Ontogeny

November 1999

I had a client in a southern city whose offices crowned a 20-story high-rise. We met in a corner conference room that overlooked a river and afforded us a sweeping view. Of course, I did my best to focus my attention on the people in business dress who ringed the table.

But occasionally, I was distracted by my high school biology teacher, Louise Schwabe, who told us again and again that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. That is, in the course of our development in the womb, we repeat the patterns of our evolution as a species. For a while we look like a tadpole, and then a baby chick, and then some kind of small mammal, which indeed we are at birth.

I think I have an animal memory of the small dumb mammal part, because I could not sit at the client’s conference table without suppressing a yelp every time my peripheral vision picked up a shadow, then the six-foot span and black heft of a turkey vulture zooming past and settling on the eaves just outside the ceiling-high window at the head of the table.

And while the responsible professional in me engaged in meaningful dialogue, the small dumb mammal mapped out escape routes around and under the chair of the firm’s Chairman and silently screamed “Serpentine! Serpentine!”

At my last meeting, there were six sharp-beaked carrion eaters outside the windows, as hideous in repose as they were beautiful in flight, perched and preening, then soaring out in search of dead meat, rattling me with every arrival and departure.

No one else inside the glass paid any attention to them. Only my small dumb mammal, and he kept his mouth shut, listened to Miss Schwabe, and considered his options just in case a window swung open.

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