Living Jewels: The Natural Design of Beetles, Poul Beckmann (2001)
Richard Dawkins wrote about the Blind Watchmaker, but the Blind Watchmaker often works in collaboration. This book is about his brother, the Blind Jeweller, who creates the cases for the watchwork of beetles. Sometimes those cases are gorgeous, sometimes they’re grotesque, and sometimes they’re both at once. Beetle #77 in this survey, Phanaeus igneus floridanus, is a squat giant with a huge curving horn on its head, but its thorax and abdomen shimmer with metallic purple, green, red, and gold. If that beetle’s a glam-rock sumo-wrestler, then beetle #49, Julodis hiritiventris sanguinipilig (sic – should be hirtiventris sanguinipilis), is pure punk: green legs and a long dark-blue body scattered with tufts of yellow-orange bristles. Elsewhere you’ve got New Romantics with elaborately patterned bodies and sweeping, dandyish antennae (Rosenbergia straussi and Batus barbicornis), death-metal-heads with gleaming black bodies and fearsome-looking but completely harmless horns (Xylotrupes gideon and Allomyr(r?)hina dichotomus taiwana), and even Status-Quo-ites wearing what looks like worn, work-stained denim (various Eupholus species).
It’s entertaining to look through this book and imagine whose backing band or album cover a particular beetle should play in or sit on, but sometimes you won’t be able to match a beetle to a band, because there are more kinds of beetle than musical genres. Beetles, or rather evolution, has invented more than human beings have, but the same forces have been at work. Topologically speaking, a doughnut is identical to a tea-cup, because one is a distorted variant of the other. Similarly, all the beetles in this book are distorted topological variants of each other: like genres of popular music, they’re variants on a theme. Evolution hasn’t altered the ingredients of beetles, just the quantities used to cook each species: changing the width and shape of the thorax, the length and design of the antennae and legs, and so on. But topology isn’t psychology, and just as glam-rock sounds quite different to punk, though the common ancestor is clearly there if you listen, so a doughnut looks quite different to a teacup and Phanaeus igneus floridanus looks quite different to Julodis hirtiventris sanguipilis.
There’s much more to beetles than their appearance, of course, but one of this book’s shortcomings, because it’s a coffee-table conversation-piece rather than a scientific survey, is that it tells you almost nothing about the ecology and behaviour behind the photographs. And the book’s title is misleading, in fact, because the jewels aren’t living: all the photos are of dead beetles on white backgrounds. The book also tells you very little about the meaning and history of the (sometimes misspelt) scientific names, even though these are fascinating, beautiful, and grotesque in their own right. Instead, there’s a brief but interesting – and occasionally wrong: Chrysophora isn’t Latin – introduction, then page after page of the gorgeous and grotesque photographs people will be buying this book for. Finally, there are some brief “Beetle Profiles”, describing where individual species were caught and how their family lives and feeds. I would have liked to know much more, though the beetles’ beauty is in some ways increased by its mystery and by what might be called the futility of its appearance. Countless millions of these beetles have lived and died without any human brain ever appreciating their beauty and strangeness, and if human beings disappeared from the planet they would continue to live and die unappreciated. They’re not here for us, but without us they could never be recognized as the living jewels they are. Some might draw metaphysical conclusions from that and conclude that they are here for us after all, but I draw a mathematical conclusion: mathematics governs the evolution of both beetles and brains, which is why beetles can appeal to us so strongly.
Living Jewels – Website accompanying the book and its sequel.