Tag Archives: biology

Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page_(detail)I have been meaning to read the Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White for ages as a classic of natural history. Classic it was, so some things I found fascinating, and there was a surprisingly great deal that surprised me immensely — though I know it shouldn’t have. This mostly had to do with how much ‘science’ of the time involved shooting a multitude of things (is it rare? Let’s kill it!) and having some or all of them stuffed.

I am finding it amazingly comforting (apologies to the shade of Gilbert White) that he was disappointed in his career, never receiving the post he wanted and relegated to live alone as a curate in the village of his birth. In that place, despite all the weight of his crushed dreams and hopes, he spent his time doing some of what he loved, wrote at great length and is better known than almost all of his contemporaries. I was sad to come to the end of this, I rather missed him.

All that said, it opens with poetry of the kind that I really like least…

INVITATION TO SELBORNE.

See, Selborne spreads her boldest beauties round
The varied valley, and the mountain ground,
Wildly majestic ! What is all the pride,
Of flats, with loads of ornaments supplied?—
Unpleasing, tasteless, impotent expense,
Compared with Nature’s rude magnificence.

But he regains some respect through the curiosity that drives his growing depth of knowledge of the natural world around him. He is rarely humorous or witty it is true, but this I quite enjoyed. At first I did find it humorous, but really it explains what he most felt the lack of in his place and positions — and actually lack of companionship is what I should worry about most leaving the city:

It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.

It is very cool to see how much of his thought is shaped by Linneaus and the work he inspires — which explains the constant references to Sweden I think (made me even sadder we didn’t get to Upsala in our recent trip, but there is next time perhaps), but they puzzled me just a bit at first:

Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden; the former has produced more than one hundred and twenty species, the latter only two hundred and twenty-one. Let me add also that it has shown near half the species that were ever known in Great Britain.* (* Sweden, 221; Great Britain, 252 species.)

He continues, and this made me laugh because there is indeed a very distinctive style to his writing:

On a retrospect, I observe that my long letter carries with it a quaint and magisterial air, and is very sententious: but, when I recollect that you requested stricture and anecdote, I hope you will pardon the didactic manner for the sake of the information it may happen to contain.
–2 Sept, 1774

I like too this point, which I confess I agree with:

Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.
— 8 Oct 1770

There are some hilarious digs at other branches of natural history as well…

Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms: the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man’s study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.
–1 Aug 1771

This focus on ‘the life and conversations of animals’ is I think why Gilbert White is still remembered and read with pleasure, and sets out what he hoped to do.

I think part of what surprised me most, though again, it really shouldn’t have, was the offhand references to shooting absolutely everything, both for study and for sport. Thus there are comments like this one:

But there was a nobler species of game in this forest, now extinct, which I have heard old people say abounded much before shooting flying became so common, and that was the heath-cock, black- game, or grouse. When I was a little boy I recollect one coming now and then to my father’s table. The last pack remembered was killed about thirty-five years ago; and within these ten years one solitary greyhen was sprung by some beagles in beating for a hare. The sportsmen cried out, ‘A hen pheasant’; but a gentleman present, who had often seen grouse in the north of England, assured me that it was a greyhen.
— Letter VI

I’ll write more about hunting in a second post, because the relationship between human beings and the world around them, and how they understand that relationship, is so interesting. He describes it in great detail, which is in itself interesting. But he thinks in terms of systems, how things fit together, why animals should behave as they do. One of my favourite sections comes near the end of his letter-writing career, where he writes:

The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm.
— 20 May 1777

This is much nearer the beginning transformations of the industrial revolution, the beginnings of thinking about the rights of man and the nature of society and economy — I quite liked this analysis of how this particular system works, and the language used to describe it:

A circumstance respecting these ponds, though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid- leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle; and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another!

He is also writing at the beginnings of natural history as we know it:

A little bird (it is either a species of the alauda trivialis, or rather perhaps of the motacilla trochilus) still continues to make a sibilous shivering noise in the tops of tall woods. The stoparola of Ray (for which we have as yet no name in these parts) is called, in your Zoology, the fly-catcher.

I perceive there are more than one species of the motacilla trochilus: Mr. Derham supposes, in Ray’s Philos. Letters, that he has discovered three. In these there is again an instance of some very common birds that have as yet no English name.
— 4th Aug 1767

Reading it, it feels that he has found two kindred spirits to send his letter to describing what he is uncovering about the world, but that everyone in his congregation knows that he is collecting things dead and alive. It feels like there is a host of boys out there combing the countryside. In the progression of knowledge, Reverend Gilbert White has few compunctions:

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the tame being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.
— 4 Nov 1767

He shoots things (or has things shot, mostly in the early letters), and eagerly cuts them open:

Many times have I had the curiosity to open the stomachs of woodcocks and snipes; but nothing ever occurred that helped to explain to me what their subsistence might be: all that I could ever find was a soft mucus, among which lay many pellucid small gravels.
— 15 Jan 1770

There are amazing notes like the one below — often these letters are just more or less lists of observations and tales recounted of interesting things:

Some intelligent country people have a notion that we have, in these parts, a species of the genus mustelinum, besides the weasel, stoat, ferret, and polecat; a little reddish beast, not much bigger than a field mouse, but much longer, which they call a cane. This piece of intelligence can be little depended on; but farther inquiry may be made.

A gentleman in this neighbourhood had two milk-white rooks in one nest. A booby of a carter, finding them before they were able to fly, threw them down and destroyed them, to the regret of the owner, who would have been glad to have preserved such a curiosity in his rookery. I saw the birds myself nailed against the end of a barn, and was surprised to find that their bills, legs, feet, and claws were milk-white.
— 1768

There is more than one animal shot and nailed to a barn door as a curiosity, which in itself I find so curious. We have come a long way from that, it is hard to even imagine it.

Just as curious is this odd account of a stinking snake:

When I wrote to you last year on reptiles, I wish I had not forgot to mention the faculty that snakes have of stinking se defendendo. I knew a gentleman who kept a tame snake, which was in its person as sweet as any animal while in a good humour and unalarmed; but as soon as a stranger or a dog or cat, came in, it fell to hissing, and filled the room with such nauseous effluvia as rendered it hardly supportable. Thus the squnck, or stonck, of Ray’s Synop. Ouadr. is an innocuous and sweet animal; but, when pressed hard by dogs and men, it can eject such a pestilent and fetid smell and excrement, that nodding can be more horrible.
— 30 August, 1769

I think perhaps what sets this apart is that for the most part Gilbert White is observing the habits of living creatures, patterns in their behaviour. He does shoot quite a lot of things, but I suppose before cameras or binoculars, some details could only be checked at close hand.  He has his own small collection of animals and birds stuffed and mounted — mourns lack of access to bigger collections and always writes with some humility:

Your partiality towards my small abilities persuades you, I fear, that I am able to do more than is in my power: for it is no small undertaking for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia! Though there is endless room for observation in the field of nature, which is boundless, yet investigation (where a man endeavours to be sure of his facts) can make but slow progress; and all that one could collect in many years would go into a very narrow compass.
–12 April 1770

An autopsia! More on the mania for collecting things (as well as the strange habits of swallows):

A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.*
–29 Jan 1774

The * refers the reader to the existence of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum — more about that very fascinating place here and here — reading Gilbert White, the impulses of knowledge and wonder come more to the fore despite the gory methods, but this collection is rather different, based on things brought back by Captain Cook on his travels, which connects to a darker legacy of conquest and violence, and the cataloguing of things to be able to calculate their market value.

Two more curiosities — an entire day where the air was absolutely full of cobwebs raining down from the sky:

About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention, a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity which showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere.
— 8 June 1775

Also echoes! A whole section on echoes:

The true object of this echo, as we found by various experiments, is the stone-built, tiled hop-kiln in Galleylane, which measures in front 40 feet, and from the ground to the eaves 12 feet. The true centrum phonicum, or just distance, is one particular spot in the King’s-field, in the path to Nore-hill, on the very brink of the steep balk above the hollow cart way.
— 12 Feb 1778

and another amazing word, to end on a high:

this village is another Anathoth, a place of responses or echoes.

 

 

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What a plant knows — Daniel Chamovitz

17357044Short and so engaging, I quite loved imagining what a plant knows in this way. Especially as this is not an exercise in anthropomorphising plants, rather just an entry point for us non-scientists into how a plant responds to the world around it — as well as a rather fascinating way to re-examine our own senses and how we understand them.

Sight

They know where the light is and at what strength. Darwin was fascinated by this, and his last book was titled The Power of Movement in Plants (1880), he was in fact fascinated by plants in general, which somehow I never knew. He and his son carried out experiments showing that a plant’s bending is caused not by photosynthesis, but by sensors sensitive to light in the tip of the plant.

Even cooler is the phenomenon of photoperiodism — the fact that plants know how long they have been exposed to light — one of the signals to keep growing or to stop. Not that they are that smart — a few minutes of light in the middle of the night can make some plants flower far outside of their normal season — how else could you have chrysanthemums for mother’s day?

But flowers can also distinguish between red and blue light, they in fact have 11 different photoreceptors, and can also detect elctromagnetic waves.

Best fun fact? You get over jet lag faster if you spend time outdoors, because the light helps reset your circadian clock.

Smell

This was pretty amazing…plants can sense odours, can emit chemicals that warn nearby leaves (and thus nearby plants) that they are being attacked by beetles or other such things and they should start producing the chemicals that beetles don’t like. They emit different chemicals when under a bacterial attack. They also receive cues about when to ripen this way, so putting your avocado or pear next to a ripe banana in a bag actually does work (science tells us, not just grandma) to ripen the avocado or pear faster. Ripening fruit emits ethylene, which tells other fruit to ripen quick — a bonanza will attract all kinds of things to your tree and spread your seeds far and wide.

There is an amazing parasitical plant called Cuscuta, or the dodder plant, that can sense proximity to other plants and choose the tastiest plant best for its own health and longevity — tomatoes for instance. I like that he gives youtube video references.

Touch

Plants know when they are touched, and most of them don’t really like it. Now I feel terrible about every time I have trailed my hand through the grass or run a finger along a beautiful leaf, flower or stem. Like photoreceptors, plants also have mechanoreceptors to record touch through electric impulses. The venus flytrap works in just this way…

Darwin wrote a whole treatise on these in 1875 —  Insectiverous Plants. Darwin never actually managed to figure out why the trap closed sometimes but not always — thus he failed to find the mechanism for the trap’s closing. Two of the interior hairs had to be touched in succession, ensuring the plant did not close on something too small to be worth it.

A similar reaction in some ways is that of the Mimosa pudica, often called the sensitive plant, as at a touch its leaves close in on themselves and droop. In the West Indies it is known as the ‘False Death’, in Hebrew the ‘don’t touch me’ and the ‘shy virgin’ in Bangladesh.

The sensitivity to certain kinds of touch help plants adapt and survive in varied surroundings, allowing them to change their growth patterns and shape in response to their environment

Hearing

Interestingly enough, despite all that I have heard about plants loving classical music and etc, they actually probably don’t. they probably can’t ‘hear’ at all, though possibly they are sensitive to vibrations. Interestingly, this thing about music and plants lept to prominence through Dorothy Retellack’s book The Sound of Music and Plants. Not a scientist at all, she was actually more interested in proving her theories that rock music was evil than showing the effect of music on plants. Led Zepplin and Jimi Hendrix will stunt your plant’s growth she argued, and by extension your own…scientists do not agree.

Proprioception

My favourite new word — this is how you know up from down, and where your body parts are in relation to each other. Not a sense relating to the external world but to your internal one.  For years humans tried to prove first that plants did react to gravity, and then how exactly they did it. Darwin again, in his experiments on phototropism showing that the tip of plants reacted to light also showed that the tips of roots sensed gravity (gravitotropism) — though the response took place further up the stem.  But how? Later we discovered through statoliths within the cell that fall to one side or the other and send signals…

But plants actually move all the time, as early time lapse photography showed.

Darwin himself turned his insomnia to account to show this the old fashioned way, suspending a glass plate over hundreds of species of plants and marking their position every few minutes for several hours. He ended with these complicated drawings showing their movements, which he called circumnutation.

darwin_fig06

He theorised these movements were hardwired into all plants, and a plant’s responses to light and gravity were simply modifications of these movements.

He has been proved right, plants do these movements in space, in the absence of gravity, weather, or attacking insects and bacteria.

I love the idea that they are dancing around us all the time.

Memory

Plants have this too in a certain form. The Venus flytrap uses it — a single touch on one of the hairs causes an electric signal, if this is followed with a touch on another hair within a certain amount of time, the trap closes.

Plants can also store memory of traumatic events such as the loss of a bud or a tear in the leaf, and grow away from it. They can mark the passage of a period of cold and retain it until all other conditions are ripe for growth or flowering — if there is no cold snap, there is no flowering. They can pass mutations in response to harsh climactic conditions on to their offspring, many of whom will better survive the same stresses than the parent.

These are all described as procedural memories, memories of how to do things.

This is very simplified from the book, but I wanted to remember the basics of just how amazing plants are. Also a shoutout to the most studied and experimented on of all plants, and the first to have its entire genetic code sequenced, the Arabidopsis thaliana.

ArabidopsisThaliana

I quite like that there is a go-to plant for scientists…

emergence

Emergence - Steven JohnsonNabeel Hamdi in his book on development constantly refers to the idea of emergence, which he draws from this book by Steven Johnson. Another bit of pop science applied to the world and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to read it. Somehow I was convinced by its shortness, and the blurb from J.G. Ballard – ‘Exhilarating’.

This is a bit Ballardian. Though it has no car crashes, sharp angles or sex symbol references.

In August 2000, Toshiyuki Nakagaki announced he had trained slime mould to travel the fastest route through a maze. Pretty amazing.

More amazing was that it turns out slime mould does not have a few cells that order all the rest around as had previously been assumed, but that given the right conditions, its components–often happily trawling about on their own doing what they do–each put out a call to join together and take advantage of opportunity and thus collectively do what they could not on their own. If you can use such human words to describe a very different process.

Which you probably shouldn’t. Just as you probably shouldn’t use that process as more than a broad metaphor to think about how things other than slime mould work, especially things as complicated as human beings.

So when this books was very broad I found it thought-provoking, and the narrower it got the higher my frustration.

I did  like the breadth of what it drew on, going from slime mould to ants to Engels writing about Manchester – and I liked that it provoked me to think something slightly new about this classic with a quote I hadn’t noted in my own reading:

I have never elsewhere seen a concealment of such fine sensibility of everything that might offend the eyes and nerves of the middle classes. And yet it is precisely Manchester that has been built less according to a plan and less within the limitations of official regulations–and indeed more through accident–than any other town. Still…I cannot help feeling that the liberal industrialists, the Manchester “bigwigs,” are not altogether innocent of this bashful style of building. (37)

But Engels went on with Marx to look at some of the things structuring this apparent accident, principally capitalism and the exploitative hierarchies it creates. How some of this emergent behaviour interlocks with these structures is what is actually what I find most interesting, and discussing ’emergence’ as though this emerging takes place on a blank canvas rather than into a world of structural inequality and oppression which act to shape it is deeply problematic. I would like a dialectical understanding of such things, how horizontal emergence articulates with structure. Maybe changes it for the better.

This book doesn’t do that.

The fact that it doesn’t do that makes it possible for Johnson to note hopefully that Al Gore is a fan of complexity theory! And in the same paragraph to describe corporate mantras of bottom-up intelligence and also the organising of the radical antiglobalization movement protest movement. Isn’t it all fascinating.

The science stuff is fun though, like the fact that ant colonies follow a lifecycle over 15 years (well, Arizona carpenter ants do — and I know those large bastards well with their amazing foraging lines that change every night, stripping a new plant of everything and leaving others alone). This, despite the fact no ant lives more than a year, thus the puzzle of:

The persistence of the whole over time–the global behaviour that outlasts any of its component parts–is one of the defining characteristics of complex systems. Generations of ants come and go, and yet the colony itself matures, grows more stable, more organized. (82)

This reminded me of the corruption and violence of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. But we are not ants. I like the fact that the Sim city game failed when the people were made too smart, instead they had to be dumbed down, fixated on one thing. Like ants.

Sim city may play with a form of emergence, but it is still limited by programming and the extent of its programmers imaginations of what cities are.

For most people, the sight of their first digital town sprouting upscale neighborhoods and chronically depressed slums is downright eerie, as though the hard math of the digital computer had somehow generated a life-form (88).

That was slightly infuriating, but I was raging as he continued in that vein:

Neighborhoods are themselves polycentric structures, born of thousands of local intersections, shapes forming within the city’s larger shape. Like Gordon’s ant colonies, or the cells of a developing embryo, neighborhoods are patterns in time. No one wills them into existence single-handedly; they emerge by a kind of tacit consensus : the artists go here, the investment bankers here, Mexican-Americans here, gays and lesbians here. The great preponderance of city dwellers live by these laws, without any legal authority mandating that compliance (91).

I did my PhD on this shit, and the multitude of books that tear this thinking into pieces are easily found in the case of the U.S. How dare he ignore years of racial covenants, and discrimination of all kinds, the immense amount of hate and violence that has gone into disciplining people of colour and people of different sexualities into their own neighbourhoods where at least they can feel safe.

Laws mandated compliance with racial segregation until 1953 in the US, the planning profession’s obsession with homogeneity and separation of land-use has been policy for a hundred years, and unofficial policies and blatant discrimination still exist. We cannot forget the legacy of violence and issues with race and definitions of ‘American’ as white and etc. resulting from the conquest of the US and slavery that are even now being fought out in Ferguson and Baltimore and cities all over the country.

There is a lot more wrong with this idea, but in a nutshell: patterns do naturally emerge, but American cities at least do not reflect any such ‘natural’ patterns arrived at through tacit consensus. The idea would be laughable if it did not write off and deeply insult centuries of struggle by people of colour, poor people, lbgtqi communities to live where they choose with some level of dignity. That still hasn’t been won.

This is why I hate using an idea emerging from slime mould, and other such biological marvels, to say ‘this is how cities work.’ To explain what is created by human beings. It simplifies and ignores what doesn’t fit. Sadly our cities, our slums, our uprisings are all things we have actively created and fought over.

When do I like playing with an idea such as emergence? When it does not seek to explain, but rather shifts our frame, maybe makes us see things in a different way. Notice what we hadn’t before. When metaphor opens up insight.

There are manifest purposes to a city…But cities have a latent purpose as well: to function as information storage and retrieval devices. Cities were creating user-friendly interfaces thousands of years before anyone even dreamed of digital computers. Cities bring minds together and put them into coherent slots. Cobblers gather near other cobblers…Ideas and goods flow readily within these clusters, leading to productive cross-pollination…The power unleashed by this data storage is evident in the earliest large-scale human settlements (108)

Again, still a bit problematic in its simplifications, but the idea of the city as a giant centre of information storage and retrieval is quite cool, fun to play with and think about.

I also liked the recognition that in studying communications and discourse these days, ‘We need a third term beyond medium and message’ (161). We need something that gets at how we are filtering things, accessing them. The web really has opened things wide up, but how are people being channeled, how do they figure out where to look and what is worth looking at?

Near the end Johnson gets to the question of what this can do for politics. Same issues as raised by what this can do for cities — things aren’t just emerging onto a level playing field so how emergence deals with existing structures of domination is the real question. That what makes its embrace by the right-wing who are anti-big-government in everything but the monopoly of force, and by the radical left so different.

In fact, the needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentrations of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available. (224)

Possibly true, but the capacity of capitalism to co-opt so much demands of us much more of a stretch in our thinking about how this actually can create a positive change in the world that goes to scale.