Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What We're Reading: New Natural History

Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death ,
by Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich is a physical ecologist and gifted natural history writer. He has written 15 previous books, many of which have been complemented by his own natural history drawings. He may be best known for his books, The Thermal Warriors, Bumblebee Economics, and Mind of the Raven. All of these books focus on a particular subject and grew out of his personal research and scientific observations. He has written other books that might be characterized as topical miscellanies, books like Winter World and Summer World, which loosely group together a variety of natural history subjects and reflect projects and fields of inquiry that may have had a gestation period of many years. Life Everlasting is similar to the miscellany books, and the animal habits explored are all related to the general subject of how animals recycle dead organisms into new life. Not all of the examples are drawn from firsthand observation and experiment, but most are. There is a chapter on how beetles bury mice and use their remains as nutrients for their larvae, chapters on vultures, dung eaters, salmon, a very interesting exposition on how large whale carcasses are disposed of by various nautical creatures, and--perhaps most interesting because of the challenges it presents to our confidence that we can classify and order everything in the natural world--a chapter on animals that undergo metamorphosis. Is the changed organism indeed the same organism? How did this process come about in nature? Is metamorphosis some strange yoking of what in fact are separate genomes?

As always, the hallmark of Heinrich’s essays is the firsthand account you get, the sense of immediacy, the feeling that you are there with him as he discovers and reveals to the reader the way things work in nature. What becomes apparent is that we know so little of how animals work, about the details of their lives and survival, the purposes of their evolutionary design, and how they fit into the ecosystem. It is important to note that the knowledge that Heinrich discovers and shares with us is not necessarily lost knowledge; it is not a lore that was once known and has died out with “traditional” peoples and cultures. Much of what Heinrich imparts is knowledge that has come from the methods and rigor of observations associated with the Enlightenment and the scientific method. Our ancestors developed knowledge about certain behaviors and the ecology of wildlife for very practical ends, learning how animals behaved in order to hunt them or to avoid the danger they might pose to human health or agriculture. They came to know things of necessity, not out of curiosity or from a disinterested desire to know how things worked. What they learned, what they observed, or what they thought about nature often became the material of large metaphors about the way the world was created and explanations for how life, at the time not empirically verifiable, worked. And natural history extrapolated into myth often made a myth and its value more important than the accuracy of the natural history that had inspired it.

So one of the questions that shadows any book of natural history we read today, including Heinrich’s interesting expositions, is, What is the value of learning about how different organisms work and their place in an ecosystem? The ingenious bio-mechanical functioning of organisms is fascinating, knowing how the immutable principles of physics must be addressed in the evolved design, economy, and functioning of an animal, and understanding how each species makes its particular adaption and accommodation to these “rules” is a knowledge that brings a certain assurance and sense of order for us to the natural world. But once you’ve got the general idea and have abstracted the principles, why is more of this kind of knowledge of importance to us? We know much about the taxonomy of species, but for most species we only have a vague and incomplete understanding of the full range of their behavior. There are species we have not even identified, and there are species that will become extinct before anyone ever observes and catalogues them. In what way is this neglect or loss harmful to us? Although it is arguable, and there are disputes over what things are important to know and what may not be, it would appear that we don’t need to know everything about the world in order to successfully survive in it.

I keep reading Heinrich’s books even though I don’t read them with the idea that what I will learn will have any applicable or impending practical value to me. How a couple of beetles are able to move the carcass of a mouse many times bigger than themselves and bury it for their future sustenance is not information I intend to use any time soon. That suggests that the value of knowing these things or wanting to know them resides, perhaps, on some more ancient and instinctual plane. Curiosity seems to be something we value for its own sake, and we take a certain satisfaction in learning how things work. It may have killed the cat, but curiosity was a habit of mind that in turn allowed humans to survive, to use what they learned to spin imaginative scenarios and to make predictions that had tangible, substantial, and immediate rewards. Another persistent theme of Heinrich’s is that an intimate knowledge of the particular is suggestive of characteristic interrelationships of organisms in nature and of the complexity of ecosystems. The knowledge of the particular adumbrates a whole that is hard for us to otherwise fully imagine and embrace. We have as much a programmed need for the macro view as we do for the details. Confronted with those essentials we have the opportunity to rekindle curiosity and some sense of wonder about the world, but, more importantly, this is the ground from which our abiding myths and their meaning spring, the place of knowledge from which new myths are made and old ones re-imagined, as one is here in Life Everlasting, where the ecclesiastical notion of everlasting life is brought down from the empyrean to give us understanding of how life on earth ever recreates itself and goes on.

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