“David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities” — for Zoe

midwife toad.jpg

10/17/17

Dear Zoe,

Sometimes just before going to bed I like to watch a nature program on Netflix, just to take in some easy watching and to appreciate nature’s beauty and variety before drifting off to sleep.  Yes, I get tired of the endless repetitions in their scripts – including, for example, that old saw that juvenile animal play develops important life skills.  (“I know, I know!”)  But I like these sorts of programs anyhow, in their moment, and spend some time, when I’m hankering to watch one, looking for something new and interesting.

Last night, as it happens, I stumbled upon a David Attenborough series called “David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities.”  I was a little reluctant about starting it, thinking I may have seen all his examples before – on one or another of his other great productions.  The individual programs in the “Curiosities” series are short and, so far at least, he considers two such “curiosities” in each program.  So far, in the two programs I watched last night, he’s examined the chameleon, the giraffe, the platypus, and the midwife toad.  Well, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d lucked out.

Why?   

Well, Attenborough not only examines his examples of curiosities as anomalies with respect to the animal kingdom; he also examines their places in the history of the biological sciences.  That is to say, he’s interested in how his examples created controversy, confusion, and (ultimately) new knowledge in zoology.  That’s something that appealed to me very much, and I recall that it used to interest you too.  Your wonderful study of the moa would have been right at home among Attenborough’s creatures and commentaries.

I was particularly struck by his segment on the midwife toad.  I read a history of science case study about this peculiar toad years and years ago.  One of my intellectual heroes in my undergraduate days was Arthur Koestler.  Not his political writings so much – I never read his most famous book, Darkness at Noon – but instead his forays into the history of science and into creativity.  My all-time favorite among his books was Sleepwalkers, his majestic history of astronomy.  But there were others I liked very much too, including his works on the struggle between reductionism and holism in human explanation.  (Incidentally, it was something of a disappointment when I discovered, much later on, that he wasn’t an altogether nice person – although maybe that was one of the necessary ingredients in taking the bold intellectual ventures his books took.)

Anyhow, Koestler wrote a book about the history-of-science bruhaha surrounding this little toad a long time ago, and I read it.  And liked it.  Amazon’s listing’s blurb for the book, here, begins as follow:

On September 23, 1926, and Austrian experimental biologist named Dr. Paul Kammerer blew his brains out on a footpath in the Austrian mountains. His suicide was the climax of a great evolutionary controversy which his experiments had aroused. The battle was between the followers of Lamarck, who maintained that acquired characteristics could be inherited, and the neo-Darwinists, who upheld the theory of chance mutations preserved by natural selection. Dr. Kammerer’s experiments with various amphibians, including salamanders and the midwife toad (Alytes obstetricans), lent much weight to the Lamarckian argument and drew upon him the full fury of the orthodox neo-Darwinists.

The rest of the blurb makes good reading, too, by the way.  You may recall that I wrote a long essay on Lamarck in 1971 and, of course, my interest in Darwin goes back even further.  But – and as I realized last night, watching Attenborough’s segment on the toad – I’d more or less completely forgotten about the controversy surrounding it, about Paul Kammerer’s unhappy fate, and about Koestler’s book.  A lot of good stuff flows away on the river of time.  And so Attenborough’s midwife segment did me the nice service of renewing and refreshing that memory.  I only wish there were more programs on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and TV in general that offered the scientific and history-of-thought context around the nature subjects they deal with.

Anyhow, I thought you might like to check out this program – again, “David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities.”  On Netflix.

If you do, please let me know what you thought!

Yours,

Dad

 

 

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