Natural History Classics and Popular Science Books of Yester-years! What a Difference They Made!

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Covers of some natural history classics

During my school days I had once been at the receiving end of a particularly nasty behaviour of the crows in my locality. Returning from school as I walked a short stretch from my bus stop to home, all the neighborhood crows, who it seemed had come to recognize me, started cawing noisily in unison and creating a raucous. Some of them tried to attack me by pecking on my head. My recourse was to run from the bus stop to my home with my school bag over my head as a shield. As this went on for several days I seriously wondered what had I done to annoy the crow community? Many years later, when I began reading books on animal behaviour I found an answer which explained their strange  behaviour.

Books are said to be a person’s best companions and in my case some natural history classics and popular science books proved to be a life line, as I will explain shortly.

Salim Ali (1896 – 1987), nicknamed as the ‘bird man of India’ had once said in an interview, ‘Birdwatching is like measles. You have got to catch the disease’. I caught the disease fairly early and spent a lot of time in the outdoors, watching birds, observing the shapes of seeds, forms of vegetation and visiting the local zoo quite often.

Due to my interest in natural history I decided to pursue biology and enrolled in a suitable course at the university. However, as I soon discovered, biology subjects were not taught in a manner which would generate any interest in life forms, patterns of diversity or the underlying mechanisms. It was at this juncture that  my birdwatching hobby, chiefly my association with some fellow birdwatcher’s,  came to my rescue. Through them  I was introduced to the world of books on science, ecology, conservation etc. Books, which helped me not only to sustain my interest in biology but opened new horizons in my mind—something which would not have been possible by sticking to the prescribed syllabus that was taught to us in the classroom or dissecting biological specimens in the lab. I may also mention that in those days (the 1980’s) reading books was a popular past time, perhaps different from today’s time when information is freely available on the internet though Google, Wikipedia etc and reading books has taken a downturn.

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sketch from Lorenz’s King Soloman’s Ring

Among the books in birdwatcher friends collections there were the classics which have inspired several generations of naturalists and scientists, worldwide. For instance, there were all time classics written by scientists who had made significant discoveries, such as Niko Tinbergen’s, ‘Curious Naturalists’, and ‘The Herring Gull’s world’,  Konrad Lorenz’s, ‘King Solomon’s Ring, Gilbert White’s Natural history of Shelbourne. There were other books, the classics of the conservation movement e.g. Aldo Leopold’s, Sand County Almanac, Rachael Carson’s The Silent Spring, Gerald Durrell’s books on zoo animals (My family and other animals and A zoo in my luggage). One book, Joy Adamson’s Born Free, often talked about was the story of the release of captive bred lions in the wild, which was made into a film. And ofcourse, books, written in a remarkably lucid manner such as Leakey’s books on Physical anthropology and the evolution of hominids.

Returning to my unpleasant encounters with crows, in my boyhood days, reading Konrad Lorenz’s book I got some idea why they used to behave the way they did. Among all birds members of the crow family Corvidae, which includes house crows (commonly encountered in India) and Jackdaws (which Lorenz had studied in Europe) are regarded as highly intelligent, with superb memories.

According to Lorenz crows are highly protective of their young nestlings and associate any black object as their own. Maybe during the period in school when I had cultivated the enemity of local crows, I must have either been carrying a conspicuous black cloth as I tried to shoo them away or done something ridiculous like shooting them with a slingshot. Being highly intelligent birds with sharp memories, they must have remembered me and recognized me, and so attacked me on the way, from the bus stand to my house.

There was another doubt in my mind which Lorenz’s book clarified. How do animals recognize their own kind? This was by a process known as imprinting, something which happens very early in the life of an individual when it is in the egg or embryo stage. For this and other discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns,  Lorenz, along with  Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen, were awarded  the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.The works of these early pioneers and superb writers, introduced many words and concepts which are today a part of popular lexicon. The ‘pecking order’, for instance.

born-free

Soon I was on another trajectory—understanding the significance of territory in the animal world. Whenever we see birds singing or displaying their resplendent plumage, like a proud peacock strutting around with his train expanded like a huge fan, with hens looking on admiringly, we are apt to think that the males of the species do this to attract the females for mating purposes. (Our Bollywood films espouse a similar line- if the hero is handsome and good looking and able to sing or recite poetry….well then he has the girl). But the reality is actually quite different because in the animal world it is not so much as males attracting the females but each male giving a message to rival males about the assets he commands i.e. the territory. In a sense he is telling them to keep off. The females choose those males which successfully ward off rival males and successfully defend an all purpose territory which has all the resources- food, water, nesting sites etc, necessary for survival.

It took me a while to comprehend this.

What really helped in understanding the concept of territory was Robert Ardrey’s famous book ‘The Territorial Imperative. One thing led to another. Through Ardrey I learnt about an even older, more fundamental author, the actual discoverer of the significance of territory. It was the British ornithologist Eliot Howard who in 1920 had written the classic Territory in Bird Life, where the original idea had been outlined. Eventually, in a second hand book market in Daryaganj in Delhi, I stumbled across a copy of the book and immediately bought it. This led me on to other books,  Desmond Morris books on observing humans (Manwatching) in the light of modern biology.

Fractals
Fractals

All these writers of yester-years created a major impact on biologists and wildlife scientists of several generations all over the world, even though some of them had said pretty controversial things—something which I did not realize then. Some had written things which would be considered politically incorrect today or had proposed theories which were later proved to be scientifically unsound. (One such book was V.C. Wynne-Edwards book ‘Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour’ , published in 1962 which propagated the idea of group selection-an unscientific idea). However, even though some of these authors were those who had supported Nazis, Fascists and Racists, about which I came to know later,  their books  were simply fun to read and hugely informative for a generation hungry for information and with no Google or Wikipedia around. Interestingly, most of these authors (and also those mentioned below) were westerners, white and male. This is a story in itself.

Later when I was pursuing scientific research I was drawn to popular works of well known scientists, particularly their biographies and autobiographies. It was always tempting to read ‘advise’ books—say  Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist which had the interesting observation, ‘ If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble. Both are immensely practical-minded affairs’. (Another interesting view expressed by Medawar was that the scientific paper is a fraud. How? Well the manner in which it is drafted, with objectives clearly stated in the introduction, the methods described as if they were to follow in a natural sequence etc- the reality in almost all cases is quite different). Salvador Luria’s A slot machine, a broken test tube was also an inspiring read.

But the one book which was top of the charts was Jim Watson’s, The Double Helix —a most thrilling an exceedingly well written narrative, which had an element of a chase, a race if you like, between the main protagonists of the DNA structure discovery viz. Linus Pauling (of USA), the King’s College group (in London) and ofcourse the Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory group to which Jim Watson and Francis Crick belonged. I thought the highlight of the book was an open admission of sexism (how the male scientists in their mad pursuit to discover the structure of DNA pushed the female participant Rosalind Franklin into the background and even stole her data) and many more things such as offering a glimpse of what professional science is like at the highest level. Feynman’s books Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, fun to read, also provided a glimpse of what it was like to do science.

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Covers of some popular science books

Popular science books on quantum physics were also very much the flavor of the season, particularly John Gribbin’s, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics And Reality. (Later I read an exceedingly well written book Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by  Manjit Kumar, which had extensive quotes from the correspondence or memoirs of the principal actors in the great debate making the narrative extremely readable and convincing). Similar books could also be found in ecology such as Paul Ehrlich’s The machinery of nature which made a fascinating read as it made a lot of sense about doing modern ecology in the field. Richard Dawkin’s books The Selfish Gene and The Blind watchmaker, proved to be essential to understand evolution.

During the course of my studies I graduated from one university to another and at each phase remained in constant touch with popular science books. At JNU’s School of Environmental Sciences which I attended last,  I found the school divided into two camps, with theoretical scientists (all mostly physicists) on one side, and empiricists (biologists, toxicologists and chemists) on the other. I was sharing office space with research scholars working on climate change models and chaos in populations and inevitably the differences in the attitudes of biologists and physics students cropped up. Numerous jokes were doing the rounds. The biologists were castigated for being obsessed with detail and lacking in rigor in what they did; the physicists were scoffed at for the proverbial ‘spherical cow’ syndrome (which goes as follows: Imagine a field with cows. Let us assume each cow to be a sphere with radius r…….).

king solomans sring some sketches
king solomans sring some sketches

JNU is a great place for pretenses, especially intellectual ones. In the social sciences schools some students would be seen dead than without a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism, a highly popular work which was a fad among intellectuals in those days and which attempted to evaluate the effects colonialism by the west on the intellectual life and cultures of third world nationals. Among the theoretical minded scientists in our school, the book which was in fashion was James Gleick’s Chaos. Non –linear phenomena was very much a fashion in those days as chaos was discovered in weather data, population cycles etc. The book itself contained a lucid description of all the areas of developments in this field, particularly fractals. In those days I recall my friends becoming excited by papers, say fractals in taxonomic systems as we tried, mostly in vain, to build a bridge between biology and physics. Wasting no time promptly I bought my own copy of the book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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