In the Spring of 1975 I did some work for a friend of mine, Bonnie Dalzell, who was working on her PhD. I was photographing the skulls of ungulates so that she could measure the angles of their muzzles and horns as a part of a dissertation on the mechanisms of evolution, on how environment shapes the physiology of animals and in turn physiology shapes behavior and behavior the social structure of their populations. It was a fascinating study and watching her build the explanation taught me a lot about evolution and the interactions and interrelations of the world. I learned even more by talking to and listening to Bonnie.
We did our researches in the attic of the Smithsonian, in a huge room above the life-sized model of the whale, a room chock full of drawers of bones. There were hundreds of species of ungulates -- deers, antelopes and their relatives -- alone, each one represented by several skulls. There I learned that the vast majority of the species we were studying had never been observed in the wild. Day in and day out for weeks I photographed skulls, made prints, talked and listened to Bonnie's thoughts, memories and explanations of biology and ecology.
On our breaks we would go for walks through the Smithsonian, discussing what we saw in the cases. Most often Bonnie would tell me what she knew about the various animals and other specimens, but being an inveterate story-teller and philosopher, I would also ramble on about the historical and philosophical importance of things.
One day while walking through the natural history section, we rounded a corner and there, in a case at the end of a row, right in the middle of the case, looking square at us, I saw an amazing thing. Of the three weeks of study, research, storytelling, conversation, photography and art, the thing I saw in the case is the one thing that stands out most distinctly. I stopped in my tracks as soon as I saw it. Bonnie noticed.
"What is it?" She asked.
I pointed at the case and the specimen.
"What about it?"
"What do you see?" I asked her.
She turned and looked at the case. "Squirrels. And flying squirrels."
"What do you see?" I asked again.
"A dozen specimens. Mostly flying squirrels. From three continents, I think. The one in the middle is larger than I've ever seen."
"What do you see?" I demanded.
"A very unusual flying squirrel. Large. It has a very large flap, and the fingers of it's hand... Oh. Oh! I see." and I knew she did. She stopped and just stood next to me looking at the center specimen -- a large African flying squirrel mounted as if it were leaping from the tree trunk in the middle of the case, its wings outspread.
We stood there rapt by what we saw because what we saw wasn't just a specimen, just an animal stuffed and mounted. What we saw was a philosophical argument come to life, and it left us so stunned that after a few moments a guard came by to ask us if something was wrong. We told him that everything was OK and showed him our Smithsonian IDs. Bonnie said something about taking me on a tour of the museum on our break so as to reassure him. As he left we went up to the case and stared at the squirrel. It was very large. Most flying squirrels are small, more the size of a ground squirrel than a big American grey squirrel. This one was much larger. Its arms were outstretched, spreading its flaps like wings. They looked very much like wings because the animal's "little", meaning outer, finger was about five times as long as the rest, and ran down the edge of the flap extending and lengthening it.
And that was the heart of what we saw, a hand well on its way to evolving into a wing. The whole creature was an intermediate between a ground rodent and a flying rodent. It was, if you will, the missing link between the mouse and the bat, though not closely related to either and larger than both, for the most part.
"I don't believe it has ever been written up." She said, breaking the spell.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised."
Because, you see, for more than a hundred years people have claimed it didn't exist, and that its non-existence proved something. Since the nineteenth century both philosophers and scientists have argued about evolution, and one of the arguments, one for which people had no good counter argument centered on this creature. The argument was quite simple and related to the question of intermediate forms. How do creatures evolve from one well-adapted form to another one when the intermediate form is less well adapted than either the initial or final form? For example, the mouse and the bat are each well adapted to their environment.
How could something like a mouse have evolved into something like a bat? As a mouse it could run and hide on the ground and escape predators. A bat with fully formed wings could fly away from danger. But an intermediate half way between would have wings that were too small to carry it aloft and so big as to cripple it on the ground. Thus to get from mouse to bat would mean a sudden radical transformation, and not a gradual continuous evolution. The obvious non-viability of the half-bat posed a terrible conundrum in evolution.
And here it was, carefully mounted on public display in the Smithsonian! Big and lifelike and looking quite viable. It leapt right out at you literally.
We took more than the usual number of breaks in the next couple of days. We found that the specimen and two others had been brought back from Africa about fifty years before. Bonnie found that she was right -- the species had been named, but it was never written up in the literature. Only one of the three specimens had been mounted. A second was pickled in a jar in the stacks in the back rooms of the Smithsonian. The third was in the Field Museum in Chicago. We found the second one, held the jar in our hands and examined the beasty through the glass and the olive drab mirk of the formaldahide. The finger was even longer than in the mounted specimen.
The impact of our discovery affected me profoundly. It drove home the point that Bonnie had made earlier, that we've really studied very little of the natural world. Oh, we've taken specimens, filled drawers with bones, jars with carcasses, and mounted specimens for exhibition, but only a fraction of what was collected has ever even been described in the literature. Very very few species have ever been observed in the wild.
There is so much data, so many species and individuals in the world, that even dramatic specimens that directly contradict philosophical and scientific arguments can go unnoticed and unrecorded for decades.
The story might end there, a wonderful little tale, a story with entertainment value, as well as a lesson and a moral, but it doesn't. Less than a year later, at a party at the house my wife and I shared with six or seven others, I told the story. People listened as they often do with rapt attention and smiling interest, but one fellow seemed actually shaken by it. When I was done I asked him what he thought. Instead of answering, he asked me exactly when this happened. I told him and he seemed just a bit relieved, if somehow even more surprised. You see, he told me, his fiancee was getting her master's degree in Chicago and for her thesis she was writing up this same species. Just a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before we took our walk, she had come across the specimen in the Field museum. Like Bonnie and me, she was struck by it. When she established that it was never written up, she decided to use it for her thesis.
And so we're left with an interesting second ending to the story. After fifty years of going unnoticed, the squirrel had been noticed twice, a thousand miles apart at very nearly the same time, and by people with a common acquaintance.
There's an old saying that tells us that when it's steam engine time, people, multiple people, invent steam engines. The implication is that we share a common subconsciousness or that ideas have a life of their own, that somehow there is connection and purpose in the world.
This is one of my favorite stories because it helped me understand a lot about the nature of scientific and philosophical inquiry and knowledge, and it helped me see on two levels the wonderful interconnectedness that is a mystery at the heart of life. A creature that "obviously" couldn't exist does, and it thrives. Life has more tricks than we expect it to. Life finds a way to go from one "viable" form to another, and does so by following surprising and viable paths. In our haste to collect fragments of knowledge we fail to put those fragments together into wholes more often than not, and we can easily overlook important things. Somehow, though, truths find us, as much on their schedule as on our own. Knowledge seeks us just as we seek it.