Few theses, many facts among the faeces

April 30, 1999

The naive tendency to ask fundamental questions about the everyday is something children lose quite early. So is the urge to play with their own excrement. Scientists, it appears, can retain both as late as the emeritus professor stage. Ralph Lewin is a marine biologist by trade, but has a love that normally speaks its name in circumlocutions, Hellenisms and Latinisms. He is a coprologist, an anthroscatologist, a fewmets man, a stercoraphile, a turd-scruter. What he has heaped together is very far from poppycock (Dutch dialect, pappenkak , "soft dung").

Most natural history museums have a turd-man, creating inoffensive replicas for the dioramas, a practical expert in heft, distribution and drop-compression, but Lewin brings the eye of a professional scientist to bear on this far-flung phenomenon. He has meticulously picked through the literature and combined such research with the fieldworker's random encounters to produce a lively and engaging treatment that considers topics as diverse as the rectum as a pelletisation device and the Maoris' alleged 35 words for dung.

His strength lies in the animal-biological rather than in the human-cultural domain, where universalist assumptions cramp his style. There is little awareness of just how diverse human reactions to excretion can be - from total denial to public exhibition, from fears of pollution to hopes of blessing. He makes us aware that greater beasts may indeed feed on lesser, but that the circle is completed by the lesser beasts that feast on the excrement of their betters. Few theses emerge from all these faeces, but there are many facts that gleam like nuggets.

Simple invertebrates have no anus and regurgitate excrement from the mouth. Llamas produce pellets no bigger than those of rabbits. Rabbits excrete more than 500 pellets a day - night-time turds and day-time ones are distinct, the former eaten again as breakfast straight from the anus, the latter let lie - whereas snakes and sloths can go unrelieved for as long as a month or two. Predators not infrequently disguise themselves as dung. Fieldfares dive bomb intruders with accurately placed splats. Mammalian mothers often eat the early faeces of their babies - a hint here for afterbirth munchers. Female salamanders may select mates on the basis of their faeces, which also provide the best way to sex parrots. The sound of intestinal gas bubbles is termed borborygmus. Thomas Crapper was rendered unconscious by a fart-gas explosion. Llamas have toilet areas, while hippos whirr their tails to distribute their product. Baby hornbills have to master the art of shooting excrement out of the small holes of their nests. Ancient Egyptian graves included a special room for defecation by the dead. The British navy used chamber pots of different design according to rank. Tomato and fig seeds pass unharmed through the human gut, which explains why sewage farms are plagued with tomato plants and the banks of the River Don with fig trees. Only 37 per cent of houses in Japan are connected to mains sewage. After the introduction of cattle to Australia, the resultant plague of dung-flies was relieved only by also introducing dung-beetles.

The style is blessedly free of cute waggishness and whimsy. It is quite obvious where it should be kept in the house, in which room it will be a treat to the studious and the curious - although the quality of the paper may mean it suffers the same fate as those notoriously short-lived Soviet telephone books.

Nigel Barley is assistant curator, department of ethnography, British Museum.

Merde: Excursions into Scientific, Cultural and Socio-historical Coprology

Author - Ralph A. Lewin
ISBN - 1 85410 634 1
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £9.99
Pages - 155

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