What Colour is the Chameleon?

May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

What Colour is the Chameleon?

Preliminary study (vector drawing) for painting. The painting will measure approximately 50cm x 50cm – the chameleon will thus appear at life size. 

I recently made a visit to the Alfred Denny Museum with Professor Tim Birkhead, honorable curator, and the photographer Karl Hurst.

The Alfred Denny Museum is a small, Victorian-style museum housed within the Animal and Plant Sciences Department of Sheffield University. There are a number of traditional glass cases within, organised in such a way that they offer representatives from each of the major phyla of animal taxonomy. While I was there I encountered two chameleon specimens. The first, a suspiciously glossy taxidermy specimen, was brightly but somewhat artificially coloured. The other – considerably more ‘fleshy’ – was mounted in a glass box filled with formaldehyde. This chameleon was a rather unappealing grey. Attached to the glass was a neat, handwritten – but quite prosaic – label. It was clear, easy to read, and said: chameleon.

By coincidence I had been reading about the chameleon in a book entitled Ciferae by Tom Tyler. Ciferae is a bold and creative investigation into the intellectual parameters of the question of the animal; in Steve Baker’s words it offers “an audacious account of what it is not to be human”. In the first chapter Tyler quotes from philosopher J.L Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. The seventh ‘lecture’ in Sense and Sensibilia concerns the complex set of concepts denoted by the word real. One of the many uses to which the word is put is as an ‘adjuster word’: a linguistic device that moderates the innumerable – and largely unforeseeable – demands of the world upon language:

We have the word “pig” for instance, and a fairly clear idea which animals, among those we … commonly encounter, are and are not so called. But one day we come across a new kind of animal, which looks and behaves very much as pigs do, but not quite as pigs do; it is somehow different.

Given this encounter we have a choice of potential responses: stay silent, invent an entirely new word for this pig-like creature or, more probably, say that these animals are like pigs but, if pressed, perhaps go on to admit that they are not true pigs .. or real pigs …

So where does this lead in terms of the question formulated in the title of this post? What is the true or real colour of the chameleon? The following quote is extracted from Bernhard Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia:

Colour change in chameleons  … is not so pronounced as is often thought … Although chameleons can often match themselves to their surroundings … their colouration is not necessarily related to that of the background. The motivational state of the animal determines its colour to a considerably greater extent.

It is clear that neither of the two chameleons that I encountered within the Alfred Denny Museum exhibit the true or real colour of the chameleon. One has been bleached to a deathly grey by the chemical used to preserve it from decay, the other looks fresher but its static, lacquered, stiffness makes it equally removed from reality. If such a thing as the real colour of a chameleon exists at all – and if it does it will vary wildly, depending on the emotional state of the animal – it exists within a dynamic flux. This could single out the chameleon as a unique, bright, and rather beautiful index – or pointer – towards something meaningful about our naming of things; about the contingent nature of human language – and the limitations of language – when it comes to our relationship with the natural world.

Animal Artworlds – ‘it could be anything’

May 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

This is the first of an occasional series of extracts from texts, critical readings, or personal reflections based on ideas arising from the field of cultural research that is now referred to as the ‘post-humanities’.

Animal Artworlds 

The following quote is taken from Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution by David Rothenburg. It contains a very interesting appropriation of the institutional theory of art by the biologist Richard Prum:

“… art is a communication that evolves by co-evolution between the observed and the observer, a performance and an audience, through sensory evaluation. Basically there are an extreme number of biotic artworlds that we are observing from the outside: a nightingale artworld, a bowerbird artworld, a mocking bird artworld.”

Prum has derived the term artworld from Arthur Danto’s definition of art, as originally set forth in his 1964 essay The Artworld:

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.
This definition has subsequently been refined by George Dickie and can be summed up in the following definition from his Aesthetics: An Introduction:
A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.
The institutional theory of art was originally based, in Danto’s formulation, on a study of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes*. It states that traditionally aesthetic considerations of the nature of an object (its ‘beauty’) are secondary to the context in which it is received. In other words anything – the most arbitrary of objects – can be art if the artworld (the institution) says it is art.
Prum’s somewhat radical development of this idea is that arbitrary biological characteristics (we might use the classic instance of the peacock’s tail**) have, for millions of years, been enhanced via sexual selection. Thus the biological acceptance of a ‘beautiful characteristic’ reflects the evolutionary state of the aesthetics governing reception of the arbitrary within these (animal) artworlds.
In other words our human artworlds effectively mimic those in nature and evolve, in response to our artists, in order to receive their art. In relatively recent art history we might therefore see a progression of ‘peacock’s tails’: impressionism … abstraction … the found object … minimalism  … pop art … relational aesthetics …

Prum’s radical (but to my mind very appealing) implication is that the cultural conditions that have provoked the concept behind institutional theory might actually be nothing new:

“We gotta get over ourselves. We are not the centre of life or the universe. Our culture is not the centre of culture. There is a seamless interaction between coevolutionary theory and aesthetics.”

* Although, in a 2003 essay entitled On Painting by Art and Language it is pointed out that Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm – a completely unmodified snow shovel – would be a clearer example of a work that requires institutional theory to ‘see it as a work of art’.

** In Darwin’s view, anything that could be expected to have some adaptive feature could be explained easily with his theory of natural selection. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin had admitted that to use natural selection to explain something as complicated as a human eye, “with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration” might at first appear “absurd in the highest possible degree,” but nevertheless, if “numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist”, then it seemed quite possible to account for within his theory.

More difficult for Darwin were highly evolved and complicated features that conveyed apparently no adaptive advantage to the organism. Writing to colleague Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin commented that he remembered well a “time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, & now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Why should a bird like the peacock develop such an elaborate tail, which seemed at best to be a hindrance in its “struggle for existence”? To answer the question, Darwin had introduced in the Origin the theory of sexual selection, which outlined how different characteristics could be selected for if they conveyed a reproductive advantage to the individual. In this theory, male animals in particular showed heritable features acquired by sexual selection, such as “weapons” with which to fight over females with other males, or beautiful plumage with which to woo the female animals. Much of The Descent of Man is devoted to providing evidence for sexual selection in nature, which he also ties in to the development of aesthetic instincts in human beings, as well as the differences in coloration between the human races.

Tursiops Truncatus … So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Tursiops Truncatus ... So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

This painting, in oil on canvas, features iconography borrowed from the Harlequin motif that was developed at the turn of the 20th Century by artists including Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne.
Harlequin or Arlecchino in Italian, Arlequin in French, and Arlequín in Spanish is the most popularly known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte and its descendant, the Harlequinade. The primary aspect of Harlequin was his physical agility. While generally depicted as stupid and gluttonous, he was very nimble and performed the sort of acrobatics the audience expected to see. The character would never perform a simple action when the addition of a cartwheel, somersault, or flip would spice up the movement.
According to some early illustrations, it would appear that Harlequin had the ability to breast feed his baby child  …
Cezanne and Picasso used a number of pictorial devices, including colour and pose, to create a sense of pathos within their images of Harlequin; and this pathos might well resonate with the condition of captive dolphins. Following a series of findings by animal welfare authorities, we no longer have any dolphinaria or performing dolphins in the UK – but they can still be seen, if you so wish, in many places in continental Europe and in the USA. This is in spite of research dating from earlier than 1993 that has caused a number of leading scientists to redefine cetaceans as non-human “persons”.
Here is an extract from a recent article on the BBC News:
Dolphins deserve to be treated as non-human “persons” whose rights to life and liberty should be respected, scientists meeting in Canada have been told. A small group of experts in philosophy, conservation and dolphin behaviour were canvassing support for a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans”. They believe dolphins – and their whale cousins – are sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to justify the same ethical considerations given to humans. Recognising cetaceans’ rights would mean an end to … the captivity of dolphins and whales, or their use in entertainment. The move is based on years of research that has shown dolphins and whales to have large, complex brains and a human-like level of self-awareness. This has led the experts to conclude that although non-human, dolphins and whales are “people” in a philosophical sense, which has far-reaching implications.

Ethics expert Professor Tom White, from Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, author of In Defence of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, said: “Dolphins are non-human persons. A person needs to be an individual. If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being. The captivity of beings of this sort, particularly in conditions that would not allow for a decent life, is ethically unacceptable … We’re saying the science has shown that individuality, consciousness, self-awareness, is no longer a unique human property. That poses all kinds of challenges.”

The declaration, originally agreed in May 2010, contains the statements “every individual cetacean has the right to life”, “no cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude, be subject to cruel treatment, or be removed from their natural environment”, and “no cetacean is the property of any state, corporation, human group or individual”.

The US authors brought their message to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Canada, the world’s biggest science conference.

Psychologist Dr Lori Marino, from Emory University in Atlanta, told how scientific advances had changed the view of the cetacean brain. She said: “We went from seeing the dolphin/whale brain as being a giant amorphous blob that doesn’t carry a lot of intelligence and complexity to not only being an enormous brain but an enormous brain with an enormous amount of complexity, and a complexity that rivals our own. Its different in the way it’s put together but in terms of the level of complexity it’s very similar to the human brain.” Dolphins had a sense of self which could be tested by the way they recognise themselves in mirrors, she added. When you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and know that’s you, you have a sense of ‘you’,” said Dr Marino. “They have a similar sense. They can look in a mirror and say, ‘Hey, that’s me’.

“Once you shift from seeing a being as a property, a commodity, a resource, to a person, an autonomous entity that has a right to life on his or her own terms, the whole framework shifts …”

Read the full article here.

Dolphin keeping ceased in the UK in 1993 with the last three female dolphins from Flamingoland being relocated to European facilities.

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