Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)


An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

BIOLOGY HAS GREAT POTENTIAL as vulgar entertainment. For that matter, so do geology, ecology, paleontology, and the history of astronomy. Browsing at the intricacies of the natural world and at the lives and works of the scientists who map that world can be fascinating, mesmeric, outrageous good fun. Alas, it can also be heart-squashingly boring. Edifying but deadly, like the novels of Henry James. Or just harmlessly quaint—nature as vast curio shop with an inventory tending to cuteness. The crucial difference, at least to my biased view, is in the angle of approach. The choice of perspective. Lively writing about science and nature depends less on the offering of good answers, I think, than on the offering of good questions.

My own taste runs toward such as What are the redeeming merits, if any, of the mosquito? Or Why is the act of sex invariably fatal for some species of salmon? Or Are crows too intelligent for their station in life? Why do certain bamboo species wait 120 years before bursting into bloom? How do seals stay cool in the Arctic? Does a termite colony constitute many little animals or one big one? Or, perhaps best of all, Why are there so many different species of beetle?

That last question has enthralled me for years—ever since I came across the delightful and mind-opening fact that one of every four animals on Earth (by count of the number of species) is, yes, a beetle.

This is actually a conservative estimate, reflecting only the number of animal species that have been discovered and identified by science. Add up all the known species of mammals and birds and reptiles and amphibians, all the fishes and crustaceans and protoplasmic tentacle-waving sea creatures, every brand of zooplankton that has ever been given a name, every type of worm, every flea every mite every spider, also of course every insect on the current entomological roster, and the total comes to around 1.25 million known species of animal. Of that vast assemblage, one in four is a beetle.

We’re talking about an order called Coleoptera, containing 300,000 officially described species. And new beetles are being discovered almost every time some scientist waves a net through a rainforest. (A Smithsonian entomologist named Terry Erwin believes, from his study of jungle canopy in Peru, that there might be as many as 12 million species of beetle.)

Each of those 300,000 described species conforms to the basic coleopteran pattern: an insect showing complete metamorphosis (progressing from egg to larva, then pupa, then adult) which in its adult form has biting mouthparts, a pair of front wings drastically modified into hard protective covers (called elytra), a pair of lighter rear wings underneath those covers, and an extraordinarily strong cuticle over the whole body that looks like, and functions as, a suit of armor plating.

Within that basic pattern there is an unimaginable variety of shapes and colors and life strategies—vicious pinchers and rhinoceros horns on the head, anteater snouts, antennae like the most elaborate TV aerial, snapping hinges between thorax and abdomen that allow certain species to turn somersaults, light fixtures for signaling mates after dark, beetles as small as a sesame seed, beetles as large as a mouse, long scrawny beetles and husky broad-shouldered ones, leaf-eaters and fungus-eaters and meat-eaters, some that live underwater in rivers, some that burrow subway tunnels along the cambium layer of trees, some that gather and roll huge Sisyphean balls of dung. They are a very old as well as a very successful group of animals, dating back almost 250 million years, and in that stretch of eons they have had ample time to diversify. But cockroaches are equally old. So are dragonflies. So are sharks. So are lizards. Why, then, are there so cotton-pickin’ many species of Coleoptera? Why 300,000 variations?

I don’t know. I don’t know of anyone who knows. I’m still waiting for some evolutionary biologist to propose a convincing explanation—but my secret hope is that no one can or will.

Meanwhile the famed British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane has left us a valuable comment on this subject. Besides being an eminent scientist from a family of eminent scientists, Haldane was well known in the 1930s as a Marxist and a curmudgeon. Oral tradition among biologists records that Haldane was once cornered by a group of theologians. One of them asked what inferences a person could draw from a study of the created world as to the nature of the Creator. Haldane answered: “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

As it happens, J.B.S. Haldane also believed that science has great potential as vulgar entertainment. During the 1930s and 1940s he wrote a long series of science essays for the general public, most of which appeared in the Daily Worker. These short pieces had titles such as “Why I Admire Frogs,” “Living in One’s Skeleton,” “Some Queer Beasts,” and (following a case of theft from the British Museum, for which one entomologist went to prison) “Why Steal Beetles?” In spending his considerable wit and his precious working time to produce hundreds of popular essays, Haldane was perhaps the first in a tradition that is now burgeoning: the tradition of scientists who write graceful and accessible essays on scientific subjects for a lay readership.

Loren Eiseley continued that tradition, and today it is rich with the work of Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, Freeman Dyson, Alan Lightman, Robert S. Desowitz, and others. I would love to be able to claim a modest toehold in the same tradition. But I can’t and I don’t. Because I’m not a scientist.

What I am is a dilettante and a haunter of libraries and a snoop, the sort of person who has his nose in the way constantly during other people’s field trips, asking too many foolish questions and occasionally scribbling notes. My own formal scientific training has been minuscule (and confined largely to the ecology of rivers). Gould and Thomas and Lightman actually do science, in addition to writing about it. I merely follow science. In my other set of pajamas I’m not a biologist but a novelist.

This autobiographical information is offered not because I imagine it has any inherent interest but in a spirit of disclaimer, an effort at truth in packaging. The following is not a diet book nor a detective novel nor a collection of essays by a reputable scientist. Nor is it, for that matter, a string of straightforward dispatches from a “science reporter.” It is the work of an outsider who is broadly curious but who can never remember the difference between meiosis and mitosis, who has nevertheless been invited to write on scientific subjects by a small number of charming but gullible magazine editors, who tries hard to keep the facts straight, who is not shy about offering opinions, and whose purpose in these pieces has been divided about equally between edification and vaudeville.

In the course of pondering what to say in this introduction, I invented an old saying that goes: “Put a magazine writer between hard covers, and immediately he thinks he’s an essayist.”

Of course I’m no exception. In defense of that claim, I can say only that 1) the first section of this book, “All God’s Vermin,” was taking form in my head as a sequence of essays long before I began making my living from magazine work, and 2) I have tried to shape nearly all of these pieces as essays more than as features or profiles or articles, because old magazines go to the recycling center, whereas old books of essays are allowed to turn yellow with dignity on the shelf. (This doesn’t apply to the piece called “The Excavation of Jack Horner,” which is clearly a profile, commissioned by Esquire as such.) But please don’t ask me to define “essay,” because the atmosphere could quickly grow ponderous. Um, it’s a filigreed editorial whose author doesn’t know just which side he has argued until he reads the rough typescript. It’s a small wobbly verbal dirt bike used for exploring the intellectual backcountry, modest in horsepower yet under imperfect control of the cyclist. See what I mean about the atmosphere?

During the same time span from which these pieces come, I also wrote others that were definitely not essays—they were profiles or articles or reviews. Them you are being spared. The recycling center has swallowed them already.

More important than categorizing the pieces of this book, though, is saying what unites them: subject matter and point of view. The subject matter is nature and the nature of science, with excursions into freshwater biology, geology, entomology, theoretical ecology, the history of astronomy, preservation issues, the role of bats in literature. The point of view is generally oblique and (or so I flatter myself) counterintuitive. My ambition has been to offer some small moments of constructive disorientation in the way nature is seen and thought about. Along the way I have been drawn in particular toward certain creatures that are conventionally judged repulsive, certain places that are conventionally judged desolate, certain humans and ideas that are conventionally judged crazy.

I have also found more fascination in the questions than in the answers. And here’s a further question. On what grounds might we assume or hope that—despite the awesome puissance of modern science—any fertile mysteries still abide, unsolved, in the natural world? I can think of 300,000 reasons.