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Rob Sheldon: Did humans see the color blue before modern times?

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The question is trickier than we might at first think. A philologist studied ancient texts and found no mention of the word “blue.” The Egyptians had a word for it but they could produce blue dyes. Could the others just not see the color?

One study found a tribe in Namibia who did not use a word for blue. Researchers determined, through testing, that they could only distinguish it with great difficulty and many mistakes. But they had more words for green than we do and they could spot very fine shades of difference that most people would not.

Another study by MIT scientists in 2007 showed that native Russian speakers, who don’t have one single word for blue, but instead have a word for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), can discriminate between light and dark shades of blue much faster than English speakers. This all suggests that, until they had a word from it, it’s likely that our ancestors didn’t actually see blue. Fiona MacDonald, “There’s Evidence Humans Didn’t Actually See Blue Until Modern Times” at Science Alert

Maybe it’s not quite that clear. People might not have words for what they don’t physically see but they also might not see what they don’t have words for because they don’t need to distinguish the characteristic. Thus they never acquire the habit of doing so. The critical question is, can they learn to distinguish a shade if it is important?

It’s not just people. For example, at one time, people believed that cats could not see the difference between red and green. It turns out, they can if they must. They will try other strategies to solve a food reward problem first. Most of the time cats don’t care—because they don’t need to care—about red vs. green, which is why people thought they couldn’t actually do it.

Our physics color commentator, Rob Sheldon, offers some thoughts:

Just an attempt to clarify the terms used here (from the top of my head):

See-1: to sense
See-2: to perceive
See-3: to distinguish, discriminate
See-4: to have an explanation/word

a) The triple-color “cones” in the retina include one for “blue”, so both ancient man and modern man can sense “blue.” We know this because of DNA genome studies on ancient man.

b) Even the subject in the study who lacked a word for blue can be taught to distinguish it. Thus the perception is available, but perhaps rudimentary.

Let me say this another way: The eye has 12 layers of neurons in the retina that perform image compression before sending signals down the very limited bandwidth, optic nerve.

I recently visited an optometrist because my accurate vision (needed for reading text) was filled with dancing black/white triangles. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark, if I said that “in layer #3 of my retina, the triangle-recognizing neurons” were spazzing out. The optometrist merely said I was having a “visual migraine”, and claimed a new reading glasses prescription would solve it.

Now mind you, this was not happening in the optic lobe of my brain, but in the retinal pre-processing. So if our neurons, which extend down to our toes, can do pre-processing, then we have distributed brains! Maybe the Hebrews weren’t too far off when they attributed emotions, not to the heart, but to the kidneys.

Back to the topic: Are there “blue cone” inputs to the pre-processing layer in the retina? Absolutely. So what does “training” the subjects to see blue actually do? The “meat-computer” folks would have us believe that rerouting happens only in the CPU, the brain’s optic lobe. But it appears that if we make it a priority, we can “train” the retina as well. Our modern culture has “trained” our brains/retinas to make distinctions that remain rudimentary in the study subjects.

Can we then infer that ancient people who lack a word for “blue” cannot perceive it? Absolutely not.

First of all, how certain are we that lexicographers have every word in their dictionaries? Modern dictionaries are adding words every year.

Secondly, as the explanatory text refutes the title of this article, the study subjects can perceive blue, just not very quickly.

Thirdly, the dye used for priestly garments prescribed in the Torah was “blue”, as in the blue of the Israeli flag. So at least by 1500 BC “blue” must have been a word in use.

So perhaps we should say, we cannot discriminate “blue” without a word for it? For sure. This is the property of language. As linguists will say, a word excludes more than it includes. And if we don’t have a word, we lack the ability to discriminate (or, as Aristotle shows us, we make up a word on the spot, we “categorize”.)

But since all of us have been inventing words since infancy, no ancient would be incapable of discriminating “blue”, he would simply have to be curious or driven by necessity. That is to say, the capability for discriminating “blue” was present in all ancients, as long as the capability for language was present.

Finally, should we find some method of determining that an ancient human was incapable of discriminating the color blue, we would actually have determined that he lacked the creative aspects of speech itself. That is an important point, which is why I argue that Neanderthals did not speak because they could not learn agriculture, which necessitated a new vocabulary.

The Long Ascent: Genesis 1â  11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Sheldon, Robert]

Rob Sheldon is author of Genesis: The Long Ascent

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9 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: Did humans see the color blue before modern times?

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    News, this illustrates aptly the difference between neural signal processing and perceptual cognition: seeing is seeing as, which can be re-factored. IIRC, there was historically/culturally a tendency for some peoples to conflate blues and purples (including red IIFRC). Another tendency was to conflate oranges and yellows. Our term olive drab is used for a colour we usually perceive as a “bronzish” shade of green but it is spectrally a dark yellow. Some browns are dark oranges. Blues and greens have a fuzzy border, as do greys, greens and blues — just yesterday evening I had occasion to note on how green a rather overcast late afternoon was. The distinction Newton made between indigo, blue and violet in his studies has come up for mention. All of this shows how language influences and is influenced by perceptions. Onward, we can see the way there is a subconscious mass associated with the surface perception, in effect inviting an iceberg model of cognitive behaviour and phenomena. The issue being, to avoid creating Kantian-style ugly gulches that undermine the credibility of reason and more broadly mindedness. KF

  2. 2
    Ed George says:

    This may because the colour blue is almost nonexistent in nature.

  3. 3
    hazel says:

    Hmmm. Have you looked at the sky lately, or a mountain lake. I have some great pictures of the deep blue color of Blue Lake in Colorado.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    Looking at it from a different direction, tetrachromats are also fascinating.

  5. 5
    ET says:

    Ed George:

    This may because the colour blue is almost nonexistent in nature.

    The Mayans coveted blue clay. Mayan blue is so-called because of what they did with the color, using the clay and certain botanicals.

  6. 6
    Seversky says:

    Ed George @ 2

    This may because the colour blue is almost nonexistent in nature.

    That depends on whether you view the human capacity to color-code different wavelengths of light to be a natural phenomenon or not. In one sense, colors do not exist at all in the natural world, they are entirely mental constructs.

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    EG, sky, sea? Sapphires? Lapis Lazuli? Blue dyes? Etc? KF

  8. 8
    kairosfocus says:

    Sev, we can definitely see the rainbow, thus spectral colours. We can see purples, thus we can see the classic tongue of colour. Mix in darker values and we get greys, blacks, browns and what were called “sadder” shades 400 years ago, the subdued forms and blends more commonly seen in plants, earth and animals, save for spectral colours. There are additive and subtractive colours, transparency and filtering; notice the recent explosive growth of corrective glasses for the colour-blind. Add mirror-like effects and translucency etc and we can detect a world of colours. The issue is to categorise more tightly or more broadly, which will be culturally influenced and then technologically influenced. Colour painting, textile dying, photography and then colour television have led to colourimetry and specification of many hues and saturations on numerically structured scales. KF

    PS: The dyes and gem-stuffs trades show just how much value we place on attractive colours and visual patterns. Let us note that three of the most precious stones are red [rubies], green [emeralds] and blue [sapphires]. I find it interesting that citrus fruit are closely connected to the spectral band between red and yellow: tangerines, oranges and lemons, where this is also the band where human skin tones appear. Before people spoke of orange, I gather jacinth was used as a colour name.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    PPS: I should add that diamonds flash, which manifests the rainbow through a very high refractive index and high dispersion of light. Again, visuals, with colour as a major feature.

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