January 17, 2003

Breaktime: Arthur Shapiro — Talking butterflies and politics

By Clifton B. Parker

Professor of entomology, evolution and ecology — and eccentricity — Art Shapiro eyes a butterfly specimen in his lab. The longtime faculty member is in his 26th year of hosting his annual butterflies-for-beer contest.

Debbie Aldridge/Mediaworks

Arthur Shapiro looks like he jumped out of a Woody Guthrie folk song. At first glance, few would guess that the grungy Shapiro was a professor in entomology, evolution and ecology, let alone one of the world’s foremost experts on butterflies.

"It’s disarming to look the way I do," he said. "People’s perception of me is not necessarily who I am. I like being unpredictable."

The only thing predictable about Shapiro is his constant search for butterflies and his ability to deliver meaningful research on topics such as the decline of California’s butterfly population. He’s often in the field looking for the delicate creatures that stir his imagination in so many ways.

Since 1977, Shapiro has held an annual contest to catch a particular butterfly species. He awards a pitcher of beer to the first person who captures a live cabbage butterfly, Pieris rapae, after Jan. 1 each year. The butterfly usually is the first kind to emerge after metamorphosis in spring. Shapiro runs the contest to make sure he’s doing his job monitoring the insect. Few beat him to the punch.

"In all those years, I’ve only been beaten three times and tied once," he said.

Shapiro’s interest in butterflies stems back to his childhood in Philadelphia. While in high school, he authored scientific articles, later going on to the University of Pennsylvania and then Cornell University for a doctorate in entomology. It’s not just butterflies that intrigue Shapiro – he writes on everything from weather to culture and politics. And he’s not shy about tweaking the nose of authority.

Why did you choose a career in research?

It’s what I’m supposed to do. I could’ve been good at being a bum if I wanted, but I ended up in research. As a child I was fascinated with butterflies. You see, my parents had a bad marriage, so I spent a lot of time outdoors exploring. And I found butterflies.

What’s one of your recent discoveries?

My graduate student Matt Forister and I found that 70 percent of 23 low-altitude butterfly species are emerging into their first flights earlier now than they were 30 years ago. This seems related to temperature and possibly global warming. We’re hoping to publish our results soon.

Read any good books lately?

One was J.H. Powell’s Bring Out Your Dead, a history of the yellow fever that struck Philadelphia in 1793. In our times, it’s interesting to understand how an epidemic can bring about a social breakdown. The other book was E.H. Carr’s What Is History? It describes how history is intellectually similar to evolutionary biology as a discipline.

What’s surprising about you?

I’m a registered Republican and always have been. No, I don’t donate to them. When somebody accuses me of being a pinko or Commie, it’s helpful to note my political registration. It throws them off balance. Also, in primary elections I like to vote against any Republican candidates who walk with their knuckles scraping the ground.

What would be your first act if you were president for a day?

I’d roll back what the White House is doing in international relations and in the environment. I’d delete from history the "Axis of Evil" speech.

Are you really as radical as you look?

I dress the way I do because I believe in the supremacy of content over display. I’m also more comfortable. But if anyone wants to know my political beliefs, they can just read Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford political philosopher.

Otherwise, I’m pretty well domesticated with a wife I’ve been married to since 1969 and two teenage children. I walk to work on campus as I live only a few blocks away.

What’s the best part of your job?

Once I had a colleague shout from his lab bench as I was returning from a trip with my butterfly net, "Arthur, are they still paying you to collect butterflies?" Doing the field work is the most fun.

What’s the least favorite part?

Dealing with administrative follies like automatic flush toilets. They’re dumb and expensive.

What do you think of the future of higher education?

I’m worried about the cultural illiteracy of students. Some of the most educated students I meet on the UC Davis campus are from overseas.

We need to do a better job with educating our young people about the world they live in and all its different cultures, places and people. It’s called responsible citizenship.

Once I had a student ask, ‘What century did Stalin live in?’

What’s one of your big worries?

Not only the United States but the world could all too easily be driven to catastrophe by the combination of ignorance, arrogance and greed in high places and the apathy and willingness of the citizenry to be led. These are very scary times.

Do you consider yourself a curmudgeon?

Well, I know a few hoboes, and the hoboes are complaining that the younger generation of hoboes is going to pot.

The old ones are saying you can’t trust the young ones, that they do drugs, steal and so on. Same thing every generation says about the one coming up. That’s the kind of world we live in – where the hoboes think the young ones are dragging it all down. •

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Dateline UC Davis is the faculty and staff newspaper for the University of California, Davis.