Posts Tagged ‘biology’

Francis Walker’s Aphids, John P. Doncaster (British Museum 1961)

Is this a candidate for Russell Ash’s and Brian Lake’s classic collectors’ guide Bizarre Books (1985)? Yes, I’d say so. It’s not as outré or eccentric as Who’s Who in Barbed Wire (“Containing ‘Names and addresses of active barbed wire collectors’”) or Walled Up Nuns and Nuns Walled In (“With Twenty Illustrations”), but few books are. I’ve certainly never seen a book about aphidology before.

I didn’t even know the word existed. Do aphids deserve a discipline of their own? I’ll let Thomas Aquinas answer that:

[C]ognitio nostra est adeo debilis quod nullus philosophus potuit unquam perfecte investigare naturam unius muscæ: unde legitur, quod unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis. – Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum (1273).

Our understanding is so weak that no philosopher can understand the nature of a single fly; whence it is read, that one philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness, that he might understand the nature of the bee.

For apis read aphis. The philosophus in this case may have begun his obsession like this:

Francis Walker seems first to have turned his attention to the study of aphids in the autumn of 1846 when he observed them swarming and ovipositing on furze. In the summer and autumn of the following year he made copious and systematic collections of such species as he could find in the neighbourhood of his home in Southgate, at that time a country town a few miles north of London. (“Walker’s Aphid Studies”, pg. 1)

Walker was employed as an entomologist at the British Museum and this book is an attempt to analyse what he collected and named. It’s very detailed and might seem very dry. But there’s a lot of food for the historic imagination in descriptions like this:

Aphis particeps Walker = Myzus persicae (Sulzer)

1848 Zoologist, 6, 2217.

1852 List Homopt. Ins. Brit. Mus., 4, 1011.

Collected with four other species from Cynoglossum officinale near Fleetwood, Lancashire, in October, and described as follows:

The wingless viviparous female. The body is pale brown, small, oval, shining, and rather flat; the antennae are pale yellow and longer than the body; the rostrum is pale yellow; its tip and the eyes are black: the tubes are pale yellow and rather more than one-fourth of the length of the body; the legs are pale yellow; the tips of the tarsi are black. (pg. 103)

Cynoglossum officinale is a purple-flowered, sand-growing wildflower whose common name is hound’s-tongue. The officinale of its specific name is a reference to its use in herbal medicine. In Anglo-Saxon times and the Middle Ages, herbalists or magicians would have been picking its leaves; in the nineteenth century, a scientist called Francis Walker was picking aphids off it.

There’s a vignette like that with many of the other descriptions, as Walker simultaneously collects aphids and moments of his own life. I think he must have been an odd and obsessive man, but he had colleagues, even although aphidology can never have been a crowded profession. The description for “Aphis bufo Walker = Iziphya bufo (Walker)” notes that this species was

Found in the beginning of October by the sea-shore near Fleetwood [Lancashire] on Lycopsis arvensis, the small bugloss; also by Mr. Hardy near Newcastle on Carex arenaria, sand reed, and by Mr. Haliday near Belfast. (pg. 37)

Were Walker, Hardy and Haliday rivals as much as colleagues? I like the idea of obsessive aphidologists racing each other to find and record new species. Francis Walker could have been a character in a story by Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells. Ernest Rutherford is said to have divided science into two branches: physics and stamp-collecting. That’s unfair, but aphidology and other branches of entomology and natural history are like subtler and stranger forms of stamp-collecting.

The similarities were stronger in Victorian times, before biology began to merge with chemistry and mathematics. Indeed, Walker began his collecting well before Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) and perhaps he didn’t like the new science. The preface to this book notes that “Walker’s name has come to be a by-word among insect taxonomists for his inaccuracy and superficiality”, but praises him for making a “significant and important advance in aphidological knowledge” and says that his “catalogues and lists formed the nucleus [of] the vast collections of today”.

“Today” was 1961, but this is a very neat and well-printed book in a solid green binding. I hope Francis Walker would have been pleased by it and by the thought that he’s inspired someone in the twenty-first century to look at aphids with new interest and wonder.

Read Full Post »

Philip’s Guide to Seashells (sic), A.P.H. Oliver, illustrated by James Nicholls (various dates)

Number is all, as the Pythagoreans recognized more than two millennia ago, but number is more obvious in some places than others. When you leaf through this book, you’re leafing through a catalogue of mathematical possibility: the endlessly varying shapes, sculptings, colours and patterns of seashells are in fact governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables. The black-spotted, drill-like spiral of Terebra sublata might look very different from the orange-tinged, flattened, scorpion-like Lambis crocata, with its seven curved spikes, but the two species descend from the same ancestor as every other shell on display.

From the same ancestor as shell-less land- and sea-slugs too. But readers should remember that this book is a morgue as well as a museum: rich and beautiful as the shells are, the living animals and their biology are richer and more beautiful still. The living animals are sometimes deadly too: the very beautiful cone-shells have killed humans with their stings.

But the shell remains when the animal is dead, and can be collected and studied in isolation. That’s why almost all of the book is devoted to the more or less snail-like univalves, with the more or less scallop-like bivalves given only a few pages at the end. Generally speaking, univalve shells are much stronger and much more durable. They’re also more varied in both architecture and patterning: anyone who’s played with cascading cellular automata will often find the designs on the shells of cowries and cone-shells startlingly familiar. But they were doing it millions of years before us.

The cowries have a sexual charge too, with their tight, pudendal slits: their generic name, Cypraea, is taken from a title of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The apertures of other genera gape and glisten even more suggestively, imitating the labia of every human race and many abhuman ones. Is that part of the appeal of shell-collecting? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to be, because it doesn’t appear in every shell and can’t be seen when the shells in which it does appear are turned over.

And they look better like that: Cypraea caputdraconis (sic), or the dragon’s-head cowrie, looks like unzipped black jeans lying on its back, but like a black, silver-flecked jewel lying on its front. It’s found only on Easter Island too, which is one of the many interesting snippets you can pick up from the short descriptions accompanying each highly skilled illustration.

But the illustrations aren’t, alas, as highly skilled as they could have been: in the reflections on many of them you can see the wooden dividers in the window of the room in which they were painted. That might have been quirkily attractive once or twice, but repeated over and over it becomes irritating. It could have been avoided, or the artist could have set up other reflections: palms, sea-birds, clouds, and even the moon or stars, as though the shells were still lying on a tropical beach.

Fortunately, it affects only the shiny and relatively undistorting surfaces of genera like the cowries and it’s only a minor blemish in a beautifully designed and well-written guide to a fascinating subject. And as always, the scientific names can have an appeal all of their own: we’ve already seen Cypraea caputdraconis, but what about Conus thalassiarchus, the Sea-Lord Cone, or Cirsotrema zelebori, whose meaning I have no idea of?

Read Full Post »

restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

Read Full Post »

A Sting in the Tale by Dave GoulsonA Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2013)

I was looking forward to this book a lot after reading A Buzz in the Meadow (2014), which is the follow-up. I was disappointed. It’s a good book, but it suffered by comparison, seeming scrappier and less well-written than Buzz. And perhaps I was comparing it with Gerald Durrell’s books too, because Goulson starts by describing his childhood as a budding naturalist. He kept birds, amphibians and reptiles, collected insects and birds’-eggs, and dabbled in taxidermy. Like Durrell, he had a lot of failures and made a lot of mistakes, but that was part of learning his future profession.

By the time he was grown-up and a proper biologist, he’d discovered his main interest: bumblebees, which are the chief subject of this book. If you’re interested in them too, A Sting in the Tale will be a good introduction to their fascinating world. They illuminate many areas of biology, from genetics to parasitism, and they’re important to human beings not just agriculturally but aesthetically too. The sound and sight of bumblebees are a wonderful part of summer. It would be a poorer and less interesting world without them, and it’s sad that some species are declining or have disappeared in the British Isles.

Goulson is fighting to re-buzz Britain. He describes how he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and how he’s trying to re-introduce the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, to Dungeness Nature Reserve in Kent. There’s still a thriving natural population in Sweden and a thriving introduced one in New Zealand, which was founded when British bees were taken there in the nineteenth century to pollinate clover. So should the re-introduction to Britain be from Sweden or New Zealand? Goulson thought that there would be “a beautiful symmetry to the idea of bringing back these bees to the UK from the other side of the world after a 126-year absence” (ch. 17, “Return of the Queen”, pg. 236). But the New Zealand bees are highly inbred and seem to descend from just two introduced queens (pg. 234).

So Swedish bumblebees were used in the end. The re-introduction is still under way and some of the questions it raises haven’t been answered. Why are short-haired bumblebees still thriving in Sweden when they’ve declined elsewhere in Europe? And why hasn’t that genetic bottleneck harmed them in New Zealand? Goulson suggests possible reasons, but bumblebees will be baffling biologists for a long time to come. They’re hard to track on the wing and to find when they’re inside their nests, which is why chapter eight is about “bumblebee sniffer dogs”. It turned out that the dog-handler was better at finding nests than the dogs were (pp. 105-6). Experiments often go awry and hypotheses are often confounded. Like A Buzz in the Meadow, this book gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a working scientist: it’s always fascinating, but often frustrating too.

Both books also lament the depredations of modern agriculture. And of modern horticulture: “bedding-plants have been intensively selected for size and colour, and in so doing they have lost their nectar, or become grossly misshapen or oversized so that it is impossible for bees to get to the rewards” (ch. 16, “A Charity Just for Bumblebees”, pg. 222). This means that “old-fashioned cottage garden perennials” are best: a “wildlife-friendly garden does not have to be a chaotic mass of nettles and brambles”. In the previous chapter, “Chez les Bourdons” (“At Home with the Bumblebees”), Goulson describes his attempt to establish a wildlife-friendly farm in France. That’s the tale he picks up in A Buzz in the Meadow, which uses the farm to discuss a wider variety of animals and plants than this book does.

Perhaps if I’d read the two books in the order he wrote them, I’d have enjoyed A Sting in the Tale more. As it is, the chapter I enjoyed most was “Chez les Bourdons”, which also supplied the most memorable – and gruesome – image in the book. Goulson says that kestrels catch and eat stag-beetles on warm summer evenings at his farm. But they discard the beetles’ heads, which “remain alive for a day or two, their antennae twitching and their great jaws slowly opening and closing” (pg. 203). Nature can be cruel and ugly as well as beautiful. But perhaps insects don’t suffer in any genuine sense. That’s one of the questions that biology is still to answer. In the meantime, Dave Goulson is doing a good job of explaining his science to the general reader.

Read Full Post »

19186368.jpgA Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)

A book that is both a rhapsody and a threnody: Dave Goulson celebrates nature and laments what we’re losing of it. This is what he says in the preface:

In 2003 I bought a derelict farm deep in the heart of rural France, together with thirteen hectares of surrounding meadow. My aim was to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place where butterflies, dragonflies, voles and newts could thrive, free from the pressures of modern agriculture. In particular I was keen to create a space for my beloved bumblebees, creatures I have spent the last twenty years studying and attempting to conserve. (pg. ix)

Bumblebees were the subject of his previous book, A Sting in the Tale (2013). I haven’t read that, but if it’s half as good as this I will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps it’s better: Goulson is a biologist who can both educate and entertain. Expect the unexpected here: he writes about bumblebees and wild-flowers with the same enthusiasm as he writes about cheese and wine.

He’s also good at using the particular to illustrate the general. You’ll learn a lot about science and the scientific method here, from the “robotic beetle drum” he used to study death-watch beetles to the creation of “mathematical models” for predicting outbreaks of flies at a landfill site. Biology is full of puzzles and solving one often creates another. Not that they are always easy to solve: failure and frustration are part of science too and Goulson is happy to admit his own.

But he isn’t happy about the loss of wild habitats and the quickening pace of extinctions. Homo sapiens could also be called Homo exterminans:

New Zealand was colonised much more recently, about 1,000 years ago. As there were no mammals apart from bats, giant birds evolved there, including at least eleven species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 metres high, the tallest bird ever to live. They must have been terribly easy to track and kill, for carbon-dating of Maori middens suggests that all eleven species were driven to extinction within just 100 years of man’s arrival. (ch. 15, pg. 242; his emphasis)

It’s a long way from French meadows to Maori middens, as the crow flies, but similar themes apply: humans have exercised power over nature without proper thought for the consequences. Science is giving us more power all the time, but will it kill us or cure us? Dave Goulson is a scientist who increases my hope of the latter.

He also links apparently disparate parts of biology: parasites are part of both botany and entomology. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that exploits grasses and the bumblebees that visit it are parasitized by mites. The world is a web in more ways than one and many aspects of the web are described in this happy, hopeful and highly enjoyable book.

Read Full Post »

Butterflies and Moths in Britain and Europeby David CarterButterflies and Moths in Britain and Europe, David Carter, designed by Roger Phillips (Pan 1982)

I like all the lepidoptera, but the butterflies in this book seem drab and uninspiring set against the moths, which are astonishing creatures visually, behaviourally and evolutionarily. Butterflies receive much more attention and they aren’t often presented beside their smaller relatives as they are here. In the tropics, they would meet the challenge better. In northern Europe, they’re second-best. Northern moths come in a huge variety of gorgeous patterns and shapes, but their beauty and interest suffer more when they’re dead and pinned in an entomological cabinet.

Comparing the dead specimens with the photographs from life, you can see that there’s an elegant self-sufficiency about a moth at rest. Many of them look like crosses between priests and dandies wearing richly embroidered cloaks, sometimes trimmed with fur, and either drawn close to the body or stretched wide in deltas and vees. Even their antennæ could be ritual hats and tiaras. But it’s hard to generalize about such a vast collection of genera and species and some moths look like clowns instead: the scarlet-and-black or yellow-and-black arctiids, whose colors warn predators off.

Their sounds warn predators off too. Bats don’t hunt by sight, so night-flying arctiids generate high-pitched sounds to advertise their inedibility. But just as some harmless moths have evolved to look like wasps, shedding scales on their first flight to leave suitably transparent patches on their wings, so some have evolved to sound like the arctids: there are sonic mimics as well as visual ones. Elsewhere evolution hasn’t added but subtracted: some female moths don’t have wings at all. The females of some species sit and wait for mates and look more like spiders than insects. One of my favourite moths, on the other hand, has multiplied its wings: the pure white Pterophorus pentadactyla, or large white plume moth, looks much the same when pinned to a collector’s board as it does resting on a leaf, because it holds its quintuply-split, silkily-fringed wings “at right angles to the body and folds its legs backwards so that it looks like a letter T.”

Other moths carry letters on their wings rather than in their postures: the wings of the silver y, or Autographa gamma, say something in both English and Greek, as its common and scientific names denote, but I can’t work out which “Hebrew character” the moth of that name is supposed to carry. Its scientific name, Orthosia gothica, isn’t any help. On the other hand, the Mother Shipton, or Callistege mi, really does seem to have two long-nosed, long-jawed crones looking at each other on left and right wings: Mother Shipton was a “famous Yorkshire witch”.

This species reminds me of the contrast between the beauty of moths and their very ugly and alien larvæ and pupæ, some of which can also generate sounds to warn off predators. Aesthetically and intellectually moths are worth investigating, and this book is an excellent place to start. It’s not only well-designed, well-written, and with some very beautiful photographs, it has a separate food-plant index too, running from Abies, or “fir”, to Vitis, or “vine”.

Read Full Post »

Freshwater Fish ed. by Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-ArayaThe Complete Illustrated Guide to Freshwater Fish & River Creatures, Daniel Gilpin and Dr Jenny Schmid-Araya (Hermes House 2011)

Fresh-water fish are special in part because fresh water seemingly isn’t. It’s the transparent stuff that human beings drink and bathe in. It’s an everyday thing that, in most parts of the world, falls regularly from the sky. And yet very strange creatures live in it: fish, which breathe water and drown in air. That inversion of normality doesn’t seem so remarkable in the sea: the saltiness of the water doesn’t seem to contradict the strangeness of the citizens, as it were. Instead, saltiness and citizens go together.

The difficulty of keeping a marine aquarium seems appropriate too. What else should you expect? But a freshwater aquarium seems special in part because it’s so simple. Even if the water has to be heated, it still seems everyday, like bathwater. But it’s bathwater with aliens in it.

In truth, of course, it’s human beings who are the aliens. Water is where life began. Fish are still there, breathing in the natural way, not the unnatural one. The ocean is the womb of life and when life left the ocean, it had to find ways to re-create it. Blood is a portable ocean and human beings have gills for a time when they’re embryos. We were fish once. Fish still are. But they’ve continued to evolve and to find new habitats. As the introduction to this book points out, moving from the sea to fresh water is like moving from a continent to an island. The world shrinks and fresh-water fish don’t generally have such big ranges as marine ones. Some species are confined to single rivers or single lakes or even single pools, which makes them vulnerable to pollution and desiccation.

But some fish can survive desiccation:

West African lungfish, Protopterus annectens

This fish inhabits temporary swamps and floodplains. When these habitats start to dry, the fish buries itself in the mud and secretes a thin layer of slime around its body. This dries to form a fragile cocoon which helps to maintain moisture. By slowing its body metabolism, it can survive within this cocoon for a year or more, although it normally re-emerges within a few months, when the rains return. … Once the water within its burrow has [evaporated] it relies entirely on its primitive lung to obtain oxygen. (“Africa: Knifefish, Elephantfish, Bichir and Lungfish”, pg. 157)

So lungfish are a step towards life on land. Elsewhere, other fish step in other directions. Electrophorus electricus, the electric eel of South America, isn’t truly an eel but is truly alien. It uses electricity both as a weapon and as a sense, because it lives where vision isn’t always useful: in the “calm, turbid waters” of streams, rivers and swamps (“South America: Sharks, Rays, Sawfish and Electric Eel”, pg. 127). Some cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes entirely, like Typhlichthys subterraneus, the southern cavefish of Tennessee and Kentucky (pg. 111).

But Toxotes chatareus, the archerfish of Asia and northern Australia, has excellent eyesight, because it can squirt jets of water and “shoot insects” from overhanging branches up to five feet away: “Once it has knocked its target into the water it darts across to snap it up” (“Asia and Oceania: Other Perch-Like Fish”, pg. 231).

This makes it popular with some aquarists. Other fish are popular for their appearance, not their behaviour. Fresh-water fish can’t match the range of colour and patterns found in salt-water fish, but a shoal of neon or cardinal tetras, Paracheirodon innesi and P. axelrodi, is like a cloud of swimming jewels. Surprisingly for such a well-known aquarium fish, the neon tetra is restricted “in the wild to the tributary streams of the Solimões River, which flows into the Amazon” (“South America: Tetras”, pg. 140).

The paintings here capture the beauty of both species: one of the good things about the natural history series to which this encyclopaedia belongs is that it uses paintings to illustrate the main text, not photography. Capturing the shine, shape and colour of fish is a challenge to artists, so when they meet the challenge their art rewards the observer. The amphibians, reptiles and mammals also covered here are less challenging, so less rewarding, but they’re few in number and fish dominate the book. I like that dominance and I like the maps that open each geographic section. Rivers and lakes are prominently marked, from the Amazon to the Mississippi, from the Nile to the Euphrates, from Lake Victoria to the Caspian Sea. There’s lots of interesting information here and lots of attractive art.

Fish are strange creatures and that strangeness seems to strengthen in that everyday liquid we call fresh water. But water is strange too, wherever you find it and whatever it tastes like. It’s still being studied, still throwing up surprises, despite the simplicity of its composition: two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. We should remember that as we read books like this.

Read Full Post »

Flora by Sandra KnappFlora: An Artistic Voyage through the World of Plants, Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum 2014)

There’s a phantom at this floral feast: photography. How much did we lose when it became easy to capture accurate images of the world with a camera? How much do we continue to lose? The botanical drawings and paintings here are almost sacramental in their intensity: beautiful natural objects receive the care and attention they deserve. Wordsworth said this: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give | Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

The artists represented here understood what he meant. So does Sandra Knapp, the botanist who collects and commentates their art in this beautiful book. She complements it with serious science too as she discusses twenty broad groups of plants, from arums and water-lilies to palms and grasses, from daffodils and poppies to roses and morning-glories. Tulips too, whose vivid patterns are produced in an unusual way:

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

The fantastic red and purple feathers and flames that appear as if by magic on tulips are not the result of man’s interference with nature, but are a viral disease transmitted by aphids. […] There are many varied viral diseases of plants, but tulip-breaking virus is the only one known to increase the infected plants’ value. Tulip plants infected by tulip-breaking virus have blotchy, mottled leaves and intricate and finely patterned petals, and appear as if hand-painted in pure colour. The variegated effect is caused by interference of the virus in the plant’s production of anthocyanins (pigments responsible for producing the reds and blues of flowers), without which the background colour shows through, pure white or yellow. (“Tulips”, pg. 294)

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

But this book isn’t just about colourful and scented plants: it also covers conifers, with their odd and interesting cones. They include some of the largest plants on earth, like Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant redwood. The heathers, on the other hand, are often tiny and easy to overlook, but they can introduce some big themes:

There are more than 750 species of Erica in South Africa – with the proteas and restionads, they are one of the three main constituents of fynbos, the characteristic and wonderful vegetation of the Cape region. The Cape fynbos [Afrikaans for “fine bush”] has been described as a wonder of the world, a statement with which it is impossible to disagree. Imagine an area the size of Portugal or the state of Virginia with more than 8000 native species of flowering plants, more than half of which are endemic (found nowhere else on earth). (“Heathers”, pg. 255)

Flora is a fynboek, a “fine book”. Serious science, enchanting images, and literary quotes that range from Robert Burns and Ovid to Frank L. Baum and Zhu Pu: Sandra Knapp has combed archives, combined disciplines and created something worthy of its beautiful subjects.

Read Full Post »

Neanderthal Man by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

An excellent guide to science in all its aspects, from theory and practice to sociology and politics, describing how scientists think, work, live, love and sometimes cheat. It’s a book about bones, but it made me think about stars. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte set an absolute limit on the ambitions of astronomy:

On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us. — Comte quote

Comte seemed completely right, but was in fact completely wrong. Fraunhofer had already discovered his lines by then and one day astronomers would be using “spectroscopic fingerprints” to “determine the mineralogy of asteroids, the composition of stars, the gravity of white dwarfs, the motions of galaxies, the dynamics of accreting black holes, and more – all from the comfort of a telescope control room” (30-Second Astronomy, ed. François Fressin, 2013).

Comte could have easily have said something similar about palaeontology, but perhaps it seemed too obvious. How much would scientists ever discover from ancient bones? They could weigh them, measure them, compare and contrast them, even analyse their chemical composition, but what would bones ever tell us about the flesh that had once sat on them, about the behaviour of vanished bodies? Very little, it once seemed.

A lot, it turned out, because of something called DNA. This book is about one of the most interesting projects in scientific history: the quest to reconstruct the genome of those long-extinct humans called Neanderthals. Except they’re not entirely extinct, as Svante Pääbo discovered: their genes live on in some modern humans, because we interbred with Neanderthals when we left Africa. Some of us also interbred with a group called the Denisovans, as Pääbo describes too. And there are other groups of archaic interbreeders to be uncovered, inside and outside Africa. Groups of human have separated, evolved differences, and then come together again, but not consistently and completely.

This has big implications for human bio-diversity, or HBD: races are different not just because they’ve evolved to be, but because they’ve interbred to be. Pääbo doesn’t discuss those implications, but there’s no propaganda here about “One Race – the Human Race”. The journey he and his team have begun is going to end in storm and lightning, because Neanderthal genes are doing more than stick around for the ride. They must have physiological and psychological effects, separating those who possess them from those who don’t. Ditto for the Denisovans and others.

So the search isn’t over and this book will have sequels. I look forward to reading them, because Pääbo writes well and engagingly in what isn’t his mother-tongue. Born in Sweden, he’s now “director of Department of Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”. For an evolutionary anthropologist, he’s very famous: “In 2009, Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World”. He describes how he got there, the compromises he had to make and the toes he tried – and sometimes failed – to avoid treading on. But it’s mostly a story of obsession and ingenuity: Pääbo was obsessed with reconstructing a Neanderthal genome and had to be highly ingenious to do so. Luck and hunches were important too:

Most labs discard side fractions as by-products. Fortunately we had saved all of ours from our previous experiments. For years I had insisted on doing so, just in case something came along that would make them useful. This was easily one of my least popular ideas and caused many freezers to be filled with frozen side fractions that no one thought would ever be used. But thankfully in this case the crazy idea of the professor had been adhered to by the group. So now Tomi could simply heat the side fractions from earlier preparations from the Vindija bones and retrieve additional, relatively copious amounts of Neanderthal DNA without having to do any more extractions. (ch. 13, “The Devil in the Details”, pg. 145)

Pääbo is writing a popular account, so there isn’t a lot of technical detail, but there’s more than enough to be impressive. Genetics isn’t stamp-collecting: it requires serious intellect and nowadays serious computer-power and programming too. Pääbo couldn’t do all of that on his own: modern science is a collaborative endeavour. He directs a team and this book describes their ingenuity and idiosyncrasies. But in a way they’re a burial party. Science is now measuring mankind for its coffin. The more we know about ourselves, the more we will be able to surpass ourselves. This book about an obsessive human is also an early obituary for the human race.

Read Full Post »

Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »