Rose Eveleth and Kristen Clark, our wonderful summer interns, offer a couple of great non-fiction picks as their last official duty here. Featuring eight kinds of salsa, plus Tetris!
I’m a brand spankin’ new David Quammen fan, and it’s all because of this book – which is actually a compilation of essays from his column at Outside magazine. How can you not like a writer who defends mosquitoes for slowing our march into the rainforest, argues that crows are simply bored underachievers, and takes the following on a kayak trip?:
"Tents, lawn chairs, tables, beer, coolers full of fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meat, many loaves of bread, many pounds of cheese, beer, rice, pasta, coffee, tortillas, canned beans, beer, dutch ovens, cookies, eight kinds of salsa, marshmallows, dozens of eggs, I think I’ve said beer, dry clothes, bocce balls, hiking shoes, two-burner propane stoves, a pancake griddle, a fire pan, charcoal briquettes, battery-powered lanterns, some Budweiser for when the beer is all gone, and (I swear to God) a croquet set."
He also does a pretty good job of describing my situation in life: “Any person with no steady job and no children naturally finds time for a sizable amount of utterly idle speculation.” Yep, that’s about right.
Here’s a cool experiment for the next time you get your hands on a gaggle of baby geese: follow in the footsteps of Niko Tinbergen and toy with their instincts a bit. In the 1940's, Tinbergen fiddled around with some cutout shapes and was able to get his little goslings to go crazy over a red and white-striped stick, while completely ignoring their mother. What Tinbergen had discovered was that adaptive responses like “imprinting” (which kids from my generation are all experts in, thanks to the film Fly Away Home) are triggered by very, very specific traits – like color, shape and size – and that by exaggerating these traits, you can get a response that would be completely disastrous in the wild.
This doesn’t just go for geese; almost all species have these triggers, which Tinbergen called “supernormal stimuli.” Which makes you wonder…what would happen if a species became intelligent enough to start creating its own supernormal stimuli? Dierdre Barret’s book on the topic explores how, as she puts it, “our once-helpful instincts got hijacked by our garish modern world.” She explains the almost unholy appeal of Tetris, the reasons Pikachu caught on so well in Japan, and why, if you want your magazine model to be “perfect” instead of just stunningly beautiful, you’ve got to photoshop in about 30% of a child’s features. Will humanity ever be able to throw away their cheeseburgers and centerfolds in the name of survival? Barrett doesn’t really seem to know—but at least she’s given us a good read!