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Romping Among the Turds

Merde: Excursions in scientific, cultural, and socio-historical coprology. By Ralph A. Lewin. New York: Random House, 1999. xvi + 187 pages. Hardbound. 0-375-50198-3. $19.95.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 49, no. 3, May 2005, p30.

Get the real shit on shit in this endlessly fascinating exploration. Witty and entertaining factoids and minutiae cover everything from toilet paper to the ocean bottom, just as their topic does.
The author, a retired marine biologist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is a long-time contributor to JIR with diverse interests.
I picked this book up one evening when everything was happening like its topic. The book succeeded in diverting me, and restored me to a tolerably good humor by the time I dozed off.

The rheology of adult human feces, too, has occupied the attention of scientists: it's all grist to the mill of knowledge. When faced with the problem of evaluating the flushing efficiency of different models of domestic toilets, the technicians of Consumers Union in the United States felt it necessary to devise a sort of synthetic turd to simulate the natural product, and so concocted cylinders of a mixture of sawdust, flour, shortening, and just enough hollow plastic beads to confer a slight degree of buoyancy. The proportions in this recipe were not published – perhaps they could be varied over wide ranges – and one may assume that no cooking was needed. Mycologists studying the development of dung fungi have dubbed such artificial feces "copromes." (pp 27-28)

Scientists who enjoy the intellectual challenge of finding order in nature will love this book. The data are intellectually scattered, ranging from anecdotes to research results to "wow" statistics. From them, broad principles might be constructed, but the book itself is only slightly organized, not a scholarly tome, barely hinting at overall systematics. Perhaps more can be found in the 7 pages of sources.

By counting the numbers of date stones in coyote droppings found at various distances from the nearest oasis in the Arizona desert, scientists have been able to estimate the areas of coyote foraging ranges. Seeds of another palm, Washingtonia (which are considerably smaller than those of the date), as well as wild-plum stones, are distributed over even larger distances by coyotes and foxes in the Anza-Borrego Desert of southern California. On an even bigger scale, the droppings of tapirs disseminate palm seeds in the Amazonian jungles, while on the plains of Africa elephants and impala not only serve to distribute the seeds of Acacia plants, but also apparently promote their germination and growth. A recent study has shown that some species of seaweed may be dispersed in the fecal pellets of marine mollusks on the coast of Chile, and doubtless many similar examples could be found elsewhere. Also relevant in this connection is the observation that in giant clams (Tridacna) that harbor symbiotic algae, when the algal cells breed faster than they can be conveniently accommodated, the excess are expelled with the feces into the surrounding seas. (pp 99-100)

The book is curiously unillustrated. Since the subjects generally lie still and uncomplaining, there should be little difficulty in photographing them.

Snakes like the Guatemalan jumping viper, which eats all too rarely, defecate only every month or two, though when they do so they usually produce a generous amount of fecal matter. On the other hand, a rabbit may excrete more than five hundred pellets a day, and a large panda, on a relatively poor diet of bamboo leaves and shoots consisting largely of indigestible fibrous material, can daily produce a hundred or more. The normal score for a well-fed cow is about twelve, all typically sloppy. (p.17)

The publisher was too dainty to title the book with its topic. So dainty that they used the French translation, which too few Americans know, so the book has also sold like shit. Nevertheless, they did a good production job, with clear printing (in black, not brown) and a sturdy binding.
Amazon.com is too dainty to even allow this review to be posted to its site! Right here is where to read it online.
This book would make a diverting gift. It would be good in a staff lounge, and great to read while perched on the porcelain throne. Libraries would acquire it for their readers' entertainment.

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