Baldur, grandson of the Norse god Thor, woke up one morning certain that each and every plant and animal on earth wanted to kill him. His mother consoled him. His wife consoled him, but all to no avail. As Baldur cowered in his room, half-wild with fear, his mother and wife decided to ask every living thing to leave their poor Baldur in peace. They begged the kindness of the oak tree, the pig, the cow, the crow, the ant and even the worm. Each agreed. Then, as Baldur paused to celebrate his release from torment, he felt a pain in his chest. He had been stabbed and killed by an arrow made from the wood of a mistletoe plant. Mistletoe was the one species on earth his wife and mother had failed to notice.
Nick Haddad is a tall, quick-to-smile Minnesotan. But lest the easy grin fool you, he is also a man who likes to win. He wins in Scrabble. He tries to win in basketball. And he thinks he has won in the grim contest waged among biologists over which is the rarest butterfly in the world.
Haddad spends hundreds of hours a year studying the St. Francis Satyr, a small brown butterfly the size and weight of a folded postage stamp. The St. Francis Satyr lives at Fort Bragg, a military base near Fayetteville, North Carolina, and nowhere else. The St. Francis Satyr was once common but is now on the brink of extinction.
One part of the story of the St. Francis Satyr begins with beavers. If you’ve ever wondered just how whimsical evolution can be, consider beavers.
There are many ways to be immortal. Israel Aharoni, a Jewish biologist working in Turkish-controlled Jerusalem, imagined that his enduring legacy would come from giving Hebrew names to the animals of the Holy Land. Sometimes, especially for little-known animals, this meant making up new names. More often, it meant matching descriptions in the Torah with the species in and around Jerusalem. What, for example, was a rěēm? It is described as a clean animal with impressive horns that could cause injury. Aharoni thought it to be the aurochs, ancestor to all domesticated cows. This interpretation, like many others, seems to have stuck. But the Hebrew names of animals were not his only enduring legacy. He also captured a poorly known wild animal and in doing so changed our modern lives.
Natural selection acts by winnowing the individuals of each generation, sometimes clumsily, as old parts and genes are co-opted for new roles. As a result, all species inhabit bodies imperfect for the lives they live. Our own bodies are worse off than most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live. We feel the consequences every day. Here are ten.
Even to scientists, the question of where great discoveries come from is a bit of a mystery. Young biologists learn technique. They learn to sequence DNA, extract sediment cores or distinguish chemical compounds. But how to make a big breakthrough, well, that is equal parts chance and voodoo. Scientists who have a great insight one day (and implicitly, at least in that moment, understand discovery) are as likely to fade into anonymity the next as to make more big discoveries.
I have a confession. When I first moved to New England from Michigan, I said hi to everyone. I waved at police officers. I asked gas station attendants about the weather and talked to or greeted whomever I bumped into. Eventually though, I started to notice that such cordialities were not always returned. Sometimes I got a stare. It wasn’t quite a dirty look, but a kind of squirrel-faced wondering about whether I wasn’t from “around here” or was just slow.
Bob “Sea Otter” Jones, alone in a wooden dory, traveled to an unexplored island in the Aleutian chain in the summer of 1962. Set against the sea, he was as inconsequential as a jellyfish. He rolled over waves and dodged sea lions as he pushed his way through dense fogs. On most days of his life he saw more birds than people, which suited him fine. On this day, he pointed his boat toward Buldir Island. The approach was treacherous. The rocky shore offered no soft landing, but plenty of hard ones. Jones was as close to Japan as to Alaska—far from any home. He had come to the island chasing wild geese. Really.