Saw this review for a new book by Bernd Heinrich that looks fascinating. It is an autobiography about his family's life in science and includes lots of bugs, birds, taxonomy, war, family conflict, and nature and nurture. Review by David Barber for the New York Times:
The curious title of Bernd Heinrich’s sprawling memoir, as he discloses straightaway in his preface, is a “direct heist” from an obscure volume published in 1932 in German (“Der Vogel Schnarch”), the chronicle of an Indonesian zoological expedition in quest of an elusive species of jungle rail. Its author was none other than Gerd Heinrich, his “Papa.” Why not call the book an hommage, then? It is ultimately that too, yet the whiff of theft in the air is the first clue that what follows will be no ordinary account of a son following in his father’s footsteps. This particular gene pool turns out to be something of a fever swamp, and thereby hangs a tale of two naturalists that reads like a cross between a Darwinian parable and a Nabokov novel: an absorbing scientific saga rife with uncanny twists and fraught with quandaries over the primordial tussle between nature and nurture.
The purloined rubric, for all that, smacks somewhat of a diverting wrinkle. Prize catch though it was, the secretive rail with the rumbling call (Aramidopsis plateni) that Papa Heinrich bagged on the island of Celebes has only a bit part in this ancestral odyssey, and birds of every feather played second fiddle to Gerd’s lifelong ruling passion: collecting and classifying specimens of the prodigious family of parasitical ichneumon wasps. It soon becomes clear that the rarest birds on display here are the Heinrichs themselves — conceivably the most redoubtable father and son in their field since the pioneering Bartrams (John and William) botanized up and down the Eastern Seaboard back in the days of Franklin and Jefferson.
Heinrich fils, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, is best known for his groundbreaking books on raven intelligence (“Ravens in Winter” and “Mind of the Raven”) and for his study of physiological stamina based on his exploits as an ultramarathoner (“Why We Run”). He first made his name, however, as a bug guy. “Bumblebee Economics,” a layman’s guide to insect sociobiology that grew out of his doctoral dissertation, was nominated for a 1979 American Book Award, cementing his reputation as an uncommonly enlightening nature writer for popular audiences.
So was it old-fashioned filial devotion that spawned this stellar body of work in modern research biology? Not exactly. Heinrich’s penchant for entomology plainly owed much to his father’s indomitable presence (he was dragooned into snaring wasps when he was practically a grub himself), and his yen for field studies blossomed during his adolescence in upcountry Maine after his immediate family emigrated from Germany in 1951. Even so, father and son never really saw eye to eye: although Papa Heinrich’s own checkered history as a “freeman of zoology” with no secure institutional ties left him skeptical that his offspring would have a future in the profession, he was nonetheless stung that the son he nicknamed “Pise,” after the charismatic species Protichneumon pisorius, felt no obligation to carry on the family trade. “He made no secret of the fact that he hoped I would one day take over his collection, but I had no interest or intention of fulfilling that hope,” Heinrich writes. “Later I did go on to study biology, though not his sort of biology.”
The ensuing narrative — unfolding under the epic headings “The Old World” and “The New World,” and drawing extensively on Gerd’s surviving letters and journals — is a labor of love on a grand scale. Part eulogy and part apologia, Heinrich’s painstaking effort to reconstruct his clan’s “journey through a century of biology” obliges him to grapple with the thorny human element that’s bound up in his intellectual heritage, giving a whole new meaning to the proposition that biology is destiny.
Born in Berlin in 1896, Gerd grew up on a bucolic Polish estate called Borowke that proved to be a vital wellspring for a baptism in nature. It was there he acquired his zeal for wasps before being conscripted as a German infantryman and then a fighter pilot in the Great War — and where, some 30 years on, he buried his cherished hoard of specimens in a strongbox before narrowly escaping the advancing Red Army in 1945. “The ichneumoninae,” he later wrote with a touch of waspish wit, “have disciplined my time and energy, excepting the interruptions of wars, a revolution, invasion, expulsion, starvation and emigration.”
Bernd spent his early childhood at Borowke as well, born to a Polish mother in 1940, on the anniversary of Darwin’s death. When the Iron Curtain fell, his parents spirited him and his younger sister out of harm’s way and for the next six years eked out a hand-to-mouth existence in a forest cabin near the Elbe River, until Gerd wrangled a passage to America. The recollection of that formative interlude sparks some of Heinrich’s most lyrical writing — a portrait of the future scientist as a footloose nature boy.
The action flags a bit in the second half of the book: in recounting his coming-of-age in the brave new world of molecular biology, Heinrich only intermittently strikes a happy balance between technical and anecdotal rumination. But things pick up again in the closing chapters, where he steps back to reflect on what his late father’s life’s work reveals about the essential nature of the naturalist’s calling. As a diehard taxonomist in the classic Linnaean mold, was Papa Heinrich a vestige of a bygone age — engaged in mere “stamp collecting,” in Isaac Asimov’s withering phrase? That’s one way of looking at it, but his son would also have us see him as a touchstone figure even in the era of the genome: a paragon of the empirical discipline that’s the foundation of the scientific enterprise. It’s a testament to the younger Heinrich’s heartfelt humanism and hard-won historical perspective that father and son emerge as exemplary kindred spirits, bonded by an abiding fascination for living things that he hails as nothing less than “a prime phenotype of love.”