Monkee’s Teeth

It’s by René Laloux

Cinematic stories have nothing to do with images. Cinematic stories are to do with silence. In silence, the images unpack themselves. Cinematic stories cannot be mediated. They cannot be told. Tell them, and you hide them. Tell them, and you convey nothing. Worse, you make a fetish of your own presence. Shame on you.

Cinematic stories are lunatic. Their selves have come unhinged.


The Eye: a Natural History

This is a book about the nature of the eye. It is about all the eyes that are, and ever have been, and may yet be. It is about how we see the world, and how other eyes see it. It is about what happens to the world when it is looked at, and about what happens to us when we look at each other. It is about evolution, chemistry, optics, colour, psychology, anthropology, and consciousness. It is about what we know, and it is also about how we came to know it. So this is also a book about personal ambition, folly, failure, confusion, and language.

You can buy The Eye: A Natural History at has the American edition, A Natural History of Seeing

Read more about this book.

UK: Bloomsbury. 1st hardback edition, March 2007
UK: Bloomsbury. Paperback, January 2008
Germany: Hoffman und Campe, April 2008
USA: Norton, October 2008
Italy: Einaudi, October 2008
Japan: Hayakawa, 2008
Portugal: Aletheia, 2008


The Eye: what the reviewers said

Ings argues convincingly that the eye has had a profound effect on our language, perception, philosophy and even consciousness… Ings deals with these, as he does all parts of this thoroughly engaging book, with refreshing clarity, enthusiasm and vigour. It’s a real eye-opener, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Doug Johnstone, The Times, March 10, 2007

In The Eye: A Natural History, the novelist and science writer Simon Ings explores evolution’s alleged masterpiece from several perspectives, including optics, physiology, history, medicine and biochemistry. It is a rich and eclectic survey, with an intriguing nugget on almost every page. Ings has done his homework and is not afraid to find fault with new ideas that don’t pass muster. 
Graham Farmelo, Sunday Telegraph, March 24

[Ings] rightly asserts that ‘the story of the eye is epic’, and this is an impressive attempt to summarise its 538-million-year history. There are times when the encyclopaedic scale of the endeavour rather overwhelms the reader, but it’s easy to share his genuine wonder at the sheer oddness of some of the mechanisms of sight. 
P D Smith, the Guardian, June 2

In this ambitious work, Ings reaches into chemistry, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, aesthetics and his own fertile imagination to produce an agglomeration of ideas and themes, aimed at neither the specialist nor the idiot, but somewhere tantalisingly in between. In many ways it’s the perfectly judged popular-science book: he assumes little or no prior knowledge, but he does take for granted an open mind and a certain curiosity. His book will bring out the intelligent 12-year-old in us all. You may even look on the world with new eyes.
Marcus Berkmann, The Spectator, March 31
(requires subscription; the review has been reprinted here)

Ings has succeeded in writing an elegant, entertaining and up-to-date overview of cutting-edge research. He tells the story “episodically”, in a “mix of history, science and anecdote” that is utterly compelling.
Gail Vines, the Independent, April 25

Ings has a good eye for memorable anecdotes and striking facts. More importantly, The Eye is always readable, and Ings is a very good explainer of scientific concepts. 
Robert Hanks, the Telegraph, March 18

The evolution of the human eye sounds a potentially arid subject, but not as treated by Simon Ings, who seamlessly blends natural history with personal observation (the progress of his baby daughter), visual conundrums (illustrations punctuate the text), and a real sense of wonder. 
There are fascinating facts galore: our eyes are never still, for example. As well as entertaining, it’s philosophically profound: showing how our eyes, far from simply absorbing the world, are tools with which we construct our own reality. 
Katie Owen, the Sunday Telegraph, 27 January 2008

Voles communicate by leaving trails of urine that (happily for the hungry kestrel) reflect ultraviolet light. Simon Ings will cheerfully supply you with a whole feast of such tasty morsels in this expansive history of the eye. But while his book may satisfy a nerdy hunger for trivia, it is much more than just a compendium of information, ambitiously blending science with philosophy and drawing on history and anecdotes. The latter, which often focus on his daughter, are impressive for somehow avoiding mawkishness; in one of the book’s most moving sections, Ings considers their respective ageing and sight. It all makes for a surprisingly appealing and readable book, helped along by the odd judicious diagram. Read it and you will never see things in the same way.
Hermione Buckland-Hoby, the Observer, January 27

The mirror of the soul? In Homo sapiens, maybe. But in this account of that remarkable organ, the eye, Ings goes beyond the human… The more complex his material, the clearer his prose becomes. He is equally at ease with mathematics, philosophy, palaeontology and history in this cornucopia of facts and folklore about the eye… this far-ranging and wonderfully eclectic work is popular science at its best. 
Ross Leckie, The Times January 25

Charles Darwin wrote that thinking about the evolution of the eye gave him a “cold shudder”. The organ’s complexity tested his theory to the limits, yet so necessary has eyesight become to species’ survival that some scientists estimate the eye has evolved independently at least 40 times. As Ings puts it, “There are only a handful of really good ideas in nature”, and eyesight is one of them. There is a lot of science in Ings’s account, but it is leavened by engaging forays into history and biography. He relates such fascinating subjects as the ability of the Thai Moken tribe to see underwater, and Woody Allen’s rare skill in raising the inner corners of his eyebrows.
Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times, January 27

‘Popular science’ now too often refers to books about penguins’ feet and the like, so it is a relief to find a work that demonstrates genuine learning and intellectual passion. Simon Ings takes us elegantly through the 600-million-year history of the eye, explaining its differing functions in humans and animals, and discussing philosophical thoughts about vision. The result is a narrative as arresting and remarkable as any fiction, accessible but complete, with the reader assumed to be an intelligent adult on the lookout for something substantial. An excellent guide to one of the world’s true wonders. 
the Telegraph, February 2

Vision in the womb


By April, Natalie had begun, now and again, to sleep. Every so often she closed her lids and kept them shut, and when she did, her eyes trembled, stirring the oxygen-rich liquid, called aquaeous humour, that lies between the iris and the cornea. (The rapid-eye movement that accompanies dreams has at least one very practical purpose: it feeds the front of the eye.(1)) This trembling woke the light-sensitive cells of Natalie’s retinas. Stimulated, her retinal cells fired at random, preserving and strengthening their connections with each other.(2) Even before she saw, Natalie went through the motions of dreaming, and those motions taught the cells in her retina to hold hands.
Prepared by dreams, Natalie’s retinal cells took their next lessons from light. Even before birth, the body is no stranger to illumination. Flesh itself lights up a little, every time a nerve fires(3). Perhaps this familiarity with light is why any young nerve cell, transported to the retina – the body’s most light-sensitive surface – will learn to see, just as every seeing cell, moved elsewhere, becomes an ordinary nerve(4).
The womb is not dark: it is easily penetrated by light from the outside world. From November to July of 2003, the month of her birth, Natalie’s retinas grew to seize what news they could from the amniotic murk of her home. They adapted to darkness and to blur. One layer of nerves grew into light-sensitive cells called rods, the better to gather the light. At birth, Natalie was well on the way to acquiring good nocturnal vision. Babies see well at night.
In the glare of day, though, they are all but blind. (It is one of the ironies of birth that it fills our world with light – and blinds us in the process.) A sunny day is a million times brighter than a night-time nursery, and a whole other form of vision is needed to handle such a glare – a form of vision Natalie had not yet got.
Exposed to the light, Natalie’s eyes had not so much to ‘adapt’ to the brightness of day, so much as acquire a whole new way of seeing.
In her retinas lay another set of nerve cells, distinct from the rods and only distantly related to them.(5) At birth, they were little more than ordinary nerve cells. Once exposed to the glare of day, however, they began to change. Natalie will be six before these ‘cones’ of hers are fully grown, packed as tight as they can be into the fovea – that tiny circle on the retina where images are focused and light explodes with colour.

(1)Maurice DM. 1998. ‘An ophthalmological explanation of REM sleep.’ Experimental Eye Research 66 pp139-145. This article includes some interesting background on Maurice’s work.
(2)Siegel JM. 2005. ‘Functional Implications of Sleep Development.’ PLoS Biology 3/5 p178
(3)Tarusov, BN., Polivoda, AI., Zhuravlev, AI. 1961. ‘Study of the faint spontaneous luminescence of animal cells.’ Biophysics 6 pp83-85. (This paper is one of the inspirations behind space physiologist Karl Simanonok‘s diverting ‘endogenous light theory of conciousness’.)
(4)Cepko, C. Interview with Norman Swan on The health report: the retina and the brain, ABC Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Monday 13 December 1999.
Livesey FJ, Cepko CL. 2001. ‘Vertebrate neural cell-fate determination: lessons from the retina.’ Nature reviews: neuroscience 2/2 pp109-18. (PDF)
(5) The distinction between rods and cones had already arisen in the eyes of jawless fish, swimming in Devonian seas around 400 million years ago. See Bowmaker, J. K. 1991. ‘Evolution of photoreceptors and visual pigments.’ Pp. 63–81 in J. R. Cronly-Dillon and R. L. Gregory, eds. Evolution of the eye and visual pigments. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Fla.