Bug Week (Part 2) with Bernd Heinrich

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[Thanks to Nick and Ben for pitching Bernd Heinrich as a guest.]

In the literary pantheon of bug biologists, make room for Bernd Heinrich — up there with Vladimir Nabokov and E. O. Wilson.

They were all field naturalists before they were scientists — butterfly, beetle and bumblebee hunters with gauze nets in hand. Then they became collectors, taxonomists and expeditionists, and prose masters each in his different way.

Bernd Heinrich’s The Snoring Bird reads to me like a masterpiece of the first rank. Not the sort of book I usually feast on, it’s a spellbinding family memoir of two long, duty-bound, disciplined and productive lives in science, his father’s and his own.

Subtitled a “journey through a century of biology,” it is a poignant, painful chronicle of the frosty love and profound contention between two strikingly similar personalities, father and son. Many of the barriers were personal (and Oedipal) but the biggest of them was a great watershed of scientific history, the Watson-Crick discovery of DNA in the 1950s.

DNA was the reason the Heinrichs’ year-long bird-hunting expedition in 1961-62 to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) that might have bonded the old-school German master and his brilliant American-educated 21-year-old son marked instead the point where the new biology severed their professional sympathies.

I did not know then how fortunate I had been to come on this expedition, because it would be not just the last of his expeditions. It would be the last of the classic zoological expeditions, the end of a tradition that stretched back over 100 years through the Victorian era, and it encompassed my heroes — Darwin, Wallace, Humboldt, Audubon. Such older fieldwork was giving way to the beginning of modern biology. In a few short years there would be virtually no new birds to discover, except by new methods of DNA analysis of already collected museum specimens in closely related species. Then in only a few more years, the unimaginable would happen: people would stop talking about finding new species. Instead they would be talking of ecological destruction and the extinction of even well-known species on a global scale.

Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird, page 304, Ecco, 2007

Our conversation could begin with Heinrich’s introspection on the formation of biologists — first of Bernd’s father Gerd (1896 – 1984), the son of an eminent Berlin physician, who at the age of 15 asked the insect curator at the Berlin Museum of Natural History “which group of insects was least known,” and spent the next 70 years studying the thousands of world-wide species of ichneumon wasp, the nasty, predatory creature that fed Darwin’s doubts about a “beneficent and omnipotent God.”

His passion for these wasps had been the single thread of continuity as everything else — his home, his family, his loves — was heaved around by world events beyond his control. The wasps had been the anchor in the storms of his life. Was this why he so loved the order and control and steady progress that the wasps demanded of him?

Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird, page 9, Ecco, 2007

And then there is Bernd himself — much admired before this for his books on Bumblebee Economics and Ravens in Winter, as well as on long-distance running — who sounds remarkably like Henry David Thoreau in his description of fishing by hand at the age of 9 or 10, with his father in post-war Germany:

Papa could catch a trout with his bare hands, and he taught me how to do it as well. We would lie on our bellies along the brook, reaching out and gently probing underwater with our hands along undercuts from the banks. When we felt a trout with the tips of our fingers, we would then carefully work the hand near the fish’s head, and then suddenly clamp down on it just behind the gills. The thrill of grasping a beautiful pink and blue spotted trout is not easily forgotten, especially when it becomes a delicious and precious meal…

I think children have a procilivity to be interested in the natural world, but often this is thwarted by a lack of exposure. Other things fill the void as their eager minds seek to learn about the world. I consider myself lucky. I had by force of circumstances, only the natural world as entertainment.

Bernd Heinrich, The Snoring Bird, pages 185, 199, Ecco, 2007

There is a spiritual and professional autobiography here that touches on the full spectrum of “public” scientific questions of our day: religion and evolution, bio-diversity, the continuing “crash” of species around the world, the US government role in science, and of course the warming cycle in the unimaginably long history of the earth’s temperature. We can ask Bernd Heinrich all the questions we would put to Darwin himself.

Extra Credit Reading

Robin McKie, Clever raven proves that it’s no birdbrain, The Observer, April 29, 2007: “Heinrich cautioned against stating unequivocally that the raven is the cleverest animal on Earth after humans. ‘It is up there with the great apes and dolphins,’ he said, ‘but I think it is very difficult to say which is cleverer.'”

Dave Pollard, Distance Running as Meditation, How to Save the World, June 26, 2006: “There is something primeval, instinctive about running. In his book “Why We Run,” Bernd Heinrich, the brilliant observer of animal behaviour, explains that we evolved the ability and passion to run because it made us more successful, and now it is part of who we are.”

Shane Jones, Brew2Brew, Shane’s Blog, March 30, 2007: “I also sat really still for awhile next to a puddle where I knew some spring peepers were calling. They’re pretty hard to spot. Man, do they make a lot of noise for being so small. If you are wondering why I’m telling you all of this it’s because I just finished reading “Why We Run” by Bernd Heinrich, who was quite the runner in his day.”

Joseph Weisenthal, Bumblebee Economics, The Stalwart, June 8, 2007:: “In the introduction to “Bumblebee Economics,” the author, Bernd Heinrich, takes umbrage to the way Bionomics referenced his book, arguing that it’s a bit absurd to draw human inferences from the behavior of bees. (He rants a little bit and lets a bit of a socialistic bias slip, although this doesn’t detract much from the book.)”

Richard, Bernd Heinrich, Winter World, Book Addiction, March 12, 2007: “Too geeky even for me, is Bernd Heinrich’s intensive study of animal adaptation to winter in New England. Sure, it’s published by a popular house, but it makes few concessions to popularity. It’s rigorous in its detail, unrelenting in its focus and internal references, and thorough thorough thorough.”

Wasps, Nick Sagan, April 2, 2007: “Warm weather has brought out the wasps. They’re inside the house, wriggling in through tiny cracks. My strategy has been to let them land on the windows, and then suck them up with a vaccuum.”

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