It can never be too strongly impressed upon a mind anxious for the acquisition of knowledge, that the commonest things by which we are surrounded are deserving of minute and careful attention. The most profound investigations of Philosophy are necessarily connected with the ordinary circumstances of our being, and of the world in which our every-day life is spent. With regard to our own existence, the pulsation of the heart, the act of respiration, the voluntary movement of our limbs, the condition of sleep, are among the most ordinary operations of our nature; and yet how long were the wisest of men struggling with dark and bewildering speculations before they could offer anything like a satisfactory solution of these phenomena, and how far are we still from an accurate and complete knowledge of them! The science of Meteorology, which attempts to explain to us the philosophy of matters constantly before our eyes, as dew, mist, and rain, is dependent for its illustrations upon a knowledge of the most complicated facts, such as the influence of heat and electricity upon the air; and this knowledge is at present so imperfect, that even these common occurrences of the weather, which men have been observing and reasoning upon for ages, are by no means satisfactorily explained, or reduced to the precision that every science should aspire to. Yet, however difficult it may be entirely to comprehend the phenomena we daily witness, everything in nature is full of instruction. Thus the humblest flower of the field, although, to one whose curiosity has not been excited, and whose understanding has, therefore, remained uninformed, it may appear worthless and contemptible, is valuable to the botanist, not only with regard to its place in the arrangement of this portion of the Creator’s works, but as it leads his mind forward to the consideration of those beautiful provisions for the support of vegetable life, which it is the part of the physiologist to study and to admire.
The first paragraph of the introductory chapter of Insect Architecture.
Some points to note:
- “Bugs are cool, guys, really, we’re not just running around farms for no reason”
- God is large and in charge
- “full of instruction” - one of nature’s main reasons for existing is so that the Panchatantra and such can be around to teach people moral lessons. Solipsistic, eh?
- meteorology and human physiology are still really hard
- capitalize random words, have paragraphs that go on for pages
Hey folks. I just (a few days ago) finished reading a book I really liked, Insect Architecture by James Rennie and later edited by JG Wood. It’s a pre-Darwinian (my edition was published 1869, which is a few years after the original edition of Origin, but the first edition was 1830, and evolutionary theory hardly became orthodox overnight anyway) popsci-ish descriptive work on the structures used and/or built by insects, and their behavior in relation to them.
I really liked it for a number of reasons.
- First off you’ve got the subject itself, which is a nice twist on “here are some bugs”. I learned a lot of things that range from sorta obscure (there are spiders that live entirely underwater) to embarrassingly obvious (bumblebees, unlike honeybees, don’t live in hives; they live in smaller nest communes of a few dozen members, often underground), that were all very interesting to the bug-loving me.
- There’s a major historical aspect I didn’t expect going in. This is a book written from a very different frame of mind from my own - the authors were upper-class gentleman-scientists with, essentially, nothing better to do; they constantly praise God’s inventive and resourceful designs and planning; and the authorities they cite vary from relatively recent but unknown to me (e.g. François Huber) to people I’d never expect to see cited by a modern scientific work (Pliny!). I already wrote about a specific example of this. Not to mention, their taxonomies are vastly outdated, and I had a hard time finding modern names for several of the species touched on. This is a great first-degree source for the history of biology, especially entomology and ethology.
- 186 figures: detailed drawings of bugs and their houses. The thing predates the use of photography in books (btw Darwin’s book The Expression of the Emotions was an early use of such!) and the author made up for it by being pretty good with a pen. I wish I could see and capture the details he does.
- The subject wasn’t something I’d ever really seen before. We’ve all seen (I hope) documentary segments about ants building rafts or cities, but such things don’t always go in depth into how those structures arise, or how the workers are organized (c.f. the prevalence of the idea that the queen of a colony is playing an RTS). And quite often these things don’t even touch on less hive-oriented insects - I honestly didn’t even know solitary bees existed before I read this book, sadly.
- Finally, it was just fun to read. The author comes off essentially as a massive dork, traipsing about in fields staring at how exactly a mason bee digs a hole. Together with the God-loving and generally glorifying writing style, this makes for a book about watching things do what they do, and loving the experience.
In short I think a lot of people would enjoy it, even if you’re not really the type to read science books for fun, or a “bug person”. It’s free.
But I know not everybody on tumblr wants to read a five-hundred page, hundred-fifty-year-old book on bugs, let alone through a mediocre scan on their computer. So I’ve been thinking I could present some of it on tumblr for anyone interested. Like, I could post a figure, quote some of the text around it, and do my best to explain anything confusing in modern language, and/or include updates on anything that’s been obsoleted.
It’d be a decent amount of work, not something I’ve done on tumblr before. Probably I’d make a sub-blog for it. And I don’t have formal training in well, anything relating to what I’d be doing. I’d like to think I could pick it up but it’s something to worry about.
So, basically what I’m asking is… would anybody be interested?
A no less wonderful structure is composed by a sort of spiders, natives of the tropics and the south of Europe, which have been justly called mason-spiders by M. Latreille.
One of these
(Mygale nidulans, WALCKN.), found in the West Indies,
digs a hole in the earth obliquely downwards about
three inches in length, and one in diameter.
she lines with a tough thick web, which, when taken out,
resembles a leathern purse ; but, what is most curious, this
house has a door with hinges, like the operculum of some
and herself and family, who tenant this nest, open
and shut the door whenever they pass and repass. This
history was told me,” says Darwin,”
and the nest, with its door,
shown me by the late Dr. Butt, of Bath, who was some
years physician in Jamaica.”(Zoonomia, i. 253, 8 vo. ed.)
I am bewildered for several reasons.
They invaded the prefecture, and did exceeding damage,
one of their feats of voracity being so extraordinary as to deserve mention.
The archives of the department were left in boxes
and privately inspected. One day, when a paper
was needed, the whole of the documents fell to pieces, and
were metamorphosed as if by magic into a heap of clay. The
termites had got into the boxes by boring through the
wainscot of the room, and had then penetrated among the papers.
They consumed every particle of them except the
uppermost sheet and the edges, supplying their place with clay.
The consequence was, that although the heap of
documents seemed to be correct, there was nothing but a
mass of clay galleries and a single sheet of paper at
Starting to think British slapstick is actually just documentaries.
fuck tumblr’s quotation formatting
Let us compare the progress of this little joiner [a carpenter bee] with a human artisan—one who has been long practised in his trade, and has the most perfect and complicated tools for his assistance. The bee has learnt nothing by practice; she makes her nest but once in her life, but it is then as complete and finished as if she had made a thousand. She has no pattern before her—but the Architect of all things has impressed a plan upon her mind, which she can realize without scale or compasses. Her two sharp teeth are the only tools with which she is provided for her laborious work; and yet she bores a tunnel, twelve times the length of her own body, with greater ease than the workman who bores into the earth for water, with his apparatus of augurs adapted to every soil. Her tunnel is clean and regular; she leaves no chips at the bottom, for she is provident of her materials. Further, she has an exquisite piece of joinery to perform when her ruder labour is accomplished. The patient bee works her rings from the circumference to the centre, and she produces a shelf, united with such care with her natural glue, that a number of fragments are as solid as one piece.
I love this book.