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When the Urge to Discover Outlives the Ability

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 17, 2012

In the course of writing The Species Seekers, it often struck me how powerfully biological explorers felt the urge to discover, to delight, and to categorize.  To my regret, I could not find room for the following anecdote, told by an elderly naturalist who still felt that urge, but no longer had the means to gratify it, near the end of a life spent sorting out the minute differences among related insect species.

In Science magazine for November 4 1932, entomologist Leland O. Howard wrote that he could no longer read or work at the microscope.  Instead, “I have been interesting myself by watching my eye-spots—those fragile things that float before one’s eyes, apparently in space.  I have recognized three species of insects, two plainly, and the third rather dimly.”

One of them had “spotted wings and apparently the venation of a trypetid fly.”  Another looked like the pupa of Culex pipiens.  (“I can see the respiratory trumpets on the thorax and it is plainly Culicine—not Anopheline. “)

“Other biologists who have misused their eyes (as I have) may amuse themselves by classifying their eyespots…”

In a subsequent issue of Science, a retired corporate executive replied in the same fanciful spirit, “I have, in one of my eyes, a cross between a lizard and a turtle which suddenly jumps aside when I try to pin it down for Latin names.”

 

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