Thursday, May 12, 2005

Spiders and Wasps

From a young age, I wanted to become a scientist. I don't know why. In any case, the dream proved unrealistic for me because I lack the patience necessary for careful observation or precise measurement. The summer that I worked as a surveyor's chainman for my old high school math teacher, I discovered my disinterest in that sort of precision, and I rejoiced when the long, hot and sultry summer ended, allowing me to return to my college studies and more literary pursuits.

But I never lost interest in science, and I soon discovered the pleasure of reading good science writing. One of the finest such essays that I have ever read by a scientist is Alexander Petrunkevitch's "The Spider and the Wasp." For those of you who like to go directly to the source, the essay can be found in the August 1952 issue of Scientific American. Although the online issues don't go back that far, the current Scientific American website might provide information on ordering older back issues.

My own first encounter with this essay is lost in the murky mists of my foggy memory, but I recently came across it again in my copy of . . . Sheridan Baker's Practical Stylist (1998), to my great pleasure (as readers of this blog will quickly surmise).

But who was Alexander Petrunkevitch? According to the Yale Peabody Museum, he "was the top arachnologist of his time, studying all aspects of spider biology, taxonomy and paleontology." From the biographical information provided, I see that he lived a long life: Born December 22, 1875, he died March 9, 1964 -- 88 years! His life also sounds eventful. He left Russia and his University of Moscow studies for political reasons, studied after that in Germany at the University of Freiburg, met there an American woman whom he married and followed to United States, taking a position as instructor at Yale in 1910 and becoming a full professor in 1917. The bio doesn't say enough about his wife, but she must have been an impressive woman.

Like many European scientists of the early 20th century, Petrunkevitch seems to have had broad interests, even contributing to a book on the Russian Revolution: The Russian Revolution: The Jugo-Slav Movement. His spider and wasp essay demonstrates his literary skill, particularly impressive given that he wrote it in English, not his native language Russian. See how he begins:

"In the feeding and safeguarding of their progeny, insects and spiders exhibit some interesting analogies to reasoning and some crass examples of blind instinct. The case I propose to describe here is that of the tarantula spiders and their archenemy, the digger wasps of the genus Pepsis. It is a classic example of what looks like intelligence pitted against instinct -- a strange situation in which the victim, though fully able to defend itself, submits unwittingly to its destruction" (Baker, Practical Stylist, 178).

This excellent introduction catches our interest for at least two reasons. It promises to say something significant about intelligence versus instinct, and it promises to describe an exciting if brutal struggle for survival in making this point. But I think there is something else, too, something subtle in its tone that fascinates us -- something suggesting that in this tale lurks a warning that we had better heed.

Leading up to the epic battle, Petrunkevitch describes both creatures and their formidable powers -- the quickness and bite of the tarantula, the powerful sting of the wasp. Both are large, and either has power to kill the other. But if the tarantula is of the proper species to serve as food for a wasp's larva, the female wasp is relentless. Having sought out the tarantula and assured herself by probing all over the spider's body that it is the right sort, which (oddly) the tarantula tolerates, the female Pepsis wasp moves only inches away and digs a grave eight to ten inches deep and wide enough to drag the tarantula into. All the while, the spider simply watches. Until:

"When the grave is finished, the wasp returns to the tarantula to complete her ghastly enterprise. First, she feels it all over once more with her antennae. Then her behavior becomes more aggressive. She bends her abdomen, protruding her sting, and searches for the soft membrane at the point where the spider's legs join its body -- the only spot where she can penetrate the horny skeleton. From time to time, as the exasperated spider slowly shifts ground, the wasp turns on her back and slides along with the aid of her wings, trying to get under the tarantula for a shot at the vital spot. During all this maneuvering, which can last for several minutes, the tarantula makes no move to save itself. Finally the wasp corners it against some obstruction and grasps one of its legs in her powerful jaws. Now, at last, the harassed spider tries a desperate but vain defense. The two contestants roll over and over on the ground. It is a terrifying sight, and the outcome is always the same. The wasp finally manages to thrust her sting into the soft spot and holds it there for a few seconds while she pumps in the poison. Almost immediately the tarantula falls paralyzed on its back. Its legs stop twitching; its heart stops beating. Yet it is not dead" (Baker, Practical Stylist, 180-181).

Petrunkevitch goes on to comment that whereas the wasp behaves "like an intelligent animal . . . . the tarantula behave[s] . . . stupidly" (Baker, Practical Stylist, 181). He admits that he does not clearly know why the tarantula acts so stupidly, but he does note this: "The tarantula does exactly what is most efficient in all cases except in an encounter with a ruthless and determined attacker" (Baker, Practical Stylist, 182).

Ostensibly, the essay is about intelligence and instinct in wasps and spiders. But Petrunkevitch may also have been thinking of other, more human struggles. He had grown up in Russia and seen the blundering responses of an autocracy, and then of a brief, ineffective democracy, under attack by ruthless and determined political opponents. And he certainly saw Bolshevism as a danger. According to this website:

"On May 1, 1917, he made an important speech before the Economic Club in New York warning Elihu Root's commission, then about to depart for Russia, that the moderate provisional government the United States supported might easily collapse. Such a collapse would make a separate peace between Russia and Germany probable and free up a great number of German troops to fight on the Western front. On July 4, 1917, he made an address in Center Church, New Haven, on the spirit of freedom. He was a founder and president of the Federation of Russian Organizations in the United States of America. From 1919 to 1924 he was also president of the Russian Collegiate Institute of New York, set up to assist in the education of Russian refugees. Initially, he taught biology there once a week. In 1921 he made great efforts to ameliorate the position of I. P. Pavlov and seems to have felt that these efforts were not fruitless. Petrunkevitch was particularly opposed to the United States' recognition of the Bolshevik government in 1924. That same year he became associated with the magazine Current History and contributed several articles on the political and social events in Russia and the Baltic states. This association was terminated, however, by a disagreement with the editor, who apparently felt Petrunkevitch was biased against communists" (OCR for page 241).

Given all this, is there a subtextual warning to Petrunkevitch's words about "a strange situation in which the victim, though fully able to defend itself, submits unwittingly to its destruction"? Was Petrunkevitch warning against falling for utopian schemes that can offer nothing but destruction, no matter how much they promise peace through submission?

Or am I reading too much between his lines?


At 12:26 PM, Blogger JamesBrown said...

Have you seen this vid?

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, thanks, I hadn't seen it. I'd hate to be that spider.

Jeffery Hodges

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