Tag Archives: natural world

Emotional Evolution

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Many would argue that it is our emotions that make us human – that the complex and entangled nature of our internal lives is what separates us from other animals. True, other animals seem to have some emotions – your pet greets you happily when you get home, dogs get excited about going on walks, animals seem to get angry, and can love their young. But so far, most animals don’t seem to display the complex internal struggles that we humans experience. And it is easy to see how this emotional nature separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our emotions allow us to make art, not just for purely decorative purposes, or as some type of mating call (as seen in the lavishly decorated nests of bowerbirds for example), but as a way to try and express ourselves, a vehicle of passion. And passion is very important here, as that is definitely not usually seen in other species. This is especially clear when we look at some emotions that haven’t been recognised in other species.

One of these? Spite. Spite is a purely human emotion, a form of hatred which is hatred for hatred’s sake, where we derive pleasure from seeing other man is pain. It is not a practical emotion, and we gain no evolutionary advantage from it – it is not revenge to gain something new, like land or riches, but a way of seeing our fellow man suffer. And spite can create some of the greatest art, and drama of all time. Look at Shakespeare’s Othello, with the horrifically spiteful Iago. His destruction of Othello’s marriage, causing him to kill Desdemona, was as a form of revenge (for not being promoted when Cassio was), but it is not a revenge which brings him anything apart from pleasure at another man’s suffering. There were no real or practical rewards, only the resolution of his own jealousy. We see in Iago something that at once feels horrific and evil, and yet is at the same time all too familiar and human.

Humanity may be redeemed, however. Spite is not the only unique human emotion – gratitude is as well. Not the selfish gratitude, where you know someone has done something for you in return for something else (which we do observe in the animal kingdom), but gratitude that truly fulfils the old “it’s not the gift itself, but the feeling behind it” adage. Whilst we may be spiteful, we can also be kind for kindnesses sake – these are emotions whose only purpose is emotion itself, bringing us back to passion, for is that not in a sense what passion is? Large outpourings of emotion, without any real practical use, but that inspire creativity, and love, and our humanity.

These emotions are what make us human – they are both what make us fallible and strong. It is hard to imagine a world without them, and you would not want to – whilst some may argue we would be better off without spite, it would be a cruel world if we lost gratitude too. These emotions are the ones that can cause some of the worst conflicts in our lives, but also create some of the happiest moment. They are what make our lives real and human, and what make us, us.


This blog post was inspired by an amazing discussion panel/talk I went to at the Natural History Museum called ‘Emotional Evolution’ (where I stole the name from, funnily enough!). There were three speakers, who were all fantastic and very interesting – Dr Geoff Bird, Alastair Gill, and Dr Penny Spikins who I must pay special thanks to as she’s the one who talked about spite and gratitude being uniquely human (but they all said so many interesting things that I could probably write ten blog posts about all the different things they looked into!). The event was linked in with the ‘Britain: One million years of the human story’ exhibition, which I desperately need to go see myself, but recommend purely on the basis of the glimpse into it that the talk gave me, and was also part of the ‘After hours‘ late nights at the NHM, which (like the ones at the Science Museum) are so much fun, and I also recommend.  Thanks so much also to all the hosts of the ‘Emotional Evolution’ panel talk – I had so much fun, and learnt so much! 

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Metamorphosis

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For millennia nature has been a source of inspiration for humanity and the artists within it. From cave paintings depicting the birds and the beasts to fertility sculptures celebrating the human form, from the earliest of times we’ve received artistic inspiration from the organic forms and beings surrounding us, to a point that many early religions were based around the worship of the natural world. And really, who can blame them? Even now, with scientific explanations for so many of the wonders of the world so many people’s belief in a divine architect stems from the mindboggling creativity and complexity of the forms that surround us. Of course, whether or not you want to invoke the celestial, the science behind some of the beauty has it’s own elegance.

Take the colour of iridescent butterflies for instance, such as the Morpho butterfly.

The fabulous Morpho butterfly.

If you haven’t had the luck to see one of these in the flesh, then you’ve most definitely seen pictures of them before, or other creatures with the same iridescent colouring. It’s easy to wonder how the hell such brilliant blues can be created through pigment alone, and that’s because there is no pigment involved. In fact, the colour of the Morpho butterfly’s wings come from the physical structure – lots of overlapping scales with grooves in – as the wings themselves are actually colourless and transparent. How could transparent scales create such vivid colours without pigment is obviously the next question, and here the answer is physics! (Although technically, physics is the answer to everything.) To try and explain it simply, the grooves in the scales cause the light to reflect off the scales at slightly different distances, means the peaks and troughs of the waves (time to remember your GCSE physics!) start to add up, causing what is called constructive interference, which causes iridescence (as it makes the light brighter and therefore the butterfly wings shinier!). The reason the butterfly appears blue is because of the spacing on the groves of the butterfly scales, which correspond to the wavelength of blue light (or well, half the wavelength, but the spacing is equal to half the wavelength).

But I digress – but that’s kind of the point. The sights and science of the natural world are so inspiring it’s hard for me now not to go on another spiel about bioluminescence. Of course, it’s easy for everyone to get inspired by nature, but it takes a true artist to be able to communicate the beauty of the world without simply replicating it, and Shaun Leane is one of the few who can do it well. Not only is he inspired by organic forms, but as an artisan jeweller he also works with organic materials, which adds a whole new element to the elemental inspiration. The new SHOWcabinet exhibition demonstrates this all, not only showing bespoke pieces of his work, but also artwork, fashion pieces and natural specimens that inspired them. From emeralds in their natural forms, to feather Philip Treacy headdresses, an actual live snake, and a Damien Hirst butterfly painting, the sources of inspiration unlocks the story behind the showpieces. It’s an inspiring exhibition, and one that I would definitely recommend that you go see, whether your interest is purely aesthetic or deeper. Just be careful not to become broke from wanting to buy it all!


If you’re based in or around London you should totally go check out the SHOWcabinet: Shaun Leane exhibition, which is held at SHOWstudio (19 Motcombe, SW1X 8LB), which just in general has awesome stuff going on in it. Even if you can’t go there (if you’re not based in London, or whatever) you should check it out online. If you like Shaun Leane‘s work, or are interested in finding out more about his life and artistic process there’s a wonderful interview of him by the fabulous Lou Stoppard which I used as a primer to write this piece.  

Pretty much everything which goes on at SHOWstudio is awesome (although I may be slightly biased), so you should follow them on twitter/tumblr/facebook and also check out their website. I love seeing all the exhibitions and things which go on there – I haven’t been to a bad one yet, and everyone there is so lovely it’s ridiculous.