Exultation and Explanation

The Kindly Fruits of the Earth: Recollections of an Embryo Ecologist

by G. Evelyn Hutchinson
Yale University Press, 264 pp., $18.50

G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Sterling Professor of Zoology Emeritus at Yale, is unquestionably the world’s greatest living ecologist. In his most famous article—entitled “Homage to Santa Rosalia, or why are there so many kinds of animals?”—Hutchinson emphasizes the fundamental theme of ecology by citing an anecdote of J.B.S. Haldane. The great British biologist “found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles.”‘1

Since Linnaeus set the modern style of formal naming in 1758, more than a million species of plants and animals have received Latin binomials. More than 80 percent of these names apply to animals; of the animals, nearly 75 percent are insects; of the insects, about 60 percent are beetles. It is stunning that a single mode of organic architecture should engender such diversity—indeed, it continues to amaze me every time I think about it, and I have thought about it often. From the tiny trichopterygids less than 1/100 inch in length, to the all-female Micromalthus reproducing as a larva in rotting wood, to the quarter pound Goliath beetle and nearly foot long Batocera of New Guinea, beetles embody nature’s finest display of her principal theme—multifarious diversity. The science of ecology probes this richness for regularities. As Hutchinson asked in his subtitle to the article graced by Haldane’s anecdote: “Why are there so many kinds of animals?”

Ecologists must live in tension between two approaches to the diversity of life. On the one hand, they are tempted to bask in the irreducibility and glory of it all—exult and record. But, on the other, they acknowledge that science is a search for repeated pattern. Laws and regularities underlie the display. Why are there more species in tropical than in temperate zones? Why so many more small animals than large ones? Why do food chains tend to be longer in the sea than on land? Why are reefs so diversely and sea shores so sparsely populated with species? As an explanatory science, ecology traffics in differential equations, complex statistics, mathematical modeling, and computer simulation. I haven’t seen a picture of an animal in the leading journal of evolutionary ecology for years.

Many ecologists have escaped this tension by focusing their work on a single approach—exultation or explanation—and by treating the other side with territorial suspicion and derogation. Hutchinson has practiced and loved both all his life. He had all the advantages of an upper-class, English, intellectual background. The Kindly Fruits of the Earth, an autobiographical account of his early life up to his appointment at Yale in the late 1920s, reads like an extended idyll. More than half the book traces his education through the English public schools to Emmanuel College, Cambridge (his father had been a mineralogist and don at Pembroke College). The last three chapters recount his early professional experiences in Italy, South Africa, and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.