This week the New York Times reviews two biology books, one of which I’ll be reading for sure.
The one I’ll probably give a miss is in today’s Book Review section: The Great Animal Orchestra, written by musician Bernie Krause and reviewed by Jeremy Denk, a concert pianist and blogger. The review is mixed:
After a stint with the Weavers (he replaced Pete Seeger), a foray into electronic music and some not-too-surprising drug use, by “Hardyesque chance” he ended up in the Muir Woods recording nature sounds for an album. Now he is high on hippo grunts and insect drones, having spent decades recording and archiving wild soundscapes. He chronicles his life choices and epiphanies, guides us through nature’s sonic treasures, makes interesting assertions about the musicianship of animals (human and nonhuman), and begs us to pay attention. . .
Krause spends many pages challenging the human monopoly on musicianship. He asserts that in the wild, animals vocalize with a musicianly ear to the full score of the ecosystem — a mix of competition and cooperation. Since animals depend on being heard for various reasons (mating, predation, warning, play), they are forced to seek distinct niches: “Each resident species acquires its own preferred sonic bandwidth — to blend or contrast — much in the way that violins, woodwinds, trumpets and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral arrangement.”
An extraordinary claim arises from this “niche hypothesis”: the healthier the habitat, the more “musical” the creatures, the richer and more diverse their scores. Sound complexity is a measure of health.
Well, I’m not sure how one defines the “health” of a habitat. If it’s vulnerability to human damage, the rainforest is at least as vulnerable, but far more acoustically diverse, than the Antarctic.
. . . spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators as to any individual location. That last example is heartbreaking; when a jet flies overhead, the toads get out of sync. The temporary lack of ensemble proves deadly: soon hawks swoop down on individual choristers. In other words, the toads’ music is a communal shelter. Music is expression, communication — but also protection.
Denton’s review is generally positive but mixed: he faults the book for being messy and tendentious; but perhaps some of you, including the many readers who are musicians or know a lot about music, may want to read it (it’s here on Amazon).
Richard Fortey is a science writer who was formerly a respected paleontologist at London’s Natural History Museum. Like Dawkins, he has the rare double honor of election to both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. In Madrid last Thanksgiving, I had dinner with Richard and his wife Jackie, and found them delightful dinner companions (Fortey is a terrific raconteur):
Fortey has written seven books and, though I’ve read only three, they’ve gotten better with time. I gave Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth a mixed review in the New York Times (I thought the writing a bit overblown), but recommended it on the whole. In the interim Fortey’s prose has become tighter and better, and the man has some marvelous stories to tell. I loved Trilobite! and especially Dry Storeroom No. 1, an engrossing look at London’s Natural History Museum, where Fortey worked for so many years (at dinner he told me some anecdotes about the place that were too salacious for the book).
Fortey has a new book, and it’s about “living fossils,” those plants and animals that have persisted for millions of years without much change in their morphology (think ginkgo tree, coelocanth, and horseshoe crab, and see my earlier post here). To evolutionists, these species are a mystery: why have they remained unchanged so long? One explanation—that they simply lack genetic variation that fuels evolution—is probably wrong: work ages ago by Bob Selander and Dick Lewontin showed that horseshoe crabs are just as genetically variable in their DNA as more malleable species. Another classic explanation is that these species simply live in unchanging environments, so that they arrived at their optimal morphology eons ago and there’s nothing new to adapt to. That’s an appealing but largely untestable explanation, especially because some creatures that live in similar habitats (like the shallow marine habitats of the horseshoe crab) have undergone substantial evolutionary change.
At any rate, Fortey’s new book is Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time has Left Behind, and it was reviewed in Thursday’s NYT. Reviewer Dwight Garner gives it two thumbs up, and I’ll be reading it for sure, if for no other reason to see Fortey’s explanation for unchanging species. A snippet from the review:
The good news about “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” is that Mr. Fortey is as vivid and charming about live things as he’s long been about dead ones, perhaps even more so. Reading this book is like stepping into the field with a man who’s equal parts naturalist and poet, let’s say equal parts E. O. Wilson and Paul Muldoon. The Wilson in him wields the notebook; the Muldoon flutters. It’s a bewitching combination.
At that orgy on the Delaware beach Mr. Fortey delivers real science, reminding us, for example, that horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all. Like trilobites, they are arthropods, “animals with jointed legs and all the muscles and tendons tucked inside an exoskeleton.” He dilates on their history, their character and what threatens them still.
But he also describes them, wonderfully, as resembling “inverted colanders.” The sharp spines on their head shields remind him of “the perky eyebrows I associate with clerics of a certain age.” He describes their hue as “the kind of color I used to get as a kid when I mixed all my powder paints together.”
Can I quote Mr. Fortey on horseshoe crabs a moment longer? Noting the pincers at the bottom of one, he says, “I am reminded of the manual toolkit owned by the eponymous hero of the movie ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ ” When he flips a stranded horseshoe crab over, it moves away with “the slow progress of a confused old lady on a walker.”
You begin to love Mr. Fortey as much as he loves horseshoe crabs. You want to throw him over your shoulder, like a big stuffed animal won at a fair, and lug him home to explain the mysteries of your backyard.
Having spent several hours with Fortey, I agree with this assessment. Like Dan Dennett, he’s a lovable bear of a man, infectiously excited about biology. The reviewer, noting that the writing isn’t quite perfect, still gives the book a strong recommendation:
There is no denying that, as “Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms” moves on, there are numbing moments. Your enthusiasm about sponges, for example, will not equal his. He is not utterly immune to cliché.
Yet his book is not only well built and witty but emotionally profound too. It’s the work of a survivor appraising other survivors. “The inescapable truth is that luck for old-timers will eventually run out,” he writes. “It always does.”. . .
. . . In the meantime Mr. Fortey’s book is an inducement to be as awake and observant as possible. A wallflower at life’s orgy, he’s delivered a book that’s a squirming eyeful.
Sadly, Garner doesn’t mention Fortey’s own explanation for morphological “stasis,” and that’s a serious omission. After all, it’s their unchanging appearance over millions of years that makes these plants and animals so interesting, and the hypotheses for that surely form an important part of the book. I’m sure they’re in there, but you’ll have to buy it, as I will, to find out.