On beauty and a space between

30 09 2008

Have you heard of the idea of animal aesthetics? (Some of you have, I bring it up all the time, or I used to.) Animal aesthetics are the emotional response of the nonhuman animal to something pleasing (or perhaps not so pleasant). This response is due to the perceptual wiring and cognitive integration of the perceiver his/herself and not to any actual information about the something pleasing or not so pleasing. A bird responds to a red leg band because there is something aesthetically pleasing about that red leg band, not because the leg band says anything about the health of the wearer. I could go on, but there is a simple description to start with.

So the quail. My initial project was to study mate choice for plumage ornaments. Males have a variety of decorations that females do not—longer darker crests, white and black faces, brown and tan patches on their chests, etc. So, the question was, do these matter to the female? Ultimately, I found some evidence that, yes, they do. But what I also found was that trying to really figure out what was going on was very difficult. This was because I did not have any idea really what the females’ saw. Did they see a bundle of separate patches of color (like the ornithologists that write the field guides?) or did they see an integrated whole, weighing some patches more and some less, depending upon some sort of species specific ideal or some sort of individual aesthetic taste or some combination of the two? This is all complicated by the fact that bird eyes are constructed differently than ours, and the part of their brain that corresponds to our cortex, is also constructed differently—millions of years of evolution will lead to separate but equal sorts of structures. Basically, I started lusting for an answer to “What the hell do the see, anyway?”

As you might suspect, my lust has remained unsatisfied. We cannot reconstruct with any accuracy what a bird sees, only measure response to grossly estimated visual stimuli.

This is, in many ways, why I stopped being interested in mate choice for plumage traits—and indeed mate choice in general. I do not think I can do the work to answer my questions with this particular species. (I should add that I have grown less and less amenable to invasive forms of research). I also think many of the hypotheses out there for mate choice end up being somewhat untestable because they can never be dis-proven—they end up as tautologies and assumptions.

Anyway. The perceptual boundary between us and the birds is fairly wide—there is a big gulf in evolutionary time between humans and quail. The gulf is smaller between humans, and for example, domestic cats. But even there, though our cortices are more similar, our eyeballs are wired differently, cats do not have the same number of kinds of cones (for color perception) but tend to have more rods in general in each eyeball—giving them better vision in low light. We can sort of reconstruct what they see, but even then, what are they processing as the signals hit the brain?

The research that would have to be done to answer these questions to a small extent, is often neurobiological. I find such studies remarkably interesting, but then, again, their invasiveness bothers me—so I constantly feel a bit torn by such work. And still, we are not particularly close to looking out through their eye sockets.

So here is that space. The space between you and me, yes, and between us and them. It is a mysterious place, and it brings me back for more. It is neither dark nor light, of color nor absent of color, smell, sounds or touch. We enter it in bits, empathetically, perhaps, with a tiny spurt of understanding masked by an enormous welling up of misinterpretation. May my misinterpretation not bring harm.

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