Simon Ings has written a wonderful survey of the eye, called A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and it’s another of those books you ought to be sticking on your Christmas lists right now. The title give you an idea of its content. It’s a “natural history”, so don’t expect some dry exposition on deep details, but instead look forward to a light and readable exploration of the many facets of vision.
There is a discussion of the evolution of eyes, of course, but the topics are wide-ranging — Ings covers optics, chemistry, physiology, optical illusions, decapitated heads, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ many-legged, compound-eyed apts, pointillisme, cephalopods (how could he not?), scurvy, phacopids, Purkinje shifts…you get the idea. It’s a hodge-podge, a little bit of everything, a fascinating cabinet of curiousities where every door opened reveals some peculiar variant of an eye.
Don’t think it’s lacking in science, though, or is entirely superficial. This is a book that asks the good questions: how do we know what we know? Each topic is addressed by digging deep to see how scientists came to their conclusion, and often that means we get an entertaining story from history or philosophy or the lab. Explaining the evolution of our theories of vision, for example, leads to the story of Abu’Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haythem, who pretended to be mad to avoid the cruelty of a despotic Caliph, and who spent 12 years in a darkened house doing experiments in optics (perhaps calling him “mad” really wasn’t much of a stretch), and emerged at the death of the tyrant with an understanding of refraction and a good theory of optics that involved light, instead of mysterious vision rays emerging from an eye. Ings is also a novelist, and it shows — these are stories that inform and lead to a deeper understanding.
If the book has any shortcoming, though, it is that some subjects are barely touched upon. Signal transduction and molecular evolution are given short shrift, for example, but then, if every sub-discipline were given the depth given to basic optics, this book would be unmanageably immense. Enjoy it for what it is: a literate exploration of the major questions people have asked about eyes and vision for the last few thousand years.