Quammen: The Boilerplate Rhino

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David Quammen, The Boilerplate Rhine : Nature in the Eye of the Beholder. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2000. 287 pages, with bibliography and index.

For background, here's the blurb from the back cover of the book:

In 1981 David Quammen began what might be every freelance writer's dream: a monthly column for Outside magazine in which he could write about anything that interested him in the natural world. His column was called "Natural Acts," and for the next fifteen years he delighted Outside's readers with his fascinating ruminations on the world around us. The Boilerplate Rhino brings together twenty-five of Quammen's most thoughtful and engaging essays from that column, none previously printed in any of his earlier books.

The essays were published originally between 1988 and 1995. The good thing about a collection of essays like this is that if one doesn't particularly please, there's always another; the drawback, of course, is that the author never gets to dig into his topic further than about 3,000 words.

Fortunately, Quammen is a master of the short form, and his essays have a satisfying blend of observation, fact, analysis, and personal reflection. For many of his essays he traveled to remote islands in the south pacific and reported on the odd and unfamiliar things he found there. While I'm not a big fan of exotic adventure writing, I enjoyed the experiences Quammen shared. I also tend to prefer the physical sciences over the biological sciences – probably from familiarity – but I find Quammen's essays informative and entertaining, his writing pleasant.

Some entertained more, some appealed less – probably due to my own interests – but none were dull or unreadable. On the other hand, I do have a taste for wide-ranging essays and my attention will certainly be attracted by anyone who can make sense – and new understanding – of combining a discussion of slime molds and Alan Turing, or deep-sea animals and homosexual octopuses.

Here is a short but informative historical portrait of nutmeg, complete with literary allusion:

Today we think of nutmeg as a sweet, cloying, decidedly minor spice, seldom pulled off the shelf except for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dessert. In earlier times, its utility was more broad. At the end of the twelfth century, for instance, when Emperor Henry VI entered Rome before his coronation, the streets of the city were fumigated with nutmeg. Chaucer mentioned it in The Canterbury Tales as a seasoning for ale, and a fifteenth-century cookbook includes nutmeg (as well as saffron, cinnamon, pepper, and cloves, which were other precious imports from the Indies) in recipes for rabbit and chicken. The Middle Ages were a spice-hungry era, more given to excess than to subtlety, at least in the kitchens of the gentry and clergy. A social historian named Wolfgang Schivelbusch has written that banquet dishes "were virtually buried under spices; food was little more than a vehicle for condiments which were used in combinations we nowadays would consider quite bizarre." Furthermore, a spice platter was sometimes passed down the table like a relish tray. "Guests helped themselves, adding spices as desired to the already seasoned dish, or they used the tray as a cheese or dessert platter. They consumed pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg as we nowadays partake of a delicacy, a glass of sherry, or a cup of coffee." Schivelbusch was tiptoeing at the edge of a larger issue with his mention of sherry and coffee, because evidence also exists that nutmeg in such dosage serves as a drug. [p. 28]

In an essay called "Who Swims with the Tuna", Quammen asks the possibly unanswerable question: why do we worry about trapping dolphins in tuna nets, and not worry about the tuna trapped in tuna nets?

The yellowfin tuna is not celebrated for its intelligence. It's celebrated for its flavor. The spotted dolphin, on the other hand, is famously brainy and no one will tell us how it tastes. The killing of dolphins is a national outrage; the killing of tuna is a given. I keep asking myself why. There are some good reasons and some bad reasons, I think, which haven't been closely examined, or even sorted apart.

One of these animals breathes air. The other doesn't. One is a mammal, one isn't . And so on: Among the possible ways of describing dolphins and tuna, though not the only way, is to recite a litany of such invidious comparison. One is homoiothermic and one isn't. one seems to have an elaborate system of social behavior and one doesn't. One has performed altruistic and astonishing rescues of human swimmers; the other is prized for sushi. One shrieks with terror and squeals with pain. The other maintains a stoic piscine silence. Furthermore, on our grocery shelves nowadays we find cans of a product called dolphin-safe tuna. But no tuna-safe dolphin. [p. 65]
There's no question that Sternella attenuata and the other dolphins have an unmatched appeal to us humans. From our point of view, as Sam LaBudde said, it's a special kinship. They are bright, sophisticated, cheery, generous, perceptive, affectionate, and yet mysterious—all the things that we value in our friends. They seem to possess important secrets. They seem to reciprocate our infatuation. Plus they consent to let us swim with them.

On the other hand, who swims with the yellowfin tuna? The answer is that dolphins do. [p. 71]

Here is a disquisition on the numbers of animal species, an inexplicably large fraction of which are beetles.

Modern biology now recognizes about one million known species of animal. What a biologist means by a "known" species is one that has been collected, formally described, and given its own binary Latinate name, a rigorous taxonomic procedure that demands time and painstaking labor. Because taxonomists are few and the workload is large, they have only gotten around to knowing, in that sense, a small fraction of Earth's diversity, and the big-bodied species have generally been attended to earlier and more thoroughly than the others. Still, the big-bodied groups don't put up the big numbers. Of that million known species, mammals account for just four thousand, a trifling minority. About nine thousand of the total are birds, and about 10,500 are reptiles and amphibians. Of the remainder, a huge portion are insects and other arthropods—roughly 874,400 species, according to one source. Within that 874,400 majority, about 290,000 species are beetles. In other words, more than one in every four species of known animal on Earth is a beetle.

If you estimate unknown species of animal, the percentage only goes higher. A coleopterist (that is, a beetle guy) named Terry Erwin, with the Smithsonian Institution, has published field results suggesting there might be ten or twelve million species of beetle still undiscovered in the tropical canopies.

It was this numerical imbalance that inspired a famous remark (possibly apocryphal, but very much in character) by the geneticists J.B.S. Haldane. Besides being a great scientist, Haldane was also a wit, an apostate from the British ruling class, and a dialectic materialist. On a certain occasion he found himself faced by an imperious clergyman, goes the story, who asked him what might be deduced about the character traits of the Creator from a study of the natural world. Haldane reportedly answered: "An inordinate fondness for beetles." [p. 242]

Quammen's essays have an admirable balance and linguistic poise, plus they treat their topics thoughtfully but not too, too seriously. Learning and entertainment need not be antipathetic.

Finally, the last word goes to Quammen. This is from an essay, "Limits of Vision", about the somewhat perplexing problem of dark matter in the universe. This struck me as an unusually poetic turn of phrase that seemed scientifically apt.

Starlight is the bow tie on the Invisible Man. Everything else, which amounts to most everything, is what they call dark matter. [p. 248]

-- Notes by JNS

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