Rara avis

Rara avis means "extraordinary."

How much do you know about the both-and phenomenon?

This and That: When Biology meets the Arts

1 Mariano Akerman, Linnaeus-Manila Tercentenary Lectures and Competition Flag, 2007

Carl Linnaeus’ main contributions to science comprise the concept of species, the use of binomial terminology, and the systematic classification of plants and animals.

It is noteworthy that without Linnaeus’ binomial terminology, and if trying to express our ideas, we would find ourselves in a Babel Tower situation. Each of us naming things in a language that no one understands. Communication would then be impossible.

2 Mariano Akerman, Miss Understanding, digital plate, 2007

Of course, there are still a number of places where one can find various ways of naming the same thing. In Philippines, for example, there are at least twelve different manners of saying “banana.” The adoption of the Tagalog as the official language of that country undoubtedly has helped in strengthening the communication between most Filipinos. “Saging,” the Tagalog word for banana, is clear to a minimum of 70.000.000 people today. Yet, when scientific dialog takes place, researchers from all over the world use Linnaeus’ Musa paradisiaca and all of them known what that Latin double name means.

3 Mariano Akerman, Filipino Fruits, Swedish Taxonomy, digital plate, 2007

During the nineteenth century, however, there were those who insisted in using arbitrary expressions that could have made communication impossible.

4 Mariano Akerman, Word and Meaning, digital collage and quotation, 2007. Image includes upper part of original Humpty Dumpty (illustrated by Sir John Tenniel).

But nowadays that insistence is definitely over.

5 Mariano Akerman (after an anonymous photographer), Humpty, Answer Me!!! Please!, manipulated image, 2007

Linnaeus’ classification of the animals, on the other hand, was thorough and accurate when compared to that of Aristotle. The latter only differentiated animals taking into account whether they lived on the land, in the water, or in the air. But reality is much complex than that. And Linnaeus was aware of this. Not in vain Linnaeus incorporated a category called “Amphibia” (amphibians) in his zoological classification, for he had observed that there are animals living both on the land and in the water.

6 Mariano Akerman, Linnaeus’ Zoological Classes, digital plate, 2007

A lot has been said and written to try to convince us that Linnaeus did never ever consider the evolution of the living things. Yet, as an explorer and geologist, Linnaeus found a great number of pre-historical fossils. He recorded them too. Besides, it was Linnaeus himself who first named and classified a key living thing where evolution concerns. This is the mudskipper.

7 Mudskipper (genus Periophthalamus)

If you take a fish out of the water, it will soon die. But one exception to this rule is the resourceful mudskipper (genus Periophthalamus), which is found mainly in the tropics. There, it dwells in coastal mangrove swamps. Mudskippers often come onto land at low tide in search of prey. They crawl or hop over the mud as they search for shellfish or insects. While on land, mudskippers support themselves with strong, arm-shaped breast fins. They can also use their muscular tails like a spring. Even on land, mudskippers use their gills to breathe. Their breathtaking is made easier by the high humidity and good blood supply in their mouths. With its goggle eyes, thick head and fat tail, the mudskipper resembles a large tadpole.

The mudskipper is an example of the both-and phenomenon, which by definition involves the presence of ambiguity. This means something that has nothing to do with being either this or that (exclusive either-or phenomenon). We are talking about something that is both this and that (inclusive both-and phenomenon).

Lewis Carroll has the both-and phenomenon in mind as he writes, “You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word” (Through the Looking Glass, 1872, ch. 6).

In Nature and the Arts, the both-and phenomenon has to do with the coexistence of incompatible traits in a single figure. This may engender something that is attractive, repulsive, or attractive and repulsive at the same time. The both-and phenomenon is often puzzling. Related to it are hybrids and all kinds of grotesques. Significantly, the both-and phenomenon challenges the very idea of classification.

A living example of the both-and phenomenon is the platypus.

8 Platypus (Ornithorhyncus anatinus)

In the waters of eastern Australia and Tasmania lives what must be the world’s oddest mammal: the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhyncus anatinus), which is about half the size of a housecat. The platypus has a wide shovel-like bill and webbed feet like a duck’s; its rump looks like that of a mole; and its flat tail, which serves as fat storage, resembles that of a beaver. However, the animal’s webbed feet have digging claws similar to a bird’s. Strangest of all, this south-hemisphere mammal also lays eggs.

Cecie Starr and Ralph Taggart, Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, 1995, p. 444: “With its unusual array of traits, the platypus is a fine example of an animal that has been judged according to our ideas of what “an animal” is supposed to be. Those who assume that the platypus doesn’t quite measure up are not using the real yardstick. Its collection of traits happens to be exquisitely adapted for survival and reproduction under a particular set of environmental conditions.”

The unusual characteristics of animals such as the mudskipper and the platypus allow us to consider each of them a Rara avis. The accurate translation of this Latin expression is “rare bird.” Significantly, Rara avis refers to special cases involving the extraordinary.

9 Mariano Akerman, Rara avis, digital image, 2007

Because of his extraordinary curiosity and originality, and also the fact of being a remarkable explorer, physician, biologist, researcher, taxonomist, inventor, scientist and teacher, Linnaeus was himself an embodiment of the Rara avis phenomenon.

10 Mariano Akerman, Homo universalis, digital collage, 2006

If inspecting other Rara-avis cases that present the both-and phenomenon, we can easily understand that both of them exist in Nature and the Visual Arts too. Here are two interesting examples:

11 A Rara-avis biological case. Zebroids are both horse and zebra. Starr and Taggart, Biology, p. 289, fig. 19.13: “A mixed herd of zebroids and horses. Zebroids are interspecific hybrids, resulting from crosses between horses and zebras.”

12 A Rara-avis artistic case. Ribart’s elephant-shaped design is both monument and palace. It was conceived in France in the days of Louis XV (1710-1774).

The reality that surrounds us comprises biological species and artistic ones too.

13 Mariano Akerman, This and That: When Biology meets the Arts, digital meeting, 2006. Right image: “Dance of the Hours, from Walt Disney’s animated film Fantasia, 1940 (artist: Preston Blair).

Nature itself includes hybrids (11), and so does Art (12).

For many years, artistic hybrids occupied unimportant positions in the history of art. But their marginal condition was to change from the sixteenth century onwards. Here’s a group of marginal hybrids, expressing a matter of central importance:

14 Mariano Akerman, A Very Nice Place To Visit, digital collage, 2007

GESTALT ÜBER ALLES or Tell me, please, what animal do you see?

15 „Kaninchen und Ente“ (Rabbit and Duck), detail from a page in Fliegende Blätter, 1892

This printed rabbit-duck or duck-rabbit, like each of the members of the group right above it, is a both-and-phenomenon case. It is a hybrid and a Rara-avis artistic species as well.

Somehow different is the condition of a breathtaking tiger-rabbit or rabbit-tiger.

16 Anonymous, “Just don’t expect it to roar,” 2006

If we look at this figure, it is almost impossible to establish whether it belongs to the group of the biological cases or to that of the artistic ones. We can think of it as a skillfully painted rabbit. Yet, the picture can also convey a monstrous result of having been playing with genetics (a thing certainly not uncommon in these days). Whatever the case, were you to encounter such a living thing anywhere, not only you could expect it to roar but you should also feel lucky if it doesn’t devour you, ferociously.

Whereas there is apparently no other available evidence to corroborate that this hybrid is actually a living thing, we can safely regard it is a Rara-avis case which pertains to the both-and phenomenon. Indeed, it seemingly transgresses the classical order and decorum fostered by Horace in his Ars Poetica of 20 B.C.E:

“Painters and poets alike have always had an equal prerogative to dare anything,” you say?—We know. This is a concession we both ask for and grant the same license. But not so far as to unite the mild with the savage, or to couple snakes with birds, and lambs with tigers.

Well, not lambs with tigers.
But, what about rabbits with tigers, then?
No answer?
The Roman poet is speechless?
Never mind, artists have never paid much attention to his views anyway.

17 Assorted hybrids despite Horace: snake with bird, rabbit with tiger, and the mild with the savage.

It’s important to clarify that not all Rara-avis cases have to do with the both-and phenomenon. Let’s take the biological field, for instance. The European cuckoo is a Rara-avis case that has little or even nothing to do with the both-and phenomenon. Analogous is the case of the deep sea angler fish. The picture below shows two female deep sea angler fish seemingly looking after their offspring, but actually being parasitized by tiny males attached to them.

18 Deep sea angler fish (Linophryne), also known as the net devil.

As a Rara avis, the praying mantis is slightly more original, for the female isn’t only bigger than the male, but additionally devours him once the copulation is over.

19 Praying mantis (Mantis religiosa)

Extraordinary is also the sea horse (genus Hippocampus), one of the loveliest and oddest creatures in the ocean. Sea horses are in fact modified fish: they hold their bodies in a vertical position as they swim, with their head bowed towards the front at right angles. Their skin is made up of bony plates, which form a protective armor. The end of the sea horse’s body is drawn into a flexible tail without fins, which it uses to cling onto plants. The creature’s protruding telescope-like eyes look a bit like a chameleon’s eyes.

20 Sea horse (genus Hippocampus)

But the quality that separates sea horses from the majority of fish is the fact that the males look after the offspring, and they do so in a very special way. A male sea horse has a large pouch in his stomach. During the mating, the female inserts her laying tube into the pouch and lays her eggs. The male fertilizes the eggs, one after the other. The wall of the abdominal pouch begins to thicken and increasingly fills with blood vessels, forming a type of nourishing placenta. After the eggs hatch, the larvae remain in heir father’s pouch until they reach a length of 5 mm. At this point, the young sea horses are set free in groups.

The both-and phenomenon in biology includes double-edged realities, such as camouflage.

21 Starr and Taggart, Biology, p. 832, fig. 47.12.d: “Do attempt to discern which part are flowers and which parts are the praying mantid.”

As Ortega y Gasset has put it in his Ideas y Creencias (Ideas and Beliefs, 1934-40), “Reality is problematic and not unquestionable.”

If you don’t share his viewpoint, try to play the part of the insect attracted by a double-edged Dionaea muscipula—also known as venus flytrap—and then tell me about it.

22 Starr and Taggart, Biology, p. 500, fig. 30.1, c-d: “flies for dinner” or a “carnivorous” plant that turns the dinner table on animals.

My drawing Reality (1995) is also double-edged. No one can say whether it shows a single girl in a sequential fashion (i.e., in two different moments) or two girls in a single moment (i.e., a double portrait conveying temporal simultaneity).

23 Mariano Akerman, Reality: Appearance and Evidence, pencil on paper, 1995

Yet, one still cannot solve the ambiguity inherent to this image. Nor to determine whether the girl on the left is showing her real face or wearing a mask. For, in Reality, the substance of a mask looks exactly like the substance of a face. And the concept mask overlaps that of face. This overlapping is particularly important to the figure on the left, which exhibits an indeterminate area that is neither face nor mask, but both of them at the same time. Such equivocal an area is a double-functioning element. I have delineated it as such consciously, to visually convey Ortega’s idea that reality is in fact problematic. As a drawing, Reality is an example of the both-and phenomenon in the visual arts. It is a Rara-avis artistic case too.

24 Mariano Akerman, ¡Cómo te quiero! (The Way I love You), 1989

The protagonist of ¡Cómo te quiero! may be a Rara avis in its own right. For how many birds like this have you ever seen? And if so, did they have a similar sight? And what about the size of their hearts when compared to the one of this phoenix?

Here we are, celebrating this and that—the very moment in which biology meets the arts.

To explore more: Visual Paradox

Rara avis means Extraordinary or This and That: When Biology meets the Arts. Nature and Culture. Idea, research and design: Mariano Akerman © MAC 2007 All Rights Reserved

Online resources
In the Spirit of Linnaeus
Linnaeus-Manila Program
In the Spirit of Linnaeus
What a century!
Kingdom and Ecology
The Same Order
El mismo orden