strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Salk and His Polio Vaccine? This Woman Figured It Out First.

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2023

morgan-isabel

Her name was Isabel Morgan (1911–1996). She was a virologist at Johns Hopkins University. And in 1947, she demonstrated the first effective polio immunization in rhesus monkeys. Morgan had devised a formalin-inactivated vaccine, at a time when most polio researchers believed such a vaccine could not possibly work.

“She converted us and that was quite a feat,” one of her many male colleagues conceded.

That vaccine was the forerunner of the one Jonas Salk introduced eight years later in humans.

So how come you’ve never heard of Isabel Morgan?

Read her story and those of other public health pioneers in Ending Epidemics–A History of Escape from Contagion (due out April 12, MIT Press).

Advance praise for Ending Epidemics: “A timely and highly readable account of humanity’s struggles and progress in the fight against infectious disease. Set across three centuries, from the birth of immunology to the antibiotic revolution, Conniff draws on the personal stories behind these great medical and scientific leaps. A fascinating read with powerful lessons for tackling today’s—and indeed future—epidemics.” — Peter Piot, Former Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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On the Origin of a Theory

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2023

by Richard Conniff

This is an excerpt from my book The Species Seekers, and I am publishing it here today to honor the 200th birthday of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of evolutionary theory.

Alfred Russel Wallace

Leafing through the mail at his home outside London one June day 150 years ago, Charles Darwin came across an envelope sent from an island in what is now part of Indonesia. The writer was a young acquaintance, Alfred Russel Wallace, who eked out a living as a biological collector, sending butterflies, bird skins and other specimens back to England. This time, Wallace had sent along a 20-page manuscript, requesting that Darwin show it to other members of the British scientific community.

As he read, Darwin saw with dawning horror that the author had arrived at the same evolutionary theory he had been working on, without publishing a word, for 20 years. “All my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed,” he lamented in a note to his friend the geologist Charles Lyell. Darwin ventured that he would be “extremely glad now” to publish a brief account of his own lengthy manuscript, but that “I would far rather burn my whole book than that [Wallace] or any man should think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.”

The threat to his life’s work could hardly have come at a worse moment. Darwin’s daughter Etty, 14, was frighteningly ill with diphtheria. His 18-month-old son, Charles, would soon lie dead of scarlet fever. Lyell and another Darwin friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker, cobbled together a compromise, rushing both Darwin’s and Wallace’s works before a meeting of the Linnean Society a few days later, on July 1, 1858. The reading took place in a narrow, stuffy ballroom at Burlington House, just off Piccadilly Circus, and neither author was present. (Darwin was at his son’s funeral; Wallace was in New Guinea.) Nor was there any discussion. The society’s president went home muttering about the lack of any “striking discoveries” that year. And so began the greatest revolution in the history of science.

We call it Darwinism, for short. But in truth, it didn’t start with Darwin, or with Wallace either, for that matter. Great ideas seldom arise in the romantic way we like to imagine—the bolt from the blue, the lone genius running through the streets crying, “Eureka!” Like evolution itself, science more often advances by small steps, with different lines converging on the same solution.

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Posted in Biodiversity, The Species Seekers | 1 Comment »

ENDING EPIDEMICS: Announcing My New Book

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 7, 2022

If you’re one of the good people who have enjoyed my previous books, you could be a great help with my new one, Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion. The Barnes and Noble deal has expired, but pre-orders are still an enormous help. Here are few early notices for the book, to give you an idea why pre-ordering might be a good idea for you:

Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer, writes: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail.  I think the book is a masterpiece.”  —

Paul Offit, M.D., author of You Bet Your Life and other books on public health, calls it “A dramatic, page-turning account of the grim, never-ending war waged by infections on humankind.”

Pre-ordering sends a big message of reader support to bookstores & marketing folks. Please also spread the word with your friends, social media contacts, and your local bookstore. It can make or break this book.

You can read more about the book from the publisher MIT Press: “Ending Epidemics tells the story behind “the mortality revolution,” the dramatic transformation not just in our longevity, but in the character of childhood, family life, and human society. Richard Conniff recounts the moments of inspiration and innovation, decades of dogged persistence, and, of course, periods of terrible suffering that stir individuals, institutions, and governments to act in the name of public health.”

You can also read a sample chapter here, about two forgotten women whose work saves tens of thousands of small children every year from death by whooping cough.

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The Unsung Heroes Who Ended a Deadly Plague

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 11, 2022

Grand Rapids, Michigan, shortly before the Depression. (Photo: Unknown)

by Richard Conniff/Smithsonian Magazine

Late November 1932, the weather cold and windy, two women set out at the end of their normal working day into the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Great Depression was entering its fourth year. Banks had shut down, and the city’s dominant furniture industry had collapsed.  Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering both biologists for a state laboratory, were working on their own time to visit sick children and determine if they were infected with a potentially deadly disease.  Many of the families lived in “pitiful” conditions,” they later recalled. “We listened to sad stories told by desperate fathers who could find no work. We collected specimens by the light of kerosene lamps, from whooping, vomiting, strangling children. We saw what the disease could do.”

It could seem at first like nothing all, a runny nose and a mild cough. A missed diagnosis is common even now: Just a cold, nothing to worry about. After a week or two, though, the coughing can begin to come in violent spasms, too fast for breathing, until the sharp, strangled bark breaks through of the child desperately gasping to get air down her throat. That whooping sound makes the diagnosis unmistakable. 

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, means nothing to most parents in the developed world today.  But the helpless feeling of watching a baby in the agonizing grip of a prolonged coughing spasm is unforgettable.  “It’s awful, it’s awful. You wonder how they can survive the crisis,” says a modern researcher who has seen it. “I mean, they’re suffocating. They’re choking. They become completely blue. They cannot overcome the cough, and you have the impression that the child is dying in your hands.” It can go on like that for weeks, or months.

Until the mid-twentieth century, there was also nothing anyone could do to prevent the disease.  It was so contagious that one child with whooping cough was likely to infect half his classmates, and all his siblings at home.  In the 1930s, it killed 4000 Americans on average every year, most of them still infants.  Survivors could suffer permanent physical and cognitive damage.

All that changed because of Kendrick and Eldering, now largely forgotten. They’d been hired to conduct routine daily testing of medical and environmental samples at a state laboratory.  But whooping cough became their obsession. They worked on it late into the night, without funding at first, in what a reporter later described it as a “dumpy broken down stucco” building.  They benefited from the work of their own hand-picked research team, which was remarkably diverse for that era in race, gender, and even sexual orientation. They also enlisted the trust and enthusiasm of their community.  

Medical men with better credentials were deeply skeptical.  But where other researchers had failed repeatedly over the previous 30 years, Kendrick, Eldering, and their team succeeded in developing the first reliably effective whooping cough vaccine.  Childhood deaths from whooping cough soon plummeted in the United States, and then the world. (To continue reading, click here)

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SOLAR BELONGS ON PARKING LOTS & ROOFTOPS, NOT FIELDS & FORESTS

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 12, 2022

A solar-covered parking lot at an engine plant in Chuzhou, China. (Photo: Imaginechina via AP Images)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Fly into Orlando, Florida, and you may notice a 22-acre solar power array in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head in a field just west of Disney World. Nearby, Disney also has a 270-acre solar farm of conventional design on former orchard and forest land. Park your car in any of Disney’s 32,000 parking spaces, on the other hand, and you won’t see a canopy overhead generating solar power (or providing shade) — not even if you snag one of the preferred spaces for which visitors pay up to $50 a day.

This is how it typically goes with solar arrays: We build them on open space rather than in developed areas. That is, they overwhelmingly occupy croplands, arid lands, and grasslands, not rooftops or parking lots, according to a global inventory published last month in Nature. In the United States, for instance, roughly 51 percent of utility-scale solar facilities are in deserts; 33 percent are on croplands; and 10 percent are in grasslands and forests. Just 2.5 percent of U.S. solar power comes from urban areas.

The argument for doing it this way can seem compelling: It is cheaper to build on undeveloped land than on rooftops or in parking lots. And building alternative power sources fast and cheap is critical in the race to replace fossil fuels and avert catastrophic climate change. It’s also easier to manage a few big solar farms in an open landscape than a thousand small ones scattered across urban areas.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it smarter. Undeveloped land is a rapidly dwindling resource, and what’s left is under pressure to deliver a host of other services we require from the natural world — growing food, sheltering wildlife, storing and purifying water, preventing erosion, and sequestering carbon, among others. And that pressure is rapidly intensifying. By 2050, in one plausible scenario from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), supplying solar power for all our electrical needs could require ground-based solar on 0.5 percent of the total land area of the United States. To put that number in perspective, NREL senior research Robert Margolis says it’s “less land than we already dedicate to growing corn ethanol for biofuels.” (Continue reading)

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E.O. WILSON on Cooperation & the Tribal Mind

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2021

Photo: Gerald Forster

by Richard Conniff

Discover Magazine, June 2006


Edward O. Wilson has spent a lifetime squinting at ants and has come away with some of the biggest ideas in evolutionary biology since Darwin. “Sociobiology” and “biodiversity” are among the terms he popularized, as is “evolutionary biology” itself.

He has been in the thick of at least two nasty scientific brawls. In the 1950s, his field of systematics, the traditional science of identifying and classifying species based on their anatomies, was being shoved aside by molecular biology, which focused on genetics. His Harvard University colleague James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, declined to acknowledge Wilson when they passed in the hall. Then in the 1970s, when Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, other Harvard colleagues attacked the idea of analyzing human behavior from an evolutionary perspective as sexist, racist, or worse. He bore all the hostility in the polite, courtly style of his Southern upbringing, and largely prevailed. Sociobiology, though still controversial, has become mainstream as evolutionary psychology. The molecular biology wars may also be ending in a rapprochement, he says, as the “test tube jockeys” belatedly recognize that they need the “stamp collector” systematists after all.

Wilson, who turns 77 this month, has published three books during the past year that fit his own wry definition of a magnum opus: “a book which when dropped from a three-story building is big enough to kill a man.” Nature Revealed (Johns Hopkins) is a selection of his writings since 1949. From So Simple a Beginning (W. W. Norton) is an anthology of writings by Darwin, and Pheidole in the New World (Harvard) is a reorganization of an entire ant genus, including 341 new species Wilson discovered and more than 600 of his own drawings.

RC: You once wrote that you saw yourself parading provocative ideas “like a subaltern riding the regimental colors along the enemy line.”

Wilson: That’s right, “along the enemy line.” That’s an adolescent and very Southern way of putting it, but I wanted to say that I’m a risk taker at heart.

RC: And a provocateur?

Wilson: Yes, but not a controversialist. There’s a distinction. Once I feel I’m right, I have enjoyed provoking.

RC: Your adversaries from the 1970s would be appalled by how much your ideas about sociobiology have taken hold.

Wilson: The opposition has mostly fallen silent. Anyway, it was promoted by what turned out to be a very small number of biologists with a 1960s political agenda. Most of the opposition came from the social sciences, where it was visceral and almost universal.

RC: The social scientists were threatened by the invasion of their territory?

Wilson: That’s right.

RC: The same way that you were threatened by the molecular biologists invading the biological field in the 1950s?

Wilson: They didn’t invade it so much as they dismissed it. What’s been gratifying is to live long enough to see molecular biology and evolutionary biology growing toward each other and uniting in research efforts. It’s personally satisfying and symbolic that Jim Watson and I now get on so well. We even appeared onstage a couple of times together during the 50th anniversary year of the discovery of DNA.

RC: You once described Watson as “the most unpleasant human being” you’d ever met. (Keep reading)

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Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, The Species Seekers | Leave a Comment »

U.S. Cities Are Losing Tree Cover Just When They Need It Most

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2021

strange behaviors

 by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Scientific evidence that trees and green spaces are crucial to the well-being of people in urban areas has multiplied in recent decades. Conveniently, these findings have emerged just as Americans, already among the most urbanized people in the world, are increasingly choosing to live in cities. The problem—partly as a result of that choice—is that urban tree cover is now steadily declining across the U.S.

A study in the May 2018 issue of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening reports metropolitan areas are experiencing a net loss of about 36 million trees nationwide every year. That amounts to about 175,000 acres of tree cover, most of it in central city and suburban areas but also on the exurban fringes. This reduction, says lead author David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), translates into an annual loss of about $96 million in benefits—based, he says, on…

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It’s Time for a Carbon Tax on Beef

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2021

strange behaviors

(Illustration: Igor Bastidas)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Let me admit up front that I would rather be eating a cheeseburger right now. Or maybe trying out a promising new recipe for Korean braised short ribs. But our collective love affair with beef, dating back more than 10,000 years, has gone wrong, in so many ways. And in my head, if not in my appetites, I know it’s time to break it off.

So it caught my eye recently when a team of French scientists published a paper on the practicality of putting a carbon tax on beef as a tool for meeting European Union climate change targets. The idea will no doubt sound absurd to Americans reared on Big Macs and cowboy mythology. While most of us recognize, according to a 2017 Gallup poll, that we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, we just…

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Time to Make City Street Pop-Ups Permanent

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 22, 2021

Yes, there are people in those cars, but not many for the space they occupy.

This is a piece I published in 2018. Since then, #COVID19 has led to widespread re-thinking of streets, to return public space from automotive traffic to the people who live, walk, and bike around a given neighborhood. With vaccination promising to re-open our public lives, it’s time to make these people-oriented streetscapes permanent.

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

In many of the major cities of the world, it has begun to dawn even on public officials that walking is a highly efficient means of transit, as well as one of the great underrated pleasures in life. A few major cities have even tentatively begun to take back their streets for pedestrians.

Denver, for instance, is proposing a plan to invest $1.2 billion in sidewalks, and, at far greater cost, bring frequent public transit within a quarter-mile of most of its residents. In Europe, where clean, safe, punctual public transit is already widely available, Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city center beginning next year. Madrid is banning cars owned by nonresidents, and is also redesigning 24 major downtown avenues to take them back for pedestrians. Paris has banned vehicles from a road along the Seine, and plans to rebuild it for bicycle and pedestrian use.

Yes, car owners are furious. That’s because they have mistaken their century-long domination over pedestrians for a right rather than a privilege. The truth is that cities are not doing nearly enough to restore streets for pedestrian use, and it’s the pedestrians who should be furious.

Many American cities still rely on “level of service” (LOS) design models developed in the 1960s that focus single-mindedly on keeping vehicle traffic moving, according to Elizabeth Macdonald, an urban design specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Hence improvements for other modes (walking, cycling, transit) that might increase vehicle delay are characterized as LOS. impediments,” she and her co-authors write in The Journal of Urban Design. The idea of pedestrians as “impediments” is of course perverse, especially given the word’s original meaning: An impediment was something that functioned as a shackle for the feet — unlimited vehicle traffic, say.

The emphasis on vehicle traffic flow is also a perversion of basic social equity, and the costs show up in ways large and small. Vehicles in cities contribute a major portion of small-particle pollution, the kind that penetrates deep into the lungs. (The percentage can reach as high as 49 percent in Phoenix and 55 percent in Los Angeles. It’s just 6 percent in Beijing, but that’s because there are so many other pollution sources.) People living close to busy roads, particularly infants and older people in lower-income households, pay most of the cost in respiratory, cardiovascular and other problems. A 2013 M.I.T. study estimated that vehicle emissions cause 53,000 early deaths a year in the United States, and a study just last month from Lancaster University in Britain found that children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to live in areas with high levels of vehicle pollution.

Among the smaller costs: Most people in cities from Bangalore to Brooklyn cannot afford to keep a car, and yet our cities routinely turn over the majority of public thoroughfares to those who can. They allow parked cars to eat up 350 square feet apiece, often at no charge, in cities where private parking spaces rent for as much as $700 a month. And they devote most of what’s left of the street to the uninterrupted flow of motor vehicles.

But that’s not really such a small cost, after all: It means that we often cannot afford room for parks or shade trees, which other studies have repeatedly shown to be an important factor in the health and mental well-being of residents. Even when car-mad cities leave enough room on the side to squeeze in trees, they tend to be miniaturized, lollipop versions of what street trees used to be. Hardly anyone plants the towering oaks or maples that used to intertwine their branches overhead and make the sidewalks feel like a leafy grove in the heart of the city.

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ENDING EPIDEMICS: NOTES (IN DEVELOPMENT)

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 6, 2020

In my latest book, Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion, due out in April 2023, I promised to supply more detailed endnotes on line. I’m up to chapter 11, and continuing to add. Here’s what I’ve got so far, with URLs where possible:

PREFACE: THE HEALING

p. ix

“Some crematories”: A. Feuer and W.K. Rashbaum. “‘We Ran Out of Space’: Bodies Pile Up as N.Y. Struggles to Bury Its Dead,” The New York Times, April 2, 2020. The version I quote was an early draft. Final version accessed on September 23, 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/30/nyregion/coronavirus-nyc-funeral-home-morgue-bodies.html.

p. ix-x

“Polio, for instance”:  S.W. Roush and T.V. Murphy, “Historical Comparisons of Morbidity and Mortality for Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States,” JAMA 298, no. 18 (2007): 2155–2163, DOI: 10.1001/jama.298.18.2155 .  See also CDC Global Health – Polio – Our Progress. (2017, November 03). https://www.cdc.gov/polio/progress/index.htm

“Smallpox still infected“: S. Ochmann and M. Roser. “Smallpox,” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. (2018): https://ourworldindata.org/smallpox [Online Resource]

“Measles killed”: Roush and Murphy, “Historical Comparisons.”

“Worldwide life expectancy”: Max Roser, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Hannah Ritchie (2013) – “Life Expectancy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy

“Rubella in the 1960s”: https://www.cdc.gov/rubella/about/in-the-us.

p. xi

Diphtheria “killed more than three thousand”: Roush & Murphy “Historical Comparisons.”

“Winston Churchill”:  W. Churchill, Europe Unite: Speeches, 1947 and 1948 (Boston: Cassell, 1950), 138.

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