Posts Tagged 'books'

The Art of Naming

Last week we muddied the tree of life. This week, the long human attempt to straighten it all out by giving all the pieces names. In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl explores the history and principles of taxonomic naming.

Esoteric? I don’t think so. He dabbles a little in common names, those vernacular names for life-forms, in of themselves voluminous as all get out. For instance, crayfish from the English mispronunciation of the Old French crevise (écrivise in modern French) to the Louisiana crawfish, as these “fish” crawled rather than swam. But what he’s really concerned with is biological nomenclature, also known as scientific names, Latin names (they also include Greek), and binomials (there are also trinomials).

“One could say that the art of taxonomy is the ability to discern between intra- and interspecific variability. One can always find differences between any two animals, but how big do the differences need to be for talk of two species to be justified? Or vice versa, how many differences should be tolerated for two animals to be rightly interpreted as elements of a shared species?”

Homo sapiens: genus and specific epithet. Long time readers know I often pay attention to these things: there’s much to learn in them. (H. sapiens is rather pretentious and presumptuous, for two things.) For birds, I have Choate’s invaluable Dictionary of American Bird Names (there are several editions out there). And some are pretty easy to figure out, even without a resource. Think of the plants and animals with the specific epithet virginiana or virginiensis: pretty clear these were first found in Virginia, which in colonial times theoretically extended to the West Coast, or parts nearby.

I was surprised to learn here you can buy your way into a binomial by giving money, as “charity,” to the taxonomists. Usually when a person’s surname is part of a binomial it’s given as an honor by the namer (who can’t name the species after him/her/their selves). So there are some silly ones, named after favored performers and other uninteresting people. I prefer when there’s some actual data in the name: like that Purple Gallinule who visited Brooklyn last month: Porphyrio martinicus, the purple swamp hen from Martinique.

By the way, Rick Wright is an excellent source for the histories of bird naming.

The Tangled Tree

Add some DNA from viruses, bacteria, chimpanzees, and, for some of us, Neanderthals, and pretty soon— well, ok, after a couple billion years — you have human beings. Let’s stress that plural for a second: we really are beings, our bodies covered inside and out with microbes. Some studies say we’re one-to-one bacterial to human cells, others that we’re three-to-one bacteria-to-human. Maybe thirty-seven trillion bacterial cells in each of us. Bacteria being so small, this turns out to be from 1-3% of our body mass. That’s two to six pounds for a 200 lb adult. We can’t live without these lifeforms; “humanness” very much incorporates these other lifeforms, who are also dependent on us. Of course, in other circumstances, these very things can also kill us.And don’t forget the archaea, the viral particles, the fungal cells, living with, or as, us. All these naturally come up in composite creature (like all us us) David Quammen’s eye-opening new book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.

What the book is really about, though, is the discovery over the last fifty years of the chimerical nature of our very cells. Not the microbiome, but the very structure of the cell, which incorporates what were once free-living lifeforms. Mitochondria in animals, chloroplasts in plants: these were originally separate lifeforms. They were absorbed by, or they invaded, cellular life-forms. They didn’t kill their hosts, their hosts didn’t kill them. All together they all became a new thing, mighty things, and they continued generationally.

“This is a profoundly consequential process: the transit of DNA from organelles of bacterial origin into the chromosomes; alien genes becoming incorporated over millions of years into the deepest cellular identity of plants, fungi, and animals.” This is now known as endosymbiotic gene transfer.

Horizontal gene transfer, as opposed to the vertical gene transfer of reproduction, happens all the time between microbes. It’s probably happening in your nose right now. It’s how bacteria thrive; indeed, some suggest that there’s just one superorganism of bacteria in the world, constantly sharing genetic data. (One estimate has total mass of bacteria in the world exceeding the total mass of all plants and animals.) Less theoretically, it’s also how bacteria defeat our antibiotics. Indeed, these antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are now a major threat around the world, especially in hospitals. (The constant low-dosing of domesticated animals with antibiotics to increase their growth sure and hell isn’t helping in the production of super-resistant strains.)

Another related story told by Quammen is the discovery of the Archaea, the third domaine of life, in the 1960s-1970s. Of course these had always been there, but we were confusing them with bacteria, another kind of single-celled lifeform without a nucleus. The nucleus is what distinguishes us, and the plants and the mushrooms (us being the Eukarya) from the archaea and the bacteria. Archaea include some funky little critters, extremophiles who can live at near boiling temperatures and gobble up sulfur like pie, but others are also part of our microbiome. Are they the direct ancestors of the first forms of life on the planet, the start of it all?

“[…] kingdoms of life are hard to define. The lines dividing one kingdom from another are inescapably blurry.” The same goes for species, especially of the microbial kind, but but but also “higher” up, too.

I highly recommend this book. Be sure to read the section on mammals, which suggests that we (we here including primates, rodents, bovines, even marsupials, who turn out to have transient placentas), incorporate the immunosuppression abilities of retroviruses to make a better placenta. Think about it: a fetus is an alien invasion, half of its genes from elsewhere (like maybe the mailman?). Why doesn’t this trigger an immune response from the mother? Did these retroviruses join the early mammal team to make the maternal/fetal interchange smoother?So the tree of life concept, which predates Darwin’s famous sketch of 1837 by millennia, is entirely too simple. We are all hybrids. The roots and the branches are all inosculated together, that is, merged (grafted, but without a grafter) via the sharing of genetic material across species, even across kingdoms.

Hell, even a tree isn’t a tree anymore: they’re communal lifeforms living in contact with each other and fungal associations, communicating through the roots and the air…

Bats, Vultures, & Two-Legged Ghouls

Pity uncharismatic wildlife! So much easier to slaughter.

We have here two books on creatures that get the short end of the representational stick most places around the world, meaning the stick is often applied to them. Bats are irrationally feared. They’re also pollinators (of wild bananas, agave, and much else), voracious insect devourers, and seed dispersers. You couldn’t ask for better “ecosystem services.” Personally, I despise the term “ecosystem services,” a product of reductionist thinking that defines every thing, and every non-thing (ideas, emotions), by their economic value.

Bats are also pretty harmless to humans. Bat bites are quite rare, rabies likewise (of course, any mammal bite should be checked with medical professionals). There are no vampire bat species in the U.S. and are only a tiny fraction of bat species are blood-eaters anyway. Yet persecution remains common. Austin, Texas’s famed Congress Avenue Bridge colony of free-tailed bats only dates to the 1980s, and before Tuttle and others calmed the gibbering panic down, there was fear and paranoia galore; now there’s millions in tourist money to be made on the twilight spectacle as more than a million bats fly into the night to consume fifteen tons of insects.

There are some 1300 species of bats in the world. That’s about 20% of all mammal species. They aren’t flying rodents: they’re more akin to flying simians, that is, more related to us than many other mammals. Some are tiny, easily hiding in a corner of a human hand; others, the “flying foxes,” have wingspans as long as six feet!

As he details in The Secret Life of Bats, Merlin Tuttle has been a “bat man” since his teen years. He helped set up Bat Conservation International and more recently his own non-profit to combat the fear, ignorance, and murderous responses of the fearfully ignorant when it comes to bats. The more people know about bats the more they like them.

Tuttle was also a pioneer in bat photography. So I wish there were more and bigger photos in the book. These creatures are amazing to look at. The reputation of his National Geographic spreads got him out of some tight spots around the world. These and other adventures, more than a few life-threatening, are detailed in this valedictorian volume.

At the other end of the age scale, Katie Fallon pitches woo for Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is her case study, but she also ventures further afield. Vultures, for instance, have been decimated in India by a veterinary drug given to cattle; no vultures meant the resulting untended corpses of cattle sparked an explosion in wild dogs and from them a rabies epidemic. Everything connects. In Africa, species are under threat from numerous forces, including poachers who kill them off because a gathering of vultures over illegal kills alerts rangers.

We may not want to think about it, but the corpses of animals, especially the terrible toll of road kills, presents a problem. But vultures can pretty much eat anything, including anthrax, rabies, and botulism. That they puke before take-off, to lighten the load, only makes them more interesting, right?

While discussing the California Condor, still imperiled by lead pollution, Fallon tells an interesting anecdote. A ranger at the Grand Canyon tries to explain to an angry white man (what, again?) that lead ammunition has a distinctive isotopic signature. It’s not lead paint or any other lead delivery system that is poisoning scavengers: it’s fragments of lead from ammunition. The hunter is enraged (cue angry white man again) with science disrupting his ignorance and stomps off, convinced people just want to stop hunting. In fact, Fallow argues that hunters are key to condor survival because the gut piles they leave behind could be excellent sources of food, if only they weren’t poisoned by lead shot. But the hunters, and the industry, and its vicious lobby, refuse to continence changing to copper or steel ammo.


On Wednesday, a white guy tried to shoot up a black church in Kentucky but couldn’t get in. Instead he executed two black grandparents in a parking lot, telling (white) onlookers not to worry, he wouldn’t shoot at white people. On Friday, a militant Trump supporter with a long history of threatening violence and bomb threats was arrested for sending mail bombs to various prominent centrists of the Democratic Party and media. Yesterday, another racist psychopath murdered eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. His motivation: two foundational beliefs and vote-baits of the Right: anti-semitism and nativism. You can find similar paranoid-conspiracy fascist garbage all over right-wing media, corporate social media, and interviews with the likes of loathsome Congressman Steve King of Iowa: Jews like George Soros are “diluting” or “replacing” white America with non-white immigrants. You can see it in Trump’s fantasy of an Islamist-filled caravan of refugees in Mexico, which plays very well with GOP base. Republicans’ and Trumps’ lies about non-whites, women, the media, Democrats, immigrants, et alia aren’t just a WWE-like entertainment spectacle: they have consequences — murderous ones. God-damn these monsters.

Frankenstein’s Planet

I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, recently. The book is 200 years old this year (see the exhibit at the Morgan). If you have not read it, it is profoundly different from the Frankenstein created by the commercial media over the years.

The strangest transference may be the naming thing: “Frankenstein” has become the creature created by Victor Frankenstein. The man has become his monster. And the prefix “Franken-” has become shorthand for any and all technological nightmares.

Above all it is an astounding work, especially when you consider that Shelley was twenty when it was published. True, her parents, anarchist William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, were remarkable in their own right. Mary Godwin (or Mary Jr. as I like to call her), however, never knew her brilliant mother because she died soon after giving birth. And of course Mary Jr.’s partner was no mean cultural force himself. Percy Shelley wrote the preface to the first edition, published anonymously, which he dedicated to his hero William Godwin. (He was initially thought to be the author of the whole thing.)

The novel begins and ends in the Arctic. The first of three narrators, Walton, is determined to get to the pole, that icy lodestar of the northern hemisphere, focus of so many European obsessions. On the voyage into the ice, he runs into both Frankenstein and the creature. Cue Frankenstein’s narration: he is chasing his creation. And his creation is urging him on: “Follow me: I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive.” (Yes, this creature talks, and talks well.)

It’s notable that the early world of the industrial revolution makes no appearance in the novel. (The Romantics were quite reactionary in some ways.) The sciences, too, are scarcely discussed: Victor’s means of animating life are kept a secret. But there is no escaping this context of the novel; coal-power was exponential increasing the power available to humans. Their own muscles, those of draft animals, wind and water, were as nothing compared to steam heated by burning ancient fossilized lifeforms. Here was the letting loose of a creature of another kind, Prometheus unbound, burning past millennia for power… and carbon dioxide.

Frankenstein’s creature, that unnatural born philosopher, is last seen heading into an Arctic that two centuries later has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. He plans on burning himself to death in a funeral pyre. presumably made out of the wood of the sled.

The fire was lit: the “everlasting ices” turned out to have an expiration date.

[Pictures: Iceland, 2010, the closest I’ve been to the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle.]

The Overstory

“What use are we, to trees?”

Richard Powers’s novel begins with Roots, separate stories, capsule biographies. These are illustrated at chapter start with leaves of the trees prominent in each story. In one case the tree isn’t named, since the character is oblivious to this tree, but the description is more than suggestive and the unique leaves starting the chapter, as in some medieval tome, confirm it. Of course, this tree comes to play another role later.

While this reader was wondering how all these roots would all come together, on or about page 131, things start jumping. The next section “Trunk” is separated by the crosscut ornament illustrated on the title page. (Another dingbat! Shall we call this one a… dendron?) But this is fiction, and I will reveal no more than the question I came away with: what use are we to the trees, or the oceans, or the atmosphere? Some of the beginnings of answers in the book are profoundly thought-provoking.

So, what are we to do? Particularly in light of the latest UN climate report, which warns of dire consequences within two decades. Two decades! This is not climate change, it’s climate breakdown, and it’s already occurring. The IPCC report, remember, is by its very nature conservative, watered-down and consensus-driven: these are not radicals by any means.

I’ll be a septuagenarian if I make it to 2040. Most of the children of friends will only be in their twenties or early thirties. Damn, I’m so old I remember when we had centuries or at least a century, before really bad things were going to happen. When cautious scientists said such and such was of only of the extreme probability. Now some of those things –the end of Arctic ice, the death of coral reefs (among many other devastations to the sea), the undermining of West Antarctica– are virtually yesterday’s news. One of the best advocacy groups fighting against increasing CO2,, started in 2008. They named themselves after the goal of keeping CO2 in the atmosphere under 350 parts per million. It’s now 405 ppm.

Actually, I have to admit to being a worst-case scenario-ist from the get-go. I don’t think this is pessimism on my part.

“What is to be done?” The crises of the present, never mind the coming hellscape of geo-political draught/flooding/mass migration, seem to have already thrown us into the era of “Climate Behemoth.” Neo-fascist, demagogic, the last orgy of plutocracy as it holds democracy down and chokes it.

Bay Co. Florida, where Panama City is, voted 71% for Trump.


The very next book I picked up after No Way But Gentlenesse was Tim Birkhead’s The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist. And the very first section break, after a discussion of Honey Buzzards, which Francis Willughby distinguished from Common Buzzard at the dawn of taxonomy, is this dingbat of three soaring raptors.

A book designer friend suggests, along the lines of fleurons, that these ornaments should be called ornithons or aviettes. You may remember the snake dingbat in America’s Snake. I like this trend! (Sneak preview: I’ve got another in a new novel I have on tap, and it’s not animal or mineral….)

The plot? Francis Willughby (1635-1672) died young. His mentor/science partner John Ray (1627-1705) finished up their work, foundational tomes titled (for short) Ornithology, History of Fishes, and History of Insects. Ray, who initially called himself Wray, has traditionally gotten the lion’s share of credit by history. Birkhead addresses the imbalance. His lads were co-workers, Willughby (spell-check wants to add the O) just had the misfortune of kicking off early.

Here’s something I found particularly interesting. Our heroes were young during the English Civil War. The Commonwealth Puritans were anti-intellectual, so they really tried to purge and transform the universities (Cambridge and Oxford). Where they succeeded was in displacing the lock the Anglicans had on everything. Theocracy thwarted by theocracy! Into the opening came those taking up the new mantel of science, less received truth from the ancients by way of the Bible than observation, experiment, personal experience. The “new philosophers” put some Bacon on the sandwich: of “histories of all kinds.”

The European Honey Buzzard, as Voltaire might have said, is neither (strictly) European, an eater of honey, nor a buzzard. They winter in Africa, putting paid to any notion they belong to either Africa or Europe. They generally eat wasp larvae, digging the grubs out with their short strong claws. They have scale-like feathers on the face, to protect them from understandably upset adult wasps. And while they look like buzzards (Buteo hawks), they’re more actually related to tropical kites. Birkhead argues they should be called Willughby’s Buzzard. I’ve only had some distant views of them in flight, in Sweden.

Here’s something completely different: rare Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles hatched on the Rockaways, a part of Queens, last month, for the first time ever this far north.

Time to downgrade the Supreme Court?

K is for Kestrel

Richard Hines’s No Way But Gentlenesse is a memoir of the stunting British class system, and his falcons. The first theme definitely grips one’s attention, the second, well, less so for this ornithologically-inclined kestrel-fancier.

Hines’s older brother Barry wrote a novel called A Kestrel For a Knave (1968), inspired by Richard’s experience with Falco tinnunculus. Richard had taught himself falconry as a teen. The novel was turned into a Ken Loach film called Kes (1969), now numbered amongst the top ten British films. It’s very Loach, if you know his work, and heart-breaking. (To those unused to Yorkshire accents, it’s also sometimes hard to understand.)

While the Hines were a coal-miner family for several generations, both the boys escaped the pits that killed one of their grandfathers and wore down their father (who died of cancer).

As in Helen Mcdonald’s H is Hawk and the ur-British modern falconry/therapy book, T.H. White’s The Goshawk, the birds here are the focus of the authors’s varied personal dramas and psychological issues. For hawk-watchers, there’s rather less to be had. I did perk up when Hines writes that a Merlin he trained in later life cached food and returned to the spot the next day. But all in all, three books about people breaking wild creatures to their will is the limit for me. I’d much rather reread J.A. Baker’s mad, poetic, “inhuman” The Peregrine.

Pictured above is the printer’s ornament or dingbat used as a section break within chapters of No Way. Spot on! (When these are stylized flowers or leaves, they’re called fleurons.)


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