What Does it Take? – from “Dispatches from the Undergrowth” blog, on saving a species

From the blog “Dispatches from the Undergrowth”, here is a fascinating post about conservation, and the ingenuity, hard work, and patience required to keep a threatened species going. As the author writes, “not many people would miss the marsh fritillary … for me it would mean one more spark going out in the firmament and another small step towards the darkness”T/%

I have posted a wee comment, also….

dispatches from the undergrowth

 Conservationists constantly worry about how to ‘keep things going’ – be it a bird, butterfly, or some other organism teetering on the brink. It is a pretty sad state of affairs, but that’s the deal by now. It takes a lot of dedication by a few, in the face of indifference by the many, to stand against the flow of wildlife disappearing down the plughole. Last summer I came across a vivid example of what it takes to keep things going.

Wikimedia.commons.org. Charlesjsharp – Own work from Sharp Photography

Not far from where I live is a scruffy looking, overgrown meadow in a nowhere-in-particular sort of place. The rushes and grasses are knee high and tussocky, birch saplings and sallow bushes threaten to overrun it. Although it doesn’t look much it is in fact carefully cared for. On a sunny day in June I went there with my friends…

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Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009


This fine book on evolution was well reviewed at the time and won the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books. Here is my review from Eurotimes . Or rather this is a draft, and readers will note one paragraph just trails off… I cannot find the final version online or in my email so I am not sure what followed! This review is focused on the ophthalmological aspects of the book, though not to the exclusion of the wider issues :

Life ascending.
Nick Lane

There are ten great inventions of evolution discussed in Nick Lane’s lucid, stimulating book – life’s origin,
DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Lane
makes it clear from the outset that invention does not mean a conscious agency purposefully steered the
process, rather he is referring to the ten great innovations that have transformed life that were created
through natural selection. Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the chapter on sight, which
I will therefore focus on in this review, but the whole book is superbly written and extremely enjoyable.

The eye has long been a favourite topic of anti-evolutionists. In 1802, the English utilitarian philosopher William Paley
argued in his Natural Theology that the eye is an organ of such complexity that it is absurd to suppose
that the purposeless blunderings of evolution (evolutionary ideas pre-dated Darwin, of course) could have
produced it. He used the analogy of a blind watchmaker producing a timepiece, which later gave Richard
Dawkins the title of one of his books. Darwin himself is frequently misquoted by creationists and affiliated
persons in this context – he seemed the admit that “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems
… absurd in the highest possible degree.” Darwin went on the write, however, that “if numerous
gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each being useful to its
possessor, can be shown to exist” the problem is solved.

In fact, we now have models of the evolution of the eye that exceed those of other organs in explanatory
power. The Swedish researchers Dans Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have modelled this succession
of steps, which is each generation is taken as one year, requires somewhat less than half a million years.

The eye does seem, at first glance, to pose a problem to evolutionary explanations of its origin. What’s
more the human eye, with its rods and cones located behind an array of nerves and with its blind spot
where the optic nerve leaves the orbit, does not at first, cynical glance to be especially well designed.
Furthermore, the cant charge of anti-evolutionists has been “what use is half an eye?”, and answering the
question of how a retina could have evolved, separate from the rest of the optic apparatus, is at first
glance difficult. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” is a famous dictum of the evolutionary biologist Leslie
Orgel, and Lane goes on to show not only that the eye is well adapted to its purpose, but that (I am not sure what I said subsequently)

His approach begins, entertainingly for readers of this publication, with the observation that “anyone who
has been to a conference of ophthalmologists will appreciate that they fall into two great tribes: those who
work at the front of the eye … and those who work at the back … the two tribes interact reluctantly, and at
times barely seem to speak the same language.” For this divide, ironically, reflects the half-an-eye
distinction and allows us to consider the evolution of both halves of the eye.

For the retinal part of the answer, Lane travels (literarily speaking – it was the marine biologist Cindy Lee
Van Dover who did the actual exploring) to the most hostile and extreme habitat on earth – black-smoker
vents on the deep ocean floor that support an ecosystem of hardy survivors. Among these is the
ironically named eyeless reef shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata), which as a larva has fully formed eyes.
These are not of use to the adult shrimp, so they are reabsorbed and replaced with a literal half an eye
– a naked retina.

Most doctors will remember rhodopsin, perhaps rather dimly. It is the light-sensitive protein at the heart of
the visual process, being involved in photoreceptor synthesis as well as the initial perception of light.
Rhodopsin evolved from an algal ancestor where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis.
Rhodopsin is used by some bacteria for a form of photosynthesis.
Lane synthesises the evolution of all the aspects of the eye, although one of the ophthalmological tribes
may feel their area of interest is dealt with in slightly less detail than their retinal brethren. The naked
retina was the first step on the journey. As different organisms’ sheets of light-sensitive were arrayed in
different ways, with some recessing into pits which allowed shadows to be cast and therefore an idea of
where light comes from to be assessed, the trade-off between resolving light and light sensitivity began to
tip the balance in favour of lens formation.

Writers in this field must be tired of having to handle the creationist/intelligent design issue. Lane’s book is
not aimed at this debate, although in the footnotes he refers the reader to “The Flagellum Unspun” by
Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller which attacks the creationist idea of irreducible complexity, as
exemplified by the development of a flagellum. Lane quotes Miller on intelligent design advocates as
double failures, “rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because
they think too little of God,” and discusses Pope John Paul II’s views of evolution and the mind (made in
the course of his 1996 pronouncement recognising that evolution was more than a hypothesis) with
respect and sensitivity. Lane is clearly that wonderful thing, an enthusiast able to explain and inform

A butterfly in the woods: guerrilla forest art in Millennium Forest Kilkenny

A butterfly in the woods: guerrilla forest art in Millennium Forest Kilkenny

Walking in the Millennium Forest in Kilkenny I saw in the distance what seemed like an unbelievably considerate butterfly lying still on a tree trunk:


As I approached, it was suspiciously still and increasingly, well, plastic looking:


On closest inspection, it was indeed a plastic model someone had inserted onto the trunk:


I prodded it with a twig, just to make sure. Yep, my ability to distinguish a real butterfly from a plastic model remains undimmed by the passage of time.

This wasn’t there a week before. Someone has evidently placed it on this prominent tree beside a bench (possibly the single most prominent tree in the forest)

There seems to be something of an underground trend of what could be called guerrilla forest modification (I am sure there is a better term than that) I’ve posted before about a seemingly spontaneous sign proclaiming a spring in Wilderness Gorge in Clonmel a “Holy Well.” While the popular fairy trail concept is generally an officially sanctioned one, I have seen unheralded Fairies and Fairy Doors in Castledermot Co. Kildare and also on a recent visit to St Berrihert’s Kyle (in a grove of trees beside the Kyle itself)

While one can imagine This Kind of Thing going a bit far, it is a pleasingly spontaneous artistic intervention, one that seemingly has occurred without official sanction or the need for some kind of proposal to be written.

Matthews Oates on butterfly watching, from “In Pursuit of Butterflies”

Butterflying, and Emperoring in particular, does not entail hours of walking, but eternities of standing about, watching and waiting. Patience is everything, and those of us who have spent our youths fishing will have mastered this essential skill. Sitting down is no good, as it narrows the field of vision too much, as any hunter will appreciated. So, butterflying is more akin to game angling than coarse fishing. One of my favourite standing places was in a young conifer plantation, where I would loiter for hours, gazing up at the adjoining oak edge in wait of Purple Emperors and their attendant knight, the Purple Hairstreak. Early in July I found a rusty milk churn in another wood, and laboured it on my shoulder to where it was needed. … I stood on that milk churn for hours and hours, gazing up at the oak edge. No one ever saw me. It was an excellent vantage point. The churn stands there still, a forgotten monument to times gone by, but woods are strewn with the features of personal memories. They collect them.

I loved this passage, from what is proving a hugely enjoyable book, for two reasons. One is the invocation of the value of being one of those who “only stand and wait”, a necessary admonition to our restless age. The power of still observation, of waiting, is profoundly countercultural. Secondly, I love the invocation of forests as repositories of human memories. Analogous to the urban concept of the Tomason (or Thomason) but without the overtones of civilisational decay and more richly personal, I wonder could there be a word coined for these “features of personal memories” that populate the landscape.

Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Kurt Johnson & Steve Coates. Lancet, 11th March 2000.

I only recently realised that my book review on wolves in Ireland isn’t actually my only “natural history” piece. This is in fact my first piece published in a proper, non-student publication. My name somewhat misspelled, nevertheless I made it into the Lancet. Rather pathetically (in both the contemporary and original sense) I recall thinking that now at least one of my pieces would make it into every reasonably sized university library in the world. Now that seems a rather trivial consideration but at the time I suppose it was a form of consolation. Of course, back then the stacks seemed more permanent.

I have been reading a good bit of Nabokov lately, and also re-reading this particular book about his lepidoptery work. I have always admired Nabokov as a writer but in the past tended to find him rather rich fare, and thought some of his stances a little mannered. Now i can’t get enough of him – and his “stances”, whatever that means, seem either irrelevant or dead right. I think what has changed is a deeper realisation that Nabokov was a master of the particular, especially the particulars of childhood and memory. As time goes by, my preference for the particular over the grand theory deepens. Perhaps it is something to do with becoming a parent myself.


Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius
Kurt Johnson, Steve Coates. Cambridge, MA: Zoland Books, 1999. Pp 372. $27.00. ISBN 1581950098.
In his Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America Alexander Klots wrote of the genus Lycaeides that “the recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus”. The response of Vladimir Nabokov was “That’s real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic might say.” Nabokov was born in April, 1899, and it is well known that he had a strong interest in lepidoptery. However, his interest is often dismissed as mere dilettantism.

Full-time lepidopterists were either ignorant of Nabokov’s work or regarded it as amateur dabblings; perhaps they also felt resentment at this part-timer who was nevertheless dubbed “the most famous lepidopterist in the world”.
Kurt Johnson is a lepidopterist associated with the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, and Steve Coates is an editor at The New York Times. This, their first book, fights on many fronts; it tries to restore Nabokov’s scientific reputation and give some account of lepidoptery’s place in his life and literary work; it pleads for the oft-ignored discipline of taxonomy, more important now than ever in the light of the crisis in biodiversity; and it is an exciting scientific adventure story ranging across the “incorrigible continent” of South America and the squabbles of the world of academia.
Nabokov’s scientific work belongs in every sense to a different era; he represents one of the last of the gentleman naturalists. Lepidoptery was an interest inherited from his father, a prominent Russian liberal assassinated in Berlin in 1922. The interest remained constant throughout the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and exile in Cambridge, Germany, and France. On coming to the USA in May, 1940, Nabokov soon visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City with certain puzzling specimens he had collected in France. In the autumn of 1941, he visited Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and found the collections in disarray. First as a volunteer and then as a part-time research fellow in entomology, he endeavoured to straighten out the collection. This was typical of the war years; considerable lacunae existed in academia and were filled with available workers, with little regard for their professional training.
Nabokov’s paper Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae is the key in the reassessment of his position in science. It was a pioneering classification of the Latin American Polyommatini, a diverse group of blue butterflies with members found from the tip of Chile to the Caribbean. This paper established a broad framework of genera for later researchers to insert new species. In 1948 Nabokov left the Museum of Comparative Zoology to become Professor of Russian and European Literature at Cornell University. This marked the end of Nabokov’s formal association with the world of lepidoptery, and, with the publication of Lolita, Nabokov’s fame became a double-edged sword as far as his scientific reputation was concerned.
In the 1980s a series of expeditions to Las Abejas, a jungle enclave near the Dominican Republic’s Haitian border, began to turn up new specimens of what were known as Blues. Over the next decade and a half, Johnson and other lepidopterists travelled all over South America, becoming increasingly aware of the crucial relevance of Nabokov’s classification system to the multiplicity of new species they discovered. Through this book, the authors make us aware of the biodiversity crisis–species are becoming extinct faster than science can ascertain their existence. The humble place of the taxonomist, seen by some as a drone of biology, is scarcely deserved, considering the importance of this work. The authors are also at pains not to judge Nabokov by the standards of today; some of his beliefs on mimicry and evolution appear scientifically unorthodox, but reflect that when he was working these issues were still being resolved.
The crucial question for Johnson and Coates is “was Nabokov a true scholar of Lepidoptera, or merely a dilettante whose contributions were remarkable?” The casual observer might wonder how a “mere” dilettante would make “remarkable” contributions, but the question is deeper; seeing Nabokov as a scientist gives the understanding of his life and works a whole new dimension.
The authors seem to suggest that a healthy relation between C P Snow’s “two cultures” requires not a facile unity but a deep appreciation of both the humanities and the sciences. Nabokov’s quote “Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of ‘scientific’ knowledge joins the opposite slope of ‘artistic’ imagination?” is often quoted in this context. Far from an airy abstraction, this refers to a specific example; Nabokov’s 1952 review of a book centred around the drawings of John James Audubon; Nabokov found Audubon’s butterfly drawings inept, and wondered “can anyone draw something he knows nothing about?”. Nabokov considered a knowledge of natural science indispensable for a truly cultured sensibility; he was shocked when his literature students at Cornell University were ignorant of the names of local trees and birds.
We see Chekhov and William Carlos Williams as doctors and as writers; we see Primo Levi as a chemist and as a writer. Johnson and Coates convincingly try to persuade us that Nabokov should be seen as a writer and as a lepidopterist. Nabokov himself said “whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels . . . it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express, what, indeed, it can only express in the special scientific language of my entomological papers.”
This book will provide both enjoyment and enlightenment to any reader interested not only in Nabokov but in the relations between the arts and sciences, the current state of natural science, and the biodiversity crisis.