A primer in eyes

Michael Land was one of those people who totally warped my brain. I’ve been interested in science since I was a kid, but I’m embarrassed to say that I never heard a whisper about evolution in the public schools I attended. Although I read about it avidly, I came out of high school and charged off to college eager to learn about neuroscience. And I did!

But then I got led astray at the University of Washington by Johnny Palka. I worked in his lab looking at the innervation of fly wings, but the emphasis was on development — big brains were too hard, so we were studying brains during their formation, to make the problem more tractable. So I learned about developmental biology.

Then I went off to the University of Oregon to study developing nervous systems in the zebrafish, in the Institute of Neuroscience. See? I was still working on neuroscience, but from a developmental perspective (which was not entirely well received: every time I encountered Graham Hoyle, the resident neurophysiologist, I swear he would hiss at me). But it was thanks to Graham Hoyle that I met Michael Land.

As part of ION, and as he was on my graduate committee, Hoyle demanded that I take his year-long neurophysiology course, so that I would learn some real neuroscience, rather than that goofy developmental neuroscience. So I did. And the second half of the course was taught by this elfin and enthusiastic visiting biologist from England, Michael Land.

It was specifically a sensory neurophysiology course, and the wild thing about it, new to me, was that he taught it as a comparative physiology course. That’s Land’s domain of expertise, comparative neurophysiology. And of course, that meant getting a heavy dose of evolution. The lab was all cockroaches and spiders (lots of spider eye work) and Aplysia and horseshoe crabs and trilobite fossils. We looked at all different kinds of eyes in lab and lecture, and worked out what they had in common and what was different and what kind of evolutionary trajectories each had followed. It was cool stuff, and left me with a strong interest in evolution, on top of all that neuroscience and development I was chasing.

I think it was kind of ironic that Hoyle’s own colleague, in the course Hoyle required that I take to be a real neurophysiologist, ended up leading me even further away from that world of Faraday cages and FETs and pre-amps and electrodes.

Anyway, that long preamble leads me to Michael Land’s new book, a very short (it’s from a series called “Very Short Introductions”) summary of basic eye physiology called The Eye: A Very Short Introduction (kindle version). This is exactly what you need if you want a quick overview of everything about how the eye works. It’s written for the intelligent layperson, and it won’t take you long to read the whole thing (I finished it in an hour, but then I was already familiar with the content), and it’ll teach you about photoreceptors and saccades and lenses and color vision and etc., etc., etc. It won’t teach you everything, but it’ll give you a solid grounding in the basics that sensory physiologists all take for granted, so you’ll be ready to sign up for graduate school and spend the rest of your life doing science.

Oh, and of course, what triggered my recollection of that Spring of 1980 getting tutored by Michael Land — despite being primarily of human visual physiology, the first part of the book is entirely about the comparative physiology of eyes and their evolution. That’s what he does.

I’m also really glad to see that he’s still going strong.


  1. David Marjanović says

    So that’s the book that guy from debate.org would have needed. Remember him?

  2. dorght says

    “Animal Eyes” by Land is a classic. Just received the updated edition as a Christmas present. A lot denser then A Short Introduction but will instill an amazement at the adaptations to suit the needs of various animals. I highlighted this line yesterday: ” A more correct statement would then be that ‘eyes have evolved from supporting simple tasks optimally to supporting ever more complex tasks optimally’. “

  3. Gnu Atheist says

    I highly recommend “Evolution’s Witness, How Eyes Evolved” by Ivan Schwab. It’s replete with information on the historical record, comparative anatomy, physiology, optics, etc., with lots of good pics and diagrams. It’s written a bit above the average layman’s foundation, but as an ophthalmologist with a keen interest in evolution, it was right up my alley. I believe that the typical fan of this blog would find it very interesting and useful. (I get the “What good is half-an-eye?” thing a lot, and the book is a great resource in formulating my response.)

  4. Gnu Atheist says

    BTW, I didn’t mean to undercut your recommendation with mine. Land’s books sound interesting and I plan on looking for them. Thanks!

  5. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    David Marjanović, @1
    Considering that several people had already brought up biological eyes and then electronic vision and lidar systems, and how we can manufacture them and quantify their operating properties, there is little chance this deeper description of biological eyes would have made it through his dense protective layer of denialism. The creationists actually declared victory over at debate.org when the non-creationists finally got fed up with them dismissing all evidence out of hand.

  6. odin says

    Oxford’s VSI series is awesome. I have a couple dozen or so, and have yet to find one that isn’t excellent.

  7. Doc Dish says

    Mike was my postgraduate supervisor in the late 90s. I was investigating eye movement patterns while driving, using an eye-tracking rig he built himself.

    Fun times and a great guy to work for.

  8. Dark Jaguar says

    What if, like me, you secretly suspect you aren’t very smart at all? Like, show of hands, how many people here don’t remember the details of what they read so much as the emotions what you read make you feel?

    I distinctly remember asking a question about general relativity, getting an answer that made sense, and now I completely forgot what the answer was. All I remember was the feeling of “understanding” that came with it. So, that happens to me all the time, and I don’t know my basic math tables (but I could do a math in my head, if you gave me a few minutes), and so I suspect I’m just a well-spoken fool. Do we ever get to accomplish anything, or should I just start drinking Coor’s now and kill the part of my brain responsible for having dreams?