present in the distant past, some 150 million years
ago, they would not have been able to mark the
exact moment when the first bird arose. The line
between bird and non-bird is blurry and, as Brusatte explains, “it’s just a matter of semantics” (p.
284). A speciation event can only be crowned retrospectively, “when you discover that its sequels
have a certain property” (Dennett, 1995, p. 96).
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is an excellent book that is accessible to students as well as
teachers. Readers are treated to an engaging story
about fascinating animals and the scientists who
study them. In addition, students who read the
book may learn some biology along the way.
Dennett, D.C. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:
Evolution and the Meanings of Life.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Robert A. Cooper
Retired Biology Teacher
Pennsbury High School
Fairless Hills, PA
The Sting of the Wild. By Justin O. Schmidt.
2016. Johns Hopkins University Press. (ISBN:
9781421425641). 280 pp. Softcover, $19.95.
“Stay away, don’t mess with me” is a suggested
ad from a stinging insect to its predators.
If ever you were stung by a bee and offered the
chance to perform a scientific analysis of the pain
intensity produced by a variety of stinging insects,
would you accept the challenge? Like me, most
would probably not be interested. But entomolo-gist Justin O. Schmidt carried out such a study
on 83 species of ants, bees, and wasps, resulting
in his “Pain Scale for Stinging Insects,” which rates
the pain of each sting on a scale of 1 to 4. Each pain
also has a brief description, using humor to compare the pain to other unpleasant experiences:
“Someone has fired a staple into your cheek” (
bullhorn acacia ant); “Your fingertip has been slammed
by a car door” (California carpenter bee); and “You
know what cattle feel when they are branded”
(golden paper wasp). All paint pungent pictures
of the power of pain, and the author crafts a vivid,
detailed analysis of the nature of pain.
Using his lifetime of science experiences,
Schmidt shares brilliant examples of science as a
process of discovery. He recounts many experiments, such as how he taught a hive of honeybees
that he wasn’t a predatory threat to them. One of
his graduate students, wanting to learn more about
the pain intensity of honeybee stings, conducted a
clever experiment to determine if this intensity was
the same all over his body. Selecting 25 body locations, ranging from his head to his arms, back,
thighs, feet, and even his private parts, he allowed
a controlled group of bees to sting him in each area
three times a day for six weeks. Needless to say, he
definitely learned where the stings hurt the worst.
There is much to learn from this book other
than insect stinging. There are fascinating accounts
of the anatomy, physiology, life history, social and
reproductive behavior, venom analysis, and impacts
on humans of a variety of these six-legged pain producers. The writing is so engaging that it seems like
the author knows the insects personally. The book
also includes the ecological importance and evolution
of insects. Schmidt shares a thought-provoking story
of Charles Darwin’s concern that when an insect
leaves its stinger in the skin of a victim, it results in
the insect’s death and that this would provide strong
evidence against his theory of natural selection.
Another story illustrates the impact of honeybees in
a legal proceeding. A woman “got the munchies,”
bought a cake, ate it, and had an allergic reaction to
the sting of a dead yellow jacket in the frosting.
Schmidt explains how he testified at a court trial that
resulted in the wasp and her lawyers winning.
Considerable information concerning the lives
and behavior of organisms other than insects is
woven into the text, providing much charm and
value to the narrative. Elephants often consume
trees enclosing bees’ nests and may destroy the
nests. Bees fight back by aiming stinging attacks
at the pachyderms’ eyes and noses. Bears, known
for their love of honey, also enjoy eating the pro-
tein-rich grubs of yellow jackets. False black
widow spiders spin their webs over colony entran-
ces of harvester ants and then wait for lunch.
At one point, Schmidt describes a frustrated
scientist’s reaction to another scientist’s writing as
“The best method of dealing with this volume is
to disregard entirely the statements of the author.”
That certainly cannot be said about The Sting of the
Wild. With its well-researched, colorful, entertaining, comprehensive, and often witty narrative, this
book is packed with fascinating information and is
well worth reading. It is appropriate for college
biology courses, especially entomology, and may
even appeal to high school students with a strong
interest in biology. Aside from the 10-page “pain
scale,” it includes bibliographic references for all
of the chapters and a comprehensive index. While
much of the text is concerned with painful experiences, reading it is the direct opposite. It is a most
Retired Biology Teacher
Presque Isle High School
Presque Isle, ME
Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future
of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures. By Nick
Pyenson. 2018. Viking. (ISBN 978-0735224568).
336 pp. Hardcover, $27.00.
In this engaging book, Nick Pyenson waxes
poetic about whales, weaving in often astonishing