David Quammen's sidelong views of science

Natural Acts, by David Quammen. New York: Schocken Books. 221 pp. $16.95. ``Natural Acts'' is not your usual collection of essays. What makes it unusual is David Quammen's voice, his peculiar angle of view. His book is subtitled ``A Sidelong View of Science and Nature'' with good reason.

Quammen makes it clear from the start just what he is (and isn't). The book represents, he says, ``the work of an outsider who is broadly curious but who can never remember the difference between meiosis and mitosis . . . who tries hard to keep the facts straight, who is not shy about offering opinions.'' Right.

The essays in ``Natural Acts'' are divided into four sections, sections connected principally, it seems to me, by Quammen's perpetual gravitation toward the arcane. The first section, ``All God's Vermin,'' profiles animals, while Section 2, called ``Prophets and Pariahs,'' profiles people.

Part 3 of Quammen's collection goes into such issues as animal rights and the near-extinction of a species (the American bison). The last division, ``Eloquent Practices, Natural Acts,'' speculates about matters geomorphological and parthenogenetic, among other things.

It's easy to imagine Quammen working. There he is, wondering how it is that pinnipedia (seals, sea lions, walruses) keep warm in the Arctic. In other words: How, exactly, does blubber work? Which leads to an essay called ``The Miracle of Blubber.''

The answer seems to be that pinnipeds ``protect their heart and brain and other vital organs from disastrous chilling precisely by letting their skin, and the extremities of their flippers, grow very cold.''

Blood still gets to the extremities, but without losing heat, because the heat ``takes a shortcut: It diffuses from the arterioles to the nearby veins. So it never gets near enough to the surface to escape from the animal's body.'' Quammen refers to this all as ``the `vascular countercurrent heat-exchange system.' ''

About crows, well, Quammen has a theory. He thinks that ``Crows are bored. They suffer from being too intelligent for their station in life. . . . They are dissatisfied with the narrow goals and horizons of that tired old Darwinian struggle. On the lookout for a new challenge.''

This is the vintage Quammen. He typically recasts tired scientific phrasings or ideas in funky New Journalistic fashion, not surprising, since most of these pieces were originally written for Outside magazine, where he is a columnist. (He has also written some fine short fiction, an example of which appears in ``Matters of Life and Death,'' edited by Tobias Wolff, and a thriller titled ``The Zolta Configuration.'')

In fact, if you pick up ``Natural Acts'' and read the introduction, you will without question be able to judge from that whether you'll like what follows. Remember, though, that Quammen likes to provoke, and that his prose voice is loud and identifiable.

For my part, anyone who has the temerity to ask why there are 300,000 species of beetles, and answer, ``I don't know. I don't know of anyone who knows. I'm still waiting for some evolutionary biologist to propose a convincing explanation -- but my secret hope is that no one can or will,'' has a mind worth knowing.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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