How much do we depend upon Nature? The question is neither absurd nor rhetorical, and it includes many of our fundamental dilemmas. At one level it is easy to answer that without animal and plant life there would be no food, so of course we are absolutely dependent upon them. But the animals and plants that we raise for food can be said to be only marginally part of Nature. A battery of hens or a field of wheat is almost as “artificial” as a moon satellite, which is more at the mercy of “the elements” than they are.
Of nature in the raw most of us see, at most, carefully chosen samples and would not really relish much more. Yet many of us have a strong feeling that we need at least some contact with trees and animals, open air and sea. Is this a hangover from the time not very long ago when agriculture and fishing were nearer to Nature? Does it represent for man a truly fundamental need? The form and motions of an animal or of a tree seem to have a particular rhythm and authenticity, if it may be so described, which is not supplied by any of the works of man. This may be called sentimental naturalism, but it is undoubtedly a genuine mode of thinking, deeply ingrained in many people. For some of us life would be much poorer without some contact with nature.
But it would be hard to maintain that such contact is essential to human life. Indeed, it is not really clear whether it is desired by the majority. One question is whether without it people are left with some deficiency of “vision” and understanding of the world, which can be supplied by imaginative architecture and town planning. But before we reach the stage of planning an environment of concrete for ourselves, it would be wise to look back and repeat the question, “How much do we depend upon nature?” The superficial answer seems to be “very little,” because most of us see so little of it. But this may be largely because we don’t know where to look, or what for. We move in our cars along the roads, and fail to realize that much the greater part of the earth and sea is covered with countless billions of plants and animals. We hear a lot about the dangers of pollution, but the prospect of the elimination of all life except ourselves and our domestic plants and animals is ridiculous. Beneath one square meter of sea surface there may be eight billion diatoms (green protozoans). The Gulf of Maine contains as much as four million tons of minute copepod crustaceans (which are perhaps the most numerous of all animals of a grade above protozoans). An acre of pasture contains more than a billion insects (mainly little spring-tails). One soon gets numbed by numbers and there is no guarantee that pollution will not kill billions too, but the point is that the richness of animal and plant life is literally unimaginable. What we need is not imagination but knowledge about it and perhaps especially of our own relation to it.
In spite of all the ecology, theoretical and applied, and all the ethology, we really remain very uncertain how we stand in relation to our fellow inhabitants of Earth. We are used to regarding ourselves as rather superior overlords, but how much control can we actually exercise? We may be able to slaughter enormous numbers, but we can make an area of the earth bare only by sitting on it ourselves. The area on which we do this has been called the anthroposphere, and some people may think that it is extending so rapidly that the question, “Is nature necessary?” is becoming academic. Dr. Evans is an entomologist from Harvard who thinks not, and that we literally “need” to know a lot more about animal and in particular insect life on our “little-known planet.”
The insects he writes about range from bedbugs to wasps, and for him they are all part of nature. He is equally fascinated by laboratory experiments such as the training of headless roaches and the flights of migrating dragonflies such as were described by W. H. Hudson in La Plata. This combination of the lore of the laboratory and the open air is something that will enrich us all. Too often the precise experimenter has despised the naturalist as an inexact and self-indulgent amateur. Moreover, he has himself disdained to bring out the beauty and usefulness of the structure he has studied. Howard Evans manages to satisfy both sorts of curiosity together. He describes the strange story of the way in which Boris Uvarov proved that what seemed to be one “species” of locust turns into another—incidentally, Uvarov studied first in his native Russia and then founded the Anti-Locust Research Centre in Britain. These studies not only provide a basis for locust control but have thrown up fascinating biological problems. Locusts seem to show a form of inheritance of characters acquired from their parents, which, as everyone should know, is strictly not allowed by biologists, Young locusts who are the offspring of crowded parents have a greater tendency to “march” than those from isolated ones. “It is widely held that no conceivable mechanism exists by which acquired habits could be transmitted through the egg, although locusts apparently have one.” Evans gives his opinion that the answer to this riddle is in the number of eggs laid by the female—the crowded ones produce fewer and bigger offspring, more ready to march.
Each of the problems considered in these essays is separate, and yet taken together they tell us a good deal about insect life. Insects are important to us, as well as interesting and beautiful. Evans has no doubt that “emersion [sic] in a world of trees, flowers and wild creatures is needed to nourish human attributes now in short supply: awe, compassion, reflectiveness, the brotherhood we often talk about but rarely practise….” In spite of the purple prose, this is an excellent example of scientific literature, equally acceptable to specialists and laymen. Yet it doesn’t really take us much further with our question. Dr. Evans finds the existence of millions of species “overwhelmingly exciting.” He believes that by studying them we may be helped to discover “where we want to draw the line on the expansion of human numbers,” which he believes to be “our decision.” Yes, but whose?
Many zoologists believe that mankind can learn much from the study of animals, particularly about the problem of population and crowding, social attitudes and aggression. Parallels with insect societies are notorious. In Animal Societies from the Bee to the Gorilla, Dr. Chauvin, a French biologist, much prefers the bees, and feels “a certain disappointment when dealing with vertebrates. They seem too simple and their habits too gross. What are they, then, these primates who build no houses, raise no cattle, grow no fungi, do not collect honey for storage? Ants and bees have been doing this for millions of years.” This translation gives a good straightforward account of insect industries, covering termites as well as ants and bees. Except in the last case, we now have no need for secondary sources. Professor Karl von Frisch of Munich produced in 1965 a full account of his life’s work now translated as The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees.
Von Frisch’s work began nearly fifty years ago but was taken up intensively in the Second World War, when the Germans “wanted to be able to tell the bees in their own ‘language’ that they should gather food more intensively, and where they should fly.” He does not tell us how successful he has been in drafting the bees, but there are several examples of how they have directed him. His own daughters were so skeptical of his findings that they set up food for the bees at a distance and made father find out where it was by “reading” the message of the dancing bees in the hive. He got it nearly right—and learned from his error still more about the language. One of his comments is interesting. “Though we may be pleased that we understand the dances so well, at the same time we must be impressed with how fussily and clumsily we make use of the information given by the bees. To understand the dance, we must possess at least a stopwatch, a protractor, and surveyor’s tape. How elegantly this task is mastered by the bees themselves, who need only a few circuits in the dark hive, then—set forth in free flight, guided by the sun, and steer toward the goal.”
This is a technical work, but it is beautifully produced, and anyone who wants a sound and simple account of von Frisch’s extraordinary findings will get it best from von Frisch himself. There is no discussion of the parallelism with man, either in the formation of societies or in the use of language. But a brief section shows how the symbolic representations of bees may have arisen, long ago, from movements such as those made by flies when searching for a supply of sugar of which they have been deprived.
Like von Frisch, those who actually study the animals are not generally much involved with human parallels, either as justification of the value of their work or as means of description. Some ethologists however are much concerned whether it is good to “humanize” animals. Dr Williams has established a colony of woolly monkeys on the Cornish coast and has observed them under conditions that he believes to be much preferable to those of most artificial zoo colonies. He quotes a letter from Konrad Lorenz:
To refrain from humanizing animals would imply the loss of a superlatively important source of knowledge. A greylag gander for example notices that his wife suddenly and unaccountably has fallen in love with another gander, and tends to follow him about. He attacks the rival and shepherds his wife away—I have not the slightest hesitation in calling this jealousy. With monkeys we must expect to share many characteristics which are inherited by common ancestry. The similarity is not only functional, but historical, and it would be an actual fallacy not to humanize.
One may ask, what “superlatively important knowledge” is given to us by “humanizing” the gander’s behavior? The approval of the quotation tells us something about both Doctors Williams and Lorenz. But Lorenz can do better than this (it was, after all, only a letter). Williams tries to “humanize” without being sentimental, but it is not clear that he really gains anything from it. His observations on the facial signaling system of monkeys could be considered an addition to human knowledge only if he could prove, for example, that a monkey’s expression means he is “afraid” by referring to situations in which that face is shown. But humanizing won’t tell us the meaning of a monkey’s grin any more than it will tell us that the withdrawal of the lips of a horse or donkey means “I love you.” We don’t share all that much ancestry with the monkeys, any more than we do with horses. We find it hard enough to “humanize” the behavior that is involved, say, in Ancient Egyptian human sacrifice, or indeed even in the behavior of some people today.
More than a hundred years after Darwin we remain hesitant in the treatment of our relation to nature and our animal relatives. We know that we are part of nature and yet something in us continually seems to want to opt out. Our language and culture used to be deeply affected by the animals upon which we depend. As Grant Watson puts it, “While man is mastering the brute, something of the brute invades him.” His subtitle is “The Animal in the Human and the Human in the Animal, in Ancient and Modern Times.” Are we now trying to sever these connections? Is it wise or indeed possible to do so? For the biologist today it seems that we need more knowledge both of animals and men and we need it not in the old fuzzy language of mythology and psychology that “humanizes,” but in new and sharper terms. In the past five years biochemists have shown that the code of instructions of all forms of life from bacteria to mammals is written in a common language. The same triplets of nucleotide bases serve to add a given amino acid to the proteins of the trunk of a Sequoia tree and the brain of a man. Here indeed is a demonstration that we are all one kin, as romantic as a poet could wish, yet crisply expressible and of immense practical importance.
November 21, 1968