In Search of Natureby Edward O. Wilson, Laura Southworth
Perhaps more than any other scientist of our century, Edward O. Wilson has scrutinized animals in their natural settings, tweezing out the dynamics of their social organization, their relationship with their environments, and their behavior, not only for what it tells us about the animals themselves, but for what it can tell us about human nature. He has brought the… See more details below
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Perhaps more than any other scientist of our century, Edward O. Wilson has scrutinized animals in their natural settings, tweezing out the dynamics of their social organization, their relationship with their environments, and their behavior, not only for what it tells us about the animals themselves, but for what it can tell us about human nature. He has brought the fascinating and sometimes surprising results of these studies to general readers through a remarkable collection of books, including The Diversity of Life, The Ants, On Human Nature, and Sociobiology. The grace and precision with which he writes of seemingly complex topics has earned him two Pulitzer prizes, and the admiration of scientists and general readers around the world.
In Search of Nature presents for the first time a collection of Edward O. Wilson’s seminal short writings, addressing in brief and eminently readable form the themes that have actively engaged this remarkable intellect throughout his career. The essays’ central theme is that wild nature and human nature are closely interwoven, and, not without optimism, Wilson concludes that we are smart enough and have time enough to avoid an environmental catastrophe of civilization-threatening dimensions if we are willing both to redirect our science and technology, and reconsider our self-image as a species.
From "the little things that run the world"-- invertebrate species that make life possible for everyone and everything -- to many scientists’ emergent belief in the human species' innate affinity for other living things, known as biophilia, Wilson sets forth clear and compelling reasons why humans should concern themselves with species loss.In Search of Nature is a lively and accessible introduction to the writings of one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century. Imaginatively illustrated by noted artist Laura Southworth, it is a book all readers will treasure.
Readers familiar with Wilson's autobiographical writings (Naturalist, 1994) will find him once more revisiting his Florida youth and fascination with snakes. Indeed the first set of essays on snakes, sharks, and ants have the kind of creepy-crawly appeal Natalie Angier capitalized on in Loathsome Creatures. In contrast to Angier, Wilson truly respects and admires the critters. Of course, being the quintessential ant man, Wilson is particularly absorbing in describing the enormous variety, antiquity, and success of these social insects, largely based on intricate divisions of labor and cooperative sharing. Behavioral themes continue to dominate the essays, as Wilson describes courting behavior among birds of paradise, a view of nature as seen by termite society, and the respective roles of altruism and aggression in primates. The latter leads to a discussion of kin selection and the possible role of homosexuals in human society, as well as other sociobiological ideas. Wilson is anxious to correct what he sees as "the dangerous trap" of sociobiology, namely, the naturalistic fallacy which asserts that what is (in any given society), is what should be. Later, Wilson will amplify this theme in a discussion of gene-culture interaction, emphasizing the diversity possible within the boundaries set by the human genome. The concluding essays celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of species and the dangers evident in human domination and worldwide loss of habitat. Having sounded the warning, Wilson is also hopeful that the role of naturalists will grow in importance to complement the powerful contributions of cell and molecular biologists.
For those new to Wilson, a good gloss on his work and thought. For the rest, really only a reprise.
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In Search of Nature
By Edward O. Wilson, Laura Southworth
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1996 Edward O. Wilson
All rights reserved.
SCIENCE AND THE HUMANITIES, biology and culture, are bridged in a dramatic manner by the phenomenon of the serpent. Fabricated from symbols and bearing portents of magic, the snake's image enters the conscious and unconscious mind with ease during reverie and dreams. It appears without warning and departs abruptly, leaving behind not a specific memory of any real snake but the vague sense of a more powerful creature, the serpent, surrounded by a mist of fear and wonderment.
These qualities are dominant in a dream I have experienced often through my life, for reasons that will soon become clear.
I find myself in a locality that is wooded and aquatic, silent and drawn wholly in shades of gray. As I walk into this somber environment I am gripped by an alien feeling. The terrain before me is mysterious, on the rim of the unknown, at once calm and forbidding. I am required to be there but in the dream state cannot grasp the reasons. Suddenly, the Serpent appears. It is not an ordinary, literal reptile, but much more, a threatening presence with unusual powers. It is protean in size and shape, armored, irresistible. The poisonous head radiates a cold, inhuman intelligence. While I watch, its muscular coils slide into the water, beneath prop roots, and back onto the bank. The Serpent is somehow both the spirit of that shadowed place and the guardian of the passage into deeper reaches. I sense that if I could capture or control or even just evade it, an indefinable but great change would follow. The anticipation of that transformation stirs old and nameless emotions. The risk is also vaguely felt, like that emanating from a knife blade or high cliff. The Serpent is life-promising and life-threatening, seductive and treacherous. It now slips close to me, turning importunate, ready to strike. The dream ends uneasily, without clear resolution.
The snake and the serpent, flesh-and-blood reptile and demonic dream-image, reveal the complexity of our relation to nature and the fascination and beauty inherent in all organisms. Even the deadliest and most repugnant creatures are endowed with magic in the human mind. Human beings have an innate fear of snakes; more precisely, they have an innate propensity to learn such fear quickly and easily past the age of five. The images they build out of this peculiar mental set are both powerful and ambivalent, ranging from terror-stricken flight to the experience of power and male sexuality. As a consequence the serpent has become an important part of cultures around the world.
There is a highly complex principle to consider here, one that extends well beyond the ordinary concerns of psychoanalytic reasoning about sexual symbols. Life of any kind is infinitely more interesting than almost any conceivable variety of inanimate matter. The latter is valued chiefly to the extent that it can be metabolized into live tissue, accidentally resembles it, or can be fashioned into a useful and properly animated artifact. No one in his right mind looks at a pile of dead leaves in preference to the tree from which they fell.
What is it exactly that binds us so closely to living things? The biologist will tell you that life is the self-replication of giant molecules from lesser chemical fragments, resulting in the assembly of complex organic structures, the transfer of large amounts of molecular information, ingestion, growth, movement of an outwardly purposeful nature, and the proliferation of closely similar organisms. The poet-in-biologist will add that life is an exceedingly improbable state, metastable, open to other systems, thus ephemeral—and worth any price to keep.
Certain organisms have still more to offer because of their special impact on mental development. In 1984, in a book titled Biophilia, I suggested that the urge to affiliate with other forms of life is to some degree innate. The evidence for the proposition is not strong in a formal scientific sense: the subject has not been studied enough in the scientific manner of hypothesis, deduction, and experimentation to let us be certain about it one way or the other. Nevertheless the biophilic tendency is so clearly evinced in daily life and so widely distributed as to deserve serious attention. It unfolds in the predictable fantasies and responses of individuals from early childhood onward. It cascades into repetitive patterns of culture across most or all societies, a consistency often noted in the literature of anthropology. These processes appear to be part of the programs of the brain. They are marked by the quickness and decisiveness with which we learn particular things about certain kinds of plants and animals. They are too consistent to be dismissed as the result of purely historical events etched upon a mental blank slate.
Perhaps the most bizarre of the biophilic traits is awe and veneration of the serpent. The dreams from which the dominant images arise are known to exist in all societies whose mental life has been studied. At least 5 percent of the people at any given time remember experiencing them, while many more would probably do so if they recorded their waking impressions over several months. The images described by urban New Yorkers are as detailed and emotional as those of Australian aboriginals and Zulus. In all cultures the serpents are prone to be mystically transfigured. The Hopi know Palulukon, the water serpent, a benevolent but frightening godlike being. The Kwakiutl fear the sisiutl, a three-headed serpent with both human and reptile faces, whose appearance in dreams presages insanity or death. The Sharanahua of Peru summon reptile spirits by taking hallucinogenic drugs and stroking their faces with the severed tongues of snakes. They are rewarded with dreams of brightly colored boas, venemous snakes, and lakes teeming with caimans and anacondas. Around the world serpents and snakelike creatures are the dominant elements of dreams in which animals of any kind appear. They are recruited as the animate symbols of power and sex, totems, protagonists of myths, and gods.
These cultural manifestations may seem at first detached and mysterious, but there is a simple reality behind the ophidian archetype that lies within the experience of ordinary people. The mind is primed to react emotionally to the sight of snakes, not just to fear them but to be aroused and absorbed in their details, to weave stories about them. This distinctive predisposition played an important role in an unusual experience of my own, a childhood encounter with a large and memorable snake, a creature that actually existed.
I grew up in the panhandle of northern Florida and the adjacent counties of Alabama. Like most boys in that part of the country set loose to roam the woods, I enjoyed hunting and fishing and made no clear distinction between these activities and life at large. But I also cherished natural history for its own sake and decided very early to become a biologist. I had a secret ambition to find a Real Serpent, a snake so fabulously large or otherwise different that it would exceed the bounds of imagination, let alone existing fact.
Certain circumstances encouraged this adolescent fantasy. First of all, I was an only child with indulgent parents, encouraged to develop my own interests and hobbies, however farfetched; in other words, I was spoiled. Second, the physical surroundings inclined youngsters toward an awe of nature. Four generations earlier, that part of the country had been covered by a wilderness as formidable in some respects as the Amazon. Dense thickets of cabbage palmetto descended into meandering spring-fed streams and cypress sloughs. Carolina parakeets and ivory-billed woodpeckers flashed overhead in the sunlight, and wild turkeys and passenger pigeons still counted as game. On soft spring nights after heavy rains a dozen varieties of frogs croaked, rasped, bonged, and trilled their love songs in mixed choruses. Much of the Gulf Coast fauna derived from species that had spread north from the tropics over millions of years and adapted to the warm local temperate conditions. Columns of miniature army ants, close replicas of the large marauders of South America, marched mostly unseen at night over the forest floor. Nephila spiders the size of saucers spun webs as wide as garage doors across the woodland clearings.
From the stagnant pools and knothole sinks, clouds of mosquitoes rose to afflict the early immigrants. They carried the Confederate plagues, malaria and yellow fever, which periodically flared into epidemics and reduced the populations along the coastal lowlands. This natural check is one of the reasons the strip between Tampa and Pensacola remained sparsely settled well into the twentieth century and why even today, long after the diseases have been eradicated, it is still the relatively natural "other Florida."
Snakes abounded. The Gulf Coast has a greater variety and denser populations than almost any other place in the world, and they are frequently seen. Striped ribbon snakes hang in gorgonlike clusters on branches at the edge of ponds and streams. Poisonous coral snakes root through the leaf litter, their bodies decorated with warning bands of red, yellow, and black. They are easily confused with their mimics, the scarlet kingsnakes, banded in a different sequence of red, black, and yellow. The simple rule recited by woodsmen is: "Red next to yellow will kill a fellow, red next to black is a friend of Jack." Hognoses, harmless thick-bodied sluggards with upturned snouts, are characterized by an unsettling resemblance to venomous African gaboon vipers and a habit of swallowing toads live. Pygmy rattlesnakes two feet long contrast with diamondbacks of seven feet or more. Watersnakes are a herpetologist's medley distinguished by size, color, and the arrangement of body scales, encompassing ten species of Natrix, Seminatrix, Agkistrodon, Liodytes, and Farancia.
Of course limits to the abundance and diversity exist. Because snakes feed on frogs, mice, fish, and other animals of similar size, they are necessarily scarcer than their prey. You can't just go out on a stroll and point to one individual after another. An hour's careful search will often turn up none at all. But I can testify from personal experience that on any given day you are ten times more likely to meet a snake in Florida than in Brazil or New Guinea.
There is something oddly appropriate about the abundance of snakes. Although the Gulf wilderness has been largely converted into macadam and farmland, and the sounds of television and company jets are heard in the land, a remnant of the old rural culture remains, as if the population were still pitted against the savage and the unknown. "Push the forest back and fill the land" remains a common sentiment, the colonizer's ethic and tested biblical wisdom (the very same that turned the cedar groves of Lebanon into the barrens they are today). The prominence of snakes lends symbolic support to this venerable belief.
In the back country during a century and half of settlement, the common experience of snakes was embroidered into the lore of serpents. Cut off a rattlesnake's head, one still hears, and it will live on until sundown. If a snake bites you, open the puncture wounds with a knife and wash them with kerosene to neutralize the poison (if there are any survivors of this cure, I have never met them). If you believe with all your heart in Jesus, you can hang rattlers and copperheads around your neck without fear. If one strikes you just the same, accept it as a sign from the Lord and find peace in whatever follows. The hognose snake, on the other hand, is always death in the shape of a slithery S. Those who get too close to one will have venom sprayed in their eyes and be blinded; the very breath from the snake's skin is lethal. This species is the beneficiary of its dreadful legend: I have never heard of any being killed.
Deep in the woods live creatures of startling power. (That is what I most wanted to hear.) Among them is the hoop snake. Skeptics, who used to be found hunkered down in a row along the county courthouse balustrade on a Saturday morning, say it is only mythical; on the other hand it might be the familiar coachwhip racer turned vicious by special circumstances. Thus transformed, it puts its tail in its mouth and rolls down hills at great speed to attack its terrified victims. Then there are reports of the occasional true monsters: a giant snake believed to live in a certain swamp (used to be there anyway, even if no one's seen it in recent years); a twelve-foot diamondback rattler a farmer killed on the edge of town a few years back; some unclassifiable prodigy recently glimpsed as it sunned itself along the river's edge.
It is a wonderful thing to grow up in southern towns where animal fables are taken half-seriously, breathing into the adolescent mind a sense of the unknown and the possibility that something extraordinary might be found within a day's walk of where you live. No such magic exists in the environs of Schenectady, Liverpool, and Darmstadt, and for all children dwelling in such places where the options have finally been closed, I feel a twinge of sadness. I found my way out of Mobile, Pensacola, and Brewton to explore the surrounding woods and swamps with a languorous intensity. I formed the habit of quietude and concentration into which I still pass my mind during field excursions, having learned to summon the old emotions as part of the naturalist's technique.
Some of these feelings must have been shared by my friends. In the mid- 1940s during the hot season between spring football practice and the regular schedule of games in the fall, working on highway cleanup gangs and poking around outdoors were about all we had to do. But there was some difference: I was hunting snakes with passionate commitment. On the Brewton High School football team of 1944-45 most of the players had nicknames leaning toward the infantilisms and initials favored by southerners: Bubba Joe, Flip, A. J., Sonny, Shoe, Jimbo, Junior, Snooker, Skeeter. As the underweight third-string left end, allowed to play only in the fourth quarter when the foe had been crushed beyond any hope of recovery, mine was Snake. But although I was inordinately proud of this measure of masculine acceptance, my main hopes and energies had been invested elsewhere. There are an incredible forty species of snakes native to that region, and I managed to capture almost all of them.
One kind became a special target just because it was so elusive: the glossy watersnake Natrix rigida. The adults lay on the bottom of shallow ponds well away from the shore and pointed their heads out of the alga-green water in order to breathe and to scan the surface in all directions. I waded out toward them very carefully, avoiding the side-to-side movements to which snakes are most alert. I needed to get within three or four feet in order to manage a diving tackle, but before I could cover the distance they always pulled their heads under and slipped silently away into the opaque depths. I finally solved the problem with the aid of the town's leading slingshot artist, a taciturn loner my age, proud and quick to anger, the sort of boy who in an earlier time might have distinguished himself at Antietam or Shiloh. Aiming pebbles at the heads of the snakes, he was able to stun several long enough for me to grab them underwater. After recovering, the captives were kept for a while in homemade cages in our backyard, where they thrived on live minnows placed in dishes of water.
Once, deep in a swamp miles from home, half lost and not caring, I glimpsed an unfamiliar brightly colored snake disappearing down a crayfish burrow. I sprinted to the spot, thrust my hand after it, and felt around blindly. Too late: the snake had squirmed out of reach into the lower chambers. Only later did I think about the possibilities: suppose I had succeeded and the snake had been poisonous? My reckless enthusiasm did catch up with me on another occasion when I miscalculated the reach of a pygmy rattlesnake, which struck out faster than I thought possible and hit me with startling authority on the left index finger. Because of the small size of the reptile, the only results were a temporarily swollen arm and a fingertip that still grows a bit numb at the onset of cold weather.
Excerpted from In Search of Nature by Edward O. Wilson, Laura Southworth. Copyright © 1996 Edward O. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Good read and overview of many of Wilson's essays. Enjoyed it very much.