This little book takes its place as a minor classic account of the lives of insects. However, the breeze of wit and rationality that blows through these pages makes this book appear verbose and sentimental. The reader finds here not only a robust humor lacking in the more ponderous writing of the past but also a far greater critical acumen and a more penetrating imagination.
On the opening page of the book Vincent Dethier makes this humorous observation of how children grow up to become scientists: “Although small children have taboos against stepping on ants because such actions are said to bring on rain, there has never seemed to be a taboo against pulling off the legs or wings of flies. Most children eventually outgrow this behavior. Those who do not either come to a bad end or become biologists”. The same could be said of scepticism. In their early years children are knowledge junkies, questioning everything in their view, though exhibiting little scepticism. Most never learn to distinguish between inquisitiveness and credulity. Those who do either come to a bad end or become professional sceptics.
Our brains are natural machines for piecing together events that may be related and for solving problems that require our attention. One can envision an ancient hominid from Africa chipping and grinding and shaping a rock into a sharp tool for carving up a large mammalian carcass. Or perhaps we can imagine the first individual who discovered that knocking flint would create a spark with which to start a fire. The wheel, the lever, the bow and arrow, the plow – inventions intended to allow us to shape our environment rather than be shaped by it – started civilization down a path that led to our modern scientific and technological world.
In his discussion of the rewards of science, Vincent Dethier runs through the pantheon of the obvious ones – monetary, security, honor – as well as the transcendent: “a passport to the world, a feeling of belonging to one race, a feeling that transcends political boundaries and ideologies, religions, and languages.” But he brushes these aside for one “more lofty and more subtle.”
This is the natural curiosity of humans in their drive to understand the world: One of the characteristics that sets man apart from all the other animals (and animal he indubitably is) is a need for knowledge for its own sake. Many animals are curious, but in them curiosity is a facet of adaptation. Man has a hunger to know. And to many a man, being endowed with the capacity to know, he has a duty to know. All knowledge, however small, however irrelevant to progress and well-being, is a part of the whole. It is of this the scientist partakes. To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge. That is the challenge and the joy of science.
Mr. Vincent Dethier goes into great detail like a curious child in describing the fly’s different aspect of life. The fly is very complex with many human-like characteristics. “Flies and some people are very much alike in another respect; both prefer what taste good to what is nutritionally best,” was stated by the author proving these similar characteristics exist.
Many experiments and observations were made through the course of this book. Such experiments included: testing the flies eating habits, adaptation to their environment, the different purposes of sensor organs, the reasons for hunger, their unique language, exercise patterns involving light, and their brain complexity. He presented the fly in a way that most people couldn’t see the power and abilities a fly possesses.
Through the course of this book each of these aspects were explained in greater detail with experiments proving many theories and observations. The best definition for an experiment was provided by Dethier as, “An experiment is a scientist’s way of asking nature a question.” This would explain many reasons for such a desire people convey to science.
The author’s intent was to inform the reader of the misconceptions most common, non-scientist have about the scientific process. He provided a very clear approach to explain his research of the fly to a typical reader. The terminology was very simple and to the point. He stated it best, “The scientist who is great is the one who proposes a theory and then attempts to prove or disapprove it rather than the one who proposes a theory and then goes off grinning to greener pastures leaving to onerous job of proof or disproof to others.” The author did accomplish his intent to inform the reader of the aspects that a fly possesses.
Through many laboratory reports numerous discoveries have been publicized making the world more enriched with scientific knowledge. But throughout all the experiments that were preformed to the flies, one thing remains unique about them. Unlike all other animals and creatures, the fly cannot be trained even after 15 years. I found this a very interesting point, because in past experiments, a scientist has proven many ways to train animals to perform premeditated tasks. One instance was described as conditioning, when a scientist trained a dog to salivate to the ring of a bell. But unfortunately, there is not a conditioned response affiliated with the fly.
The author’s purpose of informing the reader was well achieved. One can have a new outlook about the purpose of the fly. Before reading this book, the reader may feel flies don’t have a purpose. They just fly around and become very annoying. But they do serve a purpose, with just as many functions and activities a human possesses. The most important things about flies are they are cheaper and more abundant in our society for scientists that do not have elaborate funds to experiment with. This fact proves very important when the experimenter doesn’t know the outcome or effect an experiment has on the tested individual.
The author did make a good attempt to add humor and situations that the average person could relate to. One can really enjoy the way the author presented this information. His style of writing was direct and to the point. This made the reading and understanding of the text relaxing and enjoyable.
The reader has a chance to gain a wide variety of information about the lifestyle and adaptation process a fly creates in his or her environment. Vincent Dethier said it best; “To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of knowledge. That is the challenge and the joy of science.” In this statement, the purpose of this book is summed into two sentences. All humans have a desire to know and learn; proving science is an ideal subject that everyone has used. It’s just a matter of how you use it.
V.G. Dethier 1962 “To know a Fly”, Holden Day, San-Francisco
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