A critique of Wilson shall form an integral part of any hoped for book on butterflies. His early passion was for butterflies switching a little later to ants. He now describes himself, as a "small organism biologist" no doubt finding the term entomologist too constricting. So in his chosen field he is already pushing at the limits.


     This enhanced scope, which ultimately derived from an early interest in insects, must have enabled him to crash other barriers like political economy (though he never uses the term as such) and aesthetics. He makes a hash of both failing to realise that each are in far greater crises than entomology ever will be. But the fact that he felt propelled to bring in other dimensions is what matters. It must reflect the fact that the life sciences are beginning to feel the heat. Yet it is not a good synthesis. In fact it is anything but a totalising movement. Rather it is interdisciplinary in aim and does not seek to transcend either political economy or aesthetics and which would put small organism biology on an even firmer footing, enriching it immeasurably.

     He wrote an article for The Washington Post in 2000 entitled "Wings across two Cultures" in which he is shown holding a butterfly. In it he critiques the narrowness of much scientific work doubting for example if more than a dozen co-workers had read his essay on the discovery of cera pachyne ants in New Caledonia. Important though this was to the mycology elect, "preoccupied with their own sectors of the frontiers" he needed to contact a wider audience, a lay public and other scientists, even perhaps to secure the future of a highly specialised subject. And so he had to employ a different more imaginative approach, less constrained by strictly scientific rigour. And this for Wilson is where the "art" and the mistake come in: "Only later did it occur to me to write about these early efforts as a personal history, in a narrative that includes motive and emotion. When I decided to try it in Biophilia (1984) and Naturalist (1994), I discovered how difficult it was to compose this sort of literature." But why call it "literature"? Why not enhanced science? Literature is an embarrassingly naive term one that is falling out of use and which cannot be rescued by bringing science to its aid. (The same is happening to Freud's highly problematical insights where Freud the litterateur i.e. his spellbinding ability to express himself and narrative powers are viewed as the be all and end all. In this sense science then becomes the last true refuge of the artist). But Wilson also realizes that classes in artistic appreciation for scientists ("merely playing the cello or admiring modern art") miss the point. Though he does not say so explicitly the aesthetic has to become integral to that of the scientific point of view. Only then can the false dichotomy of the two cultures, reminiscent so of C P Snow, be overcome and yet despite his artistic illusions this realisation comes creeping through because, in a significant turn of phase, it is a "frontier on its own". He then betrays the potential of this new frontier by evoking what has perished: "Among its greatest challenges, still largely unmet, is the conversion of the scientific creative process and world view into literature."

     Wilson even implies that the evolution of science has outstripped human evolution and that its desiccated approach and presentation, in particular, is anti-human. The demand that this aridity be overcome is also a plea for the restoration of humanity and the fully evolved human being. However as we shall see Wilson's schema is also highly contradictory.

     Following on from the aforementioned article Wilson gave an interview to The Guardian some two years later entitled "The Ant Man". As an evolved human being he has no qualms about giving interviews that just show how retarded his take is on the media and its immense capacity to distort the truth. However in this interview it is the socio-biologist that easily takes precedent over the social critic. In fact the two terms are to Wilson one and the same and so he blunders into the same trap as all other biologists, living and dead, great and small, have done. Quite simply they are lacking in any appreciation of Marx other than as a crude caricature and Wilson's pseudo-intelligent dismissal -"wonderful theory, wrong species"- cannot be bettered. Though the remark was hardly meant to be taken seriously what other species could it have possibly applied to? Ants have no history other than an evolutionary one. But for us "history is the natural history of man". And so we must remain highly sceptical about Wilson's claim that we are burdened down by our archaic past that is in every way different from the nightmarish past we are trying to awaken from. Wilson's past is that of the two/three million years we spent as hunter gatherers and which hard wired us to behave in a short term manner geared toward immediate survival. Hence long term strategies such as are required by conservation are alien to us. And so by implication are abstractions, generalities and universalities. Within this schema there is no place for ruling ideologies being those of the ruling class or that modes of thought are also modes of production. And so capitalism is not the problem, it is "man "or more precisely the cave man in each of us. It is to that far distant past Wilson's notion of an inborn love of nature - biophillia - harks back to. It certainly is an arresting notion and has to be taken seriously but this paleo-romanticism is something rather different in reality from swinging out of the forest to stand upright in some inviting Claude Lorraine like landscape, Most likely it would have been a dusty hot dangerous place in which to live and our biophillic instincts must have been subtly shaped over the countless millennia since. By the same token we are struck by the archaic nature of phobias - water, heights, thunder, snakes and so on. And yet it becomes too crude an instrument when he claims our instinct is to chop down trees and kill wild animals. A landless peasant will be more predisposed to cut yet more of the remaining Amazonian rain forest than an urban city dweller in London but that is not because one is more biologically evolved than the other. And there is every reason to think wild animals now fare rather better in urban than in country areas because to the general population they are very welcome. The notion of a raw, unmodified instinct becomes nonsensical and eventually even common sense is left out of the frame. A starving person kills to eat but they would rather steal from the local supermarket than kill the neighbour's cat.

Wilson and Thoreau: In Wilson's book "The Future of Life"(2001) there is a prologue to Thoreau. It could be said to mark Thoreau's coming of age within the scientific community which up to now, has held him at arms length as little more than a curiosity, at best a scientist in waiting. Yet Wilson's introductory letter to Thoreau (meaning that he is still very much alive) fails to grasp the essence of Thoreau although, quite rightly, he says, "you searched for essence at Walden Pond". Of a remembered generation that included Emerson, Whitman, Melville and Hawthorne, the most consequential is easily Thoreau even despite the enormously influential, though incomplete anarchism, of "Civil Disobedience". (Emerson said, correctly, he was "almost for abolition of government"). After reading a few paragraphs of "Walden Pond" my powers of perception really are improved, if only temporarily. I take note of the most insignificant things like the raindrops on a bare hawthorn bush. But I do not want to write a poem or compose a novel: that kind of activity belongs to the pre-history of essence.

      Wilson has barely introduced himself, apologising for calling Thoreau by his first name, Henry (because his "words invite familiarity") than he describes "Walden Pond" as a "work of art" able "to reach across five generations to address the human condition accurately. Can there be a better definition of art'" Wrong. Art is of its time and therefore constrained by time in a way "Walden Pond" is not. And though Thoreau is never completely specific on this point, it is clear from reading "Walden Pond" that he is very much opposed to artifice. Wilson, for instance, calls his log cabin a "toy house" but if he had read the pages on  "Economy", which describes the building of his "house" he would know Thoreau was making a fundamental statement about architecture, building and related trades like carpentry and plastering. He was a utilitarian with a difference, an essential utilitarian, challenging the origin of the division of labour in each of us. Hence he was not a utilitarian in the specifically historical sense of the term that was predicated on an increasingly useless division of labour and coincident with the rise of industrial capitalism.

It is true that after "Economy" (which is really about paring the necessities of life down to the barest essentials to free up the rest of his life - he reckoned to work only six weeks a year - and not about the abolition of Political Economy) and describing, "where he lived" he devotes a chapter to "Reading". And though he might come across as a narrow classicist devoted exclusively to Homer and a sprinkling of other classical authors, do please take note: whilst building his cabin "when my hands were much employed, I read but little, but the least scraps of paper which lay on the ground, my holder, or tablecloth, afforded me as much entertainment, in fact answered the same purpose as the Illiad."

    But as the next few pages under the heading of "Sounds" makes clear, the essential cannot be found here: "We are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard." What Thoreau means is actually obscure but it is also compelling: "Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed". But we do get the gist even if it is wreathed in a haze of meaning. Literature is not just laid aside because of the need to work: " I did not read books this summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this". And thus Thoreau gives the lie to Wilson's superficial judgement that "Walden Pond" is artistic in aim. And what follows is not just about the joys of idleness but the forgetting of time as measured by days of the week and the passing hours. It is in such passages that the oracular quality of "Walden Pond" is most potent. Though little actually happens (a bird, for instance, flits noiselessly through the house) once read it leaves an indelible impression.

    The section (I object to the word chapter) is called "Sounds". And we can be in no doubt these sounds are superior to the written word which he has just described in "Reading" as "the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art". But not as evocative as "sound" and Thoreau really did listen: the timbre of distant bells, he believed, was subtly changed by the leaves and pine needles. Nature had its own melody it imparted to every sound. But in natural scientific terms this striking auditory perception went no further: he did not pause to wonder if the tronk, tronk, of bullfrogs were just that bit different as to suggest the presence of similar but separate species. And it is on this score that Wilson ceases to be laudatory and accuses him of scientific mediocrity. There is some substance to this accusation because as a naturalist he is so unique as to be almost unrecognisable. But he actually had read Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" and bought one of the first American copies of "The Origin of the Species" when it came out in 1859, scribbling notes in the margin. He certainly was becoming more of a natural scientist prior to his premature death at the age of 43 and occasionally in "Walden Pond" Latin nomenclature appears beside vernacular names.

     But was Thoreau aspiring to be only a naturalist scientist or was he seeking to redefine natural science, to propel it along a different path to remake it without loss of accuracy? Did he aspire to be the parallel Darwin of a new world, to make good what Darwin failed to satisfy in otherwise receptive people? I say this in the hope of shaking from within "science" E O Wilson's techno-scientific dogmatism without falling into the abyss of scepticism.

    E O Wilson is an important, possibly major, entomologist, but he never succeeds in bringing out Thoreau's breadth, his decision to "interrogate every custom". In shrinking Thoreau his enviable grasp of many branches of natural history is very apparent, though I would argue this enormous knowledge has been gained at a great loss elsewhere. Wilson opts to call himself a small organism biologist in preference to an invertebrate biologist that suggests he finds the term entomologist an encumbrance and a hindrance. Creepy crawlies are small but beneath them is an even smaller world inhabiting extremities where only recently it was thought life could not survive. In Wilson's opinion Thoreau was a large organism man and his gaze only fractionally veered from the horizontal "first upward to scan the canopy, then down to scan the ground". He knew little of the world beneath our feet and the pressing necessity to develop a different optical slant if we are ever to come to an understanding and appreciation of this subterranean world without which we cannot survive. Scientists hitherto have all but ignored such a change in perspective in ways of seeing and it is to Wilson's credit that he challenges such deadening oversights. In fact the beauty of the microscopic intrigues him, which he gratingly refers to as a "micro-aesthetics". But if he is implying Thoreau was restricted to the conventions of his day he fails to understand the why and wherefore of Thoreau. His gaze was not directed exclusively at nature: potentially it was a total vision and in terms of either the very small or large, a neutral one. In fact his viewpoint is not all that different to Darwin's in "The Voyage of the Beagle" where, in this most exemplary of scientific travelogues, observations on the behaviour of indigenous populations vie with those on flora and fauna - with this essential difference the former is not held up to the same degree of critical scrutiny. In Thoreau's view how we looked was of no value if we did not see other things as well and which could equally apply to astronomy as to the budding science of microbiology: "to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar."  Whether purely coincidental or not there is a prescience about Thoreau's observations: we cannot be sure exactly when he wrote the above but if he did so in the 1840's it strikingly anticipates Pasteur's voyage into the world of the "infinitely small" and his discovery in the early 1850's that fermentation is caused by living beings as in the spoliation of wine i.e. vinegar. Which underlines that Thoreau must be thought of as more of anticipation than a realised individual, a shadow cast from the future alert to the slightest suggestion.

     This narrowing of viewpoint Thoreau attributed to the manner of education and, rather more than his friend Emerson, had a hearty dislike of college professors. Rather he was for a heuristic approach to learning, which was so extreme that it left little room for an instructor and might have toppled over into the educator becoming educated thus transcending the pragmatism of, learning-by-doing. Thus hostility to education as practised and its attendant hierarchy was inseparable from Thoreau's critique of the division of labour. Maybe because education was in the 1840's still in a half-formed gelatinous state Thoreau was more able to go one better. But for E O Wilson "education" is not a problem never mind the wholesale capitalisation of knowledge, which Thoreau could not name because it was still in its infancy. So whatever critical reservations Wilson has about the term entomology it does not lead to a fundamental questioning of the compartmentalisation of knowledge or whatever is meant by knowledge in the first place. His reservations are of an interdisciplinary nature rather than marking the beginning of a critique of the knowledge industry.

     In his intro, Wilson uncovered a sentence of Thoreau's which he paraphrases as: "In wildness is the salvation of the world". I have been unable to find the original but, even so, it is an arresting statement. And it is immeasurably more relevant today than 150 years ago. Yet Wilson is able to twist it into anticipating a branch of capital, and the mouth-watering profits to be made from nature by the valorisation of the wild masquerading as a conservation ethic. He tries to put a figure to it by asking, "How much is the biosphere worth" quoting from a team of scientists who in 1997 came up with the figure $33 trillion. This did not make economic sense to me at all and I wondered if that meant the likely cost of replacing these natural systems. In any case why go to the bother of doing a cost benefit analysis of nature at all? To do so implies argument only has a value if expressed in economic terms which immediately puts one on the same terrain as the opposition by accepting without quibble the terms of the debate. Besides it is simply not feasible to even think of replacing natural systems by a manufactured prosthesis along the lines of oxygen pumped from a cylinder. It amounts to saying only by first asking "how much" will it cost for humanity to be saved. There can be no more deadening triumph of economic man even if, to be charitable, this is not the intention of these marginal utility eco economists - (the value of a thing rises or falls on account of a subjective measurement of its worth not because of the expenditure of labour time).

    Since the Romantic Movement nature has been surrounded with ambiguity and in one form or another its immediacy has been that of a vested interest. Increasingly it has come armed with a price tag. This marks more of a victory for commerce than for life and Rousseau's natural man - the equal exchange between two contracting parties - was also the basis for unequal exchange and exploitation. Hence Wilson's plea for bio-diversity is also plea for economic self-interest and seeks to draw all of life, even down to the microbial, into the sphere of the commodity, a term, which like all other biologists, he does not have even a rudimentary understanding of. The pharmacological explosion essentially is the spin off from the increased sophistication of molecular biology and the discovery of DNA in the early fifties. 40% of all prescribed medicines either come directly from living tissue or are analogs of the same. Wilson mentions GMO's and, despite adding a note of caution, never once sees fit at the very least to say it is a world war waged by a few companies to gain control of world food production.

    However as a major field naturalist, Wilson also knows that pharmacological breakthroughs rarely come purely and simply from within the laboratory. Invariably they are preceded by a complex history in which the field naturalist plays an essential though much overlooked part because it conflicts with the dominant techno-scientific-industrial rationale. Field workers are alerted to the properties of living things from observing local practises, reading old herbals or listening to old wives tales. They can also become embarrassingly implicated in bio-piracy thus further compromising the disinterested innocence of the field naturalist. By not raising the issue of bio-piracy and the patenting of analogs, Wilson is guilty of an oversight comparable to that of GMO's. He is also silent on such issues as the stripping of the bark from the Pacific Yews, which is endangering their survival, because it contains taxol an ant carcinogen. No drug company is prepared to invest in manufacturing an analogue because, as a naturally occurring substance, it cannot be patented.

     To Wilson the industrial expression of biodiversity is good business. And given the high percentage of pharmaceutical products derived from living organisms (world trade in plant extracts amounts to $84 billion a year) this is tantamount to giving the drug companies a clean bill of health. But to me this is only the bare beginnings of the story and I would love to read an in depth analysis which starts from the premise that as an industry it cannot but involve workers and capitalists and whose essential interests must conflict not only over wages but over the meaning of the work they are engaged upon. I would very much like to know more about the laboratory technicians (and not just the "hands") and why they are so quiescent. How deep do their criticisms go both of the company and what they are employed in doing? And, in general, is their "ecological footprint" every bit as bad, or even worse, than the stereotypical car worker? And what of the divided souls of field workers employed to hunt out new species that have the potential of becoming the next wonder drugs. Are some less conscience stricken than others when it comes to inveigling their way into primitive farming communities offering them a pittance for the surrender of their living pharmacopoeia? Wilson has nothing to say about any of this and still he has the cheek to call himself a follower of Thoreau. At the very least such an overview could revise the version of history as told by the conquerors. Just as we now believe proto-telescopes existed prior to Galileo so we now must humbly look afresh at the proto-science of the herbalist who lived better than the lab technician though probably not as long.

     Having named many ant species new to science Wilson errs on the side of taxonomy. In his perspective knowledge of the species is power. In practise nature's riches become the riches of capitalism. Though a convinced evolutionist much of Wilson's work is a clarion call to the naming of the species. Almost messianic in tone (rather than "scientific") the "future of life" hinges on that task alone which is also the future of the bio-engineering and pharmaceutical companies. Three centuries ago the Swedish biologist, Linnaeus, was possessed by a similar urge to name the species. For him it was divinely ordained and his assistants in this heavenly task were "apostles" not lab assistants. In the intervening years money has replaced natural theology with evolution tacked on as a pre-capitalist formation.

     Taxonomic description today and particularly if it were to fulfil Wilson's purpose, would be more than just precise English. It would be likely to carry a whole range of chemical signatures, which cannot deceive to anything like the same extent as words. In contrast Thoreau's nature is picked out only here and there with actual names and, occasionally, Latin names. In this Emerson marking a shift away from a panoramic nameless literary romanticism to a natural scientific "romanticism" possibly influenced him: that is towards a more responsive complex, wider, different science. Species in Thoreau evoke fantasies and he is childlike enough to record these as worthy of interest. The Tawny Owl's screech brings to mind "the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings of fallen souls that once in human shape at night walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness". We may sneer condescendingly but who has not involuntarily shuddered when that blood-curdling scream has perked close by, the dark night. There is no scientific remedy to ward off our instantaneous recoil. To separate the outer from the inner is to cleave nature in two and we cease to be part of nature. The one approach does not have to sacrifice scientific accuracy, rather it can enrich it: "So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own nature does he not yet possess" (Emerson, "The American Scholar").

     I can't say for sure what sparked my interest in nature at such an early age. By the age of 12, I was a passionate Lepidopterist and though now far more cognate I bemoan the passing of that passion, despite being an educational reject attending a sink sec' mod. Even then I would refer to the Vannessid family by its Latin name. I also recall the day when visiting a local quarry in the smoke-blackened West Riding of Yorkshire. I was told the names of several species of butterflies and day flying moths by the children of desperately poor parents. Little did I know but on that very first day I had been helped in making an important discovery. The Common Blue that was flying on this site in considerable numbers was unknown apart from rare singletons in West Yorkshire at that time. And where due to recollections of the 1950s the extremely rare Grayling butterfly was found in 2002.

    I also still have my old butterfly and moth books and sometimes when drink has blotted out the day I will look at the selected colour plates and try to recapture how I once felt. For a fraction of a second I just about manage to do so. And to think this feeling once never left me. In particular there is a plate of Yellow Underwing moths that adorned the cover of Vol 11 of Richard South's work "The Moths of the British Isles" published around the turn of the last century. I cannot describe what affect this plate had on me. Though the moths appeared to stand off the page to describe it as having a 3D effect is to delimit it. It was in a dimension, perhaps several dimensions, all of its own. No other visual representation before or since has made this impression upon me.

     I also greatly admired the colour plates in E B Ford's volumes on Butterflies and Moths and, even at that early age, felt they displayed a purpose that went beyond the mere beauty of the plates. They have withstood the test of time, not just with me but others also. Some three years back I recall meeting a young college natural science lecturer from Balliol College in Hell's Coppice near Oxford. Conversation turned from lamenting the absence of the Black Hairstreak butterfly that day to Lepidoptera in general and I asked him about Ford's current standing in Oxford. He appeared not to appreciate what I was driving at when I asked him if he thought Ford was influenced by the Oxford of his day. Though I did not say so directly for fear of appearing too political I had in mind the "leftward" shift which plainly effected one of his great mentors, E S Haldane. He had amusing tales to relate, particularly how Ford opposed the admission of women to senior common rooms because of their "shrill voices". And also that on his death Ford's eagerly awaited folder labelled genetics the contents of which had remained private, contained but one sentence. His research into genetics had started and finished with butterflies and moths. But - oh- those unforgettable colour plates. And what other major scientific work ever began with something so apparently unrelated as the Fall of Constantinople? This surreal detail, mentioned by the Fellow of All Souls College, had totally escaped my notice.

    None of my early butterfly and moth books were ever fully closed. Even when shut they remained open. They had come to life in a more positive manner than nursery rhymes, and yet far removed from the dead adult world of bookshelves. In my early 20s', I came across a spontaneous, perhaps unsought, expression of Nietzche's that probably he could not explain but which summed up my feelings exactly, "child-sized butterflies". Others responded in a similar fashion. Beyond the strained, somewhat biblical, presence of Lions and Serpents there is, throughout Nietzsche's work, the more meaningful neighbourhood of insects and single celled animals. As the introduction to the "Genealogy of Morals "says: "We all aspire to be winged insects". And yet, possibly aware of Nageli's cytological studies, he also narrows that world down to the microscopic even as he superimposed on single cell life an extra aesthetic rhythm and a will to power (cell division in fact). He was, before his time, a small organism, anti-philosopher confusedly requiring action before all else though finally it is hardly less confusing than Wilson's pragmatism.

    In addition to being a historian of morals Nietzsche was also a genealogist of language doubting if we could ever achieve precision in language. But his radical empiricist view of language did not blind him to the role of language as a social enforcer. A "primal" language also accompanies the primal crime in the "Genealogy of Morals" and liberation also depends on a liberated word order. In this respect he is prepared to wholeheartedly give in to the metaphorical function of language, pushing it to extremes. And without falling back onto past mythologies we must commit ourselves to believing what it says. Remy Goncourt in Andre Breton's time tried to explain Saint Pol Roux's symbolist poetry in entirely pragmatic terms. Breton rightly responded by scathingly saying that a line of Saint Pol Roux's "The morrow of the caterpillar is the ladies ball room gown"- was not another way of saying a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

    In fact from Linnaeus onwards the scientific naming of the species has been in thrall to classical mythology. Quite consciously, in the naming of some of the strange creatures found in the Burgess Shale dating from the Cambrian seas, the tradition of Latin and Greek derivatives was ignored. The same could be said of the naming of the components of the quarks with its several "flavours" - up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom - which have nothing to do with taste. By deliberately (and affectedly in the case of quarks) choosing different words, to the point of absurdity even, the crises of expression is posed but not expressed with anything like sufficient clarity. Change is restricted to the word order itself and within science, the crises of avant-garde 'literature' is partially recapitulated - but without the radical consequences.

    This had long been the case with the naming in particular, of moths in 19th  century Britain. That there may be something  of real interest here has only recently being suspected. (C/f Emmett's book on names). Rarely if ever has taxonomy been so extravagant - at least in the vernacular i.e. English mode. This language fest was in marked contrast to the sobriety of the Latin designates and directly reflected what was happening to English as a functioning everyday language and as a literary tool. G M Hopkins engagement is almost entirely with words. Short of pushing language to the brink of disintegration he cannot find the order, or disorder of words, he needs. As a Jesuit priest he is debarred from opening up other fronts even though he has some contact with William Wallace, the translator of Hegel's "Science of Logic". He is also sympathetic to the Paris Commune. Yet finally words become invested with a weight they cannot support. We lose our way within the maze of words. I wish, whenever I see a Kestrel Hawk, I did not have to see it through Hopkins eyes: "The Wind Hover", the genuinely vernacular title of Hopkins poem, says far more and with a far greater economy of language. It also takes a similar liberty with the word order, changing the second designate from a verb into a noun. The unfettering of the word order and a "low science" including a nascent animal ethnology were once not that different.

    We are more familiar with the names of moths than the moths themselves. The "Concolorous" moth has been known by name to me since my earl teens but I still cannot say what it looks like. With the intensifying interest in varieties that changed, as words lost out in importance and appearance gained the upper hand, I am able to vividly recall many a variety that I cannot hope to put a name to. This development may help to explain why a colour plate of moths had such an impact upon me. It was invested with critique and promised a new world. It just was and needed no further explanation. This most artless of natural scientific symbolism was also the most successful.           

   The cult of varieties shattered the unnoticed links between systematisation and industrial standardisation. The near mesmeric effect of the uniqueness of some, if not all varieties was a living riposte to a mass produced, mechanised world. "Everything counter, original, spare, strange" could now be complimented with a natural scientific fact. Yet also, hidden from view in the cult of varieties, there lay the search for the laws governing inheritance. In fact that honour should have gone to a butterfly or moth with pronounced phenotypic characteristics, that bred more or less continuously throughout the year. For by now the structural richness of the insect world, in particular the extraordinary mimetic capacity of some insects, was recognised as a product of the rate of reproductive capacity, vastly accelerating the process of trial and error by natural selection. Instead the examination of annual crops of peas were to provide the key to the understanding of genes. But once Mendel's paper was generally known about, almost immediately the fast breeding fruit fly became the chosen object of study to establish, in part, the rate of mutation. By entering the laboratory, entomology had come of age. But it had lost its innocence, leading up to that time, a natural existence unspoilt by use. Apart from silk worms and bees, insects were not generally farmed, bred or cultivated. They were still unworthy objects of study as lacking in scientific merit as the growing number of people taking an interest in them. But because it had so little prestige and was subject to such ridicule, entomology was also an open door through which other properties appeared. Lady Glanville was declared mad and her will invalid because she collected butterflies. E Newman, the noted Victorian lepidopterist, found this low status difficult to live with and overcompensated by larding his acute observations with literary references. But it is the beauty of his descriptions that have survived not the wealth of his literary all/illusions.

    Like the accompanying proletarian movement, entomology had to fight for its recognition. Everything challenging could find a refuge there, which may explain Nietzche`s numerous references to insects. The meanest invertebrates demanded the equality the French Revolution had promised, but their growing enfranchisement clipped their wings. Set against the bleak backdrop of the industrial revolution, the insect world offered an escape, if not from despoliation and an alienated existence, then into a diminutive new world.

    But not before the caterpillar on a cap of Fly Agaric in "Alice in Wonderland" had pointedly demanded of Alice: "Who are you"? The long drawn out, increasingly sophisticated, examination of insects throughout the 19th Century was also an interrogation of us. In putting questions to nature we also were put on the spot, until now the birth or death of humanity is the question that haunts, or should haunt us. To get his point across E O Wilson argues humans no longer breed like primates but like microbes. He could have said exponentially, meaning the population grows by the same percentage each year and will double in the next 40 years. But numbers do not make the skin crawl as does the mutation of the human into bacterial growth. Entomology always did have a sting in its tail.

    Without intending to do so, entomology relativised our existence. However in changing our spatial conception it did nothing to sharpen our understanding of historical time. As we grubbed about lifting stones and peeling back decaying bark, our dimensions became uncertain. To better comprehend the insect world we became insects and insects us. Nowhere was this better expressed that in Julian Huxley`s paragraph on ant parasites. When I obtained a copy of Wilson and Holddoblers, Pulitzer Prize winning book on ants, I scanned the bibliography for any mention of Huxley's short, exceedingly well written, introductory synopsis. I am not expert enough to say why it was omitted. Perhaps after all, it was too much of a summary and lacking in original research.

    Focussing ever downwards the microscopic opened out, over the course of time, onto the cosmos. In the past 15 years our understanding of extremophiles - species that inhabit the extremes of the biologically tolerable - has grown by leaps and bounds. They are invariably small creatures - algae, bacteria and exceedingly small arthropods - adopted to withstand extreme heat (300 degrees and more), immense barometric pressure (37,000ft down) and even 1million rads of radioactivity (1000 can kill a human in days). Some amazing creatures are able to metabolise sulphide far beyond the reach of organic molecules from the photosynthetic biosphere. In a chilling remark Wilson wonders if they have an evolutionary future in the "post-catastrophic photosynthetic era". That life may have come from outerspace (panspermia) is no longer thought preposterous. And if Dinococcus Radiodurans bacteria are anything to go by, the inferno of the "great bombardment" may have nourished similar creatures, pushing back the beginnings of life to a near molten period of earth's history.

    Largely unfolding in a world dominated by industrial capitalism, the otherworldliness of entomology has now entered space-time. I get the impression the extent and significance of the world of small organisms has only recently been revealed to a highly receptive and enthusiastic E O Wilson. However it was his interest in butterflies in the first place, and then ants, that finally led him to this remote region guided by a succession of ever-smaller invertebrates. Eventually the world of the infinitely small became the infinitely large.

    I also have been almost dragged along a similar path going from Lepidoptera to a revived interest in astronomy. (When I was young I was interested in both, but stars could not be collected and no one possessed a telescope to get a better look at them). I then went through a rich development that sought to change the world and life (a kind of situationist revolution) and I have never doubted this is the only secure hope of mankind. I returned to my childhood interest in butterflies (which never rally left me) because of revolutionary defeat and yet bringing with me what I had learned in the meantime. Immediately they became "dialectical", entering the arena of political economy, which meant they were no longer just butterflies. I now saw them flying against a backdrop of capitalism and it was blindingly obvious to me conservation measures could not be legitimately separated from the ownership of land, industrial farming, urbanism and cars. My transition to an interest in cosmological theories came about for many reasons. We are not that far off from knowing if life exists elsewhere in the solar system. In fact it is possible we shall know by this time next year, if the Mars probe is successful. Life could also exist on Europa and Callistro, two of Jupiter's moons.

   But what kind of life. It is highly unlikely it will be anywhere near as evolved as life on earth and small in comparison. But even at a near microscopic level it could result in the discovery of previously unknown phyla. We have had to come to terms with the fact evolution of life is far more random than even Darwin suspected. It is now generally accepted that it was meteor that finally brought the age of dinosaurs to an end. Though Darwin maybe was right in thinking there is an evolution in the direction of greater complexity, it does not mean the age of mammals had to succeed that of reptiles. This random event also changed the way we think about the solar system: if there is not a planetary giant like Jupiter somewhere in the outer solar system pulling debris from outer space, then the chances of complex life developing on an earth-sized planet is small. I have also been much impressed how geological studies have become extra terrestrial and what is learnt on earth can be applied to the heavens. Photographs of melting ice sheets here on earth indicate that the ice bound surface of Europa is thin in parts, suggesting the presence of a slushy sea beneath. And probes in the vicinity of Lake Vostok some two miles down under the Antarctica ice cap have revealed an array of living organisms. They do not tell us how life might have evolved on Europa, only that life is possible.

    I also confess to being fascinated by the renewed interest shown by engineers in insect motility. And I had thought technology had reached such a degree of abstraction it had no need to refer to living things, as did Leonardo in his aviation studies. In fact I had argued in a pamphlet on "The Common Blue" butterfly that if Leonardo had examined butterflies rather than birds he may yet have arrived at a solution to the problem of human flight - no matter that part of his ornithopter, based on a study of birds wings, was a near perfect aerodynamic foil and not at all dissimilar to today's aeroplane wings. So imagine how surprised I was to learn that dragonfly wings and their flight mechanisms, were being examined afresh to create a short hop vehicle suitable for the Martian terrain. And also, that the independent movement of a cockroaches legs, rather than the wave motion of a millipedes, might provide a solution of how best to move a vehicle across rocky ground, supported only on tubular legs, without fear of it falling over. I was no less surprised by the ease with which I had been drawn into this rebirth of technological innocence, when I was choking on car ads, the latest luxury in plane travel or innovation in sound engineering, when all I wanted to do was shut my ears against noise. Perhaps we should look no further for the reason than both machines are destined to function in another world.

   So much else besides has both a terrestrial and a sidereal content nowadays. Our increased understanding of animal sounds, even possible "language" might be of benefit in deciphering an alien language. We wonder also if this animal language has a structure beyond the mere naming of things i.e. one we haven't put there, which is always a danger with "signing" monkeys. And where exactly are the boundaries of intelligent life? The discovery that Honey Bees have a body language capable of transmitting a billion messages was one of the most remarkable finds of the 20th century. The bee will never be quite so humble again and when biology went astral, we began to ponder on the possible forms an alien intelligence would come wrapped in. The sci-fi humanoid insect, popular throughout the 20th century, expressed a typical dread of the insect world. It might now be seen as one of several options.

    My further investigations into modern cosmogony revealed to me that our universe is a biophillic universe. That is one favourable to the development of life. If just one small feature had been slightly "out", life would never have developed. We are stardust built up out of the carbon generated by second-generation stars. But from our reduced perspective despair lies at the heart of every star burst.

    Fascinated as I am by the contemporary cosmological theories, they pale besides those of the Ionian cosmoginists. There is, in the greater accuracy of the former, the same wonder as in the latter but the complete human being is not there - and more than ever it should be. Theory becomes a mere function of a particular type of brain and "life" increasingly comes to mean the possibility of "intelligent" life as conceived by this particular brain. It is all leading up to the moment the planet has to be abandoned because uninhabitable and these inhuman brains leave earth in a rocket because they have abandoned the struggle long ago for a better life. Whatever future remains they find it in the second law of thermodynamics, the gradual dissipation of energy as heat flows from hot to cold. In this red shifted twilight of the universe the brain thinks as little as possible to conserve energy. Most of the time is spent sleeping forgetting that, whilst asleep, we also dream and the brain remains active. But what do these theorists know about dreams seeing they can so happily stand aside from this nightmarish world?



                                                                   Stuart Wise (incomplete notes. Spring 2004)