The evolution of butterfly eyespots

Here’s an interesting observation I made a few years ago that I think makes a good illustration concerning the evolution of eyespots on butterfly wings.
Below is an image of a peacock butterfly, with its very obvious eyespots.

Next, here’s an image of the top edge of the peacock’s upper wings, with beneath it an image of the top edge of another butterfly’s wings that look extremely similar. You can make out the same type of eyespot pattern on both sets of wings.


The second butterfly in the image above isn’t a peacock however, as you can see from the image of the whole butterfly below. It’s a small tortoiseshell, and it doesn’t have eyespots at all.



Assuming that the two species evolved from a common ancestor, how is it that the butterflies might have evolved in such a way that their wing patterns (at least along the top edge) are so similar yet so different?

Here’s a theory.

The common ancestor of the tortoiseshell and the peacock started without eyespots – with wings that were perhaps similar in patterning to the present day tortoiseshell’s (at least in the region of the wings that we’re dealing with).  Small variations to the colouring of the patterning on the wings of some of the butterflies then turned the abstract patches at the top of the wings into what we interpret as eye shapes. These eye shapes turned out to be very useful for the survival of the butterflies that possessed them, and thus the eyespot pattern was passed on and reinforced through the generations. Thus the evolutionary line that developed into the peacock diverged from the line that evolved into the tortoiseshell. It’s important to emphasise that the patterning’s resemblance to eyes is purely fortuitous: it’s nothing more than a small random deviation from the abstract patterning that the tortoiseshell butterfly still has – a bit of light colour added here, a bit of dark there. It’s just that this particular small variation in patterning has such an obvious effect, because most creatures are attuned to homing in on eyes (or anything that looks like eyes). Other small random deviations to the patterning would go almost completely unnoticed.

This explanation for the evolution of the eyespot echoes very nicely the theory of the evolution of the eye itself, in which random variations in a species’ makeup eventually lead to the evolution of what otherwise seems to be a near miraculous organ (See The evolution of the eye. )

It’s also possible that evolution took a different route, and that the common ancestor of the tortoiseshell and the peacock both actually possessed eyespots, and that through evolution the tortoiseshell gradually lost its spots. This however doesn’t explain how the butterflies both acquired their eyespots in the first place. I expect that it would have been through a process very similar to the one that I’ve just described.


One last thing.

A while ago I was watching a peacock butterfly sunning itself on the ground. I was watching it through a pair of close-focus binoculars, so that I has a very close-up view of the insect. It was vibrating its wings, which insects often do when they need to warm up their flying muscles. Through my binoculars the extremely close-up view of the rapidly vibrating eyespots on the wings looked truly sinister and scary. If I’d been a predator (which by definition would mean that I’d be very close to the butterfly and would be very much aware of the vibrating of the eyespots) I’d have fled. So vibrating wings may not only be good for warming up wing muscles, but also for warding off predators (which would be particularly useful when the butterfly hadn’t warmed its wing muscles up enough to be able to fly away itself).





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Christo and Jeanne-Claude cartoon

A cartoon about Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This cartoon was drawn when the pair were only referred to by Christo’s name alone.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude: The Mastaba


The Mastaba by Christo and Jeanne-Claude on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London, July 2018.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude are most well-known for wrapping things up, however they’ve also had a thing about oil barrels for quite a long time.
Below is one of their more modest barrel-based works, exhibited in the Serpentine Gallery until 9th September 2018.


Here’s a cartoon about Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

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Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain at Tate Modern – how to display a revered object

The current exhibition of work by Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali in the Royal Academy features Duchamp’s most famous work, Fountain, displayed in an arrangement in which it rests on a large table-like display stand on which in jostles with many other pieces of three dimensional art by the two artists (including Dali’s lobster telephone and Duchamp’s bicycle wheel).
This is in huge contrast to the way in which the work has (until recently) been displayed in Tate Modern, where it has stood in glorious isolation like a revered religious relic. The photo below hopefully gives some impression of the reverence that the work inspires.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain displayed at Tate Modern

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Olafur Eliasson at the Frieze Art Fair, London.

I’ve been a regular visitor to the Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regents Park for many years now.
In some years one particular work of art will stand out as my favourite.
This year it was a work by Olafur Eliasson.
Last year it was a work by Olafur Eliasson, and the year before that it was a work by Olafur Eliasson too.
In none of those years did I know that the work that I was admiring was by him when I first saw it – it was only when I looked at the labels afterwards that I realised that they were all by the same person.

Here’s this years example, titled The hinged view, exhibited by the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

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Mirror-based art with infinite reflections – Oxo Cube

Mirror based contemporary art - OXO cube

This is a piece of contemporary art that I’m working on composed of a cube in which the vertical sides are all mirrors with their reflective surfaces facing inwards.
The multiple reflections that are created by the mirrors make the patterns on the floor of the cube seem to form the word ‘OXO’ in each corner of the cube, with the word itself then multiplied many times by the process of infinite reflection that is set up when mirrors are facing each other and are parallel.

The design on the base of the cube is shown below. The word ‘OXO’ doesn’t occur at all. It is the fact that the word OXO is symmetrical about both its horizontal and vertical centre-lines that allows the shapes in the cube’s base to be reflected and then reflected again to generate the word.

Base of mirror based contemporary artwork - OXO cube

The infinite reflections set up within the cube can be seen in the image below.

Mirror based contemporary artwork - infinite reflections

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The Path by Michael Puett, and the fallacy of the True Self

Harvard professor Michael Puett, who runs a course in classical Chinese philosophy, has recently co-authored a best-selling book, The Path, along with author and journalist Christine Gross-Loh

The Path presents ancient Chinese philosophy as a guide (or path) to how to lead a fulfilling life in the modern world,

It sounds like a standard pseudo-spiritual self-help book, but Puett insists that if anything it’s the opposite: it’s an anti-self-help book (although its very title, The Path, and its subtitle, What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, makes me have my doubts). It does however stand against the current self-help trends for promoting atomised individuality and self-centred solipsism. The book is also critical of navel-gazing ‘mindfulness’, the authors pointing out that in Buddhism, mindfulness was originally intended to break down the self, but that in the western version of Buddhism it’s often been distorted as a way of looking inwards and embracing the self.

One of the concepts that is pursued in the book is the fallacy of the authentic self.  I’m a big fan of this concept (the belief that the authentic self is a fallacy, that is – not the concept that there is such a thing as the authentic self), so here are a few of my thoughts on it.

The concept of the authentic self postulates that everyone has a core being or self that is somehow their true self – a self that is invariably superior to the version of themselves that functions in the everyday world (The everyday functional self is, after all, inevitably corrupted by the messiness of the real world, while the true self is in a state of pristine and pure isolation).

This is a nice conceit, with its attractive inference that everyone is at heart nicer than they seem. However, the very fact that this concept implies that we’re all quite pleasant people underneath should ring a few alarm bells in the self-delusion department.

The truth is, I think, that people are the sum of their interactions with the world: without the world we are nothing but a mass of cells and bio-electrical circuitry. Our ‘selves’ are an accretion of reactions to phenomena outside ourselves, such as our environments and our relationships with other people. It’s true that our reactions to these phenomena are laid down onto individual brains that are all structured differently to each other due to genetic variation, meaning that each individual will have a propensity to react differently to the world and to the experiences that it throws at them. I like to think of this genetically determined structure within the brain as a sort of ‘mind skeleton’ that is used to support the mind or self as it is constructed over the years as the result of experience, in a similar way to how the physical ‘body skeleton’ supports the body as it develops over the years (for better of worse). So I’m afraid that underneath the functioning self with which we interact with the world we don’t have a core ‘true self’ at all, just a rather fancy arrangement of scaffolding.


Here’s a cartoon that I drew in 1994 on the subject of finding your ‘True Self’ (I’ve held opinions on this topic for quite a few years). It was published as a greetings card by Paperlink.


Here’s another cartoon on the subject:


There’s a bit more on this subject in my book, Where Are We, Why Are We, What Are We? (And Why do we Want to Know?) , as detailed here.


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