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In Plain Sight

The evolutionary instinct to disguise and deceive.

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Dazzled and Deceived

Mimicry and Camouflage
by Peter Forbes
Yale, 304 pp., $27.50


When I began Dazzled and Deceived I was disappointed to see that I’d have to read five chapters on mimicry in the natural world before I got to my particular interest, military camouflage in the First and Second World Wars. Five chapters on insects? What motivated me to pick up Dazzled was the question of why the world’s militaries rather suddenly developed an interest in disguising themselves around the time of World War I. 

But I found myself caught up in British nature writer (and poetry editor) Peter Forbes’s account of the late 19th-century fascination with mimicry and the way it influenced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The late 19th century was the golden age of mimicry, and some imitative species discovered in the early 19th century, like living stone plants, received more attention a hundred years later.

Are there reasons beyond biology why this might be so? I wish Forbes had pushed harder to tease out the intellectual history and cultural context in which interest in mimicry came to the fore. Perhaps part of the answer is the invention of photography and the divergence of painting from pure representation? But Forbes, the author of The Gecko’s Foot (2005), is more interested in nature. He explains how mimicry raised the ultimate philosophical questions in Victorian biology: What are variations, hybrids, and species? What is the role of warning coloration versus sexual selection in evolution? Occasional mutations of harmless butterflies that looked like neighboring toxic species were favored by natural selection, and eventually evolved into distinct mimic species. In some places, several different toxic species all looked alike.

In many cases, good explanations had to await the discovery of DNA. Some mysteries are still being unraveled. I never knew, for instance, that insects see beyond the color spectrum we can see, all the way to the ultraviolet. In ultraviolet light, the Australian white crab spider is highly visible to bees, and flowers where it perches seem more brilliant and enticing. But local bees are catching on to the game and avoiding super-white flowers. That’s evolution in action. Or consider that mimetic butterflies inherit a mating preference for others who look like them. The spinning-out of this particular story raises fundamental issues about what a species is. 

Forbes has convinced me that, without a grounding in the natural origins of human-designed camouflage, I’d have a superficial understanding of the intellectual history of this aspect of warfare. Knowing that concealment strategies in nature were all the rage in late 19th-century biology, it’s not surprising to learn that several thinkers simultaneously came up with the idea of disguising ships from attack. More interesting still, the strategies these men advocated for ship camouflage often derived from their theories about how concealment worked in nature.

The most important camoufleur was a puritanical, obsessive New England painter, Abbott Handerson Thayer. The eponymous Thayer’s Law refers to countershading, “the gradation between the back and the belly of an animal.” Thayer saw countershading everywhere in nature, and warning coloration nowhere, which influenced his military ideas. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he advised the Navy on disguising ships (although it wasn’t done), and in 1902, he patented the idea of applying countershading—upward facing parts darker, downward facing parts white—to naval vessels. Thayer also identified what would come to be known as disruptive coloration, which was applied in World War I as “dazzle” painting.

As Forbes explains disruptive coloration:

By breaking the shape of the creature into large, seemingly random patches of colour, the characteristic outline of the creature can to some extent be obscured. As humans are large creatures, and their artifacts often larger still, this principle is more important in human camouflage than attempts at total invisibility.

The Scottish zoologist John Graham Kerr had noticed in 1895 that the then-standard battleship gray for ships “falls short of what is attained by nature” by way of disguise. In September 1914 he wrote to Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, about his method for disguising ships, and his ideas were considered—but eventually the navy decided that gray was still the best option given the varying times of day, degrees of light, and times of year with which ships must contend. 

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