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The Monkey and the Aye-Aye: A Tribute to Douglas Adams


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11th May 2001: an author dies during a rest from a workout in California. Some say it was his smoking habit that caused the heart attack, others simply the strenuous exercise he was putting himself through. It was likely both. The author’s name was Douglas Adams and he was a sprightly 49.

Image credit: brenkee via Pixabay

To his many admirers the untimely death of such an ingenious and polymathic man came as a horrible shock. That sadness has not abated: 25th May is still celebrated as Towel Day in honour of his most famous work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Fans inaugurated this celebration in 2001, two weeks after Adams’s death, during which they simply carry a towel on their person for the day in honour of the advice given in the Hitchhiker series that a towel ‘is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.’ Why? Well, among other things, strags (non-hitchhikers) who see one has travelled the galaxy and been able to hold on to one’s towel through it all are likely to be impressed- the strag will most certainly view you as ‘clearly a man to be reckoned with’.

Douglas Noel Adams was certainly such a man. Born on 11th March 1952 in Cambridge, he was immensely proud of two facts: that his initials spelled DNA and that he was born in the city where Watson and Crick discovered DNA’s double helical molecular structure just a year later. This auspicious start foreshadowed his lifelong love affair with science, which shone through in all his works, from the Hitchhiker series to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

Adams fit so much into a such a short life: writing, travelling, computer programming, and TV presenting to name a few. Some of his earliest work was done on Doctor Who: during Tom Baker’s golden tenure on the show Adams wrote several stories and script edited a season. One of his stories, Shada, was left uncompleted due to industry disputes, but has had a long afterlife having been completed by others in book form and in animation, among other media. The Snowmen, the 2012 Christmas special of the show, was based on an unused Adams storyline.

Adams’s work was known for its wit and whimsy, its scientific and philosophical underpinning, and its sheer delightfulness. As I said, he loved science, epitomising the ideal of the intellectual on the border between the sciences and the humanities. In an interview with his great friend Richard Dawkins (who helped convert Adams into a ‘radical atheist’ who insisted on the ‘radical’ so as not to be confused with an agnostic) Adams gave a beautiful paean to the beauty of a scientific worldview which epitomised the view of the life scientific and atheistic as something far more glorious than the religious one:

‘The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably out of nothing, is the most fabulous extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened – it’s just wonderful. And…the opportunity to spend seventy or eighty years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned.’

Dawkins quotes the above in his introduction to the 2009 edition of one of Adams’s lesser known works (and adds a sad ‘Seventy or eighty? If only.’ afterwards), and the one I want to focus most on here. This is his account of his travels with the naturalist Mark Carwardine to visit some of the world’s most endangered species, the book Last Chance to See.

Like so many of his other works this book is just one iteration of a project expressed in multiple media. The project started after Adams and Carwardine teamed up for a newspaper article featuring the aye-aye of Madagascar in 1985. They then decided to make a radio series of their travels around the world encountering other endangered species, broadcast in 1989, which was then turned into a 1990 book. In 2009 Stephen Fry, another friend of Adams’s, accompanied Carwardine on a follow-up TV series to the original radio series. Phew! The work of Douglas Adams never seems to die, and hopefully never will.

The book is wonderful - hilarious all the way through while keenly impressing upon the reader a sense of pessimism at the plight of these species, merely a selection of the many animals endangered by human activity. Mark Carwardine wrote the last chapter, and the statistics he presents are gloomy. The extinction rate, he says, has accelerated massively because of humans:

‘…most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty have occurred in the last ten.

…We are now heaving more than a thousand different species of animals and plants off the planet every year.’

Our massively expanding population, our destruction of animal habitats, our stupid practices of tearing down trees, our thirst for needless poaching and hunting- these are merely the results of human chauvinism, ingrained in us for centuries by the mythical belief that god created nature for us. The truth is that we are just as much a product of nature as the Yangtze river dolphin (which has sadly become extinct since the book’s publication) and the mountain gorillas of Zaire.

This is a major theme of Adams’s work, encapsulated in the first chapter where he recounts the 1985 trip to find the aye-aye on a small island off Madagascar, this lemur’s last refuge. He discusses how the rise of the monkeys millions of years ago made the lemurs extinct in Africa. They remained only in the monkey-free environment of Madagascar. Until, of course, we, ‘the monkey’s descendants’, arrived, endangering them once more.

Encountering the odd aye-aye, Adams writes: ‘I was a monkey looking at a lemur’. This for him was simply another tale in a story going millions of years back. Our descendants started it, and now we are finishing it. The book’s account of meeting with some old relatives- the mountain gorillas- also emphasises our place in nature, and is funny and charming, and thought-provoking too.

But it is not at all a gloomy book, for all this. Adams was known for his comic wit and it is to be found in glorious abundance in Last Chance to See. Whether recounting a hunt for a condom in Shanghai (to sheath a microphone for underwater use), or recalling some of the downright weird people he met around the world, or the comedy of errors which resulted from travelling in such distant places, there is always a laugh to be found. Adams’s powers of description of the animals are breath-taking, and often funny. His writing is also informed by his scientific knowledge- Dawkins even remarks in the introduction that many of his musings are original enough to give scientists something to seriously think about.

And the gloom is lifted most of all by the large cast of dedicated, and often eccentric, people encountered on these travels, who live their lives fighting to protect these species from destruction, often against the weight of bureaucracy, ignorance and profit. That is another of the book’s points: we may well be responsible for the plight these species are in but we are also their only hope of survival (and, sadly, that sometimes means going with market forces and making these animals profitable through tourism and suchlike). We are part of nature but we are endowed with (very limited) intelligence, and only we can hope to undo our wrongs and protect these species.

Why should we? Well, as Carwardine remarks, they are useful to us, the environment, and the planet- he explains all the practical reasons why we should protect them. But as Dawkins says, who cares what use they are? Carwardine’s main reason, and the only sufficient one for any remotely intelligent or decent person, is simply that ‘the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.’ Their very existence is reason enough to preserve them.

Douglas Adams did his bit by publicising the danger faced by many animals and was a friend of endangered species until his death. His many works should be read for many reasons and Last Chance to See was his own favourite, and in my opinion one of his very best. It is warm, hilarious, learned, and humane- much like the man himself.

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