letter to Bat Conservation International in reponse to their site design RFP (2018)
Photo © Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservational International. Tuttle trained himself in photography and captured bats candidly in their natural habitats. Prior to this most photos were of sick, cornered, or dying bats – the more easily photographed – which did little to help aestheticize them. In 1988 Diane Ackerman followed Merlin Tuttle into the desert southwest to look for spotted bats; the essay referenced here would have been known to them.
There’s a line in Diane Ackerman’s New Yorker essay, “In Praise of Bats,” that reminds
I was reminded of another writer, E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “innate biophobic intensities” in the 1970s to moor our unbidden, sometimes irrational enmity toward the small but occasionally deletrious to scientific reason: an unlearned and ancient aversion inculcated in us, the theory goes, by tens of thousands of years of genetic heritage. Contemporary killers, continues Wilson invariably, such as guns and cars, even knives, haven’t existed long enough for humans to develop a genetic bias against them. To Ackerman Mr. Tuttle makes more or less the same argument about spousal abuse, falling down stairs, dog attacks: threats statistically greater to us, on average, than bats, whose ignoble status as disease carriers is vastly over-reported and sensationalized.
At any rate, when I went looking again for Wilson’s written remarks I noticed a discrepancy. Between his original example of poison and plague carriers we certainly seem genetically prepared to fear and avoid, perhaps wisely, he had, in a 1999 version, added bats.
There is, as you well know, a cultural argument against them. Designers such as myself have taken a hobbyist interest in the co-evolution of human beings and their culture – our likes and fears – in an effort to, I think, puzzle out what sort of inherent preconditions may affect how people react to the things we make, how we might persuade; and what might be, on the other hand, destined to become the evanescent throwaways of temporary culture. A similar snakes-and-spiders metaphor is sometimes called upon in the applied arts to offer some scientific basis for our ability to process threatening visual stimuli in a hurry – a technique put to specific purposes by advertisers – and might explain why, in product design, and even in two-dimensional interfaces, we appear to have a collective preference the world over for soft corners and smooth surfaces.
Not everyone goes in for that explanation. Much if not most of jobs like mine is in fact probably determined by the subjective, shifting sensibilities steering visual culture, which are in fact, I imagine a Wilson type arguing, the ineluctable result of our very nature. So you can see why it’s all very confusing to us. We can’t always tell which is which and we know much less than we let on. Yet by either measure the preservation of bat populations, and the challenge of conservation in general, seems like a problem, first and foremost, of aesthetics. “It is usually us,” said the behaviorist Hans Kruuk, “mankind, who decide what kind of ecosystem we want to have in the first place, in an esthetic—not scientific—decision. So whether we want to have [animals] around because they appeal to us, or because they play an important role in an ecosystem that appeals to us, in the end this is an esthetic decision. And in this, I believe that the appeal of the animals themselves will be the strongest.”
So let’s aestheticize them. Not only to show them as they are, but u on the world which depends on them, as keystone species, as pollinator, and yes, as nightly spectacle.
When Hurricane Isabel felled the centuries-old oak tree of my boyhood home my first thought was for the bats which roosted there. (We didn’t have much to do at night, and watching those bats nick moths and beetles gathered around a jerryrigged street lamp was something of a country pasttime.) But I know many – my sister included, who carries an invented childhood memory of a rabid bat getting tangled in her hair – harbor a deep-seated phobia that borders on social mass hysteria, a hysteria to which it would seem not even E.O. Wilson is totally immune. But I was lucky. I was “properly introduced to bats,” as Mr. Tuttle might say. And I’d like to pay that privilege forward.