Tuesday, 29 September 2009

New life to an old history

Armand David “discovered” the giant panda.

The scare quotes are there because of course the Chinese knew about this animal before David rocked up in Sichuan in 1869. But they didn’t know much. As far as most panda authorities are concerned, the Chinese have not developed a desire for skinning pandas, a taste for its flesh or a medicinal lust for panda penis. Few people wrote about the panda (see Hunting pandas) and even fewer thought about drawing it.

So it was French missionary David, collecting specimens on behalf of the Museum d’Histore Naturelle in Paris, who really put the panda on the map. And David’s story is therefore a good place to start my book on the parallel paths that pandas and China took towards global domination.

Of course, David gets a mention in just about every article, book or broadcast on giant pandas. But the things that get said are always the same. This is because there’s just one main source with which to retrace his steps, his wonderful diaries. Between 1866 and 1874, David made three expeditions into the heart of China in search of natural history treasures and he filled pages with details of his colourful adventures. It was on the second of these trips that he “discovered” the panda.

The entries in his diary are well worth quoting from. I have just acquired a second-hand copy of a translation of David’s first and second expedition diaries from Amazon at a pretty good price. It’s so nice to have the books to hand when writing as I find myself needing to go back to them many, many times. But beyond the diaries, I’m also trying to think of ways to inject this somewhat well-worn story with a burst of originality.

Here are my ideas so far:

  • I thought I’d begin with a little narrative non-fiction. One kind reviewer of my first book Lonesome George praised my use of this literary style, which was the first I’d heard of it. I guess it’s something I just do naturally – take a few established facts and then write them like a novel (though if you asked how that’s done I couldn’t tell you). So I’ll have dear ol’ Armand scratching his armpit, rearranging his ethnic garb and politely swallowing some dishwater-flavoured tea in the home of a local landowner, a hut halfway up a mountain where he first saw the skin of the “famous black-and-white bear” in March 1869. This will be fun and should bring a bit more colour – albeit imagined colour – to the “discovery” of the panda.
  • I am planning a trip to France to see the actual specimen – the type specimen on which the scientific description of the species is based – that David collected and posted back to his man in Paris Alphonse Milne-Edwards. That’ll give me a chance to flip from the past to the present and then back again, adding to the drama and importance of the discovery. I am just about to begin my gentle approach on the curators at the museum, sounding out the possibility of visiting this natural history treasure.

  • I discover that in August this year, some 20 hikers set out on a 10-day, 350-km climb from Chengdu to the Ya'an Bifengxia Breeding Base, retracing the route that David took to "discover" his panda exactly 140 years ago. I wish I’d known about this expedition; I’d have loved to have been a part of it. Though I’ve missed it, interviewing someone who didn’t would, I think, be a lovely new angle to the David story. What was the journey like, what sorts of wildlife did they see, how much do they think things have changed? From a Xinhua news report on the expedition, I have the names of three hikers: Liu Wanying from Beijing, Zhu Tong from Hubei and Li Guoqing from Y’an. Using a cunning combination of the internet, Facebook and Twitter, I think I may have identified one of them. Don’t laugh. China’s population is only 1.3 billion. I fired off an email last night.
I have a few other ideas of things to weave into this chapter, but if you have a snip of underreported David-related gossip I’d love to hear it.

Friday, 25 September 2009

US creationists to witness Creation

For a moment there, it looked like the all-mighty Christian fundamentalist lobby in the United States would prevent the distribution of Creation, a new film about the life and work of Charles Darwin. Thankfully, I learn today from an article in The Hollywood Reporter, one bold independent distributor Newmarket Films is up for a challenge.

I had a sneak preview of Creation before it opened in UK cinemas today. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a special screening at the Science Museum hosted by Nature (a journal I am occasionally lucky enough to write for). It was an event thought up by Adam Rutherford (that most debonair and witty presenter of BBC4’s recent three-part series The Cell). He ushered on John Amiel as “the director of Creation” to tell us about his movie.

Amiel sensibly took the opportunity to flag up several historical inaccuracies in the film that he knew could upset the packed house of Darwin fans (including the ever-present Sir David Attenborough). “There will be nay-sayers saying nay and nit-pickers picking nits. I’d love to say ‘Guys, it’s only a movie; get a life’,” he teased. “What we were struggling to bring to you was in a sense an imaginative truth instead of a factual and literal truth.”

I tried hard to “get a life” but I’ll confess that I struggled. I found myself disappointed that the location for most of the movie’s “action” was not the real Down House in Kent. The substitute, as pretty as it was, just didn’t seem right. I missed the presence of geologist Charles Lyell. I noticed things Darwin would not have said and did not write. And I know of no evidence that Darwin had such frequent and terrifying hallucinations that he came close to insanity. Because he does in the film.

Creation is an adaptation of Annie’s Box, a book by Darwin scholar (and descendent) Randal Keynes. John Murray (Darwin’s publisher) has just brought out a jazzed-up new edition to coincide with the movie. This places the death of Darwin’s eldest daughter Annie as a key moment in the naturalist’s loss of religious faith. Amiel’s “imaginative truth” also pushes the idea that Darwin worried his marriage to his cousin Emma Wedgewood might have had something to do with Annie’s death.

Darwin historians are starting to query this notion. I was in Leicester over the summer for the British Society for the History of Science’s annual meeting and there Kathryn C. Tabb of the University of Pittsburgh poured not inconsiderable amounts of cold water on it. I’m quoting from the abstract of her paper here:

“Darwin, aided by his cousin Francis Galton and his son George, applied the new statistical methods of the day to the quantification of consanguinity’s associated risks. I argue that Darwin’s views on cousin marriage were more sophisticated than those frequently ascribed to him in the literature. Whist incest evidently fascinated Darwin, his empirical work failed to demonstrate that a single generation of cousin-crossing was detrimental to the resulting offspring.”

But if, as Amiel recommends, I “get a life” for a moment, there was lots I did like about the film. Whoever was responsible for casting deserves a pat on the back. Real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelley make a super Charles and Emma and Martha West is a sparkling Annie. I’d also like to hear a Creationist reflecting on a mesmerizing time-lapse sequence of death and decay. That's one helluva sick God. There are also lots of pigeons and I wrote an essay and presented a podcast for Nature earlier this year about the importance of these feathered friends to Darwin.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Newmarket Films will be aiming for a December release. “While Darwin’s name has come to symbolize one side of a debate between the scientific and the theological, Creation depicts the man as the debate in total, with both sides contending, sometimes violently, within him,” says Chris Ball on Newmarket Film’s website. “In that sense, we believe that the film will appeal to people of faith and people of science.”

It’ll be interesting to see if he’s right.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Packham or pandas?

“Aren’t pandas ridiculous? If they only eat bamboo and don’t like sex, don’t they deserve to go extinct?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this kind of argument over the past few years and now we have to put up with a BBC natural history presenter spouting something similar.

"Here's a species that, of its own accord, has gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac,” BBC presenter Chris Packham told the Radio Times in a blog posted earlier this week. “It's not a strong species,” he said.

This pisses me off, not because I’ve been living and breathing pandas for the last few months as I research and write a book on them, but because it’s the worst kind of evolutionary imperialism. More than that, it’s quite simply poorly reasoned twaddle.

I’ve thought about this quite a bit. If you live in a mountainous forest where 95% of the vegetation is bamboo, it makes abundant sense to find a way to eat the stuff. In fact, I would argue, it is a phenomenal behavioural and physiological achievement that these carnivores – for that is what they are – have turned away from a meat-eating lifestyle and found a way to extract what they need from this single, sinewy food source.

When it comes to reproduction, the same goes. Pandas are really rather good at it, so long as humans leave them to it. So good in fact that a female, who is fertile for just a couple of days a year, rarely fails to become pregnant in the wild. What they are not so good at is sex in zoos, but then it’s rather unfair to expect them to perform so far out of their geographical comfort zone.

What Packham doesn’t appear to realise is that pandas are on the verge of extinction not because they are fussy eaters or shit at sex but because Homo sapiens has destroyed all but a few tiny pockets of their bamboo landscape. The good news – and there is a bit – is that the protection afforded the remaining 1600 pandas is pretty good and their imminent extinction is, I believe, by no means inevitable.

Packham’s main point in the blog is not quite so irritating. "We pour millions of pounds into panda conservation," he said. "I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go, with a degree of dignity.” It’s worth thinking about but not for long as the World Wildlife Fund’s chief scientist Mark Wright explains in today’s Guardian.

If Packham imagines that the disappearance of pandas will free up more money for conservation, he’s probably wrong. In suggesting as much, he shows a profound ignorance of human nature. If we don’t have pandas to clutch onto, we’ll find something else that’s cute and cuddly. It’s just the way that human brains are wired. WWF knows this only too well and use the panda (and other species icons) to trigger an emotional response, then use the money for conservation of habitats, ecosystems and the biggest problem of our age – global warming.

Not only do most people disagree with Packham’s views (at the latest count a Guardian poll had almost 80% in favour of keeping pandas) but the flagship role of pandas is of immense value.

So if it came to Packham or pandas, I know which one I’d let go. The only thing I’m still undecided on is whether it would be with or without dignity.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

From Regent’s Park to South Kensington

Where do famous London Zoo animals go when they die?

For Chi Chi, London’s famous giant panda, the answer was the Natural History Museum. This set me thinking about other animals that have made the same postmortem journey across town from Regent’s Park to South Kensington. Here are a few I can think of, though I’d really appreciate any other suggestions.

For a start, there’s Brutus a circus lion who had killed his keeper and whose man-eating reputation made him a serious draw with the British public during the 1890s. According to a superstition, the death of a lion portends the death of a monarch and spookily Brutus died just days before Queen Victoria in January 1901. His bust is to be found – though not seen – in the zoological storehouse of the Natural History Museum.

Then there’s Winnipeg the black bear (right), a mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. In 1915, when they went off to Europe to fight in the First World War, a lieutenant in the regiment dropped her off at London Zoo for safe keeping. It’s there that Winnipeg won over a young boy called Christopher Robin Milne who decided he’d call his own teddy Winnie. By the time Winnipeg died in 1934 and made her way to the Natural History Museum, Christopher Robin was 14 years old and his father Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne had given the world the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Finally, take Brumas, a baby polar bear born in Regent’s Park in 1949, a first for any British zoo. She was so popular with the public that 1950 saw record attendance with more than three million visitors, a figure that has not been surpassed since. Fortunately for the Zoo, after Brumas died in 1958 and went to South Kensington for preservation, there was only a lull of a few months before Chi Chi reached London take over her crowd-pleasing duties at the zoo.

All this raises the interesting question of about how this connection between the zoo and the Natural History Museum came about. It might sound like the relationship is so self-evident that no explanation is needed, except that it wasn’t always the case. When it was founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London set about landscaping Regent’s Park to house a collection of live animals but also established a museum in Bruton Street in Mayfair. So any of the exotic creatures that passed away at the zoo went straight to the Society’s museum rather than to the Natural History Museum (or the British Museum (Natural History) as it was then known).

In fact, at this period of the 19th century, most naturalists considered the Zoological Society’s museum superior to the British Museum. As Charles Darwin wrote to a colleague upon his return from the Beagle voyage in 1836, “The Zoological Museum is nearly full & upward of a thousand specimens remain unmounted. I daresay the British Museum, would receive them, but I cannot feel, from all I hear, any great respect even for the present state of that establishment.”

That changed in 1855 when the Zoological Society decided to close its museum and disperse its massive wealth of animal material. As far as I can tell from dipping into a couple of histories of the Society, their reasoning was twofold. First they had so much material that their accommodation – by now on the West side of Leicester Square – was wholly inadequate. More importantly, perhaps, the Keeper of Zoology John Edward Gray had done wonders at the British Museum, which had by this time come to be considered Europe’s preeminent zoological repository. So the Zoological Society sold its most important specimens to the British Museum for £500. By my reckoning, this is the rather circuitous route that the Natural History Museum came to have first dibs of any ex-Zoo animals. But if anyone knows any different, please get in touch.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Gordon the mammalologist

I had a coup today. Sort of. There are several people I’d like to talk to who were at the Natural History Museum when Chi Chi the giant panda arrived from London Zoo in the summer of 1972. I have the archival material from the museum that is helping me piece together how the museum came to its decision to taxidermise this famous panda and the media’s interest in the process. But there is nothing to beat talking to the people who were really there.

Unfortunately then director Frank Claringbull died in 1990. One tier beneath him was the Keeper of Zoology Gordon Sheals, though he also took his version of events with him when he passed away in 1989. One rung further down the hierarchy was Gordon Corbet, the Curator of Mammals.

In Dry Store Room No. 1 (a very reader-friendly institutional history of the Natural History Museum), former museum paleontologist Richard Fortey describes Corbet as “a diminutive Scotsman with a hesitant manner and a nervous way of speaking” who reminded him of a vole “the way these animals pause momentarily, whiskers twitching.”

I pulled up British Telecom's online telephone directory on the computer and plugged in Corbet. You need to specify a town before it’ll search. His most recent scientific publications give an indication of where he retired to, so I added a likely town. Hey presto, there was a Corbet with the relevant initials so I phoned the number.

A quiet and possibly elderly voice answered the phone, which sounded promising.

“Gordon?” I asked. It was most impolite of me but seemed the best way to establish whether I’d found my man.
“Yes,” he said.
“Gordon the mammalologist,” I suggested.
“Yes?” came the reply.

I explained my predicament and Dr Corbet was most willing to help, though as I had not really expected to succeed so quickly I had to ring off, think through everything I wanted to ask him and call back.

We talked for half an hour about the way the museum was organised back then, his responsibilities (over and above his own research interests) and of course what he remembered about Chi Chi.

I said at the outset of this post that I had a sort of coup. The reason being, Dr Corbet couldn’t provide me with the detailed first-hand recollection I’d been hoping for. What did I expect? After all, he’d just received a call from a complete stranger asking about a relatively minor episode that took place over 35 years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased I found him. If I hadn’t I’d have been left with a niggling feeling that I should have done more to track him down. And he did have – apparently just beside the telephone – a dossier on a controversy about the Loch Ness Monster that erupted in 1975. It sounded most interesting and maybe I’ll look into it one day. If I do, I’ll be calling on Dr Corbet again.

Stuffing pandas, stuffing gorillas

I spent yesterday at the wonderful library of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, where I’d ordered up several interesting-looking folders from the archives. I’ve seen one of them before – a ream of correspondence relating to the taxidermy of Chi Chi, the famous panda that lived at London Zoo from 1958 until 1972. There are several fun things in there, including clear evidence of the public’s keenness to watch over the shoulder of the Museum’s taxidermist as he prepared her body for exhibition. The Museum had not anticipated this and decided to give the press a chance to see Chi Chi in mid-stuffing.

This interest in taxidermy differs quite markedly from events just a few years later when, in 1978, Guy the Gorilla died after more than 30 years at London Zoo. Word got out that he was to receive the same treatment as Chi Chi and the public was outraged. The archivists at the Natural History Museum have a wonderful folder on Guy that charts the whole troubled affair in a flurry of internal memos.

Best of all, there are letters from the public expressing their disgust at the proposed use of his mortal remains. Easily the best comes from a former Honorary Secretary of the Zoological Society of London. He was “utterly revolted” at the idea of stuffing his old friend and asked his incumbent: “Are all future Hon. Secs, Presidents etc. of the Society to be stuffed and exhibited in a museum?" The Zoo, irritated that they had to deal with such explosive stuff, wrote to express their disappointment at the Natural History Museum’s poor handling of such sensitive information (which is how it comes to be in the Guy dossier).

The Museum’s handling of Chi Chi and Guy are two wonderful stories that I’m planning to tell briefly in my chapter on Chi Chi’s post-mortem that will appear in Political Animal. I’m also working it up in more detail for an exciting meeting that will take place at Manchester University in December. I imagine I’ll reveal more about this nearer the time, but briefly it’s a project to explore the “Afterlife of Animals”, the fascinating tales that zoological specimens have to tell as curators made decisions about their preservation and presentation to the public. It says a lot about attitudes towards animals and how much these have changed.

At the moment, I’m uncertain what to make of the differences between public reaction to the stuffing of Chi Chi and Guy. I’d like to argue that as the 1970s unfolded something changed in the public’s attitudes towards animals and that come 1978 stuffing a famous animal was no longer acceptable practice as it had been in Chi Chi’s day. But of course, Chi Chi was a panda and Guy a gorilla and as anthropomorphised as Chi Chi (and pandas in general) undoubtedly are, Guy (and gorillas) are that much more like us Homo sapiens so stuffing is a more touchy subject. I need to think about what the reaction would have been like had roles been reversed and Guy died in 1972 and Chi Chi in 1978.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Which one is Pavarotti?

They looked a lot like "The Three Tenors".

The question is which one is Pavarotti? Last night, I was at Galapagos Day. It's an annual get-together at the Royal Geographical Society in London run by the Galapagos Conservation Trust to raise money for Galapagos conservation. I am the editor of the charity's biannual magazine Galapagos News, one of the many jobs I'm going to have to take care of whilst also writing 80,000 words in five months for my new book Political Animal!

The stars of the show - Sir David Attenborough, journalist and presenter Andrew Marr and the witty Galapagos spokesman Felipe Cruz - did a great job at drumming up trade for the Trust. Apart from filling every seat in the house (with another 100 on the waiting list apparently), they also successfully auctioned off a 5th edition copy of On the Origin of Species for a startling £21,000. "There are going to be a lot of very happy iguanas," quipped Marr.

As President of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, Marr showed Carreras-like composure as he chaired a discussion between Attenborough and Cruz on the uncertain future of the archipelago. Galapagos-born Cruz is a swarthy character and is not unlike Domingo in his ability to play a crowd. He talked with passion about Project Floreana, an initiative that aims to restore his native island to the state it was in when Charles Darwin popped ashore in late 1835. This project, he hopes, will act as a model for whole-island restoration in Galapagos and beyond. Tugging on the heartstrings of the wealthy British audience, Cruz got his young and extremely handsome son up onto the stage at the end to offer a personal message from the Galapagos people. Had it been opera, that would have been the moment to roar "encore".

So by a process of elimination that means Sir David is Pavarotti, which seems about right. Not because Sir David has put on weight mind, because he's looking spectacular for his mid-80s. But because the two men are/were legends, so far above everyone else in their respective fields. That said (and it feels like heresy to report it) there was just a sense last night that Sir David is losing it a bit. He was quieter than I've ever heard him speak, occasionally confused and in suggesting that humans discovered Galapagos after they discovered Mauritius and wiped out its dodo, he was plain wrong (humans reached Galapagos in 1535 and Mauritius around 65 years later). Still it was a good night and raised masses of money for a great cause.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Hunting pandas

It's a remarkable fact that the formal scientific discovery of the giant panda - an animal that seems so familiar today - took place as recently as 1869. But before that, humans must have encountered pandas and there may be dozens of informal descriptions of the creature embedded within China’s rich literature.
It’s certainly a tantalising idea and one that has attracted the attention of plenty of scholarship. It’s also something I figured would sit nicely in the first chapter of my next book (provisionally entitled Political Animal, in which the “Animal” refers to both the giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca and the economic giant that is modern China). 

So I’ve started to look into the validity of possible panda sightings in ancient writings and one day in, I have a headache. My Chinese, you see, isn’t up to going back to the original texts and looking for a fleeting glimpse of the panda myself, so I am left with trying to assess the merits of a bunch of secondary and frequently contradictory sources that talk about pandas in these dusty volumes. 

One man has looked into this more than most. His name is Hu Jinchu, something of a legend in panda circles as he is one of the first to set about the first serious study of wild giant pandas in the 1970s. For Hu, there are descriptions of mysterious, near mythological creatures in several ancient texts that sound a lot like pandas. The ones that sound particularly interesting to me are the pixiu (though artistic renditions of this animal are far from panda-like, see above), the mo and the zhouyu. 

The snag is that the descriptions of these creatures in books like the Er Ya, Shan Hai Jing, Shuo Wen, Shi Jing and Bencao Gangmu differ wildly from one translation to the next. This, I’m guessing, is because the descriptions of the animals themselves are often not particularly literal and also because there’s an inventive step in the act of translation from Chinese to English. Given this room for interpretation, perhaps it’s not so surprising that most people are happy to take 1869 as the starting point for the panda’s journey from obscurity to global domination.