Friday, 30 May 2008

Peacockery

Earlier this afternoon, in Holland Park, I was watching a peacock fanning his preposterous tail feathers and shaking his booty for the benefit of a wholly uninterested peahen. Thwarted, he then gave it a try with the pigeons, and finally with the knot of human spectators. This display is a glorious blend of beauty and absurdity, and watching it is always a chastening experience for us gentlemen. It is all to easy to deconstruct our own behaviour into something very like the peacock's fanning and shaking, but without the beauty...
Now, I know it's an old chestnut, but it is extraordinarily hard to see how evolution by natural selction managed to come up with such astonishing prodigality, something so completely de trop and beyond any reasonable notion of utility. The same goes for many such extravagances of nature, including of course the wings of the peacock butterfly. Why on earth should the 'eyes' on the wings of a common British butterfly so precisely mimic those on the tail feathers of an exotic Asian fowl? They are way beyond anything sported by other butterflies for defence against birds (the birds peck at the 'eyes', thereby missing the butterfly's body). It's doubtful birds even see such elaborately overspecified markings as eyes at all - they are like no actual eyes a bird is ever likely to see. It does sometimes seem that nature is a bit of an artist...

16 comments:

  1. Said Nige, effortlessly waxing lyrical, in the manner of an avian admirer. Many years ago (early seventies) we went to see a local antique dealer. He was based in a large Georgian house overlooking Corbridge in the Tyne valley, a fine late afternoon in summer, in front of the house, parked on the gravel was an early Porche 911, very rare in those days, a peacock was pecking the dead fly's off the bumper, a pure gem of a moment in time, Waugh would of appreciated it.
    Reason for visit, went to look over a Rosseti line drawing, priced £450, we declined, pricey we thought, idiots.
    I share your feelings on natures adornment of birds, where did that red on the cock Bullfinch's breast come from, wonderful sight, a pair of the little herbert's have been working their way through the orchard all week.
    Ditto the Mallard, how can something so commonly seen have such beauty.

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  2. Funnily enough, Henry Gee has a blog post today on the opposite end of the spectrum: the Malaria parasite.
    http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/henrygee/2008/05/30/rage-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light
    Henry is very knowledgeable about evolutionary biology, as evidenced by his post.
    Another person blogging at Nature Network is Charles Darwin, who I am sure would be delighted to engage in conversation arising from your interesting post.
    http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/charlesdarwin

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  3. i often wonder what it must be like to be a reductionist like Dawkins, everything compressible to a few imperatives - to eat, to mark territory, to survive, to reproduce. What kind of art does a man like Dawkins like? - does he understand what art is? - that art is what is superfluous to the most reductive biological necessity, art is the peasant taking time to carve a nice pattern on his cup, for no reason at all except he likes beauty. i wonder if Dawkins just has blank white walls in his house...hail the new Puritans.

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  4. This one is a long way past its sell-by date.

    The blogs are just groaning with artsy milksops setting themselves in firm opposition to that mythical strawman who holds all sorts of opinions held by no real human beings, who is probably a product of the evil scientists in 1950s B-movies, and who goes by the dreaded name of 'Dawkins Et Al.'

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  5. Brit:

    You may have an point about the stereotyping of the imaginary Dawkins Et Al., but surely you won't deny the threat posed by the very real character known as Dawkins & Co?

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  6. Yes, and don't forget the even more sinister Dawkins-And-His-Ilk.

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  7. The peacock butterfly's eyes aren't actually the most remarkable thing about it - and I'm not sure about the 'pecking at the eyes' theory either.

    Peacock butterlies hybernate in groups in dark places. A friend (friend!) showed me some in a corner of a coldframe: as he opened the lid and let the light in all opened their wings at the same instant and - and here's the thing - they hissed the sound was like a rattlesnake, but the effect they had on me was like disturbing a group of small mammals - mongooses, maybe. or stoats. My reaction was instant, and I would say instinctive.

    Apparently they make the noise by rubbing their wings and bodies against each other. So as well as the noise, there's a sligh6t swaying effect of the eyes - as if they're guaging the distance to you prior to striking.

    Scary things butterflies.

    Pete

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  8. The peacock butterfly's eyes aren't actually the most remarkable thing about it - and I'm not sure about the 'pecking at the eyes' theory either.

    Peacock butterlies hybernate in groups in dark places. A friend (friend!) showed me some in a corner of a coldframe: as he opened the lid and let the light in all opened their wings at the same instant and - and here's the thing - they hissed the sound was like a rattlesnake, but the effect they had on me was like disturbing a group of small mammals - mongooses, maybe. or stoats. My reaction was instant, and I would say instinctive.

    Apparently they make the noise by rubbing their wings and bodies against each other. So as well as the noise, there's a sligh6t swaying effect of the eyes - as if they're guaging the distance to you prior to striking.

    Scary things butterflies.

    Pete

    ReplyDelete
  9. The peacock butterfly's eyes aren't actually the most remarkable thing about it - and I'm not sure about the 'pecking at the eyes' theory either.

    Peacock butterlies hybernate in groups in dark places. A friend (friend!) showed me some in a corner of a coldframe: as he opened the lid and let the light in all opened their wings at the same instant and - and here's the thing - they hissed the sound was like a rattlesnake, but the effect they had on me was like disturbing a group of small mammals - mongooses, maybe. or stoats. My reaction was instant, and I would say instinctive.

    Apparently they make the noise by rubbing their wings and bodies against each other. So as well as the noise, there's a sligh6t swaying effect of the eyes - as if they're guaging the distance to you prior to striking.

    Scary things butterflies.

    Pete

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  10. Tee hee, one day i shall be stuck in a lift with Dawkins no doubt, and will look about, baffled.

    "Something wrong?" he will ask at last, edging away.

    "Where's et alia? i only see Dawkins."

    "I am Dawkins. I contain multitudes."

    "i see. Is it true you regard life much as would a Beckett character, as a miserable, joyless existence?"

    "Yes, you arty milksop. Now fuck off and leave me alone."

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  11. Pete, did you wet your pants?

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  12. There was an enchanting (frau Malty's description, not mine) TV series over here, as against over there, Butterflies, the main character was a ditzy burd played by the number one girl next door type, she was, that is, until years later it turned out that on the QT she was bonking an fat ugly sweaty writer, boy did she plunge down the charts in Malty towers. Didn't see many butterflies though.
    Elberry, calm down, take insults like a man, tell him you've been called a milkmaid by better bloggers than him.
    Thing is though, Edinburgh Borders books recently...Dawkins 6, B.Obstmetre 2, godless lot the porridge scoffers

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  13. I don't know about the butterflies and so on but I've read that a lot of sexual selection flies in the face of what would seem sensible. Basically the effort of putting on a display seems just so much that it's almost negatively affecting the animal.

    Apparently there's a theory that it's this that makes it work. If you've got a peacock who has preposterous feathers and still manages to run around doing peacock things he's clearly a pretty strong and successful guy. So what's attracting the female isn't his feathers or other sexual traits but his ability to cope with them.

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  14. For Elberry.

    Concerning Dawkins, and being something of an occasional reductionist myself, I suggest the following hypothesis: Dawkins writes/speaks as he does to sell his books (and also, possibly, to become famous for its own sake).

    In this, he has surely found a successful strategy; accordingly, he will probably continue in the same vein, possibly even more-so.

    As with the peacock's tail and the peacocks wings, the beauty (or other merit) seen in the thing is not necessarily the reason for its evolution (or creation); that is unless you believe in God. Dawkins claims not to; if this is true, we must accept he writes for the reasons above, or find another reason for his 'altruism' in correcting religious belief in others.

    Best regards

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