Category Archives: History

November 24, 1859 (a Thursday)

The title page of the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species.

On this date, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by the British naturalist Charles Darwin, was published in England. The book was offered to booksellers at Murray’s autumn sale on November 22, and all available copies were taken up immediately. In total 1250 copies were printed, but after deducting presentation and review copies, and five for Stationers’ Hall copyright, around 1,170 copies were available for sale. In the book, Darwin detailed the scientific evidence he had collected since his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle in the 1830s. He presented his idea that species are the result of a gradual biological evolution through natural selection. Natural selection is the differential reproductive success of individuals due to advantageous heritable traits, which are also known as adaptations. The book was an immediate success and Darwin started editing it today for a second edition.

November 21, 1953 (a Saturday)

At the Piltdown site.

On this date, the 40-year-long hoax of the Piltdown Man ended when the British Museum revealed that it was a “perfectly executed and carefully prepared fraud.” The Piltdown forgery was conceived, planned and executed sometime between 1907 and 1911. The faux hominid skull was constructed from the remains of a recent human cranium, later shown to have been thickened by disease during the subject’s lifetime (thus giving the primitive look); half the lower jaw of an orangutan from which telltale parts had been removed and whose teeth had been filed to resemble worn human teeth; and a doctored canine tooth, probably from the same lower jaw. In all, 37 pieces of carefully selected bone and stone were involved, each altered and stained.

November 18, 1810 (a Sunday)

Asa Gray By John Whipple, 1864

On this date, America’s leading botanist in the mid-nineteenth century, Asa Gray, was born. On a visit to England in 1851, Gray met for lunch with Charles Darwin, and they formed a lasting connection. When Gray returned to the United States, he was able to see that North American plant life had evolved under the disruption of the ice age. In a famous letterto Gray dated September 5, 1857, Darwin wrote:

As you seem interested in subject, & as it is an immense advantage to me to write to you & to hear ever so briefly, what you think, I will enclose (copied so as to save you trouble in reading) the briefest abstract of my notions on the means by which nature makes her species. Why I think that species have really changed depends on general facts in the affinities, embryology, rudimentary organs, geological history & geographical distribution of organic beings. In regard to my abstract you must take immensely on trust; each paragraph occupying one or two chapters in my Book. You will, perhaps, think it paltry in me, when I ask you not to mention my doctrine; the reason is, if anyone, like the Author of the Vestiges, were to hear of them, he might easily work them in, & then I shd’have to quote from a work perhaps despised by naturalists & this would greatly injure any chance of my views being received by those alone whose opinion I value.—…

Gray was the third scientist Darwin told of his theory (after Hooker and Lyell). [Less than a year later, both Darwin and Wallace publicly proposed that evolution occurred by natural selection. It was Darwin's good luck that his early correspondence with Gray showed that he had been first to articulate the idea.] The depth of their friendship was evident in a letter dated January 23, 1860 concerning the help the American botanist wished to give Darwin in presenting his book to the American public. In this letter Gray wrote:

Your candor is worth everything to your cause. It is refreshing to find a person with a new theory who frankly confesses that he finds difficulties, insurmountable at least for the present. I know some people who never have any difficulties to speak of. The moment I understood your premises I felt sure you had real foundation to hold on. Well, if one admits the premises, I do not see how it is to stop short of your conclusions, as a probable hypothesis, at least.

In 1856, Gray published a paper on the distribution of plants under the title Statistics of the Flora of the Northern United States; and this paper was followed in 1859 by a memoir on the botany of Japan and its relations to that of North America, a paper of which Sir J. D. Hooker said that “in point of originality and far-reaching results [it] was its author’s opus magnum.” Gray’s discovery of close affinities between East Asian and North American floras was a key piece of evidence in favor of evolution. He explained this disjunct distribution pattern by suggesting that New England and temperate Asia had once been geographically continuous and had had a uniform flora which only diverged after the areas were separated by later geological events. This hypothesis has not only held up, supported by the discovery of continental drift and plate tectonics, it has also proved fruitful enough to provide a basis for current and important research in vicariance biogeography.

From 1855 to 1875, Gray was both a keen critic and a sympathetic exponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. His religious views were those of the Evangelical bodies in the Protestant Church; so that, when Darwinism was attacked as equivalent to atheism, he was in position to answer effectively the unfounded allegation that it was fatal to the doctrine of design. He openly avowed his conviction that the present species are not special creations, but rather derived from previously existing species; and he made his avowal with frank courage, when this truth was scarcely recognized by any naturalists, and when to the clerical mind evolution meant atheism. The Rev. R. W. Church, the Dean of St. Paul, had met Gray in 1853 and later wrote about his life-long friend:

His religious views were a most characteristic part of the man, and the serious and earnest conviction with which he let them be known had, I am convinced, a most wholesome effect on the development of the great scientific theory in which he was so much interested. It took off a great deal of the theological edge, which was its danger, both to those who upheld and those who opposed it. I am sure things would have gone more crossly and unreasonably if his combination of fearless religion and clearness of mind and wise love of truth had not told in the controversy.

Gray wrote numerous botanical textbooks and works on North American flora, including Flora of North America that he co-authored with his mentor John Torrey.

References:

  • Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, September 5, 1857; Reprinted in Frederick Burkhardt, ed., Charles Darwin’s Letters: A Selection 1825-1859 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 177-179.
  • “New Publications; Asa Gray’s Life and Letters: Letters of Asa Gray,” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 19, 1893) 23.

November 17, 1877 (a Saturday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, Charles Darwin received an honorary Doctorate of Law from Cambridge University. This was one of the proudest moments of his life.

November 15, 1871 (a Wednesday)

Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg

On this date, the Austrian agronomist Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg was born.  He was one of the scientists, the others being Hugo De Vries and Carl Correns, who independently rediscovered the work that Gregor Mendel did in the 1860s on the laws of heredity.  Von Seysenegg published his findings in June 1900.  The priority of Mendel was acknowledged without restriction by all three researchers.  Mendel’s discovery that inheritance is particulate, and confirmation of his discovery by Von Seysenegg, De Vries, and Correns, constitutes one of the main pillars of the theory of evolution.

November 14, 1797 (a Tuesday)

Sir Charles Lyell circa 1865-1870

On this date, the geologist Charles Lyell was born at Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Scotland. His first book, entitled Principles of Geology and published in three volumes in 1830-33, was also his most famous, most influential, and most important. Lyell was an important influence on Charles Darwin.

November 13, 1874 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the second edition of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin was published. It was generally the edition most commonly reprinted after Darwin’s death and up to the present. In the introduction to the first edition, Darwin gave the purpose of his treatise:

The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.

One of the more controversial scientific questions of Darwin’s day was whether the different races of human beings were of the same species or not. Darwin was a long-time abolitionist who had been horrified by slavery when he first came into contact with it in Brazil while touring the world on the Beagle voyage many years before. [With the passage of The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Parliament had finally ended slavery throughout the British Empire.] He reasoned that most of the visual differences between the human races were superficial – issues of skin color and hair type – and that most of the mental differences were merely cases of “civilization” or a lack of it. For example, Darwin interpreted the “savage races” he saw in South America at Tierra del Fuego as evidence of a more primitive state of human civilization. He concluded that the visual differences between races were not adaptive to any significant degree, and were more likely simply caused by sexual selection – different standards of beauty and mating among different peoples – and that all of humankind was one single species. Darwin never argued nor implied that human races had been evolved at different times or stages, nor that any of the races was inferior to the others.

November 12, 1968 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Susan Epperson et al v. Arkansas was decided.  The U.S. Supreme Court found that Arkansas’ law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional because the motivation was based on a literal reading of Genesis, not science.

November 11, 1572

Tycho Brahe

On this date, the Danish nobleman, astrologer, and alchemist Tycho Brahe observed (from Herrevad Abbey) a very bright star, now named SN 1572, that had unexpectedly appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia.  Since it had been maintained since antiquity that the world beyond the orbit of the moon, i.e., the world of the fixed stars, was eternal and unchangeable (a fundamental axiom, known as “celestial immutability”, of the Aristotelian world view), other observers held that the phenomenon was something in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Tycho, however, noticed that the parallax of the object did not change from night to night, suggesting that the object was far away.  He argued that a nearby object should appear to shift its position with respect to the background.  Tycho published a small book, De Stella Nova (1573), thereby coining the term nova for a “new” star (we now know that Tycho’s star in Cassiopeia was a supernova 7500 light years from Earth).  He knew the cosmological ramifications of his discovery and was strongly critical of those who dismissed the implications of the astronomical appearance, writing in the preface to De Stella Nova: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores” (“Oh thick wits.  Oh blind watchers of the sky”).

November 9, 1934 (a Friday)

Carl Sagan

On this date, the astronomer Carl Sagan was born in New York City. He helped define two new disciplines: planetary science and exobiology. In terms of scientific achievements, Sagan is best known for his research on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. Sagan was also an advocate of the search for extraterrestrial life. He helped Dr. Frank Drake write the Arecibo message, a radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974, aimed at informing extraterrestrials about Earth. Sagan also urged the scientific community to listen with radio telescopes for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. So persuasive was he that by 1982, he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science, signed by 70 scientists, including seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field. Sagan believed that the Drake equation suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations pointed out by the Fermi paradox suggests technological civilizations tend to destroy themselves rather quickly. This stimulated his interest in identifying and publicizing ways that humanity could destroy itself, with the hope of avoiding such a cataclysm and eventually becoming a spacefaring species.

A professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University after 1968, Sagan was involved with numerous NASA planetary space probes and was the creator and host of the 1980 public television science series Cosmos. His publications include the book co-authored with the Russian astronomer I. S. Shklovskii Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966); The Dragons of Eden (1977; won a Pulitzer); a novel, Contact (1985); with Richard Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought (1990), on nuclear winter; with Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992); Pale Blue Dot (1994); The Demon-Haunted World (1996); and the posthumously published Billions and Billions (1997).

November 8, 1656

Edmund Halley

On this date, the astronomer Edmund Halley was born on the eastern edge of London, England. Although he is chiefly remembered for the comet which bears his name, he also made a mark for himself in geology. In 1715, he lectured the Royal Society of London that the age of the Earth could be calculated by measuring the ocean’s salinity since ocean salts result from sediments carried by rivers and streams. Interestingly, he began his talk by rejecting a literal interpretation of Genesis for the Earth’s age:

Whereas we are there told that the formation of man was the last act of the creator, ’tis no where revealed in scripture how long the earth had existed before this last creation, nor how long those five days that proceeded it may be to be accounted; since we are elsewhere told, that in respect of the almighty a thousand years is as one day, being equally no part of eternity; nor can it well be conceived how those days should be to be understood of natural days, since they are mentioned as measures of time before the creation of the sun, which was not till the fourth day.

Halley had no doubt that the Earth had existed long before the accepted date of the Creation, 4004 B.C., the date arrived at by Archbishop Ussher in 1620 by counting back all the generations in the Bible. It has often been thought that Halley was concerned about demonstrating a very old age for the Earth by making his proposal to the Society. However, he was actually trying to provide a maximal estimate of the Earth’s age. Halley objected to the notion that the Earth is eternal, as he later stated in his talk:

….the foregoing argument, which is chiefly presented to refute the ancient notion, some have of late entertained, of the eternity of all things.

Needless to say, these views led him to be regarded as something of a heretic by the Church authorities.

References:

  • Edmund Halley, “A Short Account of the Cause of the Saltness of the Ocean, and of the Several Lakes That Emit no Rivers; With a Proposal, by Help Thereof, to Discover the Age of the World,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1683-1775), Volume 29: 296-300.
  • Stephen Jay Gould, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993) 168-180.

November 7, 1545

John Calvin, by Hans Holbein

Want someone to blame for your credit card bills?

On this date, the banker Claude de Sachinus wrote to John Calvin, whom he described as a brother (frère) in the faith, and asked him for his opinion on levying interest. Contemporaries, he said, were of the view that levying interest, in so far as it was honest, fair (“une sorte d’usure honnête”), and in moderation (the right “proportion”), could also be advocated as Christian. But for him, indebted as he was to the Reformation, Holy Scripture alone was the criterion, even if it ran counter to his own business interests.

Calvin for his part, in great intellectual honesty, wanted to do justice to the biblical text which in the Old Testament pronounces a prohibition on usury and sought to interpret it for his time. He did this in a long letter, now known as De Usuris Responsum, which in all probability was addressed to the banker (although not published until 1575). In his letter:

  • After a short introduction, he began his argument with “‘First, there is no scriptural passage that totally bans all usury”.
  • He then makes the claim, “For Christ’s statement, which is commonly esteemed to manifest this [the total ban on all usury], but which has to do with lending, has been falsely applied to usury”, reminding the reader of the simple but often neglected fact that just because Christians have (perhaps for centuries) related a saying of Scripture to discussion of a particular moral issue does not infallibly prove that such a text is being correctly interpreted or that it is right to appeal to it in their moral argument.
  • Calvin paid close attention to the plain sense of the text in its original languages and in the original context of that text.  Calvin’s argument against a blanket prohibition on usury is therefore in part a careful study of key Hebrew terms showing that because the Hebrew word tok can generally mean “defraud”, ‘it can be translated otherwise than “usury” and that other terms refer to usury which “eats away at its victims”‘.
  • Calvin was quite frank about the strength of biblical opposition to usury, speaking in his letter of “the Holy Spirit’s anger against usurers” displayed in the prophets and psalms and even acknowledging that “the Holy Spirit … advises all holy men, who praise and fear God, to abstain from usury”. His commentary on Ps 15.5 admitted that David seems to condemn all kinds of usury in general, and without exception. Nevertheless, despite statements such as these his letter still maintained that “we need not conclude that all usury is forbidden”.
  • Calvin then turned to the rationale offered in Lev 25:35-36 to argue that “the end for which the law was framed was that men should not cruelly oppress the poor”. This then qualifies Ezekiel who “seems to condemn the taking of any interest whatever upon money lent; but he doubtless has an eye to the unjust and crafty art of gaining, by which the rich devoured the poor people”.  In effect, Calvin was arguing that the purpose (or justification) behind a biblical moral rule carries greater weight than the rule itself.
  • Calvin argued that “we ought not to judge usury according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity”.   In stating his limits on usury, he insisted that “everything should be examined in the light of Christ’s precept: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This precept is applicable every time” and argues that what is lawful in regard to usury is to be based on “a principle derived from the Word of God”.
  • The crucial paragraph in Calvin’s letter followed his discussion of Ezekiel which concluded that “the prophets only condemned usury as severely as they did because it was expressly prohibited for Jews to do”. It reads as follows:

    Today, a similar objection against usury is raised by some who argue that since the Jews were prohibited from practicing it, we too, on the basis of our fraternal union, ought not to practice it. To that I respond that a political union is different. The situation in which God brought the Jews together, combined with other circumstances, made commerce without usury apt among them. Our situation is quite different. For that reason, I am unwilling to condemn it, so long as it is practiced with equity and charity.

  • In his rejection of the tradition’s appeal to Lk 6.35 as referring to usury, Calvin highlighted Christ’s command “to lend to those from whom no hope of repayment is possible” and called on Christians “to help the poor” as “Christ’s words far more emphasize our remembering the poor than our remembering the rich”. He insisted that nobody should take interest from the poor and those lending must not neglect their duties or disdain their poor brothers.

It is important to recognize what a radical change Calvin’s work represented. In the words of John T Noonan:

Once upon a time, certainly from at least 1150 to 1550, seeking, receiving, or hoping for anything beyond one’s principal – in other words, looking for profit – on a loan constituted the mortal sin of usury. The doctrine was enunciated by popes, expressed by three ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians. The doctrine was not some obscure, hole-in-the-corner affection, but stood astride the European credit markets, at least as much as the parallel Islamic ban of usury governs Muslim countries today…The great central moral fact was that usury, understood as profit on a loan, was forbidden as contrary to the natural law, as contrary to the law of the church, and as contrary to the law of the gospel.

In fact, Martin Luther regarded the biblical prohibition of usury as permanently binding. In his 1524 sermon on trade and usury, Luther lashed out at any attempt to charge interest. In his view, Christians “should willingly and gladly lend money without any charge.” The Elizabethan Protestant bishop John Jewel reflected the views of his age when he raged from his pulpit against the iniquities of usury. “It is theft, it is the murdering of our brethren, it is the curse of God and the curse of the people.” This uncompromising opposition to usury was embodied in a statute passed by the English Parliament in 1571, which had the unforeseen and unintended effect of legitimating usury at a fixed rate of 10 percent.

It is generally acknowledged by those who have studied Calvin’s economic and political views that he was the first of the Reformers to give a theological defense of the practice of lending money at interest.

Calvin’s views, which were seen by many as running counter to the clear meaning of the Bible, took some time to become accepted. By the middle of the seventeenth century – more than one hundred years after Calvin’s groundbreaking analysis – usury was fully regarded as acceptable. Protestant jurists such as Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf supplemented Calvin’s theological analysis with clarifications of economic concepts, especially in relation to price and value, that finally removed any remaining scruples about lending money at interest. The Catholic church did not sanction usury, however, until 1830, apparently in response to the widespread acceptance of the practice within predominantly Protestant western Europe.

References:

November 7, 1840 (a Saturday)

Aleksandr Onufriyevich Kovalevsky

On this date, the Russian founder of comparative embryology and experimental histology Aleksandr Onufriyevich Kovalevsky was born. He was the first to establish that there was a common pattern in the embryological development of all multicellular animals.

Kovalevsky began by studying the lancelet, a fish-shaped sea animal about 2-in. (5-cm) long; he then wrote Development of Amphioxus lanceolatus (1865). In 1866, he demonstrated the similarity between Amphioxus and the larval stages of tunicates and established the chordate status of the tunicates. In 1867, Kovalevsky extended the germ layer concept of Christian Heinrich Pander and Karl Ernst von Baer to include the invertebrates, such as the ascidians, establishing an important embryologic unity in the animal kingdom. This was important evidence of the evolution of living organisms. In the Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin took serious note of Kovalevsky’s interpretation of the embryonic development of ascidians, writing:

M. Kovalevsky has lately observed that the larvae of the Ascidians are related to the Vertebrata in their manner of development, in the relative position of the nervous system and in possessing a structure closely like the chorda dorsalis of vertebrate animals; and in this he has since been confirmed by Prof. Kupffer. M. Kovalevsky writes to me from Naples, that he has now carried these observations further; and, should his results be well established, the whole will form a discovery of the greatest importance. Thus if we may rely on embryology, ever the safest guide in classification, it seems that we have at last gained a clew in the source whence the vertebrates were derived. I should then be justified in believing that at an extremely remote period a group of animals existed, resembling in many respects the larvae of our present ascidians, which diverged into two great branches – the one retrograding in development and producing the present class of Ascidians, the other rising to the crown and summit of the animal kingdom by giving birth to the Vertebrata.

Kovalevsky was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1890.

Xinjiang: An Inconvenient Truth for the Chinese Communist Party

“URUMQI, China — An exhibit on the first floor of the museum here gives the government’s unambiguous take on the history of this border region: ‘Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China,’ says one prominent sign.

But walk upstairs to the second floor, and the ancient corpses on display seem to tell a different story.”

- Edward Wong. “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To“, The New York Times, 18 November 2008

Zen stones

Uncomfortably for the Communist Chinese authorities, hundreds of mummies unearthed in remote parts of the Tarim Basin in what is now the Xinjiang region of China offer a far more nuanced history of settlement than the official Chinese version. By that official account, Zhang Qian, a general of the Han dynasty, led a military expedition to Xinjiang in the second century B.C.E. His presence is often cited by the ethnic Han Chinese when making historical claims to the region ( even though ancient Chinese sources describe the existence of “white people with long hair” — the Bai people of the Shan Hai Jing — beyond their northwestern border).

Tian Chen mummy, close-up of head. One of the mummies from four burial sites between the Tian Shan (‘Celestial Mountains’) of north-west China and the Taklimakan Desert.

The Tarim mummies show, though, that humans entered the region thousands of years before Zhang Qian, and almost certainly from the west. In fact, the mummies provide evidence of heterogeneity throughout the region’s history of human settlement. As a result, the Chinese authorities have been unwilling to give broad access to foreign scientists to conduct genetic tests on the mummies.

What is indisputable is that the Tarim mummies are among the greatest recent archaeological finds in China, perhaps the world.

The corpses, dating from about 2000 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E., are astonishingly well preservedand Caucasian. In contrast to most central Asian peoples, these corpses have obvious European features — blond hair, long noses, deep-set eyes, and long skulls. Unlike the roughly contemporaneous mummies of ancient Egypt, the Xinjiang mummies were not rulers or nobles; they were not interred in pyramids or other such monuments, nor were they subjected to deliberate mummification procedures. For this reason, these so-called mummies are technically desiccated corpses. Unlike Egyptian mummies, their lifelike appearance is due not to any artificial intervention on the part of those who buried them. Rather, it is the outcome of environmental conditions in the parched, stony desert of the region, with the best-preserved bodies being those who died in winter and were buried in especially salty, well-drained soils — all of which would inhibit putrefaction and prevent deterioration; after thousands of years, not even slight amounts of moisture penetrated these burials. The bodies were quickly dried, with facial hair, skin, and other tissues remaining largely intact. The famous mummies of Egypt appear dry and shriveled, blackened like discarded walnut husks, compared with these lifelike remains.

A Tarim Basin mummy photographed by Aurel Stein circa 1910.

At the beginning of the 20th century European explorers such as Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein recounted their discoveries of desiccated bodies in their search for antiquities in Central Asia. However, no further attention was given to the mummies until 1978 when Wang Binghua, one of China’s most distinguished archaeologists, found one. Before Wang’s work in the region, evidence of early settlements had been virtually unknown. In the late 1970s, though, Wang had begun a systematic search for ancient sites in the northeast corner of Xinjiang Province. Knowing that ancient peoples would have located their settlements along a stream to have a reliable source of water, Wang followed one such stream from its source in the Tian Shan, asking locals along the way whether they had ever found any broken bowls, wooden artifacts, and so forth. Finally, one older man tipped him off to a place they called Qizilchoqa, or “Red Hillock.” It wasn’t much to look at — a sandy slope in a green ravine next to a village called Wupu.

In the early 1990s, several Western academics accompanied Wang to the region to observe the excavations. Among them were Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, executive director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, and English archaeologist Charlotte Roberts.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published in February 2010 in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, the research team concluded that the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

East Asian peoples only began showing up in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, largely based in modern day Mongolia, around the year 842. But politically, the region came under Chinese control only under the Qing Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Uighur separatists resist the term Xinjiang — which means “New Frontier,” given to the region by the Chinese in 1884 — and prefer East Turkestan.

Interestingly, in the preface to the 2002 book, The Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang, written by Wang Binghua, the Chinese historian and Sanskrit specialist Ji Xianlin soundly denounced the use of the mummies by Uighur separatists as proof that Xinjiang should not belong to China.

“What has stirred up the most excitement in academic circles, both in the East and the West, is the fact that the ancient corpses of ‘white (Caucasoid/Europoid) people’ have been excavated,” Ji wrote. “However, within China a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are acting like buffoons. Some of them have even styled themselves the descendants of these ancient ‘white people’ with the aim of dividing the motherland. But these perverse acts will not succeed.”

Further on, in an apparent swipe at the Chinese government’s lack of eagerness to acknowledge the science and publicize it to the world, Ji wrote, “a scientist may not distort facts for political reasons, religious reasons, or any other reason”.

And, Ji Xianlin, the facts speak for themselves.

References:

November 6, 1913 (a Thursday)

East portico of the NHMLAC

On this date, the “Los Angeles County Historical and Art Museum“, the precursor to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, opened its doors.  On its fascade above these doors appears the museum’s motto, carpere et colligere, Latin for “to pluck and to gather”, an apt saying for a repository of approximately 33 million artifacts.

November 6, 1990 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Webster v. New Lenox was decided.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school boards have the right to prohibit teaching creationism because such lessons would constitute religious advocacy.

November 5, 1892 (a Saturday)

John Haldane

On this date, British geneticist and biometrician John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born. He was one of the three major figures to develop the mathematical theory of population genetics. (He is usually regarded as the third of these in importance, after R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright.) Population genetics became one of the key elements of what would be called the Modern Synthesis. It revealed how mutations arise and, if they are favored by natural selection, can spread through a population, causing evolutionary change without the help of imaginary Lamarckian forces. Haldane also worked in biochemistry, and on the effects of diving on human physiology. He was the first to suggest that membranes played a role in the origin of life in his prescient note in The Rationalist Annual (1926). He wrote that “The cell consists of numerous half-living chemical molecules suspended in water and enclosed in an oily film. When the whole sea was a vast chemical laboratory the conditions for the formation of such films must have been relatively favorable . . .” In 1954, Haldane, speaking at the Symposium on the Origin of Life, suggested that an alternative biochemistry could be conceived in which water was replaced as a solvent by liquid ammonia.

J.B.S. Haldane began studying science at the age of eight, as assistant to his father (the noted physiologist John Scott Haldane). A Marxist from the 1930s, Haldane was well known for his outspoken Marxist views. He resigned from the Communist Party around 1950 on the issue of Lysenko’s claims to have manipulated the genetic structure of plants and “Stalin’s interference with science.” He became known to a large public as a witty popularizer of science with such works as Daedalus (1924), Possible Worlds (1927), and The Causes of Evolution (1932).

Purportedly, it is Haldane who made the famous comment that all that biology tells us about the nature of God is that he has “an inordinate fondness for beetles” (reported in G. E. Hutchison, 1959, Amer. Natur. 93:145-159).

References:

  • J.B.S. Haldane, “The Origin of Life,” The Rationalist Annual 148: 3-10 (1929).

November 4, 1855 (a Sunday)

Frederick Orpen Bower

On this date, the botanist Frederick Orpen Bower was born in Ripon, England. His study of primitive land plants, especially the ferns, contributed greatly to a modern emphasis on the study of the origins and evolutionary development of these plants. A man who did not shy away from theorizing, one of his most productive “working hypotheses” was his application of the alternation of generations model to explaining the way the land was colonized by early plants. This subject was explored most completely in his book entitled The Origin of a Land Flora: A Theory Based upon the Facts of Alternation, published in 1908.

From his many years studying liverworts, mosses, and ferns, Bower concluded that they had evolved from algal ancestors. Bower’s hypothesis states, in essence, that the sporophyte generation (the conspicuous vegetative stage in familiar vascular plants) developed de novo from a haploid alga that lacked a diploid sporophyte generation but instead had merely a diploid zygote (a cell formed by the fusion of two gametes, such as sperm and egg). Before the evolution of embryos, this zygote would have immediately undergone meiosis (to relieve the diploid condition) and produced spores, the propagules of the next haploid generation. Growth of such a spore into a gametophyte is analogous to growth of an isolated human sperm or egg cell into a hypothetical haploid generation. Thus, the sporophyte generation first appeared as an added generation that came into existence as a result of delayed zygotic meiosis – sort of a delayed plant puberty. In other words, what might otherwise have become the new haploid cells of the next generation by chromosome reduction instead retained its diploid character and thus added, aà la Bower, a new generation to the life cycle. The final step of spore production still eventually occurred, but not until after the diploid cells had grown and developed into a new sporophyte generation, in essence an overgrown zygote.

Under Brower’s hypothesis, we suppose that, from the point of view of the gametophyte, the sporophyte generation is like a giant multicellular spore factory. For example, in Coleochaete pulvinata, a modern freshwater green alga, the surface of the mature zygote is covered by a layer of haploid cells, which form ingrowths that penetrate the zygote to provide nutrition. The protected diploid zygote in Coleochaete gives the aquatic alga advantages because many more spores can be produced from a single fertilization event than would be the case if the zygote hurried straight to meiosis and the formation of one of those four spore tetrads so common in the fossil record. Bower’s hypothesis remains to be tested, but if it is correct, the sporophyte generation (diploid cells) came to develop inside (and be protected by) the gametophyte generation (haploid cells) precisely because the arrangement ultimately benefited both generations.

An older, competing hypothesis dating back to 1874 held that the algal ancestor of embryophytes already had had alternation of two generations for a long time and was thus diplobiontic, as opposed to haplobiontic. Haplobiontic organisms, such as humans, have the gametes as the only haploid cells; diplobiontic organisms develop those haploid cells into a multicellular life stage. The diplobiontic hypothesis of 1874 is less favored now because it fails to explain how the sporophytes and gametophytes, which in modern diplobiontic green algae have no long-term physical connection, could have evolved the intimate physical connection, in both nutritional and developmental respects, shared by the haploid and diploid components of all embryophytes.

Bower’s other publications included Ferns (three volumes, published 1923-28) and Primitive Land Plants (1935). Bower was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891 and was awarded the Linnean Medal in 1909, the Royal Medal in 1910, and the Darwin Medal in 1938, the latter “In recognition of his work of acknowledged distinction in the field in which Darwin himself laboured.”

November 1, 1977 (a Tuesday)

Carl Woese

On this date, the American microbiologist and physicist Carl Woese published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which he defined the Archaeabacteria (a new super-kingdom of life) by phylogenetic analysis of 16S ribosomal RNA.  This technique was pioneered by Woese and is now standard practice. By 1990 Woese shortened the name Archaebacteria to Archaea and adopted the term “domains” for the three new branches of life: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Archaea are neither Bacteria nor Eukaryotes. In other words, they are Prokaryotes that are not Bacteria. More than twenty kingdoms exist under the domains in the tree of life, far more than the five original kingdoms suggested by R.H. Whittaker in 1969. In fact, Woese found that Archaea are more closely related to Eukarya (plants, animals, fungi, etc.) than to Bacteria. This accounted for the renaming of Archaebacteria, the original name given by Woese, to Archaea.

According to Woese:

The archaea are unique organisms. While prokaryotes in the cytological sense, they are actually more closely related to eukaryotes than to the bacteria. They are of particular interest for this reason alone-they are simple organisms whose study should provide insights into the nature and evolution of the eukaryotic cell. Their study is also central to an understanding of the nature of the ancestor common to all life. The archaea are, of course, interesting in their own right. The group contains both the methanogens and numerous organisms that grow at extremely high temperatures (in some cases above 100°C). As such, they provide potential insights into mechanisms of thermophilia and methanogenesis.

by Carl Woese

The acceptance of the validity of Woese’s classification was a slow and painful process. Famous figures, including Salvador Luria and Ernst Mayr, objected to his division of the prokaryotes. Not all criticism of him was restricted to the scientific level. Not without reason has Woese been dubbed “Microbiology’s Scarred Revolutionary” by the journal Science. The growing amount of supporting data led the scientific community in general to accept the Archaea by the mid-1980s. A shrinking minority of scientists still adhere to concepts of evolutionary radiation, but Woese appears to have been vindicated in his convictions.

References:

November 1, 1880 (a Monday)

Alfred Lothar Wegener

On this date in Berlin was born Alfred Lothar Wegener, a German meteorologist and geophysicist who first gave a well-developed hypothesis of continental drift. In 1912, he presented a paper entitled “Die Herausbildung der Grossformen der Erdrinde (Kontinente und Ozeane) auf geophysikalischer Grundlage” (“The geophysical basis of the evolution of large-scale features of the earth’s crust”) before the Geological Association of Frankfurt am Main. He suggested that all the present-day continents came from a single primitive land mass, the supercontinent Pangaea, which eventually broke up and gradually drifted apart about 250 million years ago. (A similar idea was proposed earlier by F.B. Taylor in 1910.) It was expanded in 1915 into Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans), the first comprehensive account of the theory of continental drift. Others saw the fit of coastlines of South America and Africa, but Wegener added more geologic and paleontological evidence that these two continents were once joined.

Just like the initial reaction in the scientific community to the idea of evolution in the eighteenth century (see Jean-Baptiste Lamarck), reaction to Wegener’s theory was almost uniformly hostile, and often exceptionally harsh and scathing; Dr. Rollin T. Chamberlin of the University of Chicago said, “Wegener’s hypothesis in general is of the footloose type, in that it takes considerable liberty with our globe, and is less bound by restrictions or tied down by awkward, ugly facts than most of its rival theories.” Part of the problem was that Wegener had no convincing mechanism for how the continents might move.

In the fourth edition of his book, The Origins of Continents and Oceans (1929), Wegener wrote:

Scientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence. . . It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine ‘truth’ here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw.

Beginning in 1906, interested in paleoclimatology, he went on several expeditions to Greenland to study polar air circulation. Wegener made what was to be his last expedition to Greenland in 1930. While returning from a rescue expedition that brought food to a party of his colleagues camped in the middle of the Greenland icecap, he died, a day or two after his fiftieth birthday. Wegener’s theory found more scattered support after his death, but the majority of geologists continued to believe in static continents and land bridges.

Increased exploration of the Earth’s crust, notably the ocean floor, beginning in the 1950s and continuing on to the present day, has provided overwhelming evidence for the mechanism by which the continents move, called plate tectonics. By the late 1960s, plate tectonics, as well as continental drift, was well supported and accepted by almost all geologists.

October 31, 2011 (a Monday)

Train station in Mumbai.

Train station in Mumbai.

As calculated by the United Nations, the seven-billionth human being arrived on Earth on this date. The specter of too many people and not enough food has haunted scientists and philosophers since at least the time of Aristotle. The most famous is Thomas Robert Malthus, who in 1798 grimly predicted that population growth would outpace food production, resulting in human death and misery.

October 31, 1992 (a Saturday)

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition.

On this date, the Vatican finally admitted erring for over 359 years in formally condemning Galileo Galilei for entertaining the scientific truth that the Earth revolves around the sun, which the Roman Catholic Church had long denounced as anti-scriptural heresy. After 13 years (!) of inquiry, the Pope’s commission of historic, scientific and theological scholars brought the pope a “not guilty” finding for Galileo. Pope John Paul II himself met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help set the record straight.

On the morning of June 22, 1633, at age 69, Galileo had been ordered by the Roman Inquisition to repent and spend the last eight years of his life under house arrest. His formal sentencing had concluded:

And, so that you will be more cautious in future, and an example for others to abstain from delinquencies of this sort, we order that the book Dialogue of Galileo Galilei be prohibited by public edict. We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure.

As a salutary penance we impose on you to recite the seven penitential psalms once a week for the next three years. And we reserve to ourselves the power of moderating, commuting, or taking off, the whole or part of the said penalties and penances.

This we say, pronounce, sentence, declare, order and reserve by this or any other better manner or form that we reasonably can or shall think of. So we the undersigned Cardinals pronounce.

Galileo was a seventeenth-century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist remembered as one of history’s greatest scientists. However, Pope John Paul II did not specify a penalty or penance for the Church.

October 30, 1844 (a Wednesday)

Robert Chambers

On this date, George Combe wrote a congratulatory letter that he sent to the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation through the publisher of the book. Combe was a phrenologist, who claimed to be able to read a person’s character from the shape of his skull, and he was delighted that the unknown author shared his belief in the “truth” of phrenology.

Only two weeks earlier, while they were on a Saturday walk, Combe had told his friend, the English journalist Robert Chambers, that he should read the newly published book. Combe already had received one of the first free copies, which he had skimmed and partially read with care. Ironically, Combe had not known on that Saturday walk that he was speaking to the author of Vestiges in person, namely, Robert Chambers! Evidently, Chambers did not reveal his identity to Combe. In fact, Chambers revealed his identity to only seven people during his lifetime.

In his letter, Combe said that on turning the pages of the book, he experienced a sense of “pleasure and instruction” – that it combined “all the sublimity of a grand poem, and the sober earnestness & perspicuity of a rigidly philosophical induction.” His letter compared Vestiges to “a new sun” in the scientific firmament, which “will probably collect around it innumberable facts, until at length it shall develop itself into a Theory as perfect as a planetary system.”

This was the book that brought the notion of transmutation out into the public arena. It attempted to describe the entire evolution of the universe, from planets to people, as being driven by some kind of self developing force which acted according to natural laws.

Readers of Vestiges included Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Benjamin Disraeli, and John Stuart Mill, although not all shared the same opinion of it. The politically liberal medical journal, the Lancet, said it was “like a breath of fresh air to workmen in a crowded factory.” The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” On the other hand, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the most vicious book reviews of all time, describing Vestiges as a “once attractive and still notorious work of fiction” and its author as one of “those who…indulge in science at second-hand and dispense totally with logic.” Scottish journalist and geologist Hugh Miller even published an entire book, Foot-Prints of the Creator, to discredit Vestiges. Yet Vestiges sold remarkably well, one of the best-sellers of its time.

In his introduction to On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin assumed that his readers were aware of Vestiges, and wrote identifying what he felt was one of its gravest deficiencies with regards to its theory of biological evolution:

The author of the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ would, I presume, say that, after a certain unknown number of generations, some bird had given birth to a woodpecker, and some plant to the mistletoe, and that these had been produced perfect as we now see them; but this assumption seems to me to be no explanation, for it leaves the case of the coadaptations of organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life, untouched and unexplained.

Chambers wrote that “My sincere desire in the composition of the book was to give the true view of the history of nature, with as little disturbance as possible to existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious.” He wanted to open up the question of evolution by natural law to serious scientific discussion. In a supplement to the Vestiges first published in 1845 and entitled Explanations, he wrote, “I said to myself: Let [Vestiges] go forth to be received as truth, or to provoke others to a controversy which may result in establishing or overthrowing it.”

References:

  • James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003) pp. 38, 264.
  • William Henry Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Belford, Clarke & Company, 1889).

October 29, 1831 (a Saturday)

Othniel Charles Marsh

On this date, the American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marshwas born. He made extensive scientific explorations of the western United States and contributed greatly to knowledge of extinct North American vertebrates, although Marsh spent only four seasons in the field, between 1870 and 1873. “The Great Bone Wars” were the result of his rivalry with Edward Drinker Cope, America’s other great vertebrate paleontologist of the period. Both men hired field crews to unearth and ship back fossils as fast as possible. The rival crews were known to spy on each other, to dynamite their own and each other’s secret localities (to keep their opponents from digging there), and occasionally to steal each other’s fossils.

In contrast to Cope, Marsh was one of the first American converts to Darwin’s theory of evolution. As it turned out, he also gathered an immense amount of data to support it. Marsh’s enormous collection of fossils enabled him to fill in a number of the gaps in the fossil record that were troublesome for supporters of Darwinian evolution. One of Marsh’s most well-known finds were fossils illustrating the evolution of the horse. In an obituary written by Marsh to commemorate Thomas Henry Huxley’s life, Marsh made special mention of his horses:

One of Huxley’s lectures in New York was on the genealogy of the horse, a subject which he had already written about, based entirely upon European specimens. My own explorations had led me to conclusions quite different from his, and my specimens seemed to me to prove conclusively that the horse originated in the New World and not in the Old, and that its genealogy must be worked out here. With some hesitation, I laid the whole matter frankly before Huxley, and he spent nearly two days going over my specimens with me, and testing each point I made. He then informed me that all this was new to him, and that my facts demonstrated the evolution of the horse beyond question, and for the first time indicated the direct line of descent of an existing animal [emphasis added].

Darwin’s book Origin of Species was published in 1859, during Marsh’s senior year at Yale. In 1862 and 1865, Marsh had traveled to England, where he met scientists such as Charles Lyell, T. H. Huxley, and Charles Darwin himself. Two years after Marsh visited Darwin at Down House in 1878, Darwin wrote the following letter to Marsh on or about August 31, 1880:

I received some time ago your very kind note of July 28th, & yesterday the magnificent volume. I have looked with renewed admiration at the plates, & will soon read the text. Your work on these old birds & on the many fossil animals of N. America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years. The general appearance of the copy which you have sent me is worthy of its contents, and I can say nothing stronger than this. With cordial thanks, believe me yours very sincerely,

Charles Darwin

References:

  • David Rains Wallace, The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Guilded Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

October 27, 1943 (a Wednesday)

Gay love letter

On this date, the letter below was written by one World War II soldier to another. It is a love letter between two servicemen on the occasion of their anniversary. The letter was originally published in September 1961 by ONE Magazine — an early gay magazine based out of Los Angeles. In 2000, Bob Connelly, an adjunct professor of LGBT studies at American University, found a copy of the letter in the Library of Congress. He brought the letter to the attention of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in April 2010. They sent the text of the letter to President Obama as part of their campaign against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

I sincerely thank Mr. Connelly for his research and the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives for granting permission for the letter to be republished.

Dear Dave,

This is in memory of an anniversary — the anniversary of October 27th, 1943, when I first heard you singing in North Africa. That song brings memories of the happiest times I’ve ever known. Memories of a GI show troop — curtains made from barrage balloons — spotlights made from cocoa cans — rehearsals that ran late into the evenings — and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice. Opening night at a theatre in Canastel — perhaps a bit too much muscatel, and someone who understood. Exciting days playing in the beautiful and stately Municipal Opera House in Oran — a misunderstanding — an understanding in the wings just before opening chorus.

Drinks at “Coq d’or” — dinner at the “Auberge” — a ring and promise given. The show 1st Armoured — muscatel, scotch, wine — someone who had to be carried from the truck and put to bed in his tent. A night of pouring rain and two very soaked GIs beneath a solitary tree on an African plain. A borrowed French convertible — a warm sulphur spring, the cool Mediterranean, and a picnic of “rations” and hot cokes. Two lieutenants who were smart enough to know the score, but not smart enough to realize that we wanted to be alone. A screwball piano player — competition — miserable days and lonely nights. The cold, windy night we crawled through the window of a GI theatre and fell asleep on a cot backstage, locked in each other’s arms — the shock when we awoke and realized that miraculously we hadn’t been discovered. A fast drive to a cliff above the sea — pictures taken, and a stop amid the purple grapes and cool leaves of a vineyard.

The happiness when told we were going home — and the misery when we learned that we would not be going together. Fond goodbyes on a secluded beach beneath the star-studded velvet of an African night, and the tears that would not be stopped as I stood atop the sea-wall and watched your convoy disappear over the horizon.

We vowed we’d be together again “back home,” but fate knew better — you never got there. And so, Dave, I hope that where ever you are these memories are as precious to you as they are to me.

Goodnight, sleep well my love.

Brian Keith

For anyone to say that Gay love is any less passionate, any less real, any less committed, has no idea what love is to start with.