Seeing weevils( 2013.2.1[Fri.])


  The first time I saw the book “Micropresence: The photographs of Kenji Kohiyama,” my jaw dropped. Now his second book “The leaf beetles” has been published, and I felt compelled to write an unsolicited review.

    Kohiyama's work is not merely photographing insects at high magnification; he uses digital processing to reveal every aspect of his subjects in deep focus, making these books a kind of hyperrealism that would ordinarily only be available to us if we somehow shrank to 1/100 size. Or perhaps if the insects grew to the size of cars.... Indeed, these books resemble a car catalog in a way. The manga artist Imiri Sakabashira, whose work I enjoy, once imagined a “Weevilmobile,” but Kohiyama's subjects actually exist, giving a real sense of presence to these photos. Every insect is weird, grotesque, and lovely, and the attraction to them is ultimately irresistible. I previously wrote how although we might think we see the world, but in reality we see almost nothing, but this viewing experience exceeds even that truism. The human eye can only see in a very limited range of scales, useful only in our own constrained little worlds.

    Insects and tetrapods are quite a bit alike. But by that, I don't mean in the way Geoffroy St. Hilaire showed by comparing vertebrates and lobsters in the early 19th century, or in terms of their conserved gene expression and body plans. And I am not talking about how two very different evolutionary paths both pinnacled in the development of the “head,” a development seen as a “convergence of the twain” by some scholars, but which to me seems no more than an obvious similarity between two types of animal. Nothing interesting there.

    All that aside, insects and terrestrial vertebrates are allied in my heart. Take their faces, for example. A hawk moths compound eyes resemble those of a cat or a bird of prey. Herbivore or carnivore, they share steely kind of toughness. An unbudgeability. Limbs are another similar feature. We can't help but think of an insects forelimbs as hands and its hindlimbs as legs. And I can't help but think they look at us in the same way, but I don't get the same feeling from, say, spiders. A spider's face is completely alien. There's nothing to love in those simple eyes - you can never tell where they're looking. Interestingly I find you get nowhere comparing fish and insects, either. What do a shark and a beetle have in common, compared to the intimacy between a silkmoth and a cat? The same goes for lobsters. Comparisons only make sense when they're between insects and tetrapods with their two pairs of limbs. After all, the surface of the “earth” belongs to the vertebrates, and the bugs.

    I can't help but feel that these similarities arose as the result of the shared experiences of terrestrial animals living in this atmosphere, under this gravity, surface tension and friction. Dwelling in their concentric worlds, spiders are free from that gravity, and have relinquished their inheritance of a bilaterian lifestyle. Their world is defined by polar coordinates, not Cartesian ones, with their too-many legs spreading the body out in all directions. They don't live in the same gravitational space that we (which I define, with the utmost love, as the insects and us) inhabit. Nor have they evolved wings to take flight, another shared feature of tetrapods and our insect brethren.

    Butterflies fly like birds. I remember once seeing a highly territorial male Freyer's Purple Emperor chasing a sparrow many times its size. Jakob von Uexküll theworized about Umwelten, but I simply saw this simply at the level of morphology. Insects and terrestrial vertebrates have evolved intersecting morphologies, and it is no surprise that this has engendered links at the biosemiotic level as well.

    And the there are the weevils. I think of them as resembling Xenarthrans (Edentata). Each weevil species has devised a different body form. The upper thorax generally extended toward the head, but in some the proboscis is elongated, while in others the eyes are widely spaced or only the neck extends - there is no single pattern, no morphological unity. And that is strange. Ordinarily we group animals into taxa based on shared tendencies, such as possession of six legs or a jaw. What makes taxonomy possible in the face of evolutionary diversity is the fact that there are certain patterns that cannot be changed; it is this shared lack of freedom that we use to define groups. But weevil morphology appears to have broken free in a number of ways. Maybe I am overthinking this, but to me the weevils have found the freedom to experiment. It makes you want to say, “Hey, you can't do that! It's against the rules!” But we see this nonchalance in one group of mammals as well.

    I wrote in a previous column about how the mammals - primates, the Carnivora, ungulates - have certain numbers of different types of vertebrae. It is well known that nearly every mammalian species has precisely seven cervical vertebrae, but different groups have different numbers of thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. But a motley assortment of mammals that includes armadillos, tree sloths and anteaters seems to have forgotten this vertebral formula to the extent that they some disregard the cervical rule. That is not to say that the Xenarthra is a jack-in-the-box collection of the otherwise unclassifiable - it is a well-defined monophyletic group. And the rule that binds them is that they don't follow rules. The weevils share that sentiment, living by the dictum, “Rules about making faces aren't really rules...”

    My favorite society, in which people are not bound together by religion or ideology, should have weevil-like, sloth-like diversity. It may be corrupt, and it may be decadent, but it is never hopeless. But as societies become more complex, they tend to put up walls around the paths that individual lives may follow. In evolution, we call these developmental constraints. These days I feel that we've come to the point where we need to insist, like weevils, on our individuality, to make a point of taking it seriously. It's the age, perhaps, of evolution.