The Reindeer and the Ape: Reflections on Xenophanes’ Rainbow

by Jochen Szangolies

This is the third part of a series on dual-process psychology and its significance for our image of the world. Previous parts: 1) The Lobster and the Octopus and 2) The Dolphin and the Wasp

Rudolph, the blue-eyed reindeer

Fig 1: No one knows what it’s like: reindeer eyes, golden-brown in the summer, turn blue in winter. (Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash)

With Christmas season still twinkling in the rear view mirror, images of reindeer, most commonly in mid-flight pulling Santa’s sled, are still fresh on our minds. However, as the Christmas classic The Physics of Santa Claus helpfully points out, no known species of reindeer can, in fact, fly.

That may be so. But reindeer possess another superpower, one that sets them apart from all other known mammals—once the frosty season sets in, their eyes change color, from a deep golden-brown to a vibrant blue (to the best of my knowledge, there are, however, no reports of unusual colors related to the olfactory organs). The reason for this change of color has long been a mystery, until a study by Glen Jeffery and colleagues from the University College London pinpointed a likely reason in 2013: the change in hue serves to better collect light in the dark of winter.

When we think of eye color, we typically think of the color of the iris—but for some mammals, cats most familiarly, another factor is the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer behind the retina. Due to its color change, reindeer eyes are able to gather more light—thus, the lack of light is offset by an increased capacity to utilize it. The world outside gets darker, but the world the reindeer see, the world they inhabit—their lifeworld, in Husserl’s terminologymay not, or at least, not as much.

The world comes to mind through the lens of the senses. The lifeworld is never just an unvarnished reality, nor even an approximation to it—it is the world as transformed in our experience. A change in this lifeworld then may herald both a change in the world, as such, as well as a change in our perception—or reception—of it. Read more »

The Lobster and the Octopus: Thinking, Rigid and Fluid

by Jochen Szangolies

Fig. 1: The lobster exhibiting its signature move, grasping and cracking the shell of a mussel. Still taken from this video.

Consider the lobster. Rigidly separated from the environment by its shell, the lobster’s world is cleanly divided into ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘subject’ and ‘object’. One may suspect that it can’t help but conceive of itself as separated from the world, looking at it through its bulbous eyes, probing it with antennae. The outside world impinges on its carapace, like waves breaking against the shore, leaving it to experience only the echo within.

Its signature move is grasping. With its pincers, it is perfectly equipped to take hold of the objects of the world, engage with them, manipulate them, take them apart. Hence, the world must appear to it as a series of discrete, well-separated individual elements—among which is that special object, its body, housing the nuclear ‘I’ within. The lobster embodies the primal scientific impulse of cracking open the world to see what it is made of, that has found its greatest expression in modern-day particle colliders. Consequently, its thought (we may imagine) must be supremely analytical—analysis in the original sense being nothing but the resolution of complex entities into simple constituents.

The lobster, then, is the epitome of the Cartesian, detached, rational self: an island of subjectivity among the waves, engaging with the outside by means of grasping, manipulating, taking apart—analyzing, and perhaps synthesizing the analyzed into new concepts, new creations. It is forever separated from the things themselves, only subject to their effects as they intrude upon its unyielding boundary. Read more »