Nature’s Copycats

Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage | Peter Forbes

Now Available from Yale University Press

You keep noticing things after reading Dazzled and Deceived, Peter Forbes’s cultural history of mimicry and camouflage in nature, art and warfare. Take those warning notices, telling us to stop on the road, or those signalling that there is a radiation hazard, or that there is a computer malfunction. They come in at least two of four bright colours:  red, yellow, black and white. And these are also the colours nature uses to warn that a creature is dangerous or inedible – so don’t even think about it.

Nature can teach us some tricks, and it seems we learned the warning colour lesson pretty instinctively. But when it come to what nature can teach us about camouflage in warfare, oh what squabbles erupted between artists, naturalists and the military! Dazzled and Deceived threads its way though these all-too-human assertions and evasions. Nevertheless, from the dazzle painting of ships in WWI, through the great chessboard bluffs of the El Alamein campaign in WW2, to the sophisticated US Marines’ MARPAT camouflage today, nature’s deceptive tricks did contribute to the arts of war.

And now mimicry and camouflage are in the front line as a test case of evolution in action. Just what are the genes that enable, say, a young Eremias lugubris lizard in the Kalahari to mimic so convincingly a totally different creature: the toxic oogpister beetle? One hundred and fifty years ago, Darwin asked: ‘Why to the perplexity of naturalists has nature condescended to the tricks of the stage?’ The answer, from modern Evo Devo studies, will very likely produce the most complete picture of evolution in action.


“Forbes … sees with lovely clarity that nature, like art, is a bricoleur, a tinkerer, and that the thrill of it all is not in a stately grand design … but in life’s multiple choices, chances and smallscale experiments: so many possibilities.” – Veronica Horwell, The Guardian

“An intriguing and fluent narrative.” – Marek Kohn, The Independent

“In a revealing and entertaining review of mimicry and camouflage in nature, art, and war, journalist Peter Forbes explores a wide range of eye-fooling strategies, such as the one discovered by Thayer…Forbes rightly portrays camouflage and mimicry as examples of how natural selection can act in subtle and surprising ways. His book will open your eyes to aspects of the natural world that may have passed you by, unnoticed.” – Natural History Magazine


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