Dead Bunnies

By Lyall Watson
Hodder and Stoughton; 186 pp,

One judges a book, as every good university student knows, not by its table of contents but by its index. Readers who have been curious for years will be gratified to learn that “Welch, Raquel, water content of,” can be found in Lyall Watson’s Earthworks on page 119.

And that’s not all. The index promises a reference to “overpopulation: head-hunting as solution to, 158″ and some discussion of “rabbits, resonance between” on pages 69-70. “Soul, scientific proof of” will be dealt with briefly on page 110, and mention will be made at various points of the rate of dog biting in New York, the left-handedness of Jack the Ripper and why humans are the only primates capable of mating face to face.

Clearly no danger of narrow overspecialization here. On the contrary, Watson has an eye for the oddball and a view toward the Big Picture, and the result is a dozen essays on the quirks of the natural world that are as charming as they are suspect:

On the Skeleton Coast of West Africa, Watson recounts, one can find the small burial mounds of a now-extinct race of humans known as Boskopoids. They left no tools or art — nothing but their own skeletal remains – and yet their cranial capacity was 30 per cent larger than ours. Why, Watson wonders, did they evolve such a large brain so early? What did they use it for?

In 1983, physicists at the University of Rome set about attempting to detect the existence of gravity waves by balancing two enormous blocks of solid aluminum so finely as to be able to measure untoward vibrations in their very electrons. One block is in Italy; the other, to eliminate local error, is in Switzerland. So far, the gravity waves have failed to materialize, but the instruments appear to indicate that, for some unknown reason, every 12 hours the earth throbs.

Analysis of early cave paintings and the beveling of flint-chipped tools reveals that in our prehistory, there were apparently equal numbers of right and left-handed people, as there continue to be today among the Australian Aborigines and the bushmen of the Kalahari. For the rest of us, however, something changed about 10,000 years ago, leading not only to the present widespread right-hand dominance, but to the perpetuation of appropriate biases in Arabic, Asian and Western cultures.

Ah, but as intriguing as the premises may be, the speculations that follow are of a different order. Watson, it develops, is one of those who blame science for the modern malaise. It has blinded us to the true workings of the universe, which are as much spiritual as physical; it fails to recognize hidden energies and inner harmonies; it derides Kirlian photographers, pyramid tinkerers, and people who hook their ferns up to polygraph machines.

The attempt in Earthworks is to draw attention to that which mainstream science supposedly has failed to notice. Watson weaves the most disparate fragments of information into intricate patterns that, he insists, indicate there is a good deal more going on than the physicists and molecular biologists would have us believe.

The flaw in these essays, as with most of the parascientific genre, is that they raise eclecticism from a virtue to a methodology, building their dubious arguments by culling observations from entirely unrelated and often incommensurable disciplines. Anthropology mixes with physical chemistry, sociology with the statistics of chance, as though the terms of these different fields of inquiry are perfectly equivalent. It’s all terribly good fun, but it’s equally terribly bad philosophy.

It also leads Watson – a former BBC producer trained as a biologist, zoologist and anthropologist, and author of seven previous books – into the deadpan consideration of manifestly loopy propositions. There is, for example, the matter of the resonating rabbits.

The problem of communicating with submarines has been a thorny one for naval engineers, since seawater is an effective shield against most radio waves. Undersea communication is now possible using extremely low frequency signals, but Watson insists that the Soviets have been secretly experimenting with telepathic rabbits.

Newborn rabbits, he recounts, were taken down in a submarine while their mother was kept ashore with electrodes planted in her brain. At intervals, the baby rabbits were killed one by one, and each time one of her offspring died, there were sharp electrical responses in the brain of the mother. This, Watson suggests, is evidence of the sympathy of living things and the oneness of the universe.

Maybe yes, maybe no. But one cannot shake the suspicion that anyone who believes the Soviets have submarine commanders ready to loose their complement of nuclear-tipped missiles on orders relayed by murdered bunnies has a dash more credulity than is

Montreal Gazette July 26, 1986