Primates are rare among mammals in being able to see in color, as birds do. I guess it has something to do with living in trees. It’s too bad we can’t see ultraviolet light, as birds and insects do, or polarization-like patterns caused by the earth’s magnetic field, as some migratory birds apparently can.
On the other hand, having a relatively narrow range of perception can aid the hunter to find his prey. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, who is red-green color-blind, has written (in Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry) about how his “handicap” gives folks like him a competitive advantage in some situations, for example in detecting the presence of otherwise well-camouflaged objects.
He actually tested this theory once in a search for night-blooming cereus, a cactus native to the Sonoran Desert that often grows intermingled with ironwood and creosote bush, and is therefore very hard to locate. He assembled two teams to search adjacent knolls, the first made up entirely of color-blind botanists, the second of color-normal botanists. After two hours, the first team had found over five times as many cacti as the second. Subsequent searching of both knolls by everybody together showed that they harbored roughly equal numbers of the cactus. During World War II, Nabhan notes, some color-normal fighter pilots relied upon color-blind co-pilots to spot antiaircraft guns hidden in forest vegetation below. He wonders
if those ancient human populations that remained heterogeneous in their color perception had greater chances of survival than their neighbors. Were they better able to spot cryptically colored poisonous snakes? Could they more quickly detect warriors whose faces and bodies were mottled with muds and vegetable dyes as part of a sit-and-wait-then-strike ambush strategy?
Some people claim to dream in black and white. Do they? According to one online source,
researchers agree that most dreams are in color. However, because the dream fades so quickly after we awake, our memories of the dream are often recalled in gray tones. Studies show that those who are in tune with color in waking life tend to remember more color in dreams as well. I have also noticed that those of us who grew up with black & white TV have more black and white dreams. I haven’t properly researched this yet, it’s just an observation.
When I was a kid, I heard someone talking about black & white vs color dreams. I felt bad because I recalled most of my dreams in b & w. That night I dreamt of thousands of iridescent lizards running along by my room. I was really delighted and tried to collect as many a possible, commenting the whole time about the color. This dream indicates satisfactorily to me that there is color *in* the dream and it’s not just added afterwards.
“In the United States, the rise and fall of the opinion that we dream in black and white coincided with the rise and fall of black and white film media over the course of the twentieth century,” states the abstract from a cross-cultural study of beliefs about dreaming.
The world seen by moonlight is overwhelmingly black and white, so there’s a certain poetic appeal to the suggestion that our dreams might be equally drained of color. But night belongs to the true hunters. We are daylight creatures, scavengers uniquely suited by our strange, upright manner of walking to go about in the heat of the day when our ancient predatory enemies were sleeping, or sheltering in a cave or dense patch of shade to shield their eyes from the inhospitable glare of noon.
For some really fine black-and-white photography, accompanied by highly evocative prose and poetry, be sure to visit Teju Cole’s one-month Nigerian travel blog, due to disappear at the end of January. His latest post, about visiting the National Museum in Lagos, is especially searing.