Thursday, February 10, 2011

#8 A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision by Simon Ings

This is a book in two halves. The first half covers the evolution and development of the eye. The second covers how it is the eye functions and how animals see. I found the first half utterly fascinating from the beginning. The prologue covers the development in the womb of his unborn daughters eyes and vision, followed by a short description of how the eye ages. According to the author, when we hit 70 to 80 years of age we will have vision much like that of a 3-4 year old: blocky, fuzzy. That is if we do not fall victim to macular degeneration. The last 1/3 of the book did not hold my interest.

The book is full of fascinating tidbits. Here are the ones I thought most interesting
1. Rates of myopia (short-sightedness) are increasing in the developed world, because of the environment. Glasses have been in use since the 1280s. We use microscopes and telescopes. In 1996, 60% of people 23-34 in the US (this reporter just made the low end of that scale) were shortsighted.

2. Those "compound eyes" that bugs have got, what freak us out in bad B movies, are actually far inferior in design to ours. If humans had compound eyes, they would have to be roughly 3-4 feet tall. "If the eyes of a honeybee were much bigger, it would be too heavy to fly." So take that, you freakshows. However, insect eyes are optimized for flight.

3. The bloated sacks of 8-eyed ugly damnation that are spiders are greedy little beasts. Four of their eyes are high resolution orbs "that see as well as small rodents". This thought will keep me up for several weeks. The others "scan for movement on the sides." So this is why those little fuckers scuttle when you move. They are scared! Take that, you freakshows. Spiders can't fly (I hope they can't. Now that is going to keep me up for weeks) so they evolved non-compound eyes. Smart little buggers.

4. "Being human is a skill that is taught, and we do it first through our eyes." A baby spends more time looking at the eyes of their mother than any other part of the face. We learn to read other people's emotions (and manipulate them) through glances, looks and stares. Baboons do this as well; they are the masters of the old look-over-the-shoulder trick to make someone thing that something is behind them. Eyes are needed to express complex emotions.

5. We humans are pack animals, and this is why the eye is so expressive. "Primates watch each other all the time...and pick up visual cues from the dominant individuals." What makes a dominant individual? They are simply attention hogs. So, we primates have spent millions of years living in terror of what the dominant individuals are thinking. Terror keeps our eyes moving and our brains working.

What this means is that there is a bald, bespectacled professor living in 1770s Virginia who is quite happy in his schoolhouse where he can do his job and not be bothered. But, when the head of the school walks in, it is "yes sir" and "no sir" and "right away sir" or overdone laughter at bad jokes. Shit hasn't changed in 230 years. If Homo Habilis had glasses and was bald, he'd be a Homo Erectus. I was probably scared of my boss then, too. "How many rocks did we pick up today?... "We see you didn't make many flakes. Everything all right?"

Simon Ings is a technology writer, and admits he is not interested in "the consciousness of seeing". I was a little disappointed, because I wanted to know whether or not my cat actually "appreciates" looking out the window at small birds. What do cats think? I don't know. Neither does anybody else, which is good.

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