For eons Earth’s creatures have devised all sorts of ways to survive, and camouflage—lying low, blending in with the crowd, donning a disguise—is often the way to go. That may mean changing color, buttoning into a school uniform or military fatigues or pretending to be something we’re not. As Charles Darwin and Arnold Schwarzenegger have taught us, it all comes down to survival.
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is often summed up as survival of the fittest, but sometimes it’s really survival of the sneakiest. The better an organism is at avoiding detection by predators—or at crypsis, to use the scientific term—the better its chances of survival. In some cases this means mimicking the opposite sex. Think of Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, who saves her neck by disguising herself as a boy, or the men on the sinking Titanic who allegedly dressed as women to get aboard the lifeboats. In the animal kingdom, female spotted hyenas have benefited from being butch. They’re larger and more aggressive than their male counterparts, and they dominate family groups. Not only do they wear the pants, they have large protruding pseudopenises as well. This sexual arrangement makes copulation impossible without full female cooperation—allowing the females to call the shots and say “Back off, buster” to undesirable mates. Since male hyenas are cannibalistic and sometimes eat the young, having a macho mom around comes in handy. If you’re a spotted hyena, you have to be a high-riding bitch to ensure the survival of the species.
It’s no accident that Godzilla, the long-enduring movie monster, is modeled in part on a chameleon. The chameleon is a bit of a superhero when it comes to natural selection—the process by which organisms best adapted to their environment survive. The ability to change color is this lizard’s most lauded quality and provides a boost in blending into landscapes, and many other benefits as well. The cold-blooded creatures turn light green in the sun, to deflect rays and stay cooler, and brown when temperatures drop, because darker colors absorb more warmth. They turn red and yellow when angry, warning a would-be attacker to beat it, and courting males can become downright flashy, with purple skin and yellow eyelids, to attract a female.
Chameleons enjoy a full complement of additional survival superpowers: grasping zygodactyl feet ideal for tree climbing, a tongue that’s often up to twice the length of the body for snapping up insects and stereoscopic eyes that move independently of each another to provide a 360-degree view. Politicians are often called chameleons for their changeable political stances. All things considered, though, that is a disservice to this noble lizard.
Chameleons get a lot of press for their color-changing prowess, but the truth is many creatures are masters of crypsis, using color and other physical characteristics to avoid detection. The polar bear and arctic fox have white coats that allow them to blend in with the snow, and the arctic fox’s coat turns brown in spring and summer to match the tundra. Zebras are masters of optical illusion and in a herd look like one big psychedelic swirl of stripes, making it difficult for a lion on the prowl.
In the insect world, katydids have evolved to look like leaves, and walking sticks pass themselves off as twigs. Harmless scarlet king snakes are dead ringers for venomous coral snakes, so predators give them a wide berth, and hawk-moth caterpillars achieve similar protection by looking like snake heads. Some hawk moths also smell like bees, so they don’t get stung while stealing honey. Bees, for their part, get hoodwinked by some orchids that look and smell just like lady bees: The eager male lands on the beelike stigma to mate but pollinates the flower instead—a thwarted sexual encounter that’s part of an ingenious survivalist strategy ensuring the orchid will reproduce.
Should schoolkids have to wear uniforms? The issue comes to a head in The Sound of Music, when Maria replaces the uniforms Captain Von Trapp makes his kids wear with playclothes she stitched together from curtains. Proponents of school uniforms side with the captain. Uniforms, their argument goes, are a great equalizer and make schools safer. And in survival terms, uniforms promote crypsis by helping wearers blend in with the crowd: Kids can’t get bullied for not wearing the right clothes, flaunt gang colors or beat the heck out of each other to nab a designer sweater. Opponents of school uniforms take Maria’s line of reasoning, saying they deny students a chance to shine as individuals and citing studies showing that uniforms have no effect on behavior or attendance. The Supreme Court has weighed in against uniforms, saying they violate a student’s right to freedom of expression. One way to resolve the issue is to do what Mame Dennis does in another stage classic, Auntie Mame—she sends her nephew, Patrick, to a school full of “boys, girls, teachers, romping around stark naked, bare as the day they were born.”
Some viewers of HBO’s Band of Brothers and other war dramas complain that the uniforms make it hard to tell the characters apart. That, of course, is the whole point of military fatigues—like school uniforms, they temper individuality and make the wearer one of many. Remember the slogan “An Army of One”? Or the Air Force’s “Service Before Self”? Or the Navy’s “Not for Self, but for Country”? Nurses, firefighters and many others wear uniforms that suppress individuality for the larger purpose of their common mission.
The anonymity that goes along with wearing uniforms makes them popular as fetish props. A reliable guest at bachelorette parties is the policeman who swaggers in, handcuffs the guest of honor and then strips. Skimpily clad cheerleaders spiced up televised football in the 1970s and spawned a genre of pornographic cheerleader films, most famously 1978’s Debbie Does Dallas. Sailors and soldiers are mainstays of gay male porn. And in Japan, an entire sex industry is based on burusera, a combination of bloomers and the sailor-suit uniform schoolgirls wear. All of which is a bit ironic: Uniforms may be intended to achieve conformity, yet we individualize them with our most intimate fantasies.
For chameleons, changing appearance is second nature, merely a question of rearranging skin cells called chromatophores into various hues and patterns. The military has employed similar techniques to perfect camouflage through the trial and error of countless battles, at unimaginable expense and with the loss of an untold number of lives. Armed forces around the world have coated tanks in green-and-brown patterns that resemble forests and jungles; used razzle-dazzle camouflage on battleships to make it difficult to estimate position, speed and direction; painted the underside of planes blue so they become indistinguishable from the sky; and designed stealth aircraft and warships to be all but invisible and undetectable by radar. Modern military fatigues come in a variety of camouflage patterns and colors, from dark browns and greens for soldiers to light and dark blues for sailors. Unlike chameleons, human warriors use camouflage for aggressive purposes, such as launching sneak attacks, as well as for defense. Whether we camouflage an aircraft carrier or an infantryman on desert maneuvers, a good disguise serves the same end for us as it does for chameleons—it helps ensure the species will survive to see another day.
In the action film Predator, shirtless Army commandos battle a trophy-hunting alien in the steamy jungles of Latin America. The creature, which sports all manner of built-in rays and high-tech gadgetry, looks like a humanoid lizard—that is, when you can actually see it. More often than not, the “predator” engages its light-bending cloaking device, rendering itself all but invisible. From a strictly Darwinian point of view, the creature should prevail: It’s smarter, stronger and ingenious at crypsis, the art of avoiding detection. But Arnold Schwarzenegger identifies its weakness: the sporting pride of a big-game hunter. The playing field thus leveled, plenty of monster-a-mano combat and Arnie one-liners ensue.
Predator recalls Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” In this haunting tale, a bored Russian aristocrat lures passersby to his island so he can hunt them big-game style. The point of both stories, of course, is that man is the most dangerous game, i.e., prey. But in Predator man and monster alike are arguably upstaged by the verdant jungle canopy, where off-screen creatures great and small wage a war for survival far more riveting than any Hollywood can concoct.