Coloring the World: The Evolution of Color Perception

What colors do you see here?

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What about here?

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Here?

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Here?

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It might surprise you to know that in Homer’s famed works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, he described the sea as wine-dark.

He described sheep’s wool as violet.

And the color of honey? Green.

All of this seems to imply that either the world’s color palette has changed…or, more likely, the human perception of color has.

Old Testament Eyesight

We assume that our world has and will always appear visually the same to everyone. In fact, that is not the case at all.

Guy Deutscher explains in his book, Looking Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages. 

Deutscher highlights philologist Lazarus Geiger’s 1867 discovery of strange color descriptions in old text.

Along with Homer’s descriptions, listed above, the Old Testament also describes faces that turn green with panic, red horses, and dove feathers in green gold.

These color descriptors are unusual today, and that may not be due to artistic license; rather, the evolution of eyesight may be at play here.

Evolution of Eyesight

Color perception and evolution walk hand-in-hand, according to one of the first research theories into what links the two.

As color perception became more important in developed civilizations (like the ancient Greeks), the human eye’s color sensitivity enhanced across generations.

Take blue, for example.

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The color blue was absent in early text (see the wine-colored sea above). Yet, the color red was everywhere, as distinguishing red was paramount to survival.

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Why?

Red=blood = danger.

Red appears in most old languages and has long appeared in garment dyes. Blue, on the other hand, has always been rare in nature and difficult to manufacture, thus our unnecessary sensitivity to it and its description.

Absence of Color

“The more delicate cones of the retina, which impart the higher color-sense, have probably developed gradually only during the last millennia.”

– biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1878

Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, agreed with Haeckel. He said in 1877 that our “perception and appreciation of color” was a recent acquisition.

When researching language of color in traditional cultures – like that of the Klamath Indians in Oregon and the Nubians in Africa – scientists found similar color descriptors used as in old scriptural languages.

At the time, many in the scientific community assumed this similarity in language between old scriptural color descriptions and those used by what they called “primitive societies” was due to the assumed physical and intellectual inferiority of these groups (a popular belief at the time).

But they would soon discover they were very wrong to assume. Tune in next week to find out why.