Primordial fear( 2013.6.3[Mon.])


Eudocima tyrannus from Japan(author’s collection) Adults know words, and so they seek to understand in words; thus they fail to see the reality of things as children see them.
Yamamoto Natushiko (editor and publisher, Chuko Bunko)

Much of science is born from childlike beginnings. 
Jean Henri Fabre

  Mr. O of the insectarium recently told me of an experience he had as a schoolboy while hunting for kajika frogs (Buergeria buergeri) in the mountains. He came across an owl moth (Brahmaea japonica) clinging to the underside of a leaf, and was so frightened by the eye spots on its wings that he quickly abandoned his quest. It is a moth found only in springtime, one that I should say I would be happy to find, and it is says something about the young O off hunting the same species of frog as featured in a novel by Okamoto Kanoko, if I recall correctly. Since that encounter, right up until the time he met a customer, me, infatuated with them, O saw these moths as fearful enemies and kept well away.

  To tell the truth, I was also once afraid of hawk moths. I was paralyzed at the sight of an impatiens hawk moth (Theretra oldenlandiae) lurking on the trunk of a tree in the woods, and I refused to venture into its depths after that. It was as if I had an avoidance reaction to some toxin, and gave up collecting. Come to think of it, I was also afraid of the Ailanthus silkmoth (Samia cynthia), which was a fairly common sight in the suburbs back in the 1960s, including around Toyanaka where I grew up. On summer evenings, we could find them on the fence of our yard, wings spread wide, or hear them at dinner as they flew into our screen door, drawn by the light within. With their huge white eyespots glaring out from dun-colored wings, they were like witches from a fairytale casting their magic, and when twilight fell and the world grew dark, it seemed to me as if they were clothed in a velvet dress. It was if they might mesmerize the unwary.... Now, I might just describe them as “weird.” But what was it that led me to collect exactly these moths?

  It is difficult to put that feeling of being frightened of moths into words. At the time, I didn’t compartmentalize the world of my consciousness using words, making it impossible to express. You could say there’s a kind of loss of freedom in having words; we can only follow the paths to thought that words lead us to. You might say that words = thoughts. If you say the word “afraid,” our understanding of the feeling is reduced simply, and inescapably, to “fear.” But children have more freedom, sophistication and individuality in their feelings, but are unable to encode them in ways that make them understandable to others. Lepidopteran wing patterns evolved as adaptations to the visual recognition systems of birds, which are non-verbal, just as are human infants. Only patterns capable of startling preverbal predators would have been selected for survival, and refined over generations. So the wing patterns we see today have clear adaptive significance that pre-dates conceptualization... Any attempt to explain this in the clear language of a scientific article would be precarious at best. This is the greatest dilemma confronting those who seek to understand the insects.

  Many moth eyespot patterns are exceedingly well-defined, similar to the patterns we see in Batesian or Müllerian mimicry, the perfection of which taxes taxonomists to no end. There are times when we can only marvel at the minuteness of detail in making an animal form resemble a dried leaf, bark, or twig. These examples make it easy to envision the evolutionary process. If an individual survives to reproduce because its pattern happens to look like an eye or a dead leaf, selection will tend to favor that pattern over generations, leading to increasingly refined mimicries. But there are also patterns for which the ‘intent’ remains an enigma.

  Take the noctuid moth known as agebi konoha (Eudocima tyrannus), with the inscrutable patterning of its final larval stage. The adult moth mimics a dry leaf, but the caterpillar has two eyespots running down its back, which its raises when startled, making a kind of cartoonish ‘face.’ What can we suppose this to resemble? Perhaps it is not modeled on anything. It may be that it, and the reasons for its success in stymying predation, exceeds our word-limited capacity for understanding. But my son has a clearly negative reaction to this defensive posture. I don’t know why, but it is undeniably effective.

Noctuids of SE Asia (author’s collection)  The feeling of ‘disgust’ is inexplicable, and quite distinct from physical sensations like pain or offensive odors. It is hard to put a finger on, but even as you say something is repulsive, you can’t really say why. On seeing a large moth, you might analyze it thus: “It’s because it seems warm, plump and soft, with thick fur on its underside.” But, paradoxically, a cat owner might use exactly those terms to explain what she likes about that animal. I myself cannot explain the reasons for my repulsion.

  Is the ability to form repellent patterns selected for? It would certainly be a simple thing to achieve this by tweaking a few morphological parameters, leaving the mutant somehow repugnant to birds, and for this to become cemented into the genetic code – but was it due to this? Or are such patterns just the result of genetic happenstance? We don’t know the answer, but it is irrefutable that the patterns of the noctuidcaterpillar or the beech silkworm are repellent.

  These insects’ otherwise protective markings have an unintended contrary effect when presented to a manic moth collector such as myself, as I am perversely drawn to those with the most highly developed patterns and colorations, just as some bugs are drawn to alkaloids that are intended to deter insect pests. Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that the development of peculiar tastes is a mark of accomplishment. But at the same time, I hope never to forget that raw and unsettling experience of a pattern that emerged to scare off predators in some ancient ecology, even as I stalk the dark forests, net in hand, in search of my own insect prey. What fear could be truer than this?