IN THE introduction to Natural Acts, the author, David Quammen, says that this is not a book of science -- since he has not been academically certified as a scientist -- but rather the musings of an essayist-novelist with an irregular interest in natural history. The disclaimer is understandable and perhaps politic but fortunately is one of the few passages in which Quammen is mealymouthed or unduly modest. Later, when he gets going, he makes it clear that he is well aware that much of what is now called science -- devising VCRs, writing collective profiles of teenage suicides, etc. -- is wrongly so called and is in fact only low- tech engineering and data processing. Science, as Quammen trenchantly points out, has to do with asking uncommon questions (of the sort which often strike the conventional mind as irrelevant and ridiculous) about common phenomena -- falling, an overflowing tub, shooting stars and such.
Natural Acts is much superior to, in fact is not even in the genre of, earnest "nature" books simply because Quammen is a man of genuine scientific curiosity as well as a writer who does not need nor is inclined to substitute pious "ain't nature grand" clich,es for real words or thoughts. The very best of the 30-some essays which comprise Natural Acts are constructed around an engaging topic question or complexes of them. Does the octopus enjoy good mental health? Can a man who wears a gold nose (Tycho Brahe) be a first-rate theoretical astronomer? Is the female black widow spider a depraved monster or an intuitive Malthusian genius? Why should there be 300,000 species of beetles?
There is an innate problem with the collection format. (All of Quammen's pens,ees were originally published in various magazines.) It is that, presented with an anthology of specifically different but generally alike things of any sort -- antique cars, registered poodles, people -- we feel so compelled to rank them according to merit that we unwisely do so. Thus if one is offered only a nice sausage on a toothpick, it is eaten gratefully. But if there is a tray of fancy hors d'oeuvres available, we start picking and choosing in the conglomerate and may well overlook the nice sausage. Which is to say that, read alone, most if not all of Quammen's essays would be found good, but en masse some seem not so good, i.e., when compared with the outstanding ones.
Personally, I thought the one on crows was the most delicious, even though it had, for me, an extremely bittersweet taste, a qualifier which can stand a bit of explanation. At times Quammen and I have worked the same literary shift. In the course of things I have delivered myself of a good many remarks about crows in public print, but because of the complexity and importance of the subject never felt I had done the birds justice. I have planned, sometime, to give it another lick and come closer to getting it right. Therefore seeing that Quammen also does crows, I approached this entry in the manner customary for investigating competitive works. There is the anticipation of enjoying the other fellow's failure but the hope that he got off a few lucky lines which can be lifted, reworked, improved and put to useful purpose.
IT BECAME immediately apparent that Quammen's crow essay was going to smart, for he asks first-off, "Are crows too intelligent for their station in life?" This is -- damn his lights -- the perfect way to phrase the absolutely essential question. As anyone who is even casually acquainted with the Corvidae must do, he comes down on the affirmative side, suggesting that they are indeed overqualified for their niche and bored in it. For supporting evidence, observations are cited as to their predisposition for mockery, petty thievery, practical joking, showboating, harassing intellectually inferior beasts and doing drugs (formic acid from ants). All of which, besides being immensely entertaining, is sound science since it raises substantive issues about why things are as they are -- the nature of nature.
If publishing were a reasonable enterprise, the 2000-word crow bit would be issued as a book in itself and would bring the author riches and many fine prizes. However, that is not how things work, which is too bad for Quammen but good for you. Exploit this injustice. Go out and buy Natural Acts. In addition to the crow piece, there are octopus, astronomer, spider and other goodies which make this smorgasbord more valuable than all of this year's diet books, pseudo histories and celebrity confessionals combined.