Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln and Hornets and Bees

Couldn't get through the day without a tip of the hat to those two great emancipators, Charly Darwin and Abe Lincoln, who were both born on this day in 1809. Two connected items for your edification and delight.

Item 1: Orgel's second law: evolution is cleverer than you are. The European honeybee was introduced into Japan because of its high honey yield. But there is a local predator for whom honeybee grubs make a delicious snack for their voracious young. Scouting for bees, Vespa mandarinia or the Asian giant hornet, will leave a chemical mark on a ripe hive and then return with a raiding party of 30 or so individuals. When the raiders arrived, the bees are doomed: the hornet, five times bigger than a bee, rapidly makes bee-meat out the hapless invaders, scything through the nest at speed: one hornet can sever 40 bee heads a minute. So a small scouting party can annihilate a nest within a couple of hours: that's 30 hornets killing 30,000 bees.

Of course, this being natural selection, the story doesn't end there. When a hornet scout discovers a local hive, the Japanese honey bee is ready:

Secondly, general rejoicing chez my house at the news that gentleman essayist Adam Gopnik has published a new book. Entitled Angels and Ages, the book looks at Lincoln and Darwin's careers as writers and how their unique mastery of language meant their impact was that much richer and deeper than if they had simply been great men content to leave the speechifying or explicating to others. Read the first chapter; if the book's as good as Paris to the Moon or Through The Children's Gate, it should be a treat. How much of a treat? Well, Gopnik's quite marvelous essay on CS Lewis, with its ringing peroration in defence of the fantastic, is still the only piece of literary criticism that can moisten my eyes):

Poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

The religious believer finds consolation, and relief, too, in the world of magic exactly because it is at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship, even if the believer is, like Lewis, reluctant to admit it. The irrational images—the street lamp in the snow and the silver chair and the speaking horse—are as much an escape for the Christian imagination as for the rationalist, and we sense a deeper joy in Lewis’s prose as it escapes from the demands of Christian belief into the darker realm of magic. As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.

If there's writing half as good in this new book, I'll be one delighted bunny.

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