It would take a lot to make me open a website called “Business Insider.” Despite spending far too much time on the internet, my regular sites are few and my ability to find interesting stories often depends on my wife, daughter, or friends pointing out to me what they’ve found. I knew nothing, for instance, of the dress whose color flummoxed the world for a few days. Someone sent me the link and I pondered how strange the world wide web has become. There was a deeper issue, however, and another friend sent me a story on Business Insider to underscore the point. The piece, by Kevin Loria, is entitled “No one could see the color blue until modern times.” At first I scoffed. Blue is my favorite color, and I’ve always been able to see it. Then I read the piece. (It is a bit frightening in the context of a publication called Business Insider, however.) Beginning with yet-to-be prime minister William Gladstone (when is the last time a world politician knew his or her classics?) scholars began to notice that ancient writers such as Homer did not reference blue. Apart from ancient Egypt, most ancient cultures lacked a word for the hue (and remember when you read it in the Bible you are seeing the words of a frustrated translator). Did they even notice blue? The paucity of ancient records may be to blame. But then, Loria looks at modern experiments.
People who live in particular environment develop the ability to distinguish shades of colors that are difficult for the computer-bound to appreciate. For example, Loria cites an experiment in Namibia where members of the Himba tribe could not distinguish blue from green. They could, however, pick out a very slightly different shade of green with ease. In a world surrounded by greenery, knowing subtle differences is important. And we only pay attention to what is deemed important. Scientists have known for a very long time that we are flooded with sensory information incessantly. With our five basic senses an overwhelming amount of data bombards our brains constantly. Those who survive in this world have to determine what is truly significant.
Stepping back to apply this to societies as a whole, I find myself in a distinctly Tillichian mood. What is of ultimate importance? If our society is focused on lucre, it would seem that we, like the Himba, should be able to detect thousands of shades of green. Instead, we find a world full of color. I’ve been working in Manhattan for over three years now. While interesting, I have to admit that much of the city looks gray to me. Even the green on the rare dollar bills that come my ways seems surprisingly subdued. We notice color because it is important to our survival. Artists who work with color in unexpected ways are often under-appreciated for their talent. Those who splash color flamboyantly are accused of being garish. Amid it all, I turn my eyes toward the sky whenever possible. In my youngest days I learned its color is blue. And there is no other color I would rather perceive.