BOOKS: The Camel’s Nose

THE CAMEL’S NOSE: Memoirs of a Curious Scientist

by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

Island Press (1718 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20009), 1998.

339 pages. $24.94 hardback.


“It has been said that the primary function of schools is to impart enough facts to make children stop asking questions,” Knut Schmidt-Nielsen opens in a passage quoted by more than just a few of his reviewers. “Some, with whom the schools do not succeed, become scientists.”

In his preface, Schmidt-Nielsen elaborates, “This is a personal story of a life spent in science. It tells about curiosity, about finding out and finding answers. The questions I have tried to answer have been very straightfoward, perhaps even simple: Do marine birds drink sea water? How do camels in hot deserts manage for days without drinking when humans could not? How can kangaroo rats live in the desert without water? How can snails find water in the most barren deserts? Can crab-eating frogs really survive in sea water?

“These are important questions,” Schmidt-Nielsen continues, anticipating the “Who cares?” he has heard often from non-scientists throughout his life. “The answers not only tell us how animals overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in hostile environments; they also give us insight into general principles of life and survival.”

In 1962 a fortune-teller on the streets of Jodhpur, India, gave Schmidt-Nielsen a brief but in retrospect accurate forecast of the rest of his life, and concluded that he would die at 84. Born in 1915, Schmidt-Nielsen therefore saved writing his autobiography until his 83rd year.

Because Schmidt-Nielsen was the third generation of his family to pursue scientific interests, albeit the first who was able to make a living at it, The Camel’s Nose is almost a personal history of the entire post-Charles Darwin evolution of thinking in the life sciences. His grandfather experimented by translocating fish from one natural habitat to another, a procedure which was eventually emulated by wildlife managers around the world, whose successors are now poisoning lakes and rivers to exterminate introduced species. The poisoning, paradoxically, would have appalled the whole conservation establishment less then 20 years ago.

Schmidt-Nielson’s own career began just after the era in which most major discoveries were made by dedicated amateurs; spanned the era of heavy emphasis on pragmatism, in which each advance was expected to lead directly toward economic return; and continued into the advent of conservation biology, whose major concern often seems to be turning back the clock, never mind the means.

Like virtually all leading life-scientists of the 20th century, Schmidt-Nielson could be described as a vivisector, but the ethological approach pioneered by Konrad Lorenz appealed to him more, apparently as much by personal inclination as through any scholarly influence.

“I met Konrad Lorenz several times,” Schmidt-Nielsen told ANIMAL PEOPLE, when asked point-blank about possible influence, “and had long discussions with him, although his interest in animal behavior and ethology differed somewhat from the main lines of mine. However, I don’t think he had any notable influence on my work––I came to know him at a much later time in my life.”

But as with Lorenz, Schmidt-Nielsen made his most memorable discoveries through field observation of animals in their native habitat. He writes little about experiments which ended with animals being killed and dissected, but acknowledges–– without much specificity––that he didn’t like himself very much during the years when such work was most a part of his procedure.

ANIMAL PEOPLE asked SchmidtNielsen about that, too.

“If one wants to understand the function of living animals, including humans, a certain amount of experimentation is necessary,” he replied. “However, I must emphatically maintain that one should by any means avoid cruelty and unnecessary pain and discomfort to the animals. I believe that virtually every professional physiologist would agree with me. Doesn’t the average sport hunter or fisherman often induce more pain, for example by threading a string through the gills of fish to keep them struggling for hours in the water, to keep them fresh?”

Schmidt-Nielsen’s favorite memory of an expedition to the Rio Negro in Brazil––well before there was much of an animal rights movement––seems to have been duping other scientists to save a tame capybara whom they wanted to dissect.

Yet his outlook was rarely consistent: even as he saved the capybara, he joined other scientists in killing and eating a rooster who annoyed them with early wake-up calls.

Such paradoxes are of course part of the story not only of the life sciences in the 20th century, but of all humanity. SchmidtNielsen maintains that by better understanding animals, we can better understand people, too. Whether that is true or not, one gets the impression that Schmidt-Nielsen was and is a voice for kinder science, and that understanding the course of his life and career might be quite helpful to others pushing the same way.

As to what Schmidt-Nielsen might do now, if he happened to be nine years old instead of nearly 90, and was asked to kill and dissect an animal, he responded: “I can only say that it is impossible to answer. I am no longer nine and shall never again have the opportunity to look at life unhindered by later experience. I suppose that this would apply to every adult, and I suppose you would agree that we are no longer children.”

It is interesting, however, that his answer––as a major figure in the scientific establishment––was not a reflexive “yes.”

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