Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
with memorizing chemistry's periodic table of elements. It was high time we set aside
those annoyances, or, as David said, “get out and act a bit more like wild primates.” As
it happened, I'd just read about savanna-dwelling chimpanzees that fashion saplings in-
to spears, with which they kill lesser bushbabies for food. 5
I was further inspired that fall by teaching a seminar in which students hashed over
hunting, zoos, and other dicey topics. Should wilderness, they asked, be defined by ab-
sence of human control, thereby self-willed, as Earth First! founder Dave Foreman as-
serts, or is it simply a romantic construction of postcolonization Americans, as claimed
by social theorists? Among other viewpoints we reviewed, I came away impressed by
philosopher Baird Callicott's emphasis on preserving biodiversity, the very fruits of evol-
ution, and Leopold's well-known “first rule of intelligent tinkering,” loosely paraphrased
as, “Save as many of the parts as possible.” 6 Ornithologist Alexander Skutch, on the
other hand, urged saving only harmoniously compatible species, not spending a penny
more on tigers and other predators. He was wackily out of touch with ecological reality,
as discussed in the preceding chapter, but many self-styled environmentalists also won't
accommodate natural-born killers anywhere near their own backyards. In other words,
to recast more pointedly the issues raised by Jeffers, do snake-hating bird watchers love
nature more than subsistence farmers like my East Texas grandparents, who supple-
mented their larder with doves and quail? Can spectators, no matter how adoring, be as
wild as participants?
David and I first got acquainted when as an undergraduate he wrote me about seeing
previously unrecorded behavior in snakes. As youths we'd each worked for Henry Fitch,
and I've enjoyed following David's successes, including a prestigious MacArthur Fellow-
ship and election to the National Academy of Sciences. His professional acclaim comes
from using molecular genetics and computational analyses to untangle relationships
among organisms as diverse as bacteria, frogs, and the HIV virus, but I admire even
more David's dedication to teaching, his unabashed love of natural history, and his ad-
venturesome spirit—he'd named a newly discovered Ecuadorian snake Synophiscalam-
itus for “the landslide that forced . . . [us] to stop and collect, and the second landslide
that shortly thereafter crushed our field vehicle.” 7 Now his Austin home is decked out
for the holidays, the kids having returned from college, and upon my arrival we catch
up on gossip over Ann Mackie Hillis's green chili chicken soup.
Next morning, with David's former Ph.D. students Greg Pauly and Tracy Heath, we
buy groceries and purchase hunting licenses. Texans born before 1977 don't require
firearms-safety certification, a hilarious wrinkle that in my case is justified thanks to
Grandpa, Boy Scout training, and Lyndon Johnson's insistence more than forty years
ago that I join the U.S. Army. As we chat Greg catches me up on his studies of toad
evolution and mentions a couple of nice coincidences: his first inkling of a profession
for folks interested in amphibians and reptiles came from reading a paper by Fitch,
and, like David, he'd once written me about snakes. Then Tracy throws out that her un-
dergrad mentor was Boston University professor Chris Schneider, himself among the
Berkeley students and postdocs who'd presented me with the Winchester. In the mean-
time, she's become a computational evolutionary biologist and developed an interest in
cooking personally harvested meat.
We stop at the Hillis's nearby weekend hideaway to test our copper ammo, adopted
because conventional lead bullets fragment badly, poisoning vultures and other scav-
Search WWH ::

Custom Search