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An ambitious volume lends scientific and cultural context to the concept of color

A Natural History of Color

Rob DeSalle and Hans Bachor
272 pp.
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The concept of “color” is tricky—but then so is “nature” and so is “history.” It follows that to attempt a “natural history of color” is to wade into a combinatorial explosion of assumptions, definitions, methodologies, stories, and theories. Written by Rob DeSalle, a molecular biologist, and Hans Bachor, an optical physicist, A Natural History of Color accepts this challenge, endeavoring, as the authors state, to understand “[h]ow color has influenced…human existence [and] the entire natural world around us.” This is a tall order, one that the authors interpret as requiring an accounting of color from the origins of the Universe through to the present day. How one evaluates the success of this project depends much upon what one wishes for going in.

A Natural History of Color is a companion piece to The Nature of Color, an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Infelicitously, the exhibition was scheduled to open in March of 2020, which corresponded with the arrival of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). As of this writing, the museum is still closed. Nevertheless, the book stands on its own.

As the authors acknowledge, understanding color tout court is a vast, multi­disciplinary project, involving physics, physiology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, among many other disciplines. To make sense of this potential chaos, the book takes evolution as its guiding principle, looking first at the evolution of light-sensitive molecules and their integration into, and usefulness to, living things; next, at the evolution of particular color schemes that can serve to attract, repel, mimic, and confuse other organisms that possess particular arrangements of light-sensitive molecules; and finally, at the evolution of distinct symbolic responses to color in human beings.

Clearly comfortable with this context of color, DeSalle and Bachor delve into topics such as the particle and wave natures of light, the different types of proteins used in different light-sensing organs, and the neuroscience of mammalian color perception. Their explanations can be quite detailed and might be more than a casual reader needs, but the intricacy with which the authors weave the study of color in and out of a longue-durée history of life on Earth is impressive.

Perhaps to leaven their dips into the minutiae of physics, genetics, statistics, and molecular biology, the authors frequently reach for pop-culture references to illustrate (or augment) their points. A truncated list would include the movies Predator and Animal House; the TV shows Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse; and the rock groups Violent Femmes and the Police, as well as repeat appearances by Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons. The effect is that of a stream-of-consciousness amble through the different disciplinary and personal predilections of the authors—a bit like On the Road, but with more rhodopsin than reefer and more genes than jazz.

On questions of color and culture, the book feels thinner. Here, rather than the rich descriptions that characterize chapters about the evolutionary selection for opsins, for example, the reader finds a collection of anecdotes and factoids about color symbolism in predominantly Western civilization. One explanation for this shift in argumentation is that color symbolism and meaning in human culture are so vast as to defy easy characterization. This is, of course, accurate and acknowledged by the authors, but it is an admission that undercuts the enterprise. More to the point, the methodologies that prove so indispensable in studying photons and genes—entities that can be assumed to behave regularly across vast periods of time—are less helpful in studying people, who tend to be unpredictable, willful, and inveterate outlaws. As a result, the book’s attempt to tell the natural history of color according to neat laws breaks down precisely when it matters most. This paradox is one of the most enchanting things about studying color but also one of the most frustrating.

This gap notwithstanding, the book does provide, unequivocally and generously, a long look not just at the evolutionary background of color perception but also at the ways in which science itself both draws from and contributes to an understanding of color. The writers are not simply practicing scientists and museum curators, they are enthusiasts eager to share their knowledge with their audience. One comes away from this book with a sense that both the scientific description of color and the science that is used to arrive at that description are mutually reinforcing: a feedback loop wherein a particular understanding of perception shapes a particular understanding of the world, which, in turn, shapes a particular understanding of perception, and so forth. In this way, the book is something of a meta-exercise in the history of perception—a way of viewing one’s own perceptions in a historical mirror. If one approaches the book with this precept in mind, the experience will be rewarding.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA