January 10, 2011
And The World Hummed Back -or- Ecologists and Their Bodies. Part I: A fly and I
By Liam Heneghan
[This is the first in an occasional series of pieces on the philosophy of science.]
In the guestbook of a flower shop near my Evanston, Illinois home, a few blocks west of Lake Michigan – that body of water which serves as a sea for those born far from the brinier fluids of a true ocean – I observed the tiny carcass of an insect compressed upon the page, beneath a comment that read, “Yellow roses are the gift of cowards, Carl.” Intriguing. Its antennae were shaped like little Christmas trees, an anatomical curiosity permitting many people, I expect, to readily identify the fly as a chironomid midge, a fly hatched from a larva that lived in the lake’s proximate substrate, whose pupating body rose at some late life-stage and floated upon the surface of the waters, whose pupal exuvium sloughed off like the skin of a small but darkly-meated banana, and which then, as an adult, rose again to swarm as part of a male-only congregation waiting for a mate to flit along. Chironomid males, recall, have those telltale plumose antennae which act as a delicate sexual nose of sorts, to detect the presence of female flies. The ephemeral and outlandishly sexual nature of their adult lives is underscored by the fact that they do not feed, being equipped with a greatly reduced feeding apparatus. This much is well enough known; a well-informed school-child will elaborate on the matter. What drew me to this tiny creature flattened beneath the testy comment in the guest book, however, was neither its antennae nor its little head bereft of proper chompers; I was drawn to the curious genital structures of the tiny beast. I could see from the arrangement of it gonocoxites, apodemae, and sundry genital appendages that it was a Tanytarsus species. Now this, I grant you, is relatively arcane knowledge, the sort of knowledge that comes with expensive training, a scientific training. A word or two, therefore, on said training.
I qualified as a zoologist at University College Dublin, getting a master’s degree for work on chironmids that I collected in Irish National Parks in 1987, having completed my bachelor’s work the year before. I eventually earned my PhD there in 1994. A rigorous education. In our Irish system a young person shows up at university at seventeen or eighteen years of age, knowing, it is assumed, exactly what subject matters they expect to devote a lifetime of work to. Choosing, in my case, the natural sciences, I was educated in these sciences: all other domains of knowledge were excluded. I was taught (eclectically) across four science sub-disciplines in my first year, in my second specializing in three, in my third year, two, and yes in my last year I honed my skills as a zoologist taking a suite of specialist courses and undertaking a year-long research project on the systematics of a genus of chironomid midges, the Thienemannimyia group. The task: to unravel the phylogenetic (roughly evolutionary) relationships between the numerous species in the group.
We might chat profitably about this interesting little bunch of flies on another occasion, but for now I merely mention that the mite of knowledge that I added to our collective stockpile came as a consequence of examining relations between species, not by an inspection of the genitalia of male flies, the standard approach, but by way of a minute scrutiny of the generative apparatuses of female flies. Never had private parts been quite as private as were those of female chironomids – entomologists, at the time, had no more than cursorily glanced at these organs. Work lovingly pursued; it requiring methodological training not only in scanning electron microscopy, but also in the use of that more old-fashioned instrument, the drawing tube. The tube is attached to the body of a microscope and allows the observer to view his own hand, a hand seen both hovering over a page of drawing paper, as well as reflected in shadowy form upon the object of inspection in the microscope’s field of view. With a modicum of skill, a microscopist can make a passable technical drawing of the genital structures. (I pause to note that the genitals of these female flies are less sporty than their male counterparts, as if one paired a gaudily ornamented medieval latch-key with the sober efficiency of a Yale lock). After many months of labor I concluded the work, handing off sheaves of lewd drawings, pages of hand-written text, and a number of speculative diagrams, inked on grease-proof paper, illustrating my thoughts on fly relationships to my dear mother for typing-up. Not since Jimmy Cagney's proclamation in White Heat, "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" has a son been so proud and a mother so diminished by the same body of work. I have often speculated that while the other mothers discussed the accomplishments of their young child-scientists mine just shook her head mutely cogitating upon that whole tawdry business.
Though the effort expended and the knowledge required to complete this first, alas still unpublished, research project were considerable, I had not, in fact, acquired the level of expertise required to perform the trifling identificatory task on the dead fly in the flower-shop until after I completed my master’s research. Indeed many of the skills that made me a reasonably skilled biologist were accumulated making field collections in Irish National Parks. The bachelor’s thesis was primarily done using specimens collected by others and residing in little vials of alcohol in my supervisor’s collection. Methodologically, that early work was quite involved of course – the insects were prepared by somewhat gruesomely boiling their dead bodies in potassium hydroxide (caustic potash), and then macabrely dissected them piece by piece; head and antennae, wings, thorax, abdomen, and genitals mounted and sealed on glass slides, made ready for inspection. The specimens were examined and then illustrated in the manner I described above.
For my master’s degree I undertook a survey of all the chironomid species in Glenveagh National Park, in County Donegal. For this work I took up regular residence at the National Park, converting the kitchen and conference room of their then newly-built visitor’s residence into a laboratory. Youth rarely recognizes the generosity of their elders for what it is – the staff at the park, lead then by Superintendant Ciaran O'Keeffe – put up with some ongoing annoyances from an uncouth visitor who failed to notice what he inflicted upon them. On the hob in that kitchen, I boiled the bodies of my zoological finds, and in the conference room I prepared the insects for the microscope. The real value of this work for me, as a grounding for my subsequent studies, nevertheless came from the degree of physical effort expended on, and sensory acuity cultivated in making the insect collections. I learned more thoroughly the meaning of mountainous terrain, learned to better read sphagnum moss on marshy land (thus averting a gasping watery end), I crisscrossed the park on foot with nets and pooters and vials in tow, and I came to see the system with the eye of the fly. To digress (in the midst of what may already seem an interminable digression), my supervisor, the great dipterist Declan A. Murray, and one of his more senior graduate students, had modeled this “eye of the fly” approach for me: the two men meandering companionably along the course of shallow river waters, insect nets swiping the undersides of riparian vegetation; then both men hovering over their finds, themselves like a pair of thoughtful midges, selecting out the marvels. To know a landscape with a fly’s eye is to know the river, and to know the plants, and to know the shading of the sky and the waning of the day; for knowledge of these things is knowledge of a fly’s resting spot, when weary from its holometabolic exertions, freshly emerged from the slime, it composes itself for its reproductive labours ahead. Unless, that is, it is collected by an entomologist and dispatched in 70% ethanol, a sad end (my callow claims, made in the bravura of my Irish youth, that to die such a death would be a fitting drinker’s demise, not withstanding).
My training in “fly-eye”, that is, in learning to think like a gnat, and allowing this inhabitation to direct my footfall across boggy ground was capped with two reportable successes. I climbed along the rather treacherous edge of a waterfall to collect at Lough Naweeloge (Loch na bhFaoileog), where I located Arctopelopia “sp a” (sensu Pinder). The last time an individual with similar anatomical peculiarities was reported, according to taxonomist L C V Pinder, was in 1916 in England, that specimen having shown up in the British Museum of Natural History’s collection. In my report on this find – a report that does not, of course, allude to the “fly-sense” that directed me to this lake which seemed likely to be home to interesting creatures, nor does it record the minor but enjoyable arduousness of the climb to the lake, nor mention the fine discoursing of Dave Duggan, the ranger who accompanied me to the lake side – I merely recorded, grandiloquently, that the species “might repay close investigation”, and I duly noted that the individual “is distinctive in possessing swellings on the sides of the aedaegal lobes” (yes, more genital-talk). Nevertheless, quite a find!
Of slightly greater significance was finding two species of chironmids new to science (that is, previously undescribed by entomologists) in a small pond near Lough Veagh, the main body of water dominating the national park. I had passed by the pond daily for weeks without paying close attention. The small body of water had been formed when an owner of the estate prior to it becaming property of the state had, decades before, scooped it out to attract ducks which could then be conveniently shot; convenient also, in present times, for quite a range of insect species. Based upon a few exploratory net swipes I sensed it should be a good collecting spot. Since many of these insects emerge at night I stayed collecting all night by the pond to ensure I got pupal skins and the associated adults. Although chironomids do not bite, the closely related flies in the family Ceratopogonidae, sometimes called no-see-ums, are fiendishly hungry. Added to the monstrous swarm of these almost invisible feeders, horse flies (who, unlike many other biting insects whose delicately serrated mouthparts glide painlessly into flesh, more primitively, hack open an incision and slobber down upon the fluid) alighted on me to engorge themselves remorselessly. By the end of the night both my body and my blood had made their sacrifices in exchange for the flies I collected. A photograph of my arms that I took the day after documented the price they had paid for science. In that picture I am looking quite pleased with myself: after all I had learned the insects of this pond and its hinterlands in a very somatic, a corporeal way. In the night’s collection were the two new species in the genus Ablabesmyia. Frankly, we know so little about the diversity of life of Planet Earth that a couple of undescribed species is not a big deal. Nevertheless, it was a pleasing event for me, and in fact, it merited a comment in a column in the Irish Times later that year. But like the fictional novelist, Richard Tull, in Martin Amis’ novel The Information who ignored a commuter reading his work on the London Underground thinking, erroneously, that he would witness such scenes repeatedly, I chose not save that column, nor have I been able to find it since (also erasing a television interview on the state of Irish Waters, suspecting, again erroneously, that I would perform better in the future).
Could I say, at the end of this lengthy training as a field entomologist that it prepared me to be a better husband, or father, or friend, a better man!? A man more attentive to the little things, a better observer? How can I say, since I am not even sure it made me a better scientist. The new species of flies that emerged from the pond that night are still un-described, ironically because I did not collect any female flies that night (a recent publication from the national park discusses the duck pond and refers to “a species [sic] new to science was discovered here in 1987”). And shortly after this work I switched from aquatic systems to terrestrial ones, from taxonomic to ecological work, from an organismal focus to studying ecosystem processes, from observational to experimental work. Of course, I can say that it gave me a private moment of satisfaction identifying the squished Tanytarsus species in the flower store where I purchased a rose, a red one, for my wife.
There is more to be said though. Though the training that I received was technical and thorough it was not one that encouraged me, at least not at the time I was receiving it, to reflect much on the process by which knowledge of the natural world is acquired. When I glance back over Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist (Harper and Row 1979), a book I appreciated as an undergraduate, I note that there he advises against excessive reading: “Too much book learning”, he says, “may crab and confine the imagination, and endless poring over the research of others is sometimes psychologically a research substitute, much as reading romantic fiction may be a substitute for real-life romance.” Elsewhere in that volume he asks “Is there too much fuss about method?” and claims that “a young scientist has no need to exercise a methodology in any highfalutin sense…“The scientific method” as it is sometimes called, is a potentiation of common sense.” All this I quote not to pick a quarrel with admirers of the late Sir Peter, whose sage advice and sophisticated understanding of the philosophy of science is displayed in that same volume (for instance, he encourages scientists not to reject the implications of Kant’s transcendental idealism too quickly). Rather, it serves to illustrate the emphatically pragmatic nature of scientific training in my time; from what I gather it is still the norm in Ireland, Britain, and in the US where I now teach environmental science (as far as I can tell, despite the liberal studies requirements associated with most degrees granted in American universities, scientists-in-training don’t yack too much about science as an epistemological enterprise.) Indeed, Thoreau, more than a century before, on the topic of education in the largest sense, exclaimed “To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation! – why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.” Thoreau might have approved of the training of modern entomologists, who in their education saunter through wildlands and along fluvial ways, although Walden, a fruit of his experiential exercise, is of course a sustained meditation on what the person may learn when experimenting, in a very bodily way, with a life of environmental quality, whereas there was no room in the curriculum over the duration of my three academic degrees for discussion about the human being and the land, or on the nature of the scientific enterprise, nor the history of science, and no courses on epistemology, and none, of course, on philosophy.
Therefore I come late to an extended reflection on what it means to glean insights into the workings of Nature through scientific investigations – I am a 47 year-old philosophical virgin. Arriving late I find that, in some philosophical traditions at least, science is a suspicious business, and, as our knowledgeable school-child can tell us, that a vigorous critique of science has been underway for some time (not always, it seems, by those who know too much about the execution and actual outcomes of many scientific investigations). I come to this enquiry knowing that there are real problems with the state of the environment and that science and technology create and solve ecological problems in a problematic ratio (to paraphrase Loren Eiseley). However, as an experiment of sorts, I am attempting a sympathetic response to the contemporary critique of science in order to evaluate if this response can lead to refreshed appreciation of the natural world, a re-formulated understanding of the relationship between people and nature, and ultimately better responses to the environmental crisis.
A last word: my work with flies trained me to use my body in a way that allowed me to know more about one particular place: Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal, Ireland. All naturalists have known this feeling, a sense of anticipation of what creature is around a particular corner, and yet when we reflect and report on what we have learned it is as if our senses never had a body. Moreover, it seems that the more sophisticed the environmental sciences becomes, the less the body has to do with anything. A naturalist's awareness of her body in the land, a skill as real as the one that allows her to identify a species at a distance, is rarely the subject of reflection. In the next column of this series I examine the work of a sympathetic critic of science, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. whose writings may assist in putting the body back in science, if anyone cared to do such a thing.
[Photos in order: Chironomus plumosus (from Wikipedia); good chironomid habitat: River Dodder close to University College Dublin; Glenveagh National Park, Co. Donegal, showing the "Duck Pond" in the foreground and Lough Veagh behind; Heneghan self-portrait with welts - the t-shirt appears to be a homage to the music of Eric Clapton].
Posted by Liam Heneghan at 12:35 AM | Permalink