Beasts and beauties, without sentimentality

June 25, 1995|By Deborah Blum | Deborah Blum,Special to The Sun

"The Beauty of the Beastly: New Views of the Nature of Life," by Natalie Angier. 278 pages. New York: Houghton Mifflin. $21.95

Earwigs, as everyone knows, at least everyone in my immediate circle, are the most revolting creatures on Earth. Known technically as the black, eel-like bugs that slither out of garden flowers, causing one to hurl a freshly picked bouquet across a room, earwigs are known primarily for their apparent lack of redeeming qualities.

I had hoped to find them in Natalie Angier's new book, "The Beauty of the Beastly." Anyone who can lend charm to dung beetles and eyelash mites should be able to justify the existence of an insect which, given its chance, will cheerfully crawl into one's house, one's bed or even - according to a friend who tells this in unwanted detail - one's ears.

But earwigs do not turn up here and, in fact, Ms. Angier's focus does not appear to be on redemption of the world's sleaziest life forms. Although the book's title suggests a sustained exploration of natural grunge, the approach is far more eclectic than that.

What actually unfolds is a repolished collection of tales Ms. Angier told earlier for the New York Times, where she has been a science writer since 1990. The variety of those assignments tends to give the book a somewhat directionless feel. There's no way to slide smoothly from urban cockroaches to Ms. Angier's aging grandmother, from protein folding to van Gogh's medical complaints.

But this is mostly carping. The stories were good when she first wrote them (she won a Pulitzer for her collected works in 1991) and her distinctive style, simultaneously lush and witty, binds the works together. In her hands, orchids become circus hucksters, scorpions gleam with reflected moonlight and brown bears move like "flirtatious circus dancers."

Ms. Angier takes real delight in the perverse. As she notes in the introduction, she hunts for the sins of the saints, the "Jekylls beneath the hides" of the creatures she portrays. She deliberately twists stereotypes, showing up the dark side of dolphins, the maternal nature of cockroaches. Her essay on dung beetles could turn anyone into a cheerleader for bugs that munch on, well, dung.

Her approach is distinct, though, from the writings of scientists who illuminate the natural world. The late British naturalist, Gerald Durrell, also described dung beetles in loving detail. But Mr. Durrell's approach was, indeed, loving. No one was better at making a reader want to cuddle up with a praying mantis. Ms. Angier remains detached - an observer, a reporter.

In her essay on pit vipers, she describes not only a rattlesnake, in all its terrible and beautiful fury, but a herpetologist who clearly adores his subjects. The scientist dreams of convincing Americans to put rattlesnake dens on their vacation list. Ms. Angier is amused: "I assure him I'll speak to my travel agent."

You will find not a trace of sentiment in this book, even when the author studies herself in a powerful closing chapter. These are essays for the lover of intelligent portrayals of the natural world, not heart-felt ones. Which is actually why I still regret the absence of earwigs. They deserve many things but sentiment is not among them.

Deborah Blum is a science writer at the Sacramento Bee. She has received numerous awards for science reporting, including the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and the 1992 AAAS-Westinghouse Award. Her book "The Monkey Wars" was published last fall. She is now writing a book on gender biology.

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