Note: An abridged version of this article appeared previously the April 2012 issue of Adirondack Life
I live in Woodgate New York, on the edge of the Adirondacks. Behind my home is a swamp owned by some absentee landowner none of my neighbors have ever met, apparently. One spring day at church, My neighbor, Star Livingstone, children’s author, organic gardener extraordinaire informed me there are hundreds of newts breeding in a pool out in back of the swamp and that the males are grabbing the females not around the waist but by the neck! I wonder why they do that?” She said this to me the way normal people might say, “I saw a robin today. Spring is here.” But we aren’t normal people.
My wife Linda and I met our neighbors, Star and Jeff, not because we are normal but because we are weird in a similar way. We saw each others tracks. My wife Linda and I our dog, and Star and Jeff and their dogs were each skiing and snow shoeing in the land out back. Dog tracks and ski tracks and snowshoe tracks coming from their home out onto the trails, dog tracks and ski tracks and snow shoe tracks coming also from our home. Our tracks revealed us to be the same type of creature. Perhaps this is how coyotes meet each other in winter, also.
This went on for a month or so, until, finally they came over and introduced themselves and we had coffee. I knew eventually we would meet and that we would like them, I had these suspicions, because I had followed their tracks one day just far enough to see that they had a 30 foot high tipi frame in their yard. And so we did finally meet and my suspicions were confirmed.
So we, each of us couples, at different times, snow shoe or ski out to look at the newts. This is the kind of thing we do. Jeff said “you better enjoy the snow while it lasts because you won’t be walking on the swamp in the summer.”
It’s a sphagnum swamp. So there is a brief window of time here for optimum newt viewing. It must be a good year for watching newts mate. The sun gets warm enough to melt the pool in the meandering stream on the edge of the swamp, but the air is cold enough to keep the two or three feet of snow, still covering most of the swamp, nice and crisp. And like Star said the males are indeed grabbing the females by the neck.
This question may have come to her attention via her nine year old granddaughter Trinity, whom she is home schooling. I’ve always wondered if children asked questions not out of ignorance, but through being secretly wise, employing Socratic questioning as it were. Like Socrates, they only feign ignorance, actually they are teaching. Socrates believed that learning is actually remembering what we already know from a pre-existent state, but which we’ve forgotten through the shock of birth. He believed that by asking questions he was acting as midwife to draw wisdom from people. He called this process “anamnesis” which means loss of forgetfulness. It’s interesting to me that the smaller the kid is, often the better the question. At any rate it’s a wise thing to ask questions. This is encouraged at their Presbyterian church. They seem comfortable with ambiguity. They have an adult discussion group called “Living the Questions.”
This specific question of why the newts grab the females around the neck, instead of the waist, as one might assume, brings back to me, memories of an unsolved mystery.
In 1984 in Whitney point, NY on a similar spring day, I was on vacation from seventh grade and found these little creatures in a pond near the house my Dad was renting from a farmer. They were of the same species as these newts here in Woodgate, and I too was perplexed. Why grab the females by the neck? It didn’t seem to fit- anatomically speaking. But all the males seemed to be doing it; at least I assumed they were males. So I took some home and put them in a ten gallon fish tank. I scooped them up with a net I had jury rigged from a colander duct taped to a broom handle. I intended to solve the mystery. The males had a little dance. They did, shaking their tail to entice the females closer so they could grab them. They had little black nubs on their back legs, for traction.
I never did figure it out. There was no internet back then. So I consulted a field guide at the library which helped me identify them as Notophthalmus viridescens “The Red Spotted Newt” but went into frustratingly little details on the specifics of their mating behavior. But now that the internet exists, I was able to Google and finally solve the mystery. …more or less. As Star probably well knows, questions only ever lead to more questions.
The newts aren’t attempting to inseminate the females, but instead are communicating with them through pheromones. Thus he grabs her around the neck and fans his tail in a j shape and rubs her nose with his cheek, funneling pheromones to her and stimulating her olfactory centers. I remember my Dad looking in my tank and getting a chuckle from these males and their little dance. The male eventually lets go and leaves a spermataphore some distance away, and the female comes by and picks it up in her cloacae. So then at some later time she lays up to 4000 eggs here and there around the pond, a few at a time. So what I gather is that by grabbing her and inundating her with the pheromone, the male is making sure she knows which spermataphore is his because they won’t be together, when she picks up the spermataphore. It seems like a strangely remote way to mate. It’s like the male is saying.
“Hey, this is me! This is how I smell OK? Aren’t I great?”
Then after a while he says
“Well, gotta run. But I will leave you a package to remember me by. You will know its mine because it will have my smell. So long, it was nice to grab you in a head lock. Take care.”
I’m anthropomorphizing obviously. Its hard not to, being as I am an Anthropomorph. Maybe if I were a rabbit, I would Lagomorphize. Either way, I don’t claim to have complete scientific objectivity.
If it weren’t for this tendency to anthropomorphize, I maybe wouldn’t be as fond of Newts as I am. That’s the first thing that strikes me about them whenever I encounter them, whether its up here in the Adirondacks this spring or last summer when I encountered several of a slightly different variety, the fire belly newt, walking along moss covered fallen logs in Olympic State Park in Washington.
I think we like them because they are like us. Not cross country skiing dog owners, humans I mean, in the broad sense. Looking at these little critters brings to my mind what’s known as “the anthropic principle.” These newts are definitely anthropic looking little critters. There are some diverse creatures in these woods, insects, worms, leaches, birds, fungus. But these newts have four limbs, fingers, even. They look up at us with two little eyes. They have two nostrils like us; a mouth. You can really see a family resemblance. And getting right down to it, the reason we have a back bone, Four limbs, with no more than five digits on each limb, two, eyes, two nostrils, a brain, a heart lungs, etc. is because they do! They had them first. We are all of us, human beings, descended from creatures very much like these newts, the first amphibians, which lived, in the Devonian period 370 MYA.
370 million years ago. Doesn’t that seem like an awfully long time ago for us to still share this basic resemblance? This was a very auspicious event, these amphibians coming into the scene. Looking at every living creature as being part of the same family tree, of which we are a part, these amphibians would be on the trunk, not just some side branch. I mean in the ensuing 370 million years, since we branched off from our most recent common ancestor, a lot of other creatures have branched off that don’t resemble us now at all. These amphibians gave rise to reptiles, some of which lost their limbs and became snakes. Reptiles gave rise to birds, which developed feathers and wings, and beaks, instead of teeth. Branching off from the reptiles also were mammals. Some of whom, eventually returned to the sea and became whales and dolphins, some mammals, just as birds had done, developed wings and became bats. But our line of ancestors kept our four limbs, fingers and toes, just like these little newts.
Now more on the anthropic principle:
The phrase “Anthropic principle” was coined by , a theoretical astrophysicist named Brandon Carter in reaction to the “Copernican Principle”, which states that humans do not occupy a privileged position in the Universe. Carter said: “Although our situation is not necessarily central, it is inevitably privileged to some extent.” Specifically, Carter disagreed with using the Copernican principle to justify the Perfect Cosmological Principle, which states that all large regions and times in the universe must be statistically identical. The latter principle underlay the steady-state theory, which had recently been falsified by the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. This discovery was unequivocal evidence that the universe has changed radically over time and led to the theory of the Big Bang.
There is a weak version of the Anthropic Principle known as the WAP, basically a tautology, which, states that the laws of the universe must be consistent with an intelligent observer’s ability to observe them.
The strong version (SAP) is basically that the universe was designed to produce intelligent life otherwise known as “us.”
I admit it may very well be nothing more than wishful thinking on my part but that little newt with his little head and eyes four fingered hand, sure looks like he was on his way to becoming one of us. That’s the way I think of them, that they are a little snapshot of human evolution 370 million years ago. This would be called a teleological view of evolution, which comes from the Greek word telos, root: τελε-, “end, purpose”. This view has gone out of favor lately among Science writers that deal with evolution, such as Richard Dawkins. They would say that evolution was not destined to culminate in humanity, evolution is pointless. The universe is pointless, everything is pointless.
I favor more of the old school Darwinians, like…Darwin, and philosophers like Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin believed the Universe was evolving towards an Omega point. I view evolution as teleological, and I think that is backed up by computer scientists today, using evolution teleologically, solving problems with genetic algorithms, that mimic biological evolution. Back to the anthropic principle:
The concept of the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) was further developed by John D. Barrow, a cosmologist, and Frank J. Tipler, a mathematical physicist, in a book called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, in which they discuss how the universe seems uniquely “fine tuned” for the existence of intelligent life. They also discuss the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP) which entails a type of chicken and egg conundrum inherent in the idea that the universe as we know it cannot come into being without an intelligent observer to observe it.
The Strong Anthropic Principle has its critics. It would probably smacks these critics as a bit narcissistic of me to look at a little newt, and see evidence of the universe on its way to creating humanity.
In dryer regions newts breed in puddles which leads me to “puddle thinking.” Puddle thinking is a tongue in cheek term for a counterargument to the idea of a “fine tuned” universe:
“… imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
This situation may catch the puddle by surprise but it wouldn’t catch the newts by surprise! They have adapted to lose their gills and live on land for a while as morphs known as red efts. Conversely, in opposite climactic extremes, in very wet regions, newts may live their whole lives in the juvenile stage never losing their gills and even reaching sexual maturity and producing offspring.
The participatory anthropic principle (PAP) -the part about the universe not being able to come into being without intelligent observers-does, of course, imply a conundrum. The idea expressed here has to do with the traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. This interpretation implies that to have an actual Universe, and not just a superposition of many points of varying probabilities, an observer is required, to collapse the wave function, and determine the universe to be at that point. If by observer, we mean us, having arrived only very recently, it begs the question- what was the universe doing all those millions of years it took for intelligent life to evolve?
Interestingly, “the observer” in quantum physics can also be called a “measurer.” Newts are constantly measuring their environment as they navigate from place to place, using the sun as well as the Earth’s magnetic field probably trough ferromagnetic material, such as biogenetic magnetite, present in their little bodies. This reminds me also of birds navigating the globe every year in their migrations, and salmon navigating rivers and streams. My inference here is that if our ancient ancestors, which resembled these animals, weren’t constantly observing and measuring their environment, it would have at some point ceased to exist. All these little minds, sustained its existence, allowing us time to evolve. The Universe we live in is the one we inherited from these little guys! I mean this in an ontological sense.
We perceive the world as we do through our five senses basically because of our genetic heritage. Our mammalian brains haven’t replaced the earlier type of brain, found in these newts; it simply developed over it and incorporated it. We still have the so called “reptilian brain” which is responsible, for ritualistic behavior (and even still responds to pheromones!) So these newts experience the universe in a similar way to us, due to our similarity in shape. The puddle fits them as well as it fits us!
So when I see a little red newt crossing route 28, the least I can do is help him across to avoid getting squashed. They’ve helped hold the universe together all this time. It’s the least I can do.
Barrow, John D.; Tipler, Frank J. (19 May 1988). The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. foreword by John A. Wheeler. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192821478. LC 87-28148
Dawkins, Richard (17 September 2001). “Eulogy for Douglas Adams”. Edge. http://www.edge.org/documents/adams_index.html.