When a Scorpion Meets a Scorpion

Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books:

The invention of the microscope revealed wonders to the world, and permitted Jonathan Swift to quip:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey
And these have smaller still to bite ’em
And so proceed ad infinitum.

By the late twentieth century fascination with the minuscule had begun to pall, and now it takes an exceptional book indeed to reawaken our interest. Thankfully, in David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth, Piotr Naskrecki’s The Smaller Majority, and Jeffrey Lockwood’s Locust we find three works that do so.

Life in the Undergrowth is Attenborough’s tribute to the terrestrial invertebrates. They are, he says, a group of creatures that make life possible for us—whether as scavengers, aerators of soil, or agents of pollination, to name only three of their functions— but because they are small we largely ignore them. As he succinctly puts it, “We are greatly prejudiced by our size.” This is the latest in a series of projects combining television and print in a unique manner that has become Sir David’s métier. His investigations encompass disciplines as diverse as paleontology, botany, zoology, and ethnography; and each is similar in scope to a doctoral dissertation. While most of us think of Attenborough principally as a television presenter, he is also one of the greatest ecologists, synthesizers of evolutionary science, and teachers of our age.

More here.