Review: The Extreme Life of the Sea, Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (2014)

Palumbi, Stephen R. and Anthony R. Palumbi, The Extreme Life of the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Hardcover. $27.95 (US).

Recently, I’ve been looking at the interstices between science and literature (and the humanities and social sciences at large). The Extreme Life of the Sea was written in partnership between marine scientist Stephen R. Palumbi and his son, the writer Anthony R. Palumbi. Which, okay, science writing is one of the most obvious and basic way the two fields interact–writing becomes a medium with which “arcane” science is made legible to the lay audience, and so on. But if you engage more carefully with Palumbi’s prose, he’s actually doing a lot more than that. He’s writing toward a worldview where that translation is so seamless, so regular, that it’s not a translation–at least, not on behalf of mere function–at all. He brings his audience, for a moment, to a place where science and nature are inextricable from their histories and, in the Anthropocene, oftentimes from their human drivers. That interrelation goes so deep, you see it in The Extreme Life of the Sea in both Palumbi’s sweeping, large-scale characterizations of the theory of evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and scientific discovery–as well as in the sentential.

On the whole, Palumbi’s language throughout the book is pristine, and his analogies are always evocative. Even when his descriptions initially seem unhelpful, like “scaled, slug-like creature studded with petal-like flaps” (10), where none of the descriptors appear to cohere, in the Burgess Shale everything really is only -like, and therefore isn’t much like anything at all. I was initially perturbed by an early redundancy, where he refers to something as a “carapace shell”–because aren’t these synonyms? But later on, he drops “shell” entirely, and carapace stands on its own (88); reading his book is a learning experience in itself, and Palumbi is training his readers into new language and new perceptions. Amusingly, he analogizes innovation and evolution using Larry Page and PageRank as his example, which makes clear his intended audience: The builders and inheritors of the Silicon Valley and the era of technophilia (28). It’s a telling reversal, given all of the biological metaphors that have run rampant within computer science–computers are brains, have memory, and can be “fed” information. And like the World Wide Web (which itself is like a spider web, a neural network, etc.), evolution, evolutionary life, and life in the ocean are all deeply interconnected–humans are just another node of many (33).

In spite of its title, The Extreme Life of the Sea is a remedy for Discovery Channel trash, and hapless “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”-style books that aim to shock and thrill, fetishize and sensationalize the animal unknown. Palumbi’s is not just a procession of flashy, disconnected weird shit. When he talks about the sea life that can with stand the most extreme temperatures, for instance, he’s not just talking about the microbes huddled around deep-sea thermal vents–though certainly, those are worth discussion, too. Instead, he takes the notion of “the extreme” and uses it as an opportunity to speak about the ocean as a space of intense relativity; extreme heat means extreme, “some of the hottest on the planet” heat, as well as the relatively temperatures withstood by the vaquita dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico, and the way many crustaceans live so close to their temperature thresholds that even a shift of a few degrees Celsius–as in the case of climate change–would end them.

This last is critical because it speaks to a world beyond immediate human experience. Climate change is not of major concern for many, because when freak weather patterns like the 2014’s Polar Vortex crack down, many wouldn’t mind an increase of a few degrees every day–more beach days, better tans, and A/C when the heat wins out, right? But for others, those temperatures can be deadly. And while even fewer would raise alarms at the die-off of crabs, what Palumbi’s getting at is that the world’s ecology exceeds that kind of framework–there are ripple effects, and preventing the die-off of crabs isn’t a task to be undertaken only out of sheer altruism, but also out of concern for the ripples. One species dies, balances get upset, entire ecosystems crumble. Humans inhabit–are integral parts of–ecosystems. The “extreme” animal kingdom is not a world apart from our own; and when it comes to planetary change, there is no bigger player.

Palumbi even discusses the potential effects of whaling on ecosystems as far removed as the ocean floor: When a whale dies, its body falls to the depths and becomes fertile ground for countless microbes and worms. But with fewer whales (due to overfishing)–and even due to seeming harmlessness of harvesting an already-dead whale before it hits bottom–those ecosystems are disrupted (52). While it may not prove detrimental to the deep-sea at all, bottom line? We don’t know yet. We have damage we know we’re causing, and as an added bonus, the potential that we might be causing yet more; and we can’t keep functioning as though these effects don’t matter, or won’t effect us. This is the kind of thing that’s part of our everyday, everywhere. (Palumbi also has a riveting segment on the nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll and the human-ecological repercussions therein, if you need a concrete example of damage we definitely and unwittingly caused, and are still paying for now (84)).

To that end, my favorite aspect of The Extreme Life of the Sea is the liveliness with which it handles the scientific community. Extreme animals and landscapes are exciting, but what’s easily forgotten is so is the research that brings them into the light of understanding. Rather than present the information in his book as arcane factoid, Palumbi speaks to the experiments and exploratory journeys that gave us this information; he peoples biology with human actors, rather than leave it as a sealed trove of dead information. And these actors aren’t just scientists; because–and it seems silly to forget this, but people (even scientists themselves) do–scientists are, you know, people. People of a place, and from a culture. You and me. Your neighbor down the street. That guy in Swaziland.

When Palumbi speaks to the ecologies of Hawai’i and the Caribbean, suddenly the sun becomes the Sun. He doesn’t explain this in the text, nor does he make an issue of it at all; it just becomes, per the beliefs of the indigenous cultures of these areas. It’s a sign of respect–to the Sun, to the culture. Palumbi does it seamlessly. In his segment on Hawai’i, he discusses a critical species of green sea turtles, which he later refers to as honu, per the Hawaiian. To use the word is to wed the species to the human culture that has developed alongside it, and to call attention to the intimacy between these two worlds (rather, our one world). It reminded me immediately of my own childhood, which was peppered with Hawai’ian pidgin, Hawaiian re-tellings of popular fairy tales, talk of relatives who had not come to the Mainland. Honu is personal.

So is the sea, and the life within. So is making sure it sticks around.

Because in his conclusion, Palumbi agrees with climate change critics: Yeah, the death of a few species here and there is part of the natural order. It won’t kill the planet. But sooner rather than later, it will kill the planet’s use to us, as humans. And it will kill us. When we’re gone, Earth will rebuild without us. So if you’re skeptical, and you’re not a card-carrying “environmentalist,” and you really want to be the Anthropocene, and if you really want to act in pure self-interest, you’re gonna want to save those whales, and turtles, and crabs, and every other pop star of the animal kingdom you scorn. In the end we’re on the same side, here.


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