Q: How did the Cultures of Camouflage Network come about?
There were multiple causes. Since the 1990s there has been a resurgence of interest in camouflage and mimicry among zoologists, because so much more is known now about the genetic and physical processes of adaptive colouration, changing appearances to avoid detection or recognition, and other behaviour by animals to avoid their predators. In fact, zoologists now tend to speak of deceit rather than camouflage or mimicry, and that points to an increasing awareness of the porous boundaries between animal and human camouflage. At the same time in the humanities, there is a renewal of interest in camouflage as an artistic phenomenon, at work in dress of course, but also in the decorative arts and the theatre. Cognitive scientists and evolutionists find it of interest because camouflage presupposes fundamental mental competences such as empathy to be effective. Recent anthropological research has shown that camouflage among humans occurs in many societies across the world, and is often an expression of fundamental ideas about the relation between nature and culture. As a result, camouflage is now at the centre of many debates about the nature and origins of human cognition, behaviour, and image-making, and has the potential to become a key element in the current rethinking of relations between animals and humans. Camouflage poses wondrous as much as important puzzles to think with, and they can only be solved by interdisciplinary debate.
Q: By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours?
Our Network wants to explore the intersections between animal and human camouflage, and that brings with it a series of new questions that can only be asked – or even formulated – by bringing in a series of disciplines: What is the relation between animal, inherited, instinctual camouflage and mimicry behaviour, and behaviour that is acquired socially and culturally? What are the implications of using concepts developed in the life sciences to analyse human behaviour and artefacts? Are traditional accounts of camouflage and mimicry as developed by evolutionists such as Wallace, Bates, Darwin or Hugh Cott still tenable in the light of recent zoological research? What kind of psychological competences beyond empathy are implied by camouflage, and are they shared by animals and humans? What is the role of camouflage in the development of empathy or pictorial skills? What do such shared human and animal features and behaviours such as camouflage tell us about the relations between humans and animals?
Q: What can we expect from Cultures of Camouflage in 2023-34?
A series of talks by experts on various aspects of camouflage, from art historians to zoologists, from costume historians to cognitive scientists, and from anthropologists to historians of science, who have never before featured in the same lecture series together, and who will work together in this pioneering effort to define a new, interdisciplinary field of inquiry. Lots of space for discussions from a range of perspectives, in an intellectually stimulating setting. We draw on four years of experience in hosting interdisciplinary seminars, in which hard thinking and laughter go together.
In the Autumn and Spring, we will organise a series of hybrid talks. There will also be visits to Cambridge collections. After all, the history of thinking about camouflage is very much a Cambridge story, from the early scientific codifications by Darwin and the formulation of the principles of animal adaptive colouration by Hugh Cott, to Vladimir Nabokov’s critique of Darwinist accounts, and the present-day research into animal behaviour at the Department and Museum of Zoology. All this can provide a bridge for fresh, creative encounters with our habitat and its future.
Q: How can people learn more about your Network?
You can find out more on our network page. We will post network meetings on the CRASSH website and circulate this to our email list. We also invite you to get in touch with us by email directly via email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Caroline van Eck (Art History) & Ulinka Rublack (History).