Thursday, September 09, 2010

'just doing what they have to do'

Part of the wall of the colony was a circular magnifying glass.  Through it Marcus did not meet, but saw, the unseeing huge eye of a worker ant in a cavern lined with spun cocoons.  The eye was like a huge apple seed.  The ant itself was three glittering black, carapaced, pointed and rounded segments and six finely jointed limbs.

...[the queen was] a mountainous distended belly with feeble head and feet poking from it, climbed over, as a grounded air balloon or beached ship might be, by diligent tiny attendant daughters.

'Horrible,' he said.'Horrible.'

'No, why? Look at these - these are "repletes", these are ants who just hang up as honeypots for all the other ants all their lives... Isn't it interesting?' said Jacqueline.  

'Yes. But I don't like it. Them.'

'That's because you see them as human.  If you don't, they are simply amazing.'

Marcus considered the swollen egg layer and the incessant motion in the dark tunnels.

'I don't see how you can't - see them in relation to us.'

'You must try.' 

(AS Byatt, Still Life)


So, that's the key then, stop seeing them as anything like us.

I envy naturalists, biologists, entomologists, and I know that, besides not having the head for it and being too vague and sloppy and lazy to be any kind of scientist anyway,  I couldn't be one.  Vague arty types like me think we are in pursuit of beauty, but it seems to me that they follow the dictum 'beauty is truth, truth beauty' with a dedication and ruthlessness that does it nothing but honour.  You could say the same for any science, but here we are talking about life, living things, animals, and that's where the ruthlessness comes in. They pull things apart, slice them up, look at their bits, put them back together, to see how they work, always wondering and committed to the beauty of it all. 

Flabby, soppy people like me, you see, we keep letting our affect get in the way, our human-based notions of morality and aesthetics, and eventually our wretched, rigourless, sentimental anthropomorphism. 

Real life-scientists don't do that.  Do they?

 A passion for something doesn't necessarily mean you need to treat it with kindness ( the root of which means 'as if it were your own kind' ); it means you want to know it inside out, by whatever means.  We recently watched a TV programme about Humboldt squid, and how their populations are exploding on the Pacific coast of the Americas - they make my hornets look like a walk in the park as far as alien menace is concerned.  They fished one of these cephalopods up out of the sea from a boat, and plonked it in a tank.  The very young-looking marine biologist, who was going to be responsible for the next step in the experiment, looked as excited and flushed and joyful as a little girl getting her first puppy, as the creature, looking like a monstrous, faceless, many-limbed infant being wrestled into its bath, furiously (though even that is projection) spitting out a jet of seawater. then, in order to learn more of the animal's reproduction, growth rate etc, they extracted the necessaries and created the embryos in a lab. 'Let's make squid babies!' said the young biologist, rubbing her hands with glee.  I have to say I adored this woman. Later we saw the whole troupe of scientists enjoying a meal of fried squid with especial relish, not only because if the squids continue as they are they will be the only form of fish or seafood available in most of the eastern Pacific, but because it gave them great and vengeful pleasure to be eating something which had been wreaking so much havoc and trying to kill them.

Then there are my German hornet enthusiasts, yet they make the case for their protegés that they are 'gentle giants', they make an affective and sympathetic saga of their life cycle. Masata Ono, the chief authority on the Asian giant hornet, vespa mandarinia, (crabro's very big oriental cousin)  who has suffered its sting and described it as being like a hot nail driven through his leg, on the one hand argues for a dispassionate rejection of judgemental anthropomorphism: '[They] seem brutal to us, but they're just doing what they have to do to survive', but then resorts to pleading their cause in much more emotive terms 'they're excellent mothers and fierce protectors.'

So if the biologists can't shed their affect, their emotional involvement, for good or ill, with the objects, or subjects, of their studies, how easy is it for us to do so?

Perhaps it's something to do with faces... 


Kelly said...

Once again I am impressed with your dedication to learn more about those things previously dismissed as hazards or pest. I too find if fascinating to witness those who dedicate most or their lives to the study of a single species. Perhaps in a way we do as well in that we study the species that we are a member of. I look forward to your next installment.

Crafty Green Poet said...

It's not just scientists who tear it all apart - Audobon the great American bird artist shot several birds for each of his paintings.

Odd perhaps that I have little fondness for wasps, but I love bees, I think its because most bees are furry....

Lucy said...

Thank you both for stopping.

CGP - indeed. When I was a bird- and art-loving youngster I went to see an exhibition of Tunnicliffe's paintings, and was most distressed to realise that most of the birds he painted were dead ones, including the rarest hawks and falcons, shot moreover. Though this was quite a bit later than the kind of 19th century mentality of Audobon and others that the best way to study things was to kill them first and the more the better, plenty more where that came from, and Tunnicliffe probably didn't do the shooting himself, he didn't mind taking advantage of it, and it was considered quite normal and acceptable. Now no naturalist or artist of the natural world would find it acceptable to kill endangered species just to look at them, thankfully. I'm not accusing scientists of cruelty or wilful destructiveness in calling them ruthless.

As I said in my response to comments on the last post, wasps are, by virtue of their love for rotting things and their relationship with us, often a pest species, not endangered, inclined to do us harm and it is often necessary and desirable to get rid of them. I know very deep greens and/or Buddhists might disagree, and I know it's all our interfering human fault, but still, I think discernment and a case-by-case view is called for.

Bees, as Michael Caine once said, have always been our friends. Yes they are cute and furry (I'll come to that in the next post) but they are also useful if not essential to us, do not eat carrion rotting things or other creatures, and although their sting is more venomous even than a hornet's, and designed only to harm us, it is entirely defensive.