curvatures run into each other.
Taken together, Hogarth, Darwin, D’Arcy Thompson and Gombrich provide a powerful sense of an aesthetic continuum between nature and human art but it’s fair to say that this is still a minority position. One reason, perhaps the main reason, is the strange status of form in science– its relative neglect.
Science, in the three and half centuries since its inception has relentlessly pursued the atomistic, material cause of everything, to the neglect of form. It is this bias that led Francis Crick and James Watson to blurt out to a pub audience in 1953: “We have discovered the secret of life”. But the DNA structure and the genetic code told us nothing about the creation of biological form. Every cell of any one creature contains the entire complement of DNA – the genome. So where do the organs and the shape and pattern of the creatures come from?
It is only in the last 30 years that enough has been known of biological pattern making to have enough material to discuss artistic and natural form making on an equal basis. But, as with every subject, there is a pre-history. There are unsung pioneers.
After D’Arcy Thompson, the second great prophet of morphology is Alan Turing. In 1952 almost nothing concrete was known about the biological mechanism of pattern formation. Like D’Arcy Thompson, Turing noticed patterns in living things that could be explained by physical processes but they were somewhat different patterns to Thompson’s.
Long before chaos theory, Turing showed mathematically how chemicals diffusing through biological tissue and reacting could become unstable and lead to complex patterns such as the markings on snail shells, leopards, jaguars, giraffes, and Friesian cattle. If the chemicals concerned were such as to determine the fate of cells, ie to switch on or off certain key genes, or were growth hormones, the result would be growth and/or patterning in the form of the prepattern laid down by the diffusing chemicals. He coined the term morphogen for such diffusing chemicals and some of these have now been found.
Turing’s paper on morphogenesis appeared long before the science of embryology developed a molecular dimension. It has now been shown how many of the patterns in nature can be generated by such algorithms, equations that feed back in to themselves. Some of these patterns can be generated by purely chemical reactions and they can be seen in nature, in slime moulds, for example. The convergence of mathematics, chemistry and natural forms demonstrates a powerful principle that governs all pattern formation.
A piece of natural morphology that interests us, scientists, artists and the rest is the human face? How does it form? It is well known that the human face is not truly symmetrical. “Not my best side” we say because we are all somewhat lop-sided in the face. There is a very clear reason for this. The face does not grow symmetrically outward from a centre. Instead, our evolutionary past makes sure that parts of the embryo have to produce great contortions to arrive at the face. The two halves start off in different places and much of the lower face has to be fashioned from what were once fish gills. This process is so time sensitive that it sometimes fails, the two halves of the mouth not meeting properly. That is cleft lip and palate. With a normal face, you can see from how much it changes shape in the womb that faster or slower growth of any part will produce radically different faces.
How does an artist capture these graded contours of a face that were produced by biological growth patterns? The problem for an artist has is that the human hand – drawing freehand – has no access to D’Arcy Thompson’s graded forms. A good draftsman has to find an equivalent in hand-eye coordination for those curves of nature. It is of course possible and we celebrate those artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, who have tapped into this mode of mimicking nature. But notice the asymmetry of the face in Picasso’s drawing of his wife Francoise Gilot. The curves certainly grade in a fine D’Arcy Thompsonish way but we actually like a little asymmetry. As Francis Bacon wrote: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”
What are biological forms for? Much of life’s beauty would seem to be strictly “all this useless beauty” from the point of survival but in fact beauty is valued in the process of sexual selection as the guarantor of overall fitness. Much of the colour in nature derives from sex: the co-evolution of flowers and insects producing the bright lures of the plant kingdom. Then there’s the mating colouration of birds, the iridescent patches on mallards, the jewel boxes of tiny humming birds. Above all, there is the peacock’s tail, whose colour is not due to pigments at all, but to nanostructures on the feathers that create iridescence in a similar manner to the rainbow patterns you see on compact disks. Human males do not have bright mating plumage, but much of what we take to be quintessentially human is the result of these traits being selected by partners in our remote evolutionary history. There is thus a sense in which we have evolved our own human form.
Sexual Selection was Darwin’s “other theory” and he developed it at great length in The Descent of Man. In the process upsetting many aesthetically and spiritually minded Victorians, especially Ruskin, who reacted with dismay to the idea that sex was behind most of the beauty in nature.
There is one other category of pattern making, besides sexual selection – which is in fact the subject of my book Dazzled and Deceived. These are patterns intended to deceive: to make a creature disappear or to look like something else: mimicry and camouflage. Nature often goes to outlandish lengths to achieve this, such as the mantis that has adopted the colouring and some of the patterning of an orchid. It lurks in the flower and preys on visiting insects, exploiting the attractive power of the flower. The form of the mantis appears to have totally dissolved into the orchid.
Something magical happens when colour overflows forms delineated by lines. This happens in both nature and in military camouflage in the technique known as disruptive coloration. If you want to obscure a familiar outline, one technique is the paint a totally different colour pattern, very deliberately flouting the boundary lines of the object.
This also began to occur in art when, in fauvism, the separation of line and colour entered mainstream oil painting. In art, separating blocks and washes of colour from the form delineating by lines is not intended to deceive as it is in nature. It is done for élan, for the thrill of the effect it creates: jouissance.
Separating line and colour creates a characteristic airiness that is psychologically pleasing. Naturalistic painting from the Renaissance to the 20th C is heavy with the weight of the world but we crave moods in art that can create the illusion of escape from this gravitational pull. The classic 20th century exponents are Dufy and Matisse. In Dufy’s Champs de Blé, the wheat is a wash of spectral red, greens and blues, as if the wind had learnt to paint in colour.
We see in Dufy and Matisse that the pleasure we take in line (Hogarth’s Line of Beauty and D’Arcy Thompson’s graded forms) is independent of the pleasure we take in colour. Combining colour and line patterns that are somewhat independent of each other produces a stereoscopic pleasure.
The patterns of nature are there by necessity but we can create purely gratuitous patterns and also to see connections that nature would never conceive of. I was very struck by the artistic criticism of Darwin that when he wrote about aesthetics he chose “low” examples – photography for instance which in its infancy was not regarded as an art at all.
We can learn a great deal about representation of images from these “low” forms, as Gombrich pointed out. In cartoons, for instance, the human is often conflated with other living or non-living forms. In Gombrich’s essay, 'The Cartoonist's Armoury', he cites Charles Philipon's portrayal of the King of France Louis Philippe as a pear. A secondary meaning of “poire” in French is fathead, so the cartoon is both visually insulting, in emphasising the flabby jowly features of the King and a verbal insult too. Gombrich comments: “Thus a play on words and a visual joke were happily combined”.
This is akin to the purely verbal technique that Craig Raine drew attention to, when Dickens in Dombey and Son, wrote of Miss Tox: “It was observed by the curious, of all her collars, frills, tuckers, wristbands, and other gossamer articles - indeed of anything she wore which had two ends to it intended to unite - that the two ends were never on good terms, and wouldn’t quite meet without a struggle”. What Dickens is saying in this elaborately extended conceit is that she is poor and can’t make ends meet.
And for an example of a visual-verbal pun beyond the low art of cartooning we can turn to Picasso. A word-to-image parallel to Dickens’ Miss Tox occurs in Picasso’s Weeping Woman (1937) who literally goes to pieces, her face fracturing into splinters, tears, jagged gnawed fingers.
To return to nature. Richard Mabey has written of mimicry and luring in nature: “If all these interpretations were being done consciously we would be tempted to call it art. Or perhaps a set of brilliant puns. Perhaps both”.