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  • Brutal VisionsMimicry, Biosemiotics, and the Animal-Human Binary in Thomas Belt's The Naturalist in Nicaragua
  • Will Abberley (bio)

In 1863 Charles Darwin published an article enthusing about a new concept in natural history: protective mimicry. The term had been coined by Henry Walter Bates, an entomologist who had observed numerous uncanny resemblances between different species of insect in the Amazon. Bates argued that such mimicry was a survival strategy; insects vulnerable to predators evolved to resemble other species that predators knew to be distasteful. With each generation, the individuals that more closely resembled the model species were more likely to be left alone, while those who deviated from this model were more likely to be eaten, rendering the mimicry ever-more perfect. Bates claimed that other species' uncanny resemblances to vegetation or stones had developed in the same way, as random variations helped certain individuals to survive while their more conspicuous brethren died out (see Bates 1862). In the following years, naturalists would argue for the existence of many other forms of biological mimicry, from camouflaged predators to plants that tricked insects into spreading their pollen by mimicking the appearance of nectar.1 Biological mimicry confounded mechanistic models of animal life. Earlier naturalists had noticed uncanny resemblances between different species, and between organisms and other natural objects, but often explained them away as either unimportant coincidences or proofs of the creator's love of symmetry and patterns (Komarek 1998, 24–28). Such explanations framed the animal world as senseless, acquiring meaning only through the intelligent perceptions of human observers. Conversely, biological mimicry suggested [End Page 63] that nonhuman perceptions and interpretations were fundamental to nature's processes. Darwin queried rhetorically, "Why to the perplexity of naturalists has Nature condescended to the tricks of the stage?" (1863, 220–21). Part of the reason for naturalists' "perplexity" had been that they approached animals as rigid machines rather than sentient beings that inhabited not only physical environments but also fields of mutual perception and semiosis.

This article argues that biological mimicry unsettled, and continues to unsettle, anthropocentric binaries between humans and animals, and nature and culture. Mimicry, therefore, offers a potent motif for cultural theorists who seek to destabilize nature and animality as categories and build more politically engaged and critical models of "post-nature" or "ecology without nature" (see Curry 2008; Morton 2007). Bruno Latour has suggested replacing the concept of nature with "compositionism," that is, the recognition that nature is not "a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances" but a contingent human construct (2010, 474–75). Latour argues that Western scientific materialism hides the composted (in the etymological sense) nature of nature, presenting it as an objective reality reducible to mechanistic "concatenations" of causes (482). This model of nature renders agency exclusively human, while the universe outside of humanity seems wholly ruled by necessity. Conversely, Latour frames the world as networks of agential mediators instead of mechanistic causes. He writes,

Nature is always already assembled, since nothing happens but what comes from before. It is enough to have the causes, the consequences will follow, and they will possess nothing of their own except the carrying further of the same indisputable set of characteristics. … This is why rationalists never detect the contradiction between what they say about the continuity of causes and consequences and what they witness—namely the discontinuity, invention, supplementarity, creativity … between associations of mediators. They simply transform this discrepancy (which would make their worldview untenable) into a radical divide between human subjects and nonhuman objects. For purely anthropocentric—that is, political—reasons, naturalists have built their collective to make sure that subjects and objects, culture and nature remain utterly distinct, with only the former having any sort of agency. [End Page 64]


Latour suggests that the scientific materialist edifice of mechanistic "nature" depends on a selective blindness toward the frequent gaps between causes and consequences. I suggest that, since its first theorization in the nineteenth century, biological mimicry has persistently challenged this dogmatic denial of nonhuman agency. Conceptualizing the phenomenon involved the humbling notion that seeing and interpreting were not exclusively human activities but occurred across the animal kingdom and influenced...


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pp. 63-84
Launched on MUSE
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