by Ken Sanes
Contrary to what one might think, simulation isn't confined to human
beings, nor is it necessarily something that is consciously created. Plants and animals
use camouflage and other deceptive appearances in great profusion, which are essential tools in the
struggle for survival.
In many instances, these deceptive appearances consist only in an
animal's ability to walk with stealth or hide or remain completely still, to create the
impression it isn't there. As we discover in all those television nature documentaries,
predators and prey are constantly slinking around in the underbrush, peering from behind
obstructions and standing motionless, as they wait for the right moment to strike or flee
Also common are disguises that are built into the appearance of plants
and animals. These deceptions exist in nature in a remarkable profusion, easily matching
anything produced by that other world of illusion, Hollywood. Nature is unambiguously a
world of things that appear to be other things or, in some cases, of things that appear to
be nothing at all. There are insects that look like sticks and leaves; mammals with white
coats that blend in with snow-covered landscapes: fish that seem to be rocks; a sea horse
with leafy protuberances that bears a striking resemblance to a clump of weeds; and crabs
that cover their shells with seaweed, and all kinds of other animals with
camouflage, providing us with the spectacle of animals that
masquerade as other animals, as plants and minerals, and as fallen snow. In an act of
evolutionary hubris, a fly in the Amazon even has the shape and markings of a miniature
alligator, including a false snout and teeth, which is apparently convincing enough to
frighten off potential predators, despite the difference in size.
Not infrequently, these deceptions blend together costume and behavior.
After all, a caterpillar that looks like a branch must also play the role, by placing
itself on the correct stage and enacting its part, if it is to be convincing enough to
One of the more commonly cited animals with
camouflage, a dead leaf
mantis (or rather two
of them), apparently being still and looking leafy.
Animal Camouflage and Disguise
These deceptions provide living things with at least three kinds of
advantage in the struggle to survive: they are used as bait (for example, to lure in prey
or pollinators); they make plants and animals appear threatening or noxious (or
nonthreatening) and, perhaps, most frequently, as noted, they provide plants
and animals with camouflage that can be used to
hide from predators, and they give animals the ability to take potential prey by surprise. Mostly, they come down to a few
basic "strategies": semi-invisibility; hiding or cover-up; distraction; disguise
(including camouflage), and behavioral pretenses, which either hide something or announce
the presence of something that isn't what it appears to be.
Each of these cons also involves a three-way relationship. First, there
is the deceiver. Second, there has to be a dupe or victim that is susceptible to being
taken in. Otherwise, the charade collapses and the imitation ceases to be of value. Third,
although it isn't usually present, there is typically a model -- one or more kinds of
plants or animals (or other things) that are being impersonated.
In effect, these deceptions are a primitive version of what are often
referred to in philosophy and literary criticism as representations and narratives. More
specifically, they are forms of theater that use costumes, props and acting to tell a
story -- "I'm just a leaf hanging from a branch," or "I'm a dangerous
alligator" -- directed at a specific audience. They are based on the ability not
merely to represent something that isn't there, but to create the illusion that the
representation is what it represents.*
Perhaps what is most remarkable about all of these plants
and animals with camouflage and disguise is that it is all said to be a result of the workings of chance. According to evolutionary theory,
effective disguises are the product of random mutations, which are passed on because the
living things that possess them have a better chance of surviving and reproducing. When an
insect that looks like a leaf, sits on a branch and is completely still, it presumably has
no idea it is pretending to be part of the tree. It is merely doing what it is programmed
to do, while other insects that did other, less effective, things got eaten and failed to
reproduce or did so less.
Assuming that science's version of events is correct, what we see is a
system in which the blind workings of nature have ended up grinding out not only
representation, but misrepresentation, offering rewards to the most effective deceivers.
The ability to manipulate appearances has turned out to be a form of power
in nature, and the
inability to see through appearances has turned out to be a form of powerlessness.
Other Uses of Representation by Animals
But it isn't only the ability to use lifelike representations or
simulations to camouflage and deceive that we see in nature. We also discover that nature uses lifelike
representations to create fictions that can be used for entertainment, learning, and
communication. In the play of young mammals, for example, the animals play act at
stalking, chasing, and fighting. They pre-enact adult roles through behavioral
simulations. Everyone involved (at least other animals of the same type) know it is play.
They know it is a form of misrepresentation, not intended to be taken for what it
Once again, all of these possibilities are programmed into the animals,
although the actual behaviors involve complex perceptions and reactions, in which the
animal's behavior is an act of coordination between responses to urges and to perceptions.
Presumably, these forms of play exist because they provide learning experiences for the
animals. (They are also entertaining to the animals and, presumably, that encourages them
to play and has survival value, and isn't merely a side effect.)
Animals similarly communicate through "iconic" behavior - they
do something that looks or seems like something else, in order to communicate.
For example, when some animals don't want you to do something, they may lightly bite down on
your hand without breaking the skin. In effect, they are representing a bite to
you to communicate an idea -- "There's a bite in your future if you don't stop
Simulations Created by People
All of this existed by the time the ancestors of modern human beings
came on the scene. It seems reasonable to suggest that our human ancestors inherited the
ability to walk with stealth, to be completely still and hide, to act threatening and
communicate through iconic behavior, and to play. These things were part of
their animal -- and genetic -- heritage.
But, as culture evolved, we can safely surmise that humanity began to create a new set
of physical simulations and forms of acting, with conscious intention, to trick both
animals and other people. Hunters and soldiers created sophisticated forms of camouflage,
so they would blend in with their surroundings, maybe in some instances as a
result of observing camouflaged animals. Farmers put up scarecrows which, while not
very convincing to human eyes, were effective enough to fool less discerning animal
audiences, not unlike the fly pretending to be an alligator. Shamans and magicians developed sleight of hand tricks to simulate magical
powers, as a way of advancing their positions in their own societies, thus creating early
forms of fakery modeled after fictions of the mind, rather than after actual objects or
events in the world.
Most of the evidence for these creations has been lost with the passage of time, but
enough survives to give us glimpses into the world of early simulations. There are duck
decoys made of reeds, for example, found in Lovelock Cave, Nevada, that were assembled
sometime after 1500 B.C. The creators had already mastered many of the elements of
verisimilitude, imitating the shape, size and posture of the animal they were trying to
portray. One decoy has feathers tucked under the reeds, to enhance the effect.
At some point in the evolution of culture, these simulations were also created for
purposes other than deception. Cosmetics were used not only to create a deceptive
appearance, but to provide aesthetic pleasure. And humanity began to create forms of
representational art and stories, perhaps originally tied to rituals, involving animal paintings, carved statues, and costumes.
With the evolution of drama, humanity began to simulate not merely discrete things or
actions, but situations, people and chains of events, creating the imitation
"realities" of the theater, a trend that found its first flowering, so far as we
know, in ancient Greece. In effect, humanity evolved its own, symbolically rich, forms of
play, creating representations based on both the world and imagination, and creating
misrepresentations that appeared to be what they imitated, but only to heighten the
Looking back across history, we can trace humanity's growing ability to simulate
appearances, in the discovery of perspective, for example, that allowed painters and
drawers to create the illusion of three-dimensional space; or the creations of wigs and
make-up. We can also surmise that the creation of simulations and of the invented scenes
and situations found in fiction is inborn. We do it spontaneously, in day and night
dreams, and in the play of conversation and interaction, as well as in the arts.
But, until relatively recently, our ability to create these simulations was limited by
shortcomings in both technique and technology, despite the magnificent creations of art
and culture. Somewhere along the way, however, we began to emerge from this period of more
limited simulations. Perhaps, we should mark the beginnings of this phase
somewhere around the turn
of the twentieth century when clever inventors and entrepreneurs began to discover that it was
possible to use electronic images not only to simulate the physical environment, creating a
dynamic, two-dimensional, rendering of the three-dimensional space in movies,
but also to tell stories.
Whenever it happened, today, we have entered a period in history that can truly be
referred to as an age of simulation, in which advanced forms of fakery and illusion are
now dominant elements of culture and society.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that we now have an economy in which millions of
people owe their livelihood to designing, manufacturing and selling fakes, imitations,
counterfeits, replicas, faux products and cons. Much of our culture is made up of
imitations and illusions, used for fantasy and entertainment, and our politics consist
mostly of candidates who use the techniques of theater and movies - of
acting, staging, scripting, and image manipulation - to produce false
identities for public consumption. We live in a world of hairpieces that look like hair; lip-syncers who pretend
they are vocalists; home security devices that bark like overexcited watchdogs; Elvis
impersonators; fake ATM machines created by con artists; and television infomercials,
selling everything from psychic readings to electric juicers, that pretend they are
television talk shows. We consume food re-created with imitation flavors, sugars and
fats; we live in homes, stocked with art replicas, fake fireplaces and faux marble
bathroom fixtures; and we ourselves are gradually being turned into imitations of a more
idealized version of ourselves, as we are reduced, expanded, reshaped and reconditioned
with cosmetic surgery.
This new age of simulations has a number of essential characteristics. Among them, the
number of simulations is increasing rapidly, giving us surroundings made up of manipulated
appearances; the kinds of simulation are increasing, and the simulations are becoming so
lifelike that it is getting more difficult to distinguish them from what they imitate,
inducing a state of mind that can be referred to as simulation confusion, in which fakes
are confused for something authentic. In addition, we are witnessing the emergence of a
global culture based on simulation. As rapid forms of transportation and mass
communications have carried American culture and marketing into the rest of the world,
they have carried
this world of illusion-based marketing with it. Now as many nations make
their great ascent, they are creating their own dynamic cultures of
Not surprisingly, one of the most important ways we use these fictions is to playfully
act out what matters to us. We create lifelike fictions about sex, love, death,
self-esteem, reconciliation, moral principles, overcoming persecution, and so on, because
these are on our minds. Its as if we are a more evolved version of those young
mammals, play-acting to learn how to be adults. But we play-act in an effort to satisfy
our desires and to learn how to cope with life and its traumas; we symbolically master
life by living it through misrepresentations -- fictions. These fictions let us experience
the basic emotions of life, by virtue of the fact that we respond emotionally to lifelike
misrepresentations as if they are something authentic. Faced with a play about someone
dying, we respond emotionally, to some degree, as if someone is dying, and can thus
symbolically live through the trauma of death, and thus partially master the feelings
Presumably, if we were intelligent dogs, we would use the power of representation to
create a slightly different set of misrepresentations -- airbrushed
publicity photographs of celebrity Collies;
scratch and sniff television; and paintings idealizing the leader of the pack.
To conclude -- with evolution and history, a movement, of sorts, has taken place from
camouflaged animals and other natural simulations to limited, humanly-made simulations, to advanced high-technology
simulations. Today, we use technology and our ingenuity:
-- to create representations that are hard to distinguish from physical
and sensory objects we know from the world;
-- to create representations that imperfectly represent known physical
and sensory objects (either deliberately or because we can't get a perfect
-- to create representations that represent nothing that exists outside
of the imagination, so far as we know;
-- and to create nonrepresentational forms of art.
Since the first three of these simulate the appearance of something they aren't,
these are, in a sense, misrepresentations. Even the last category on the list
-- nonrepresentational art -- may still simulate the appearance of
certain qualities such as three-dimensional space or motion.
In summary, we create "misrepresentational"
objects, for deception, art, entertainment, exploration, learning, communication, and
other purposes. Representation has freed us from the tyranny of literalness. We also create
nonrepresentational art to free ourselves from the tyranny of representation.
- - - - - -
If you enjoyed this page on animals
and simulation, you may also be interested in:
*Facial expressions and body language that misrepresent an animal's
psychological state or intentions or are intended to symbolically convey a message,
deserve to be counted as a kind of representation or misrepresentation, or behavioral
simulation, as well. The same is true for people, who inherited this ability and expanded
* A footnote needs to be added for
Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: