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Posts Tagged ‘Poison’

Front cover of Steve Backshall's Most Poisonous CreaturesSteve Backshall’s Most Poisonous Creatures, Steve Backshall (New Holland 2013)

As the BBC naturalist Steve Backshall says in his introduction: “Human beings have an unhealthy obsession with any animal that can maim or mutilate, and those that deliver venom are obviously high on our fascination list.” But is it unhealthy? It’s wise to pay attention to dangerous things and it’s possible that some animals in this book have become part of our DNA. Human beings were once monkeys and monkeys have an instinctive fear of snakes (though it needs to be primed). If there’s an instinctive fear of snakes, why not of spiders and scorpions too?

There are lots of snakes in this book, but not so many spiders and few scorpions. The latter two are a more specialized taste and a popular book doesn’t want too many of them. Snakes often inspire respect, spiders and scorpions often inspire repulsion. As do centipedes and cane-toads. Some venomous animals look villainous, some poisonous ones look painful. Some don’t. Phyllobates terribilis is “believed to have enough poison to kill ten men”. But it’s a harmless-looking golden frog shown here perched on a scarlet flower (pg. 10). If you saw one, you’d feel like picking it up. Which would be a very bad idea.

That also applies to the two species of blue-ringed octopus, Hapalochlaena lunulata and H. maculosa, found around the Australian coast. Again, it’s a very bad idea to pick one up: “one tiny, golf-ball-sized octopus can have enough venom to kill 26 people” (pg. 115). That combination of delicacy and deadliness gives a special power to the poison-dart frogs and the blue-ringed octopus. Australia’s deadliest snake is more conventionally disturbing:

The most powerful venom, drop for drop, is produced by the inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidatus): a single drop from this beautiful snake is enough to kill 250,000 mice and by extrapolation, 100 people! However, no-one has ever been killed by one. This is mainly because they are shy snakes that tend to avoid human contact. (pg. 120)

Australia is famous for strange and dangerous wildlife, but its cars are much deadlier than its snakes or octopuses. Less dangerous, but even stranger is the duckbilled platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus. Very few mammals lay eggs and very few use venom. The platypus does both, though not at the same time: the females lay eggs and the males use venom, injecting it with “moveable spurs on the rear legs” (pg. 118). One Vietnam veteran who experienced a platypus sting said it was more painful than a bullet-wound.

But there’s even more toxicological strangeness in that part of the world: Papua New Guinea has at least one poisonous bird, Pitohui dichrous, the hooded pitohui. It uses the batracho-toxins first discovered in, and named for, the poison-dart frogs of South America, just as the blue-ringed octopus uses the tetrodotoxin first discovered in, and named for, the pufferfish, Tetraodontidae spp. All these groups get their deadly chemicals from their diet: insects, plankton and so on.

So why don’t they die from their diet? That’s one of the interesting questions about the animals in this book: their venoms and poisons have to be dangerous to others and harmless to themselves. It’s a question of chemistry, one way or another. Either the animal has a way of neutralizing the effects of its own poisons or it stores them away from the rest of its body, creating some kind of barrier to their spread. Richard Dawkins has described evolution as a blind watchmaker, but the watchmaker is really a chemist. And an electro-chemist. Nerve-signals, and the toxins that interfere with them, don’t run on copper wires. They flash through flesh instead, carrying the pain of a bite or sting. Or the patterns of a dangerous animal’s skin or scales: it pays to advertise when you’re poisonous. And perhaps some feathers are advertising too: Backshall suggests the birds of paradise on New Guinea may look spectacular as a warning for predators, not simply as a signal for mates.

Poisonous birds are a recent discovery and there may be more surprises in store: biology is a big field, though Backshall ends the book by noting that it’s getting smaller. More people mean less space for fewer animals and pollution is the deadliest poison of all. Another big poison is television: it dulls more brains and stifles more minds than anything Mother Nature ever devised. But this book wouldn’t exist without TV and Homo sapiens is part of nature, just like shrews, salamanders and slow lorises. We’ve just added more complexity to the game of evolution: we haven’t escaped it. The rules that apply to animals also apply to us and toxicology is one of the most interesting areas of biology. This is a good introduction full of photos, folklore and facts about everything from snakes, octopuses and platypuses to jellyfish, water-boatmen and the Komodo dragon.

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Front cover of Watch You Bleed by Stephen DavisWatch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns n’ Roses, Stephen Davis (Michael Joseph 2008)

The back cover calls the book “AN EPIC TALE OF EXCESS, DEBAUCHERY, ADDICTION, PARANOIA, MANIA AND GREAT F**KING MUSIC”. It gets five out of six right. Stephen Davis is also the author of the Led-Zeppography Hammer of the Gods, first published in 1985. Since then, his writing has got better and his subjects have got worse. I don’t like Led Zeppelin much and I don’t think Robert Plant is a very good singer. But Led Zep sound good set beside Guns n’ Roses. They sound subtle too. A few of GNR’s songs start well. I forget what happens to them after that. As for “November Rain”… Sheesh. It’s so wrong on so few levels that it’s probably prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Yes, you understand American foreign policy better after hearing – and watching – what GNR do to rock music:

Niven cautions that Guns didn’t think Spinal Tap was funny. (ch. 6, “The Big Guns n’ Roses Adventure”, pg. 159)

But the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR isn’t that they found success while based in Los Angeles. That isn’t fatal for a band. Mötley Crüe did too, but they are entertainingly cartoonish. GNR are obnoxiously cartoonish. No, the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR is simple: W. Axl Rose. Davis holds his nose – hard – and takes the lid off the kid from Lafayette, Indiana. Racism, sexism, homophobia, killing small dogs – it’s all here in unflinching detail. But Axl has a bad side too. And the cycling shorts are by no means the worst of it. There’s also the plagiarism:

Then something crucial happened. Photographer Robert John took Axl to see a group he was shooting: Shark Island, the house band at Gazzari’s on the Strip. Shark Island was supposed to be a great metal band, but they were too fond of melodies, plus their hair was all wrong, and so they would never break out of the L.A. metal circuit. But Richard Black, Shark Island’s lead singer, was a charismatic front man with killer stage moves, the kind of small-venue choreography that could make a packed club break out in a communal, drenching sweat and get the joint rocking on its foundations. Axl watched Richard Black with total fascination and then proceeded to appropriate his act. …

According to Robert John, “In Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, Axl jumped straight up and down, holding onto the mike stand for balance. Axl later admitted he’d got the whole snake move, that S-curve, from Richard. He once told me that he even wanted Richard to somehow get credit for this. Most of Axl’s moves” – the headlong run across the stage, the furious stomp, holding the mike stand straight out with both hands, the blatantly sexual snake dance – “that’s all Richard Black.” (ch. 4, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 60-1)

In a better world, Shark Island might have had the big success and GNR the bit-part in their four-hundred-page biography. But success would probably have corrupted Shark Island too and swollen Richard Black’s head. Still, it’s impossible to believe that they would ever have become as bloated and excessive as GNR or that Black could ever have out-assholed Axl. GNR are one of the Big Three among the bands that I hate. The other two are The Clash and Oasis. But GNR are odious in a more entertaining way than those two. I can’t imagine even picking up a biography of The Clash. And if I ever try a biography of Oasis, it will be strictly out of primatological interest. This, on the other hand, is a readable book about risible people. I couldn’t read all of it, but it’s hard to believe Stephen Davis doesn’t sometimes feel the same about the people:

One time, after [Bret] Michael [of Poison] had slagged Guns, Axl confronted Poison backstage and told them, to their face, that they sucked. Bobby Dall, whose band already had a record deal, replied: “Maybe fucking so – but you gotta suck, sometimes, to make it in this business – and you guys will never make it at all.”

This stuck in Axl’s craw. Sucking was against everything W. Axl Rose believed in. (ch. 3, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 74-5)

That’s funny and I hope that Davis meant it to be. But the joke wears thin well before the end of this book. Okay, three of the band – Axl, Slash and Duff McKagan – looked good for a bit, early on, but the best thing GNR ever did was inspire this article in The Guardian:

Minute five: Is mainly taken up with Slash being a rock god. For those readers who are unfamiliar with this song – which is possibly a criminal act, may I add – you know when Regina Spektor sings “The solo’s real long, but it’s a pretty song” in “On the Radio”? This is the solo she means.

A helicopter flies around Slash, giving us rockgodness from all angles, although possibly putting his cigarette out in the process, which is not a bad thing, as it will kill you.

Smoking, I mean, not guitar solos. Although if any guitar solo could kill, it would be this one. You can tell Slash is a rock god because his stance is so wide he is almost doing the splits. (Read on: Guns N’ Roses – November Rain)


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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