Parker, A. (2005)
Seven Deadly Colours : the genius of nature's palette and how it eluded darwin
Free-Press / Simon & Schuster, London / Sydney (review)

This book has a fabulous green and orange cover showing a tiny frog on a leaf... green sells books. Beyond the cover are 250 or so pages describing the role of colour in the animal kingdom, focussing on its evolution and its relationship to the evolutionary development of the eye. The aim of the book is twofold. Firstly to re-assure Darwin (posthumously) that he needn't have worried about how such a thing as perfect as an eye could have evolved bit by bit. Secondly, to explore the basic mechanisms in nature used to produce colour.

Each chapter of the text discusses a single colour: ultraviolet, violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red and the mechanisms used to create it. For instance, pigments, structural mechanisms or bio-luminescence. The advantage of colour to various organisms is discussed, as well as the way in which this colour is perceived by the organisms' predators. The result of each chapter is the (tediously) re-iterated conclusion that Darwin needn't have worried about the eye being "perfect". In each chapter Parker demonstrates how a predator's eyes are fooled by simple visual tricks. The optics of the eye work very well indeed, but the brain that interprets what they eye detects is easily fooled.

Overall this book has a lot of well-considered and well-organised material on colour generation and perception in nature. There were also many interesting "asides" that I enjoyed discovering. On this count it gets my thumbs up! However, I found the book exceedingly frustrating to read. Sometimes it was fine, then I would turn a page and groan... The author introduces a fictitious and unecessary "nano-cam" as a literary gimmick in order to better explain what is happening within his subjects as they are bombarded with light or emitting it. The literary device was tedious and condescendingly (is that word?) employed. In general I thought the author's descriptions became too laboured and painful. I persevered because as I just indicated, the book has a lot of great information in it. Parker obviously knows his stuff. I learnt a lot from the text, but suffered as I did so. A better editor would have done wonders for the text.

Alan Dorin, 26 May 06

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