Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sociobiology

The evolution of spite

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Finally, the evolution of spite is possible if it, too, raises inclusive fitness. The perpetrator must be able to discriminate relatives from nonrelatives, or close relatives from distant ones. If the spiteful behavior causes a relative to prosper to a compensatory degree, the genes favoring spite will increase in the population at large. True spite is a commonplace in human societies, undoubtedly because human beings are keenly aware of their own blood lines and have the intelligence to plot intrigue. Human beings are unique in their capacity to lie to other members of their own species. They typically do so in a way that deliberately diminishes outsiders while promoting relatives, even at the risk of their own personal welfare.

Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology

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August 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The sound and the furry

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Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:

Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”

When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:

Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.

Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.

You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:

Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.

On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.

The golden age

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Butterflies and Moths

On Sunday, my wife and I held a birthday party for our daughter, who was turning four. It was supposed to be something small and affordable, but it inevitably spiraled out of control, with balloons, customized cupcakes, and a winged princess dress that combined Tinker Bell with Belle from Beauty and the Beast. (Beatrix dubbed it her Tinker Belle party, which made her old man proud.) Before long, we were forced to consider the problem of party favors. The guest list consisted mostly, but not entirely, of little girls—a couple of boys had been grandfathered in, if that’s the right word, from the precedent of prior birthdays. This presented a dilemma. I wanted to be consistent with the party’s theme, just because I’m insufferably obsessive, but I didn’t want to ask a boy to accept a bag full of fairy and princess trinkets. For all the obvious reasons, I also didn’t want to designate separate bags for boys and girls, so the favors had to be both fun and gender neutral. At last, I hit on the idea of a nature theme, since the party was being held at the Oak Park Conservatory. I cobbled together some goodie bags with toy cameras, stickers, fruit snacks, and a selection of vintage Golden Guides that I remembered from my childhood, which I bought at bargain prices online. Looking at the results, which were undeniably a bit twee, my wife said: “You really went full Wes Anderson on these, didn’t you?”

But I’d do it again. And it rekindled my love of Golden Guides, the line of paperbacks edited by Herbert S. Zim starting in the early fifties for Western Press. The first thing you need to know about a Golden Guide is that it has a pair of printed rulers on the edges of the last two pages, one calibrated in tenths of an inch, the other in centimeters. When I was younger, this feature impressed me mightily, and it immediately enhanced each book’s apparent usefulness. I often engaged in vaguely apocalyptic daydreams about what book I would keep if I were allowed just one one, and while a Golden Guide was never at the very top of the list, the fact that it was a book and a ruler at the same time was a definite point in its favor. The second thing you need to know about these guides is that they’re all the same size. To be specific, they’re four by six inches, which you can verify—as I’ve just done—by using the ruler in one Golden Guide to measure another. These dimensions were once fairly common for paperbacks, but they’ve fallen out of style, which is a shame. It’s a beautiful size, just large enough to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand or in a pocket, and it’s particularly pleasant to hold a stack of four or five Golden Guides at once. Each one is exactly one hundred and sixty pages long, a length that is somehow just right to contain all useful information about Botany and, oddly, its subsets like Flowers and Trees, too. It’s a lesson, if you like, on how all knowledge can be expanded or contracted to fit the space available.

Golden Guides

But the most important thing about the Golden Guides is that the illustrations are paintings, all gorgeous and finely detailed, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that they’re unforgettable. I’ve just glanced at the four titles that I have left over from the party, and I want to record the names of these artists: James Gordon Irving, Dorothea and Sy Barlowe, Nicholas Strekalovsky, George Sandström. Irving, who provided the pictures for eight guides, gets his own Wikipedia page, and I was delighted to discover that the Barlowes illustrated the classic Dinosaurs: A Pop-Up Book. Of Sandström, I’ve only been able to find a short obituary, which notes:

His son Cortright said that when he was growing up, his father’s studio was full of stuffed animals and strange objects—including a moon rock—which he was using as a model for an illustration.

I love the casualness of that aside. Including a moon rock! George Sandström once held a piece of the moon in his hands. As for Strekalovsky, I haven’t been able to find out much, but I’ll never forget his painting of the emperor scorpion in Spiders and Their Kin, which I immediately sought out as soon as I got my hands on my new copy. It was just as revolting and beautiful as I remembered.

And it’s because of their illustrations and design, I think, that these books continue to mean so much to me. When you leaf through an authoritative volume like Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants, which is like a Golden Guide expanded to its ultimate Proustian dimensions, you can see why nature illustrations are often preferable to photographs: they allow you to depict idealized scenes and specimens that might be impossible to capture on film, heightening reality so that you can more easily understand it. (As Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s illustrations for Sociobiology: “Her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can possibly be included in one scene.”) You get much the same feeling from these Golden Guides. A photograph of an emperor scorpion—which is a harmless species, by the way—is so insistently horrifying, for good or for bad, that it’s hard to get past your instinctive reaction. Strekalovsky’s painting is easier to study at length, and you can scrutinize its details until you realize that it looks rather nice. When you flip rapidly through any of these books, you get a soothing sense of a world that has been observed, recorded, and neatly labeled in a way that may have only been possible in the fifties. Its picture of reality may not be entirely true, but it’s reassuring for a child, and even for a grownup who feels overwhelmed by all the information that he hasn’t yet mastered. I may never be able to identify trees at a glance, but thanks to Trees, I’m confident that I could. Judging from the response of the kids at the birthday party, they seemed to feel it, too, or at least to respond to the pleasures that these guides afford. One of the two boys in attendance looked at the books and whispered: “Do I get one of these?” He did. But I was tempted to keep them all for myself.

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