A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision

Simon Ings has written a wonderful survey of the eye, called A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and it’s another of those books you ought to be sticking on your Christmas lists right now. The title give you an idea of its content. It’s a “natural history”, so don’t expect some dry exposition on deep details, but instead look forward to a light and readable exploration of the many facets of vision.

There is a discussion of the evolution of eyes, of course, but the topics are wide-ranging — Ings covers optics, chemistry, physiology, optical illusions, decapitated heads, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ many-legged, compound-eyed apts, pointillisme, cephalopods (how could he not?), scurvy, phacopids, Purkinje shifts…you get the idea. It’s a hodge-podge, a little bit of everything, a fascinating cabinet of curiousities where every door opened reveals some peculiar variant of an eye.

Don’t think it’s lacking in science, though, or is entirely superficial. This is a book that asks the good questions: how do we know what we know? Each topic is addressed by digging deep to see how scientists came to their conclusion, and often that means we get an entertaining story from history or philosophy or the lab. Explaining the evolution of our theories of vision, for example, leads to the story of Abu’Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haythem, who pretended to be mad to avoid the cruelty of a despotic Caliph, and who spent 12 years in a darkened house doing experiments in optics (perhaps calling him “mad” really wasn’t much of a stretch), and emerged at the death of the tyrant with an understanding of refraction and a good theory of optics that involved light, instead of mysterious vision rays emerging from an eye. Ings is also a novelist, and it shows — these are stories that inform and lead to a deeper understanding.

If the book has any shortcoming, though, it is that some subjects are barely touched upon. Signal transduction and molecular evolution are given short shrift, for example, but then, if every sub-discipline were given the depth given to basic optics, this book would be unmanageably immense. Enjoy it for what it is: a literate exploration of the major questions people have asked about eyes and vision for the last few thousand years.


  1. Danio says

    Thanks for the tip, PZ! Perhaps needless to say, I am tickled to death to see this, and just emailed some very strong hints to those who might wish to gift me with it in the near future. Hooray for EYES!

  2. says

    Thanks, PZ! I think I’ll get a few copies for Yuletide giving, especially to the child in the care of two hardcore Fundies I know.

    Meanwhile, this is O/T, but you will love this:

    Placing statuettes of defecating people in Nativity scenes is a Christmastime tradition so old and so strong in Spain’s Catalonia region that even the Roman Catholic Church here doesn’t dare try to ban it.

    When an exhibit of the figurines in a California museum sparked an angry denunciation from a Catholic group in the United States, Catalonians who cherish the tradition came ardently to its defense….

    Spanish artist Antoni Miralda’s exposition “Poetical Gut” at Copia, a food, wine and arts museum in Napa, Calif., features ceramic figurines of the pope, nuns and angels with their pants down, squatting over their bowel movements.

    The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a 350,000-member group based in New York, has written to the museum’s board of trustees to say it finds the show offensive.

    “When it’s degrading, everybody knows it except the spin doctors who run the museums,” the group’s president, William Donohue, said Sunday.

    Yupper! Watch Bill Donohue go after Latino Catholics for putting rather whimsically cute figurines in their Nativity scenes.

  3. says

    Hi from Godless Washington State! Just wanted to interrupt for a second to make sure everyone saw this:


    And, no, I am in no way affiliated with Laughing Squid. I have bazillion squid tee shirts, squid Xmas cards, a squid handbag and two squid hoodies, but so far, no squid coffee mug. And, what is a godless Seattleite without a squid coffee mug?

  4. says

    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the spot
    Some mussels have to tell the dark from light;
    A complex lens, this mollusk it has not–
    One could not claim a mussel has true sight.
    I have seen pigment cups for eyes in snails
    But no such eyes my beauty doth possess–
    To see a light’s direction, sans details
    Is not the job of her eyes, I confess.
    Nor pinhole lens, nor any incomplete
    Approximation of her perfect eye;
    No trail of clues to offer a concrete
    Explanatory theory to apply.
    And yet, all data points to one solution–
    The eyes I love arose through evolution

    With cool eye video (no doubt lifted from pharyngula originally):

  5. ajay says

    Link to evolution v. creationism – William Paley, of course, who used the human eye as an example of creation in “Natural Theology” – examined in sympathetic detail by Richard Dawkins in “The Blind Watchmaker”.

  6. druidbros says

    I’ll buy it on your recommendation PZ. I still remember how much I enjoyed ‘the Ancestors Tale’. Science is not my field of expertise but since lurking here and reading most of the intelligent commentators (you know who you are ….no not you pete) I feel much more able to argue with the zombie hoard. Thanks…….

  7. Bob says

    Is this just a U.S. release of his book “The Eye: A Natural History”, or are they complementary?

  8. AnthonyK says

    Sounds great, for me, but for those of you developed enough to have children here are two fabulous recommendations to explore the world through this atheistmas:
    The i-spy books by Walter Wick and Jean Marzollo
    Gorgeous detailed witty pictures crammed with riddles and story;
    and “Anno’s Journey” by Mitsuamo Anno, a wordless journey through space and history, with something new on every read.
    Both cheap, hours of visual fun, and presents you will never regret buying. For children 3+
    No, really

  9. Christopher says

    I’ve been reading a very interesting book along similar lines called ‘In The Blink of an Eye’ (by Andrew Parker, 2003). It goes into a lot of detail about how the evolution of eyes at various points in the past brought about huge and rapid changes in animal adaptations, both for those that had them, and those that needed to get away from them.


    Also highly recommended.

  10. Epinephrine says

    Sounds like a fun book! I’ll probably pick it up.

    I’ll once again mention Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See by Donald David Hoffman. Really neat look at developing axioms for human vision.

  11. KevinGreene says

    Brings back flashbacks of Peacegirls New Discovery thread at iddb.org where we spent a year trying to convince her that the light emitted or reflected from an object had to reach the eye before you could see it.

    She was very convinced that somehow the brain looked outward through the eyes in an active emitting process that gathered information back in some faster than light processes.

    So wierd ideas don’t die.

  12. Anon says

    Does it mention Gustav Fechner? He was essentially the founding figure of psychophysics–it was his work that led to the signal detection models that allow us to separate bias and sensitivity, and measure vision more precisely.

  13. Diego says

    Maimonides also did a lot of optics. Of course I bet a lot of visitors to his hometown of Córdoba only remember that it’s supposed to be good luck if you rub the shoes on his bronze statue in the city.

  14. Mike from Ottawa says

    PZ: a little editing might be needed, but that post would make a nice review on Amazon.

  15. says

    Cool. When I was in the military, I also read In the Blink of an Eye (probably it was the first time since 6th grade that I was reading books from cover to cover), and it was a major motivation to change my field of study (well, that and the general military experience that scared me far from anything connected to military funding).

  16. Wayne Robinson says

    Yes, it does seem to be the same book as “The Eye a Natural History”, even though amazon.com confusingly offers both for a reduced price (at least the chapter headings, index and extract I have read seem the same). However, it is a very good book. I particularly liked the last sentence: “And is it not ironic, that in 538 million years of natural selection, eyesight should evolve from a simple light detecting cell, pass through numerous variations and generate countless different ways of seeing, and come at last to serve as the dominant sense of the planet’s dominant species-an animal who sees only what it wants to see?”

  17. johannes says

    > who pretended to be mad to avoid the cruelty of a despotic Caliph,

    Al Hakim, who btw was – or is? – venerated as a god, or at least as an incarnation of god, by the Druze.

  18. Jeremy says

    I received this book for Christmas, and I was immediately enamored with it. I couldn’t put it down. There’s a lot of interesting science, well-explained for novices, and yet intriguing enough for the science-minded. The optical illusions are entertaining, and the explanations give them meaning. There are a lot of fascinating facts about the vision of various species of animals. I haven’t read a book this quickly in years. Thanks for the heads-up, PZ!