Saturday, November 06, 2010

In the eye of the beholder?

Professor Geerat (Gary) Vermeij is an eminent evolutionary biologist and paleontologist at the University of California, Davis. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton and received his Ph.D. from Yale. He has received a coveted MacArthur "genius" award and other prestigious fellowships, He has served as editor of his field's foremost journals, Paleobiology and Evolution, authored several important scientific books as well as hundreds of research papers, and done field research on beaches and shorelines around the world. It is probably fair to say he knows as much about mollusks, living and extinct, as anyone.

I have just read his autobiography, Privileged Hands (1997). It is as good a portrait of the scientific life as I have read. If one wanted to know how scientific curiosity can drive -- and fulfill -- a life, I can think of no better recommended reading. A good scientist and a good man.

And here's the kicker: Vermeij is blind. Totally. He was born -- in the Netherlands -- with an unusual form of childhood glaucoma and lived with pain and impaired vision from the day of his birth. At the age of three his eyes were surgically removed.

For those of us who are sighted, it is almost impossible to imagine being blind. In her book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman grounds vision in the dynamics of predator and prey. She writes: "Though most of us don't hunt, our eyes are still the great monopolists of our senses. To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being farther off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes."

In his blindness, it was perhaps inevitable that Geerat Vermeij would focus on something like mollusks. His fingers do the seeing. Insects are too small (and too fragile?) for finger pads and nails to discern scientifically important features. Mammals are too large (and mobile) to submit to tactile scrutiny. But shelled creatures reveal every detail of shape and surface to Vermeij's "privileged" touch, even details that sometimes escape a sighted investigator.

What, I wonder, of beauty? I would have liked to have heard more from Vermeij about how beauty manifests itself to the sightless. I suppose this is because I sometimes wonder how (and if) my own perception of beauty is diminished by my lifelong lack of a sense of smell. I look, for example, at John William Waterhouse's painting My Sweet Rose and revel in the lush visual beauty of Pre-Raphaelite art, and wonder to what extent another person's esthetic response to the painting is enhanced by the remembered scent of a rose. Clearly, smells can be pleasant or unpleasant, but are they "beautiful"? A "beautiful" touch? A "beautiful" taste? Is beauty primarily visual and auditory?

I wonder what empirical research has been done on the sense syngery of our perception of beauty, something more experiment-based than, say, John Berger's work on vision and art, perhaps involving brain scans?