Sunday, June 30, 2013

A New Guinea State of Mind

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I have to admit that twice I’ve tried and failed to make my way through Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869), considered one of the classic accounts of personal and scientific discovery in natural history and ranked, by many, with Darwin’s seminal work The Voyage of The Beagle (1839) (sadly, another tome I’ve only managed to dip into at random).  So, for me, the only false notes in Vojtech Novotny’s Notebooks From New Guinea:  Fieldnotes of a Tropical Biologist (2009) (translated from the Czech by David Short) were found in the following sentence:
Since the times of Alfred Russell [sic] Wallace, whose un-put-downable The Malay Archipelago (1869) can be read as both a thrilling travelogue and a work of serious scholarship, the literary skills of the scientific community have witnessed a conspicuous downturn.  (p. 163)
Setting aside his stumble over Wallace’s oft misspelled middle name and his infelicitous description of The Malay Archipelago (I blame the actual word choice, but not the sentiment, on translator Short), my primary objection is to Novotny’s assertion about the decline in the literary skills of his community.

He’s wrong; his own book is proof of that.  Notebooks From New Guinea is a little gem.  A collection of brief, true accounts of doing biological research in New Guinea, it can be funny, sad, or shocking, sometimes all three in the same tale.  Often with witty, though understated, quips, Novotny explores some of the myriad culture clashes witnessed and experienced by a Western scientist in New Guinea – clashes of the New Guinean with modern society, one island tribe with another, the New Guinean with science, the West with science, the amateur scientist with the professional, the conservationist with the developer, the urban with the rural, the believer with the unbeliever . . . .  Above all, it’s about how all of these various groups (tribes) view nature.

Novotny is head of the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology at the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Director of the New Guinea Binatang Research Center (Papua New Guinea).  Woven through the book is his account of establishing and running biological research centers on the island to study forest ecology, specifically the interplay of insect and plants in the tropical rain forest.

He asserts at the outset, “Isolation is a magnificent generator of diversity.”  (p. 13)  Just as New Guinea’s geography with its forests, rivers, swamps, mountains, and “even a little glacier,” may be responsible for its rich diversity of animal and plant life, that same fragmentation of the landscape has given rise to a multiplicity of tribe-based cultures.  With only a minute fraction (a thousandth) of the world’s population, New Guinea has a sixth of the world’s languages.  The cultural diversity on the island is under attack by the inexorable spread of technologically driven modern society.  As the isolation among tribes breaks down, enemies are brought into greater contact, cultural traditions are challenged, and the languages spoken by small groups die.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that a streak of violence run through life in New Guinea.  Island tribes at war with each other have been a fact of life.  Cannibalism has become a thing of the past, but only recently.  Then there is the phenomenon of the even number of fatalities likely to occur from individual traffic accidents in New Guinea.  A driver in New Guinea operates under two legal systems – one derived from the British and one based on tribal custom.  After an accident in which a driver kills someone in a traffic accident, under the British system, the driver may end up in a court of law, while under the tribal one, the driver will end up dead at the hands of the relatives of the deceased.  (p. 99)  In typical fashion, Novotny wryly notes that there may be some benefits from this dual process.  Drivers in New Guinea are extremely solicitous about the safety of their passengers and others on the road, and such “legal” proceedings might, he suggests, improve traffic safety in the Czech Republic.

There is little idyllic about life in New Guinea as depicted by Novotny.  Malaria is a fact of life.  Scattered throughout the book are brief passages set off and titled individually as “Malaria Intermezzo.”  In them, he describes his harrowing experiences with malaria.  These are sobering, not amusing.  For the foreigner spending any length of time on the island, it would appear that the question isn’t whether, but when he or she will contract the disease.

A recurrent theme in the book is that, while outsiders often disparage the choices made by New Guineans and presume to know what is best for them, these same outsiders are blind to their own naiveté and absurd choices.  Consider Novotny’s stories about tribes being approached by foreign corporations looking to extract lumber from the forests.  He describes one encounter in which the representatives of a “foreign conglomerate dedicated to felling and removing timber” flew in to make their pitch to a tribal village only to encounter well-informed natives, not the gullible innocents they expected.  This time the corporations failed because New Guinean and foreign conservationists had gotten there first.  Novotny draws a fascinating lesson out of this encounter.  Though the conservationists’ methods may have been more above board than those of the foreign corporation representatives, both groups were trying to manipulate the natives, substituting their judgment for the villagers’.  He addresses his readers:
If you have some sympathy with naive villagers deep in the jungle, whose major decisions are influenced by éminences grises, be aware that your own situation is no different.  Whether it’s GM [genetically modified] crops, nuclear energy, cloning, or global warming public opinion is ever subject to the competing influences of intensively competitive bodies of experts.  Believe me, I know, I’m one of them.  (p. 134)
Or take the matter of the spirits believed by many New Guineans to inhabit the country and which the New Guinean is likely to want to propitiate, much to the amusement of the Westerner.  Karkar, an island near the northern coat of New Guinea, is essentially a volcanic cone.  The island population maintains a strong belief in spirits which are likely to be found in particularly great numbers near the crater at the center of the island.  The locals warn outsiders looking to climb to the crater about the peril they face from the dangerous island spirits.  When two tourists venturing up to the crater died, “the villagers were in no doubt as to the reason:  the spirits really don’t like intruders.”  But, notes Novotny,
It really is advisable to observe the rules of etiquette vis-à-vis the spirits since their influence can even be demonstrated by strictly scientific, quantitative statistical analysis.  This reveals that the accident rate among white men, who are generally skeptical as to the existence of spirits, is conspicuously higher than among the aboriginal population.
If you still don’t believe in spirits, you would be advised to avoid Karkar.  There can be no greater ignominy for an enlightened rationalist than to perish in consequence of some incident involving spirits.  (p. 71)
Aspects of modern life may puzzle or startle New Guineans according to Novotny.  When a group of New Guineans traveling in Australia came upon a group of homeless people in Sydney, the cameras emerged as the New Guineans sought “to take photos of [the homeless] as particularly exotic specimens of a recently discovered species of animal.”  (p. 42)  With their extended family relationships and tribal identities, the New Guineans literally had never encountered a homeless person, much less a neglected orphan, or a neglected senior.  Novotny writes, “Nowhere have I seen the mentally or physically incapacitated so naturally integrated into society as in the villages of New Guinea.”  (p. 42)  In one of his wonderfully unexpected takes on an issue, Novotny adds that life in a New Guinean village, where everyone knows you and everything about you,
. . . leads me almost straight to the conjecture that what has driven great migrations, conquests, voyages of discovery, urbanization, and various developments in technology that have released people from dependence on the land is not so much the search for new economic opportunities as headlong flight from kith and kin.  (p. 43)
Science is what drew Novotny to New Guinea, but, “[s]cience as understood in the West – the obsessive accumulation of all manner of facts, including the totally useless – is a novelty in Papua New Guinea and is still looking for a wider circle of acolytes.”  (p. 163)  What matters to the Westerner and what matters to the New Guinean may be very different things.  One small research station set up in a village failed because what the funders wanted from it – biological research – wasn’t what the villagers wanted – prestige.
The main concern of our colleagues in Simbu was to impress visitors and the neighbors.  To that end all they needed were the outward symbols of a microscope and a laptop and their first-fruit sample insect collections.  No subsequent work could improve on this state of affairs so it finally came to an end.  (p 167)
Still, Novotny has performed important research on the island.  His careful study of the insects living in the tropical forest has formed the basis for a downward revision in the estimate of the number of insect species in the world.  The reason for this reduction?  Blame “tourist” insects or passersby who don’t reside in the local area.  Inventorying the insect species in a small place and extrapolating to a much larger geographic area – say, all of New Guinea or to the world – is like “counting pedestrians in Wenceslas Square in Prague, or Piccadilly in London – almost every Praguer, or Londoner, will pass through sooner or later . . . .” (p. 187)  His own work “has led to the mass extinction of hypothetical species, since by this reckoning we share the planet not with thirty, but with no more than four to six million species of insects.”  (p 204)

I cannot leave the book without mentioning the central role that airplanes appear to play in the life of many New Guineans.  Clearly, in a country with many isolated villages, reachable by land vehicles only with great difficulty, if at all, air travel is likely to be viewed as something of a miracle, and an airstrip as a vital necessity for any right thinking village.  “With its three hundred airports, airfields, and airstrips to a population of six million souls Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s leaders in aviation.”  But those airstrips are mostly problematic, often blocked by people or pigs or dogs or wild animals or birds or “flying foxes” or tall grass or flooding or fog or . . . .  (p. 35)  Add lack of imagination to that list.

This desire for airplanes to make an appearance is wrapped up in a cargo cult shared by many New Guinean natives who assume that airplane cargo has a “supernatural origin” and so can be invoked by the same rituals they see others performing who have been blessed with the arrival of cargo.  “One commonly cited example is the imitation airstrips in the middle of the jungle, around which the natives sit in an improvised control tower with half coconuts clamped to their ears in lieu of radio earphones, awaiting the arrival of planes laden with cargo."  (p. 218)

Lest, his Western readers laugh too hard at that image, Novotny posits that Czech science, as a product of many years behind the Iron Curtain, has its own cargo cult in which a scientist who has
no understanding of anything, yet practices all the rituals of research forever measuring something then publishing something about it, not to mention sitting about in front of instruments, wearing a lab coat and supplying expert opinions in the hope that one day, out of the blue, scientific discoveries will present themselves, duly summoned up by these rituals . . . .  (p. 218-219)
I suspect this observation applies to elements in other scientific communities, as well.

A final note regarding Alfred Russel Wallace and New Guinea.  Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago offers a single chapter on his stay on New Guinea from March to July, 1858.  It is a depressing read because, for Wallace, it was a most dreary period marked by illness – an ulcer on his ankle that kept him confined to his house for a month, followed by a fever which laid him low for a week, and then soreness of his mouth, gums, and tongue which made eating painful – and by little luck collecting specimens. He also had no fondness for the natives, and it rained a lot.  Upon leaving New Guinea, Wallace observed that he left “without much regret for in no place which I have visited have I encountered more privations and annoyances.” (p. 388)

When it comes to New Guinea, Novotny is clearly a much better companion than Wallace.

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