Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Can't See Me: Dazzled and Deceived

How does camouflage work, and who invented it?  Is a history of camouflage a military history or a Darwinian narrative of biology and genetics?  Well, if Peter Forbes writes that history (which he did in Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage), it's both.

He traces the discovery of butterfly mimicry and its importance in the development of the theory of evolution, from Darwin's ideas through the controversies of the 1800's and early 1900s, and then turns to the artists who pioneered the ideas of camouflage in World War I.  From there he moves back and forth between soldiers, artists and scientists, following the various attempts at human and vehicle disguise through World War II into the modern day, the fight for precedence and credit for that work, and the theories and counter-theories of animal appearance as the understanding of genetics deepened.

Forbes isn't afraid of going deep into a topic.  The chapters on genetics worry at individual chromosome traits; chapters on naval painting trace which committee listened to which similarly declaiming expert and who officially gets credit for each new technique.  Sometimes the crannies he delves into leave me skimming, while other times I'm willing to follow his interest every step and hope he keeps drilling down.  It's a strange mix of a wide subject, which indicates a more popular touch, and a willingness to bore down into the fine details of the topics of each chapter.  Mostly it works, although I doubt my seventh grader would be interested enough to stick with it.

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