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Books That Helped Me Write The Tapir's Morning Bath

My Evolutionary Biology and Rain-Forest Ecology Resources

Before I ever considered visiting a rain forest, I was a big fan of Dr. Kevin Cahill's Tropical Medicine, which features some hideous black-and-white plates of people who never got proper treatment for diseases they picked up in the tropics.

Preparing to visit BCI, I read Louise Emmons' Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, which was great in both the field and in the lab for its deep descriptions, and John Kricher's Neotropical Companion, which covers a good bit of evolutionary theory. For an inspirational tour of the rain forest's neatest tricks, I turned to Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata's delightful Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America.

I read Richard Fortey's Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth to firm up my biological chops; ditto David Attenborough's Life on Earth (did you see the eponymous PBS series? You should: It's excellent), which reminded me how modification through descent actually works.

Though it weighs more than four pounds, E.O. Wilson's The Ants, the myrmecologist's vade mecum, had a place in my daypack the first time I went to Panama. I was cramming on ant anatomy and systematics, and the book was an invaluable resource when writing about "the little creatures that run the world." I turned next to Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and paid particular attention to the controversial final chapter, which links human behavior to our ancestral biology. Allison Jolley's Lucy's Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution, emphasizing cooperation and interdependence in human evolution, gave me perspective on the role females have played in human history. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, by Daniel Dennett, got me started on the controversies that still swirl around the theory of natural selection. Being able to discuss Robert Wright's The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are, on the science of evolutionary psychology, helped endear me to the bat researcher Bret Weinstein, who was a big fan of Wright and who tended to interpret human behavior in terms of its adaptive benefits.

The BCI Canon

The best-thumbed book on BCI is David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas, a lively and well-researched history of the making of the canal, from 1870 to 1914. I periodically dipped into parts of Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago and read with the greatest enthusiasm The Naturalist on the River Amazons, by the Ur tropical field biologist, Henry Walter Bates. I read Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle and a selection of his other writings in The Darwin Reader, edited by Mark Ridley. From Peter Raby's Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travelers, I learned about some underexposed early field biologists.

Any serious scientist who's worked on BCI has The Ecology of a Tropical Forest: Seasonal Rhythms and Long-term Changes on her lab shelf. This anthology was edited by BCI's senior scientist in residence, Egbert G. Leigh, who invested several cases of bourbon in wresting data and papers from island researchers. When I finished Ecology of a Tropical Forest, Egbert handed me the page proofs for his Tropical Forest Ecology: A View from Barro Colorado Island. Whereas the first book emphasized seasonal rhythms and their role in regulating plant and animal populations, the second book emphasized the role of mutualisms, or cooperation, in shaping the tropical forest.

To get an overview of what lives in the rain forest canopy and who's poking around up there, I read Mark Moffett's The High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy. When the University of Utah's Lissey Coley started talking to me about secondary compounds in plants, I read Beauty and the Beast: The Coevolution of Plants and Animals, by Susan Grant, and Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, by Mark J. Plotkin.

Wondering how such northern creatures as white-tailed deer and squirrels got mixed up with giant blue Morphos and vested anteaters, I turned to The Monkey's Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America, by David Rains Wallace. A scholarly travelogue, The Monkey's Bridge explores how Central America serves as the evolutionary link between continents. I found The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner, slow going at first, but then I got hooked. Through the work of Rosemary and Peter Grant in the Galápagos, Weiner shows that natural selection is neither a rare nor a necessarily slow process. Enthusiastic about Weiner's clear and compelling writing, I turned to his Time, Love, Memory, about the pioneering drosophilist Seymour Benzer. As a boy, Benzer had been inspired by the fictional hero of Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, a bacteriologist in training at the beginning of the 20th century. Following Benzer's lead, I read Lewis's novel and found its protagonist to be a grim precursor to today's scientists, working at their competitive extremes.

Keen to read more about scientists-in-the-making, I turned to Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life, by Geerat Vermeij, a renowned evolutionary biologist and an expert in snails who happens to be blind. While I was thinking about the vast amounts of data that technology lets scientists capture, Vermeij's book reminded me of the importance of careful observation. My biography jag continued with E. O. Wilson's Naturalist, the most accessible of all his books, and then leaped back 70 years to a few biographies of BCI's founding scientists--the men after whom BCI's trails are named.

I read The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer, by David Fairchild (a bit quaint and Pollyannaish, but it sets the stage for a place like BCI to arise); Howard Ensign Evans and Mary Alice Evans' William Morton Wheeler, Biologist (the great Harvard "ant maven," as David Quammen describes him); and Naturalist at Large, by Thomas Barbour (a large naturalist who hosted a lunchtime gathering, which he called his "eaterie", in his office at Harvard's Agassiz Museum).

After some digging around a lot of libraries, I struck gold with Adventures in a Green World: The Story of David Fairchild and Barbour Lathrop, by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (she of River of Grass fame). This book is indispensable for anyone interested in the history of botany in this country and plant exploration in general. Lathrop--whom Fairchild's son suspected was a spy--launched David Fairchild's career as a plant explorer. (That was his actual title at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Frank Chapman, an ornithologist who spent twelve consecutive dry seasons on BCI, popularized the island with My Tropical Air Castle, published in 1929, and its follow-up, Life in an Air Castle, in 1938.

Interested in the stories of successful scientists who are not men, I read with great pleasure Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology, by Margaret D. Lowman.

Cockroaches and Beyond

I'm a big fan of literary writing on invertebrates. High in this category are Sue Hubbell's Broadsides from the Other Orders, as well as her Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones. I read Richard Conniff's wonderful Spineless Wonders because he personally mailed it to me and because he's always been the funniest guy on the most disgusting of creatures. Conniff led me to Gordon Grice's The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators. Concerned mostly with invertebrates, Grice's book has a commendably high gross-out factor, especially in its description of male mantids continuing to copulate after losing their heads to females.

Looking at BCI's monkeys with Christina Campbell, a primatologist who had strong opinions on how other researchers acted around primates, I turned to the revised edition of Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man, which I found slightly sentimental but also quite moving. I read C. Ray Carpenter's 1935 A Field Study of the Behavior and Social Relations of Howling Monkeys, and the very modern Chimpanzee Politics, by Franz de Waal, for insight into the politics of captive human populations. Campbell's interest in hormones and behavior led me to Robert M. Sapolsky's The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament.

Because Bret had been inspired to study bats after reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker--in particular, the chapter on the evolution of echolocation in bats and its parallel with the invention of radar--I decided to re-read the book. Dawkins' The Selfish Gene had set me up to understand its central arguments.

While he was on the island, Robert Dudley let me drive his boat while we measured the flight speed of migrating moths. In return, I spent some time reading his enormous Biomechanics of Insect Flight: Form, Function, Evolution, which basically spells out, in excruciating detail, everything that anyone anywhere would ever need to know about insect flight.

Away from scientists who study tropical organisms and back in the land of those devoted to saving them, I read Stephen R. Kellert's The Value of Life, on biodiversity, its ethics and meanings. With renewed appreciation for his intelligence and fine writing, I picked up David Quammen's eloquent The Song of the Dodo, on island biogeography and the biological and moral consequences of habitat fragmentation. I only wish I'd read it five years sooner.

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