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BIOLOGY AS ART

CIVILIZATION AND THE LIMPET
By Martin Wells
Perseus Books 209pp $22

In these days of high-tech molecular biology and cutthroat competition for genetic discoveries, it's easy to forget that there are still a few practitioners of a more old-fashioned kind of science, where sturdy boots, a talent for improvisation, and a passion for obscure creatures are far more important than any $300,000 DNA analyzer. In these gentler pursuits of knowledge, ''the protagonists all know each other...[and] competition is generally swamped by a mutual enthusiasm for what they are doing,'' writes Cambridge University zoologist Martin Wells in his delightful collection of essays, Civilization and the Limpet.

Wells's particular enthusiasm is for octopuses, squids, and the like. These ''cephalopods...are a grossly neglected group of animals,'' he writes. After all, he asks, ''who is going to throw good dollars away on a study of creatures that only foreigners are crazy enough to eat?''

Back in the 1950s, Wells got funding from an unlikely source: The U.S. Air Force ''wanted to know how to build tiny computers capable of recognizing patterns and homing in on them, and that was just what octopuses [despite their very simple brains] were good at,'' he recalls. So when he wasn't trying to talk ''the more nubile of our student assistants'' into skinny-dipping on dark nights in the hopes that luminescent algae in the Bay of Naples would reveal all, Wells was probing the neural pathways of learning in octopuses--and discovering their many charms. Who would have guessed, for instance, that ''an octopus in good form has a look of alert intelligence not shared by other marine animals,'' as Wells proclaims?

The eight-armed creatures never did contribute much to the arms race, but they launched Wells on a lifelong study of everything from the jet propulsion system of squids to the nautilus, ''a living fossil that gives me an excuse to swan off to the Pacific and there spend a quite unnecessary proportion of my time underwater,'' he explains. This book, in turn, gives him a chance to introduce such marvels as limpet navigation and lugworm ''clocks''--and to muse on topics ranging from vegetarianism (not logical, he says) to the defeat of the Spanish Armada (caused as much by the depredations of ship-eating worms as by ''any inherent superiority in the speed and maneuverability of Drake and the lads'').

Written with wry understatement, Wells's essays specialize in the unexpected. ''A heart from a freshly killed shark,'' he notes, ''will stop beating if you put it into a bucket of seawater, and start again if you piddle into the bucket.'' Why? The answer has to do with the myriad mechanisms marine creatures employ to live in salt water.

Wells ends with an impassioned defense of the simple search for knowledge. ''The notion that science should necessarily be useful is one of the great con jobs of the second half of the twentieth century,'' he writes. Instead, he argues, science is more like art or music. Put simply, ''the study of biology...will make the world a far more interesting place,'' he writes. Wells's book is evidence that he's right.

BY JOHN CAREY



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PHOTO: Cover, ``Civilization and the Limpet''


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