Weeds on the Lapel: Biology and Jewelry

Article excerpt

I get a lot of junk email and quickly delete messages that have odd titles and are from unknown recipients. That's how I almost lost a great message with the heading: Invasive Species Tiara. This was definitely odd, and I didn't know the sender, but something made me not hit the "delete" button, and I'm very glad I didn't. The message was from Jan Yager, the creator of Invasive Species: An American Mourning Tiara--a real piece of jewelry crafted of gold and silver (http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/fashion object stories/tiara/index.html). I had mentioned this work in a presentation I gave at a conference. Jan read about it on the Web (http://media.schoolofvisualarts.edu/ sva/media/1403/large/Proceedings2005.pdf) and contacted me--one of the advantages of electronic communication, enough to balance out the annoyance of junk email.

I cited Yager's Tiara as an example of the relationship I see between jewelry and biology. Wearing ornaments representing plants and animals strikes me as a manifestation of biophilia. The biologist Edward O. Wilson (1984) defines biophilia as an innate human urge to have contact with other species. Wilson describes it in relation to a need to spend time in natural environments, surrounded by animals and plants. We also attempt to satisfy our biophilic desire by surrounding ourselves with plants, pets, and representations of plants and animals. In an earlier ABT article, I described the depth and breadth of this penchant in terms of TV shows and art works (Flannery, 2001). I've also written about the relationship between biophilia and interior decoration (Flannery, 2005). However, such representations are found not only in our homes but on our persons, in the form of jewelry. Since biophilia seems to be a genetically influenced trait, it's not surprising that personal adornments with representations of plants and animals are found in cultures throughout the world. This is true both now and in the past. I want to lay out evidence for this claim here and also present the argument that making students aware of biophilia and its manifestations is a way to heighten their sensitivity to environmental issues and to illustrate how biology relates to other parts of our culture.

Jewelry of the Past

I'll begin with some examples of ancient jewelry from a number of different cultures to illustrate both the long history of nature representations in body ornaments and also the geographical breadth of this custom. I'm presenting this survey because one of the lines of evidence used by Wilson and others to support the idea of a genetic basis for human behaviors is to claim their ubiquity. A Minoan goat pendant from 1500 BC, an ancient Egyptian necklace with hawks, and a Roman clasp with an eagle and its prey all illustrate my point. Every continent yields ornaments: a Chinese bat pendant, an Aztec serpent brooch, a Baule bird pendant from the Ivory Coast, and earrings with enameled birds from medieval Ukraine. This list could go on and on, but even these few examples make the point that jewelry in the form of organisms, particularly animals, is ubiquitous among human cultures over time and space.

I'm going to now zero in on Western culture because this is where we live, geographically, culturally, and for the most part, mentally and emotionally. Here the tradition of animal and plant images in personal adornment is particularly strong. I want to begin by mentioning not an example of jewelry directly, but rather, a page from a Renaissance book of hours. It has images of jewelry in its border, including a flower pendant. Many of the other pendants pictured have religious significance. This page shows the movement toward looking at nature to find God, that is, the development of a natural theology. This was to become a particularly strong thread in Britain in the 19th century and was important to the expansion of evidence for evolution. In addition, as a number of historians have noted, religious thought was important to the growth of modern science in the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond (White, 1979). …