Seeing without pictures – “An egg 6 times as big as it should be”
by Tim Moran
How does an author tell their audience about the impressive markings on a poison dart frog, or the immense height of the Karri tree, in their research article without the use of pictures?
Well, one can provide specific, vivid and clear details so that readers without the same experiences can understand and visualise what is being described. In other words, one may use scientific descriptive writing, as displayed in David Quammen’s 2006 biography The reluctant Mr Darwin.
This book traces the 21-year period between Charles Darwin’s original idea about natural selection and his publication On the Origin of Species, in an account that offers insight into his experiences as a cautious naturalist.
“The Kiwi’s egg” is one chapter in the book, where Quammen uses the New Zealand Kiwi bird and its unusually large, hefty egg size as a metaphor for natural selection developing within Charles Darwin. In doing so he extensively describes the Kiwi anatomy and the “humongous” egg it must develop and lay.
Quammen combines both scientific and narrative description as he conveys what a kiwi looks like and how a kiwi egg appears excessively large for its carrier. An example of these descriptive styles in sync is evident in the following sentence regarding what he observes in an x-ray photo of a heavily pregnant kiwi:
“A skull, with its long beak; a graceful S-shaped neck; an arched backbone; a pair of hunched-up femurs; and at the centre of it all, a huge smooth ovoid- her egg- like the moon during a full solar eclipse.” (Quanmen, 2006)
Here, in the one sentence alone, Quammen successfully describes scientific features about Kiwi physiology (i.e. long beak and S-shaped neck), followed by an imaginative simile. The latter is accomplished through narrative description and adequately compliments the scientific details.
While both scientific and narrative styles aim to visually portray a subject, scientific description differs from narrative description in that it focuses on detailed measurements, precise descriptions and factual information. It is predominantly based on observations, usually gathered from field notes that were taken as the research was undertaken. These notes may take the form of written notes, measurements or sketches, all of which serve as aids for recalling important details.
Narrative writing, on the hand, is characterised by the use of figurative language including the use of similes, metaphors, symbolism and personification.
Well written description can effectively replace images and this is especially important in most journal articles and other research papers where coloured images are restricted. It can also be the difference between how the reader perceives what the author does, and a better visual representation of an animal, person or place is definitely worth constructing!
Do you think “The Kiwi’s egg” makes effective use of both scientific and narrative description? Or, have you seen another example of these two descriptive styles used simultaneously?
Quammen, D (2006). The Kiwi’s Egg:1842-1844. In The reluctant Mr.Darwin (pp 52-55). New York: Atlas.