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Colors (was: Re: Homing pigeons...)

First, a book recommendation for anyone interested in (but not already an expert on) color vision, color categorization, etc etc.: "Color for Philosophers," by C.L. Hardin. Hardin is a philosopher, and the book, in later chapters, addresses traditional philosophical questions (are colors "real" or only in the mind of the perceiver etc), but along the way to them gives a good, readable, review of the current state of scientific (physical, psychological, linguistic) knowledge about colors. (And then tries to address the philosophical questions in the light of that.) Very, VERY, good book. (There's a second edition, which may have more up-to-date references than the first.)

The stuff about different (human) languages having different color categories (different NUMBERS of color categories even) but there being some regularities in it that Mike Keesey describes is discussed in Hardin's book: it stems from fascinating research reported in B. Berlin and P. Kay, "Basic Color Terms" (U. of Cal. Press, 1969)-- there has been further research on it since, but Berlin and Kay's findings have held up pretty well.

Very, VERY roughly: boundaries between color categories are weak, but their centers are more robust: if you show people an array of color samples and ask them to draw the line between the red ones and the orange ones, they have difficulty and the results are variable (between speakers of different languages, between speakers of the same language, between the same speaker one day to the next), but if you ask them "Which sample is the reddest red?" the answers are much more confident and more consistent. And if you ask speakers of two different languages to pick the foci of their color categories, there is a good chance that the irtnoggest irtnog picked by speakers of one language will coincide with the quipfelest quipfel picked by speakers of another, even if the two languages have different systems of color categories (irtnog being one of, say, four and quipfel one of, say seven). It seems that there are a small number (on the order of ten) of natural "landmarks" in the color landscape (there has been recent research suggesting that their locations are interestingly connected to "hardwired" aspects of eye-brain function), that different human languages all choose natural landmarks as "foci" for their color categories, and that if a given language has only a few color categories some landmarks (black, white, red...) are more likely to be chosen than others.

All pretty tangential to dinosaurs, but Hardin does have a brief speculative discussion (speculation grounded, however, in the science of how OUR experience and categorization work) of the way in which a being that a dinosaur-like (specifically bird-like) array of color receptor-types in its eyes (instead of our impoverished mammalian system) might experience and categorize colors.


Allen Hazen
Philosophy Department
University of Melbourne