The Charisma of the Drab

Wandering down Boulevard Saint Germain near Notre Dame in Paris, I passed a store window filled with insect specimens on display. The stylish sign read Claude et Nature (Claude and Nature).

I veered into the store, astonished that such a place exists. A small stuffed bison (small for a bison, that is) stood in the center of the store, next to a case of fossils. On the right were black cases full of artfully arranged insect specimens. On the left were fossils, shells, stuffed birds, skulls (human and weasel, among others), and sea stars. All were perfectly preserved and arranged, and neatly labeled with the species name and country of origin.

I spent some time perusing the insects—they had an uncommon family of weevils!—then wandered into the fossil section, then back to the insects.

Other customers were in the store, buying up iridescent blue morpho butterflies, flashy rhinoceros beetles with horny ornamentations, and large walking stick insects, which look just like knobby sticks with legs. All of the creatures on sale were eye-catching in some way. I found myself disappointed that there weren’t more insects with mundane appearances. I craved some little drab ones so I could learn about their diversity. One of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen was brown and white and hardly bigger than a pinhead (a lacebug, in case you are curious). The insects present were in families already familiar to me.

This led me to ponder one of the differences between amateur and expert naturalists: level of attraction to charismatic megafauna.

Amateur naturalists and non-naturalists flock to the Serengeti to see lions and elephants, even just for a few hours. Few head to sandy beaches in Massachusetts to see tiger beetles. And when they buy preserved insects, they buy the largest, most colorful individuals. Experts and devoted amateurs, on the other hand, may be eager to see lions and tigers, but they are also there for the naked mole rats and dung beetles. Why?

I believe the answer has to do with memory and learning. An inherent characteristic of many animals is that they easily remember something bright, large, or dangerous. This is what is exploited by the wasp’s black and yellow warning coloration: remember me, don’t bother me, I sting. Young blue jays who eat a monarch butterfly and then vomit refuse to eat a second monarch because they recognize it. They may also refuse to eat other orange and black butterflies, whether or not those butterflies are actually noxious.

Just because I can easily remember what a blue morpho butterfly looks like doesn’t mean I’ll want a dead one hanging on my wall. A blue morpho is a beautiful blue that flashes sometimes deep sea blue, sometimes robin’s egg blue. I enjoy seeing beautiful things—that’s why I want it on my wall.

But I could just as well hang an iridescent blue hubcap on my wall; why a butterfly? Now my answer comes to the crux: because our love of living things is inherent.

This love is called biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson and expounded upon by him and Stephen Kellert. This is why I find myself drawn to watch the fish in my aquarium and end up with a stupid, happy grin on my face. This is why people spend 30 Euros on a dead long-horned beetle (in spite of being dead, the beetle retains its living appearance when preserved).

I think experts have these three things—memory, appreciation of beauty, and biophilia—in larger or more finely tuned doses. Entomologists know and remember much more about insects than the average Schmoe, so they are more likely to remember the little drab ones as well as the big sexy beasts. They can notice more about a lacebug because they already know what it is. Their appreciation is honed to subtler beauty.

I have made it sound like being an expert is better than being an amateur in terms of seeing and loving the beauty of the world. Not so. Experts in the beauty of soil chemistry may be amateurs in the intricacies of maggot hibernation or cloud formation. They may not even see other parts of the world in any depth. Amateurs may be able to see and appreciate a broader slice of the world because they do not dig too deep a tunnel. I think there is a world between the loud blue morphos and the rare weevils where subtle beauty can be found and cherished.

On my last night in Paris I walked to Notre Dame, then across the Seine to the Hotel de Ville. There was an ice-skating rink set up in the square and a crowd of bundled Parisians whirling round and round. Some wobbled and held onto their equally wobbly friends, laughing and crashing into the wall around the rink. Others raced in weaving lines between the wobblers, or twirled on their blade tips in the center, muscular and graceful. The amateurs enjoyed laughing with their friends. For the experts, it may have been getting a move right. Both the amateurs and the experts were paying attention to the beauty of the experience, be it loud or subtle.