Saturday, February 21, 2015

`An Inordinate Fondness for Stars and Beetles'

“The books of 2014, like the books of any year, utterly exceed our grasp. In one aspect, they suggest (they mimic, we could say) the divinely gratuitous excess of Creation; seen from another angle, their multiplicity reflects our fallenness, our propensity to error, our confusion. We need to hold those rival truths in tension, but plentitude can be intimidating, disorienting. Hence the seductive appeal of Theories of Everything…” 

Twice in the last week I’ve heard myself about to spew a Theory of Everything, and shut my mouth in alarm. In both cases, I had hoped to sound mildly ironical, but recognized I was inching dangerously close to believing or wanting others to believe what I was about to say. Whether Islamist or Darwinian, grandiose theories seduce the fearful and weak, and bring to a halt the fumbling business of learning how to live and how to deal with other people. The bear-trap mind, spring-loaded, unnuanced and touchy, recognizes no court of appeals, no Angel of Mercy. 

Speaking of Darwin, Adam Kirsch in “Darwinism at 150” (Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, 2014), refers to the well-known tale of the great biologist and the three Coleoptera as recounted in his Autobiography. Reviewing a book for children adapted from the anecdote, One Beetle Too Many (2012), Kirsch quotes the author, Kathryn Lasky: “Once, out on a beetling expedition, [Darwin] found under the bark of a tree two beetles he had never seen before. Within seconds a third strange beetle crawled out and Charles, lacking a free hand, quickly popped one beetle in his mouth and scooped up the third one.” It’s a great story, almost certainly true, and usually is cited to illustrate the single-mindedness of a devoted scientist. Kirsch picks up the tale: 

“It is odd that a book meant for children omits the conclusion of this story as Darwin tells it: ‘Alas! It injected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.’ 

“Maybe this gross-out ending was felt to undermine Lasky’s message, which comes across in the book’s first sentence: `No one ever said “Don’t touch!” in the house where Charles Darwin grew up.’ Cleverly, One Beetle Too Many links children’s natural resentment of the adults who say `don’t touch’ with a more principled resentment of religious authorities who could put ideas off-limits.” 

Even children’s books come theory-laden, especially today, when book-making is equated with opinion-mongering. An entertaining, well-told story isn’t permitted to stand on its own merits.  The passage quoted at the top of this post is from John Wilson’s “Books of 2014: From Beetles to the Desert Fathers” at First Things. After dismissing Theories of Everything, Wilson goes on: 

“Far better to hunker down with Beetles of Eastern North America, a massive and handsomely illustrated volume by the entomologist Arthur V. Evans covering more than 1,400 species. Keep it handy in your workspace or at your bedside, maybe next to your book of the Daily Hours. Though he was probably not intending to do so, Evans has given us a devotional. The Lord of sea and sky is also the Lord of the beetles.” 

Evans’ fat volume has rested on my bedside table for weeks. He writes clean, uncluttered prose, a discipline many “literary” writers disdain: “The nature of the body surface on beetles, or surface sculpturing, is very useful in species identification. Surfaces can be shiny like patent leather or dulled (aluteceous) by a minute network of fine cracks resembling those of human skin.” 

I collected beetles as a boy, in Cleveland, Ohio, in the northern reaches of Evans’ east-of-the-Mississippi zone. They were plentiful, beautiful, found under every rock and log, and easier to capture and mount than butterflies and moths (which I also collected). They helped mark the passing of the seasons in a temperate zone – the ping of June bugs on the screen door, the indoor invasion of lady bugs. Coleoptera includes more species than any other order -- almost a quarter of all known animal species. Such bounteousness was noted by Darwin, and its most famous articulation has been misattributed to him. For years, I too thought Darwin said something like “the Creator must be inordinately fond of beetles.” The Quote Investigator traces the likely source to another English biologist, J.B.S. Haldane. Read the seemingly solved mystery. Here is Haldane’s observation: “God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.”  And Wilson’s “The Lord of sea and sky is also the Lord of the beetles.”

1 comment:

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

Thanks for this delightful article.