Consider your heart. It is built of a specialised network of muscle, nerves, blood vessels and sensors. And from some moment early in the womb, it will beat roughly every second of every day until you die. And during that time, you will fall in love, make friends, be unbelievably happy, deeply sad, and sometimes (this ones up to you,) full of wonder.
And one wonderful thing, one thing that makes your heart beat a little faster, is the colour red. But why do we love red? How has it helped us survive? And why is it the key to our future?
What Is Red?
Red, at is most fundamental level, is a collection of light wavelengths between 622-780 nanometres (that’s 622-780 billions of a metre.) Our brain sees this as ‘Red.’ Philosophers debate over whether ‘my red’ is the same as ‘your red’, perhaps your ‘green’ looks like my ‘red’. Who knows? But aside from those with colour blindness, or ‘Achromotopsia’ (seeing only in black, white and grey,) we can all see that an apple is ‘red’.
And this is vitally important. And like many things in nature, it is no accident. And according to some evolutionary theories, its all about the relationship between our ancient ancestors and fruit.
Foragers And Flags
‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ Theodosius Dobzhansky, Biologist.
Think back along the earth’s evolutionary tree. Its actually quite difficult. It isn’t very linear, and as you rush by its millions of splitting branches you will see all forms of odd creatures. But most of these creatures have a few similar traits. They need to eat for energy, to mate for reproduction, to spot and combat (or run from,) danger, and to find a home in which to pass their lives.
We don’t have to go back too far, just around 50 million years, to see our ape ancestors. Territorial tree foragers, they subsisted mainly on fruit. And their eyes were well adapted for spotting it, and certain familiar colours stood out. Spotting ‘ripe’ red* colour helped them survive, and with each subsequent generation those with better vision passed on the genes to better spot food.
And for the plants, it meant those with the most easily spotted food were eaten, digested, and their seeds spread. Together the plants and apes grew reciprocal evolutionary path, and over time this was reinforced. Today we still see red things as ripe, attractive and life sustaining.
No wonder we like the colour red, it kept us alive. But has it served its purpose, or has ‘red’ got more in store for us?
Red Runs Away
“The greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.’ – Robinson Jeffers
As fascinating as our history with the colour red is, the familiar wavelength is also the key to one of the most fascinating discoveries of recent times. During the 1500’s Nicolaus Copernicus suggest the ‘Heliocentric Theory‘ of the Universe. That the solar system was centred (centric,) around a star (Helios.) Not long after, astronomers used telescopes to examine distant stars. We suddenly got our first glimpse of how small we really are.
But it wasn’t until 1929 that Astronomer Edwin Hubble made a startling discovery. When looking at distant galaxies, he found that all of the light coming from them was ‘red shifted’. This meant the wavelength of the light was stretched, as if the galaxy was moving away. He also found that those galaxies the furthest away were ‘redshifted’ further, as if they were moving faster.
Edwin Hubble, thanks to the colour red and some mathematics, had discovered that the Universe was expanding, and speeding up as it went. And from that, how it began, and how it is likely to end (a big crunch, rip or freeze.)
So consider again your heart, the little red thing that keeps you alive. Isn’t it just incredible that its very colour has told us so much?
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of John Voo.
*Note. Red is not the only colour that is important to us. Think of bees, wasps, snakes, crossing signs, cheetahs, leopards…