Tonight I’m thinking about the world before there were any eyes. What did the world look like before there were eyes? How can one imagine this vision of our planet?
Is this just a paradox? If a tree falls in the forest… bla, bla… It is easy for the paradox to become uninteresting, by merit of its impossibility to answer. So in this hypothetical situation of seeing the world without eyes, who would be looking back? A rock or a person with eyes? I’m interested in the “time machine approach”, how would I see the world if I went back there, when there were no eyes, except mine. I can wrap my head around a blind person’s sense of sight, or a cat’s, or maybe even I can understand the lens a fly looks through, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea of no eyes, ever… To me it seems a question of ontology. How did color come to BE?
Is there a purpose for color when no one is looking? How do you get past the semiotic relationships of color and get to its raw origins? Red means stop, or to Kandinsky the sound of yellow sounds like a violin. In biology a frog is green because he needs to hide. Color theories posit some kind of essential system of color, a system to decode, unlock. These theories are cultural constructs, they are about the way our brains and cultures interpret color.
I am interested in trying to imagine the color of a rock or an ocean or the stars in the sky before the eyes existed to see them. This is a question that reaches beyond any symbolic function with which color is embedded. What were the colors of things when life itself began? Is color simply a matter of chemical composition and the reflection of the sun’s light? Are all the colors the same as they were when eyes evolved? How do astronomers know the color of other planets, and even further out those elements of space that are not visible, but noticeable.
Of course physicists and astronomers have artificial eyes and can read color temperature and wavelength. Does this count as an evolution of the eye? When these mediums and viewpoints become familiar to us we acclimate, like we do to reading glasses.
The first animals with eyes more complex than small pits of photoreceptors connected to nerves where trilobites. At first they could only see light and dark, but their eyes became more complex. Then they lost their eyes when they didn’t need them again, and moved back into climates that didn’t need them. The first eyes to sense light: I think of the Wizard of Oz’s turn to Technicolor, or the idea of a trilobite “Genesis”.
Some scientific theories such as the “Light Switch Theory” by Andrew Parker, assert that one difficult question about evolution can be answered by the impact of evolution of the eye. During the Cambrian period, 540 million years ago, a large number of organisms hopped on the evolutionary fast lane by evolving eyes. The less fortunate ones who didn’t develop eyes became an all-you-can-eat-buffet. The complex eye form then develops and develops to the complex eye that almost every animal has today.
Ultimately our eyes have mutated to be sun-like. They are sun organs, sun receptors, physical mechanisms that are slaves and lovers of light. Since our eyes developed through evolution, we see what the sun can show us, on the earth. We see with the naked eye, red to violet. Perhaps one day our naked eyes will learn how to see other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum like some animals can, or we will live on a place with a slightly different sun and different wavelengths of light. On the infrared end of the spectrum we have radio waves, which give us sound. On the other end of the spectrum are ultraviolet waves and atomic energy. Can we think of these longer and shorter waves as color? Does your microwave or radio make color you can’t see? Or is color forever linked to the visible? According to Wikipedia, the largest wave of electromagnetic energy could be as large as the universe itself. What color is the whole universe?
I can imagine a world without smell, but it is much harder to think of a world where there is simply no such thing as sound or touch, or especially sight. It almost seems like it would be another dimension. What color were things when color wasn’t invented? Waves of electromagnetic energy were moving and radiating and bouncing off surfaces. The primordial soup was being stirred and startled, but there was nobody to witness it, except scientific instruments, measurements and the thoughts of people in the distant, distant future. I can think of this world in terms of energy and mass, or sound, but it is unimaginable for me to think of this place with no senses at all. Perhaps this is why I am not a physicist or a mathematician (and am posing this question in the first place.) Perhaps this is also why the most popular creation myths can be read so literally and pictorially. Our eyes are hardwired into our consciousness.
The way animals have developed visually in response to one another and in response to plants: mimicry, camouflage, attractive coloration. Plants have responded to animals visually too, like the flower. All of these things are so necessary to eyes being; these systems are necessary to eyes having become. There are still fish at the bottom of the ocean that never needed eyes. Still technology is a model for this evolution and coming into being. Descartes and Huygens early lenses looked remarkably like the first real eye lenses that probably developed through evolution. This is an example of biomimetics, or bionics.
I think it is a conceptual exploration to think about color outside of its history, outside of prehistory, when it was a sense without a sense organ, before color had become ‘color’.