Category Archives: History

September 30, 1861 (a Monday)

Archaeopteryx lithographica, a specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (This image shows the original fossil - not a cast.)

On this date, the German paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer christened the fossil he had found in 1860 in the Solnhofen limestone (Upper Jurassic) near Eichstatt, Germany as Archaeopteryx lithographica. He wrote:

Additional to my writing of the fifteenth of last month, I can notify you that I have inspected the feather from Solenhofen closely from all directions, and that I have come to the conclusion that this is a veritable fossilisation in the lithographic stone that fully corresponds with a birds’ feather. Simultaneously, I heard from Mr. Obergerichtsrath Witte, that the almost complete skeleton of a feather-clad animals had been found in the lithographic stone. It is reported to show many differences with living birds. I will publish a report of the feather I inspected, along with a detailed illustration. As a denomination for the animal I consider Archaeopteryx lithographica to be a fitting name [...]

Archaeopteryx lithographica, fossilized single feather found 1860. (This image shows the original fossil - not a cast.)

Because it exhibits both avian and reptilian characteristics, Archaeopteryx is usually considered an intermediate form, an important example of a missing link. The fossilized feather is currently located at the Humbolt Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. It is generally assigned to Archaeopteryx and was the initial holotype, but whether it actually is a feather of this species or another, as yet undiscovered, proto-bird is unknown. There are some indications it is indeed not from the same animal as most of the skeletons (the “typical” A. lithographica).

References:

  • Hermann von Meyer, “Archaeopteryx lithographica”, Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie (1861), 678-9.

September 28, 1698

Maupertuis

On this date, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis was born at Saint-Malo, France. Maupertuis published on many topics, including mathematics, geography, moral philosophy, biology, astronomy and cosmology. In 1741, he published a book called Essai de Cosmologie, in which he introduced the concept of stronger animals in a population having more offspring, an idea that prefigured Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection a century later. Another important publication on natural history was Vénus Physique, published anonymously in 1745, in which Maupertuis wrote:

Could one not say that, in the fortuitous combinations of the productions of nature, as there must be some characterized by a certain relation of fitness which are able to subsist, it is not to be wondered at that this fitness is present in all the species that are currently in existence? Chance, one would say, produced an innumerable multitude of individuals; a small number found themselves constructed in such a manner that the parts of the animal were able to satisfy its needs; in another infinitely greater number, there was neither fitness nor order: all of these latter have perished. Animals lacking a mouth could not live; others lacking reproductive organs could not perpetuate themselves… The species we see today are but the smallest part of what blind destiny has produced…

In his book Systeme de la Nature (1751), he theorized on the nature of heredity and how new species come into being. He thought that speciation took place by chance events in nature, rather than by spontaneous generation as was believed at the time.

Some historians of science see this series of conjectures as an early version of the theory of evolution. Indeed, if Maupertuis had taken his conjectures forward and developed them into a more fully formed theory, he might now be recognised as putting forward the foundations of the theory of evolution. Darwin’s fame rests on being the first to develop and publish the concept as a well-supported scientific theory, rather than being the first to suggest the concept.

Despite his many accomplishments, Maupertuis was considered arrogant by many of his fellow countrymen. He became a target of German mathematician Samuel Koenig, who accused him of plagiarism, and of French author Voltaire, whose satirical writings about Maupertuis were so savage that Maupertuis eventually left France. In 1759, Maupertuis died in virtual exile in Basel, Switzerland, in the home of Swiss mathematician Johann Bernoulli.

September 28, 1838 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin first had an insight into the mechanism of evolution in nature. He wrote in his autobiography in 1876:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.

Below is the famous passage from Darwin’s notebook where these ideas were first recorded:

[Sept] 28th.[1838] Even the energetic language of «Decandoelle» does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus.— «increase of brutes, must be prevented soley by positive checks, excepting that famine may stop desire.—» in Nature production does not increase, whilst no checks prevail, but the positive check of famine & consequently death..
…—The final cause of all this wedging, must be to sort out proper structure, and adapt it to change.—to do that for form, which Malthus shows is the final effect by means however of volition of this populousness on the energy of man. One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.

References:

  • Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (London: Collins, 1958).
  • Charles Darwin, Notebook D [Transmutation of species (1838.07.15-1838.10.02)] 134e-135e.

September 25, 1866 (a Tuesday)

Thomas Hunt Morgan

On this date, the American embryologist and geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan was born in Lexington, Kentucky. At Columbia University (1904-28), he began his revolutionary genetic investigations of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster (1908). In 1910, he discovered a white-eyed mutant in Drosophila. At that time, it was generally assumed that chromosomes could not be the carriers of the genetic information. Initially skeptical of Gregor Mendel’s research, Morgan performed rigorous experiments eventually demonstrating that genes are linked in a series on chromosomes and are responsible for identifiable, hereditary traits. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933, he was the first person awarded the Prize for genetics, for demonstrating hereditary transmission mechanisms in D. melanogaster.

September 24, 1835 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

HMS Beagle spent this day in the Galapagos Archipelago surveying the waters around Charles Island, which was populated by a small colony of about 250 political prisoners from the Republic of Equator (established in 1829). Darwin went on shore with Covington to collect plants and birds and climbed the highest hill — about 1,800 feet above sea level. He also examined a few curious lava chimneys. During his stay on the island, Darwin was informed by Mr. Nicholas Lawson, an Englishman in charge of the prison colony, that one can tell which island a tortoise came from by looking at its shell.

Galapagos tortoise

Later, when Darwin was completing his ornithological notes some time between mid-June and August 1836, he wrote:

When I recollect the fact, that from the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce from which Isd. any tortoise may have been brought: — when I see these Islands in sight of each other and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware is the constant asserted difference between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland lsds. — If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the Zoology of Archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species.

The first stirrings of doubt about the immutability of species had evidently struck Darwin by now.

References:

September 22, 1862 (a Monday)

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, page 1. Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration.

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, page 1. Record Group 11, General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives and Records Administration.

On this date, motivated by his growing concern for the inhumanity of slavery as well as practical political concerns, President Abraham Lincoln changed the course of the war and American history by issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Announced a week after the nominal Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, this measure did not technically free any slaves, but it expanded the Union’s war aim from reunification to include the abolition of slavery.

The proclamation announced that all slaves in territory that was still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be free. Since it freed slaves only in Rebel areas that were beyond Union occupation, the Emancipation Proclamation really freed no one. But the measure was still one of the most important acts in American history, as it meant slavery would end when those areas were recaptured.

“President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom,” by David Gilmour Blythe.

“President Lincoln, writing the Proclamation of Freedom,” by David Gilmour Blythe.

In addition, the proclamation effectively sabotaged Confederate attempts to secure recognition by foreign governments, especially Great Britain. When reunification was the goal of the North, foreigners could view the Confederates as freedom fighters being held against their will by the Union. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern cause was now viewed as the defense of slavery. The proclamation was a shrewd maneuver by Lincoln to brand the Confederate States as a slave nation and render foreign aid impossible.

The measure was met by a good deal of opposition, because many Northerners were unwilling to fight for the freedom of blacks. But it spelled the death knell for slavery, and it had the effect on British opinion that Lincoln had desired. Antislavery Britain could no longer recognize the Confederacy, and Union sentiment swelled in Britain. With this measure, Lincoln effectively isolated the Confederacy and killed the institution that was the root of sectional differences.

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

September 22, 1862

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy thereof, do hereby proclaim and declare that hereafter, as heretofore, the war will be prosecuted for the object of practically restoring the constitutional relation between the United States, and each of the States, and the people thereof, in which States that relation is, or may be, suspended or disturbed.

That it is my purpose, upon the next meeting of Congress to again recommend the adoption of a practical measure tendering pecuniary aid to the free acceptance or rejection of all slave States, so called, the people whereof may not then be in rebellion against the United States and which States may then have voluntarily adopted, or thereafter may voluntarily adopt, immediate or gradual abolishment of slavery within their respective limits; and that the effort to colonize persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this continent, or elsewhere, with the previously obtained consent of the Governments existing there, will be continued.

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

That the executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States, and part of States, if any, in which the people thereof respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof shall, on that day be, in good faith represented in the Congress of the United States, by members chosen thereto, at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.

That attention is hereby called to an Act of Congress entitled “An Act to make an additional Article of War” approved March 13, 1862, and which act is in the words and figure following:

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That hereafter the following shall be promulgated as an additional article of war for the government of the army of the United States, and shall be obeyed and observed as such:

“Article-All officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States are prohibited from employing any of the forces under their respective commands for the purpose of returning fugitives from service or labor, who may have escaped from any persons to whom such service or labor is claimed to be due, and any officer who shall be found guilty by a court martial of violating this article shall be dismissed from the service.

“Sec.2. And be it further enacted, That this act shall take effect from and after its passage.”

Also to the ninth and tenth sections of an act entitled “An Act to suppress Insurrection, to punish Treason and Rebellion, to seize and confiscate property of rebels, and for other purposes,” approved July 17, 1862, and which sections are in the words and figures following:

“Sec.9. And be it further enacted, That all slaves of persons who shall hereafter be engaged in rebellion against the government of the United States, or who shall in any way give aid or comfort thereto, escaping from such persons and taking refuge within the lines of the army; and all slaves captured from such persons or deserted by them and coming under the control of the government of the United States; and all slaves of such persons found on (or) being within any place occupied by rebel forces and afterwards occupied by the forces of the United States, shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude and not again held as slaves.

“Sec.10. And be it further enacted, That no slave escaping into any State, Territory, or the District of Columbia, from any other State, shall be delivered up, or in any way impeded or hindered of his liberty, except for crime, or some offence against the laws, unless the person claiming said fugitive shall first make oath that the person to whom the labor or service of such fugitive is alleged to be due is his lawful owner, and has not borne arms against the United States in the present rebellion, nor in any way given aid and comfort thereto; and no person engaged in the military or naval service of the United States shall, under any pretence whatever, assume to decide on the validity of the claim of any person to the service or labor of any other person, or surrender up any such person to the claimant, on pain of being dismissed from the service.”

And I do hereby enjoin upon and order all persons engaged in the military and naval service of the United States to observe, obey, and enforce, within their respective spheres of service, the act, and sections above recited.

And the executive will in due time recommend that all citizens of the United States who shall have remained loyal thereto throughout the rebellion, shall (upon the restoration of the constitutional relation between the United States, and their respective States, and people, if that relation shall have been suspended or disturbed) be compensated for all losses by acts of the United States, including the loss of slaves.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington this twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-two, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty seventh.

[Signed:] Abraham Lincoln
By the President

[Signed:] William H. Seward
Secretary of State

Remembering Tiananmen Square » The Endless Further

It’s a bit late, but I came across this post about the recent, 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. It’s worth reading.

Remembering Tiananmen Square » The Endless Further.

September 20, 1952 (a Saturday)

The Hershey-Chase Experiments.

On this date, geneticists Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase published the findings of their so-called blender experiments, which concluded that DNA (DeoxyriboNucleic Acid) is where life’s hereditary data is found.

Prior to these experiments, so named because they were conducted using a regular kitchen blender, it was generally thought that proteins — not DNA — were the genetic stuff of life.

Their experiments used the T2 bacteriophage, which, like other viruses, is just a crystal of DNA and protein. It can reproduce when inside a bacterium such as Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short. When the new T2 viruses are ready to leave the host E. coli cell (and go infect others), they burst the E. coli cell open, killing it (hence the name “bacteriophage”).

Hershey and Chase were seeking an answer to the question, “Is it the viral DNA or viral protein coat (capsid) that is the viral genetic code material which gets injected into the E. coli?” Using the kitchen blender, Hershey and Chase separated the protein coating from the DNA of T2 bacteriophage. Injecting the DNA into the bacterial cell, they found that it was the nucleic acid itself, and not the protein, that caused the transmission of hereditary information.

The Hershey–Chase experiment, its predecessors, such as the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment, and successors served to unequivocally establish that hereditary information was carried by DNA.

Alfred Hershey was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969. He shared the prize with two American scientists, Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria, for “discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses” but Chase, who served as Hershey’s lab assistant during his experiments and whose name appears on the paper, was snubbed.

References:

  • Hershey, A and Chase, M (1952). “Independent functions of viral protein and nucleic acid in growth of bacteriophage,” J Gen Physiol 36 (1): 39–56.

September 19, 1796 (a Monday)

On this date, President George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address to the People of the United States:

…[A]void the necessity of those overgrown Military establishments, which, under any form of Government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.

Although it is by all accounts the most famous and best-known of Washington’s speeches, it was never actually delivered orally by Washington. It was first published in David C. Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia) on 19 September 1796 under the title “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States.”  It was almost immediately reprinted in newspapers across the country and later in a pamphlet form.

Page 1 of Washington's handwritten so-called Farewell Address (1796).

Notwithstanding his role as the nation’s foremost military man, Washington consistently showed little enthusiasm for the idea of a standing army.  He often reflected the perspective taken by Madison, Franklin, and others, who saw ample historical precedent for the deterioration of a republic into an authoritarian regime when a leader used threats from abroad as a means of augmenting his authority as a military leader and undermining the authority of the other departments.

And as the above quote indicates, long before President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of “an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” in the Farewell Address he delivered over 50 years ago, Americans were familiar with the threat of “overgrown military establishments” to liberty.

In the early days of the United States, Americans, having just thrown off the yoke of the British empire, were understandably suspicious of standing armies in peacetime. The national army was kept intentionally small in peacetime, expanded in times of war, and reduced to prewar levels at the end of hostilities.

That was the pattern followed through the end of World War I, a time when many were beginning to question why America had entered the war in the first place, thereby entangling the country in the political, economic, and ethnic rivalries of Europe.  However, although America began to demobilize after World War II, there was no “return to normalcy” as President Harding had called for at the end of the previous war. The beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the fall of China to the communists, and the Korean War put America on a wartime footing that has become more or less permanent, whether we are in undeclared “shooting wars,” as in Korea, Vietnam, or our current wars in the Middle East, or in times of relative peace, most notably during the decade between the breakup of the Soviet Union and the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Today America resembles a worldwide garrison state, with our 1.5 million military personnel scattered over more than 4,500 military sites in our own country and more than 700 bases in 130 foreign lands. (The number of bases may actually be higher, since the Pentagon does not count bases with a “Plant Replacement Value” of less than $10 million.) Add to that all the billions awarded in defense contracts each year and the large number of people employed in defense-related industries, and Washington’s and Eisenhower’s words, which may have seemed dramatic at the time, seem more like an understatement today.

Between elections, members of the weapons industry sit in high places, bringing to the “councils of government” that “unwarranted influence” of which Eisenhower warned. Former Lockheed Martin Chief Operating Officer Peter Teets was appointed Under Secretary of the Air Force and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office during the Bush the Second’s administration. The Secretary of the Air Force was James Roche, a former vice president at Northrop Grumman. Secretary of the Navy Gordon England was vice president at General Dynamics. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had been a member of Raytheon’s board of directors and a consultant to Boeing. Senior Advisor to the President Karl Rove, who encouraged Republican candidates to support the Iraq War nine months before it started, owned between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Boeing stock, according to his disclosure forms. By happy coincidence, Boeing has sold at least 40 commercial planes, worth nearly $4 billion, to Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled.

There is no time in the nation’s history in which Washington’s and Eisenhower’s warning has sounded more clearly and powerfully than the present.

Suggested reading:

September 19, 1864 (a Monday)

Carl Erich Correns

On this date, the German botanist and geneticist Carl Erich Correns was born. He is famous for rediscovering, independently of but simultaneously with the biologists Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg and Hugo De Vries, Gregor Mendel’s historic paper outlining the principles of heredity.

In 1892, while at the University of Tübingen, Correns began to experiment with trait inheritance in plants. On January 25, 1900, he published his first paper, “G. Mendel’s Law Concerning the Behavior of the Progeny of Racial Hybrids”, in which he restated Mendel’s results and his law of segregation and law of independent assortment. Although the paper cited both Charles Darwin and Mendel, Correns did not fully recognise the relevance of genetics to Darwin’s ideas.

In attempting to determine the extent to which Mendel’s laws are valid, Correns undertook a classic study on heredity in the four-o’clock plant (Mirabilis jalapa). The blotchy leaves of these variegated plants show patches of green and white tissue, but some branches carry only green leaves and others carry only white leaves. Whether a tissue is green or white depends on whether there are green or white chloroplasts in the cytoplasm of its cells. Flowers appear on all types of branches, and Correns performed a variety of crosses.

Two features of his results were surprising. First, unlike what Mendel had observed, Correns found that there was a difference between reciprocal crosses, that is, leaf color depended greatly on which parent (i.e., flower’s branch) had which trait. Such results are normally encountered only for sex-linked genes, but Correns’ results cannot be explained by sex linkage. Secondly, the phenotype of the maternal parent was solely responsible for determining the phenotype of all progeny, that is, the phenotype of the male parent appeared to be irrelevant, making no contribution to the progeny at all! Although the white progeny plants did not live long because they lacked chlorophyll, the other types of progeny did survive and could be used in further generations of crosses. The same patterns of maternal inheritance always appeared in these subsequent generations.

Maternal inheritance can be explained if the chloroplasts are somehow genetically autonomous and furthermore, are never transmitted via the sperm. This is reasonable since the chloroplasts come exclusively from the mother in most angiosperms. In his 1909 paper, Correns established variegated leaf color as the first conclusive example of cytoplasmic inheritance (cases in which certain characteristics of the progeny are determined by factors in the cytoplasm of the female sex cell), also known as extrachromosomal or non-Mendelian inheritance.

Unfortunately, most of Correns’ work went unpublished and was destroyed in the Berlin bombings of 1945.

September 17, 1835 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

In the morning on this date, HMS Beagle anchored at Chatham Island in the Galapagos Archipelago. Of this island, Charles Darwin wrote:

Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface, being heated by the noon-day sun, gave to the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even that the bushes smelt unpleasantly.

Galapagos Archipelago

Although I diligently tried to collect as many plants as possible, I succeeded in getting very few; and such wretched-looking little weeds would have better become an arctic than an equatorial Flora. The brushwood appears, from a short distance, as leafless as our trees during winter; and it was some time before I discovered that not only almost every plant was now in full leaf, but that the greater number were in flower. The commonest bush is one of the Euphorbiaceæ: an acacia and a great odd-looking cactus are the only trees which afford any shade. After the season of heavy rains, the islands are said to appear for a short time partially green.

September 15, 1935 (a Sunday)

Massed crowds at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Nuremberg, Germany, 1935.

On this date, the Nuremberg Race Laws, as they became known, stripped German Jews of their citizenship, reducing them to mere “subjects” of the Nazi state.

The laws also prohibited Jews from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or related blood.” “Racial infamy,” as this became known, was made a criminal offense. Interestingly, the Nuremberg Laws did not define a “Jew” as someone with particular religious beliefs. Instead, anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents was defined as a Jew, regardless of whether that individual identified himself or herself as a Jew or belonged to the Jewish religious community. Consequently, the Nazis classified as Jews thousands of people who had converted from Judaism to another religion, among them even Roman Catholic priests and nuns and Protestant ministers whose grandparents were Jewish.

What was the outside world’s reaction? Because unemployment had dropped precipitously under Hitler’s early commandeering of the economy, and the average German felt renewed hope and pride, the face of Germany seemed brighter, more at peace with itself. While some foreign visitors, even some political opponents within Germany itself, decried these racist laws and practices, most were beguiled into thinking it was merely a phase, and that Hitler, in the words of former British Prime Minister Lloyd George, was “a great man.”

This is David Lloyd George’s impression after a meeting with Hitler on 4 September 1936, from the Daily Express (London), published on 17 November 1936:

I have just returned from a visit to Germany. In so short time one can only form impressions or at least check impressions which years of distant observation through the telescope of the Press and constant inquiry from those who have seen things at a closer range had already made on one’s mind. I have now seen the famous German Leader and also something of the great change he has effected. Whatever one may think of his methods – and they are certainly not those of a parliamentary country – there can be no doubt that he has achieved a marvellous transformation in the spirit of the people, in their attitude towards each other, and in their social and economic outlook. He rightly claimed at Nuremberg that in four years his movement has made a new Germany. It is not the Germany of the first decade that followed the war – broken, dejected, and bowed down with a sense of apprehension and importance. It is now full of hope and confidence, and of a renewed sense of determination to lead its own life without interference from any influence outside its own frontiers. There is for the first time since the war a general sense of security. The people are more cheerful. There is a greater sense of general gaiety of spirit throughout the land. It is a happier Germany. I saw it everywhere and Englishmen I met during my trip and who knew Germany well were very impressed with the change. One man has accomplished this miracle. He is a born leader of men. A magnetic, dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart. He is not merely in name but in fact the national Leader. He has made them safe against potential enemies by whom they were surrounded. He is also securing them against that constant dread of starvation, which is one of the poignant memories of the last years of the War and the first years of the Peace. Over 700,000 died of sheer hunger in those dark years. You can still see the effect in the physique of those who were born into that bleak world. The fact that Hitler has rescued his country from the fear of a repetition of that period of despair, penury and humiliation has given him unchallenged authority in modern Germany. As to his popularity, especially among the youth of Germany, there can be no manner of doubt. The old trust him; the young idolise him. It is not the admiration accorded to a popular Leader. It is the worship of a national hero who has saved his country from utter despondency and degradation. It is true that public criticism of the Government is forbidden in every form. That does not mean that criticism is absent. I have heard the speeches of prominent Nazi orators freely condemned. But not a word of criticism or of disapproval have I heard of Hitler. He is as immune from criticism as a king in a monarchical country. He is something more. He is the George Washington of Germany – the man who won for his country independence from all her oppressors. To those who have not actually seen and sensed the way Hitler reigns over the heart and mind of Germany this description may appear extravagant. All the same, it is the bare truth. This great people will work better, sacrifice more, and, if necessary, fight with greater resolution because Hitler asks them to do so. Those who do not comprehend this central fact cannot judge the present possibilities of modern Germany. On the other hand, those who imagine that Germany has swung back to its old Imperialist temper cannot have any understanding of the character of the change. The idea of a Germany intimidating Europe with a threat that its irresistible army might march across frontiers forms no part of the new vision. What Hitler said at Nuremberg is true. The Germans will resist to the death every invader at their own country, but they have no longer the desire themselves to invade any other land. The leaders of modern Germany know too well that Europe is too formidable a proposition to be overrun and trampled down by any single nation, however powerful may be its armaments. They have learned that lesson in the war. Hitler fought in the ranks throughout the war, and knows from personal experience what war means. He also knows too well that the odds are even heavier today against an aggressor than they were at that time. What was then Austria would now be in the main hostile to the ideals of 1914. The Germans are under no illusions about Italy. They also are aware that the Russian Army is in every respect far more efficient than it was in 1914. The establishment of a German hegemony in Europe which was the aim and dream of the old pre-war militarism, is not even on the horizon of Nazism. …

Not much has changed in the more than three-quarters of a century since then. Just consider the way the world looks at China, whose economy is commandeered by the Chinese Communist Party.

References:

  • J. Remak (ed.), The Nazi Years – A Documentary History (Prentice-Hall, 1969), pp.80-82.

September 15, 1835 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

In the afternoon of September 15, HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin on-board sighted Mount Pitt, a large hill on the north-east end of Chatham Island, about 600 miles off the coast of South America. This was the first sighting of the Galapagos Archipelago by the Beagle. Captain Robert FitzRoy wrote in the ship’s journal:

…we were anxiously looking out for land, when what appeared to be an islet was seen from the mast-head. This seeming islet turned out to be the summit of Mount Pitt, a remarkable hill at the north-east end of Chatham Island.

On September 16, the Beagle reached Hood Island. Early in the morning Edward Chaffers (Master) and Arthur Mellersh (Midshipman) set out on a boat to survey the island’s shoreline. By noon another boat was launched to survey the central islands of the archipelago. Later in the afternoon of September 16, HMS Beagle reached Chatham Island.

September 14, 1804 (a Friday)

John Gould, from *The Illustrated London News*, June 12, 1852.

On this date, the English ornithologist John Gould was born. His identification of Charles Darwin’s finches was pivotal in the development of the theory of evolution presented in The Origin of Species.

When Charles Darwin presented his mammal and bird specimens collected during the voyage of HMS Beagle to the Geological Society of London at their meeting on January 4, 1837, the bird specimens were given to Gould for identification. He set aside his paying work and at the next meeting on January 10 reported that birds from the Galápagos Islands which Darwin had thought were blackbirds, “gross-bills”, and finches were in fact “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar” as to form “an entirely new group, containing 12 species.” This story made the newspapers.

In March, Darwin met Gould again, learning that his Galápagos “wren” was another species of finch and the mockingbirds he had labelled by island were separate species rather than just varieties, with relatives on the South American mainland. Subsequently Gould advised that the smaller southern Rhea specimen that had been rescued from a Christmas dinner was a separate species, which he named Rhea darwinii, whose territory overlapped with the northern Rheas.

Darwin had not bothered to label his finches by island, but others on the expedition had taken more care. He now sought specimens collected by Captain Robert FitzRoy and crewmen. From them he was able to establish that the species were unique to the islands, an important step on the development of his theory of evolution. Gould’s work on the birds was published as Part 3 of The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, during the Years 1832 to 1836, edited by Charles Darwin and published in five volumes between 1838 and 1842.

During his life, Gould produced 41 lavishly illustrated volumes on birds from all over the world, containing in all about 3,000 plates, all lithographed and hand-painted. Of these, his Birds of Australia was particularly significant (1840-69) as the first comprehensive record of the continent’s birds and mammals. With its plates of the birds were descriptions and notes on their distribution and adaptation to the environment.

September 13, 1970 (a Sunday)

Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that “there is no such thing as society” and mainstream economics works from exactly the same assumption – for mainstream economists society is simply the aggregation, the adding together, of millions of individual economic actors and actions. All of these actors are assumed to be “rational” – a word which economists also use in a way that reflects their own prejudices – a purely calculating and narrowly self interested mentality focused on short and long run material gratification, whose relationship to other economic actors is intrinsically competitive. Thus “rational economic man” has no emotion, is part of no social psychological processes involving mutual influence, common hopes, beliefs and fears, no mutual support, no group or common class interests. Instead “rational economic man” is a calculating machine, focused on maximizing his satisfactions or “utility”.

– Brian Davey, “Economics is not a social science”

It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.

– E. F. Schumacher, “Buddhist Economics” (1966)

Zen stones

On this date, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Milton Friedman entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.”  It has been held up by neoliberals as the foundation of their economic beliefs ever since.

Neoliberals are fierce advocates of so-called free markets, as though they are some magical solution to all of the world’s problems. What Friedman called the “free market” is actually laissez-faire, the elimination of any government influence in the market. The only role for the government in the system would be for the protection of property rights.

The problem, of course, is that laissez-faire fails every time it is tried. The grand laissez-faire experiments during America’s Gilded Age resulted in the most devastating economic collapses, the last of which we now call the Great Depression. Friedman’s “free market” offers no safety and no rules. The unscrupulous exploit any advantage to develop a monopoly, with the result being that the market itself becomes unstable and will eventually self-destruct.

The other problem with the free market is that it makes no accommodation for the commons. The commons is a very old concept, pre-dating even colonial America, existing in English common law as far back as 800 CE. A “commons” is any resource used as though it belongs to all. In other words, when anyone can use a shared resource simply because one wants or needs to use it, then one is using a commons. For example, the radio frequencies that pass in and around and through us all are part of the commons. Nowadays, a government agency, the FCC, prevents any two businesses from broadcasting on the same frequency because otherwise nobody could listen to either of them. However, in laissez-faire, there would be no commons, and things such as the radio spectrum would be unusable in its entirety, due to encroachment by other ventures.

Sometimes it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in — sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and/or dangerous gases (for example, carbon dioxide) into the air; and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. If a corporation’s share of the cost of the wastes discharged into the commons is less than the cost of purifying those wastes before releasing them, then we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest,” so long as the government, even though it represents the people, cannot effectively regulate polluting corporations.

Milton Friedman offered no solution to these problems; in fact, his writings exacerbated them. The article he published on this date was ferocious. He said that any business executives who pursued a goal other than making money were “unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.” They were guilty of “analytical looseness and lack of rigor” and had even turned themselves into “unelected government officials” who were illegally taxing employers and customers. Ironically, Friedman himself was guilty of “analytical looseness and lack of rigor” by assuming the conclusion of his argument at the beginning of his article.

On 26 June 2013, Forbes published “The Origin of ‘The World’s Dumbest Idea’: Milton Friedman” written by Steve Denning. He points out several flaws and inconsistencies in Friedman’s paper:

“In a free-enterprise, private-property sys­tem,” the article states flatly at the outset as an obvious truth requiring no justification or proof, “a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business,” namely the shareholders…

If anyone familiar with even the rudiments of the law were to be asked whether a corporate executive is an employee of the shareholders, the answer would be: clearly not. The executive is an employee of the corporation…

A corporate exec­utive who devotes any money for any general social interest would, the article argues, “be spending someone else’s money… Insofar as his actions in accord with his ‘social responsi­bility’ reduce returns to stockholders, he is spending their money.”

How did the corporation’s money somehow become the shareholder’s money? Simple. That is the article’s starting assumption. By assuming away the existence of the corporation as a mere “legal fiction”, hey presto! the corporation’s money magically becomes the stockholders’ money.

Denning then points out how Friedman later, in a conceptual sleight of hand, recasts the money:

The article goes on: “Insofar as his actions raise the price to customers, he is spending the customers’ money.” One moment ago, the organization’s money was the stockholder’s money. But suddenly… the organization’s money has become the customer’s money…

The article continued: “Insofar as [the executives’] actions lower the wages of some employees, he is spending their money.” Now suddenly, the organization’s money has become, not the stockholder’s money or the customers’ money, but the employees’ money.

According to Denning, Friedman’s entire paper rests on the false assumption “that an organization is a legal fiction which doesn’t exist and that the organization’s money is owned by the stockholders.”

The success of the article was not because the arguments were sound or powerful, but rather because people desperately wanted to believe. [emphasis in original]

As a result of Friedman’s writings, self-interest has reigned supreme. His theories justify the impulse to make money by whatever means are available. As recent scandals have made clear, even breaking the law is acceptable, if the corporation gets off with civil penalties that are small in relation to the illicit gains that are made.

Roger Martin, in his book, Fixing the Game, writes:

It isn’t just about the money for shareholders, or even the dubious CEO behavior that our theories encourage. It’s much bigger than that. Our theories of shareholder value maximization and stock-based compensation have the ability to destroy our economy and rot out the core of American capitalism. These theories underpin regulatory fixes instituted after each market bubble and crash. Because the fixes begin from the wrong premise, they will be ineffectual; until we change the theories, future crashes are inevitable.

References:

September 13, 1848 (a Wednesday)

Phineas Gage skull diagram 1868 (left) and skull (right).

Phineas Gage (1823-1860) is one of the earliest documented cases of severe brain injury. He is the index case of an individual who suffered major personality changes after brain trauma. As such, Gage is a legend in the annals of neurology, which is largely based on the study of brain-damaged patients.

On this date, 25-year-old Phineas Gage and his crew were working on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad near Cavendish, Vermont. Gage was preparing for an explosion by compacting a bore with explosive powder using a tamping iron. While he was doing this, a spark from the tamping iron ignited the powder, causing the iron to be propelled at high speed straight through his skull. It entered under the left cheek bone and exited through the top of the head, and was later recovered some 30 yards from the site of the accident.

Gage recovered almost entirely from his physical disabilities, except for loss of sight in one eye. It is surprising, of course, that Gage survived such a traumatic event at all, but more surprising is the fact that his personality was completely changed as a result of the accident. Gage’s doctor describes how “the equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculty and animal propensities” had been destroyed. The changes became apparent as soon as the acute phase of brain injury subsided. He was now “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity which was not previously his custom, manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times perniciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned. . . .” .

These new personality traits contrasted sharply with the “temperate habits” and “considerable energy of character” Phineas Gage was known to have possessed before the accident. Previously, he had “a well balanced mind and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, small businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of action.” So radical was the change in him that friends and acquaintances could hardly recognize the man. They noted sadly that he was “no longer Gage.”  In fact, he was so different that his employers had to let him go shortly after he returned to work. The problem was not lack of physical ability or skill – it was his new character.

References:

  • Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, New York: Avon, 1994.

September 12, 1940 (a Thursday)

Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves.

Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves.

On this date, four teenagers followed their dog down a narrow entrance into a cavern near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. There they discovered the prehistoric artwork today known as the Lascaux cave paintings. The 15,000- to 17,000-year-old paintings, consisting mostly of large animals once native to the region, are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period. (The Paleolithic period is a division of archaeological time roughly coincident with the Pleistocene epoch of geologic time). The paintings were given statutory historic monument protection in December of the same year they were discovered.

Lascaux is located in the Vézère Valley where many other decorated caves have been found since the beginning of the 20th century (for example, Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume in 1901 and Bernifal in 1902). Lascaux is a complex cave with several areas: the Great Hall of the Bulls, the Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Chamber of Engravings, the Painted Gallery, and the Chamber of Felines. The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories — animals, human figures and abstract signs. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments although some designs have also been incised into the stone.

September 11, 1831 (a Sunday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy began their trip from London to Plymouth to inspect HMS Beagle. Concerned about Darwin’s sea-worthiness, FitzRoy decided they would go by ship rather than by coach, even though it would have been much faster. Apparently, Darwin handled the three day trip very well and FitzRoy was impressed that a land-lover could take to the sea so quickly. This was Darwin’s first sight of the ship on which he would sail a voyage of discovery leading to his famous theory of evolution. However, when Darwin saw the Beagle his heart sank into his stomach. The ship was in tatters! She had no masts, half of the deck had been torn away, and the water-tightness of the hull appeared dubious. FitzRoy assured Darwin that she would be sea-worthy in short order — no expense would be spared in her refitting. As Darwin later wrote in his Autobiography:

When recommissioned in 1831 for her second voyage, she was found (as I learned from the late Admiral Sir James Sulivan) to be so rotten that she had practically to be rebuilt, and it was this that caused the long delay in refitting.

September 10, 1941 (a Wednesday)

"The main reason I write is that the world is very complicated, and when I write I learn," said Gould.

On this date, American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould was born. Gould, who grew up in New York City, graduated from Antioch College in 1963 and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967. He was immediately hired by Harvard University, where he worked until the end of his life. Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1973 and to Professor of Zoology in 1982. Gould also worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was awarded fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1983, where he later served as president (1999-2001), and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989. He also served as president of the Paleontological Society (1985-1986) and the Society for the Study of Evolution (1990-1991).

Gould is one of the most highly cited scientists in the field of evolutionary theory. The paper entitled “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” (1979) that he co-authored with Richard Lewontin has been cited more than 1,600 times. In Palaeobiology—the flagship journal of his own speciality—only Charles Darwin and George Gaylord Simpson have been cited more often. Gould was also a considerably respected historian of science. Historian Ronald Numbers has been quoted as saying: “I can’t say much about Gould’s strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I’ve regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn).”

Perhaps more than any other contemporary American scientist, Stephen Jay Gould committed himself to communicating the goals, processes, and achievements of science to a wide audience. His high visibility, distinctive critical voice, and marked enthusiasm for making science accessible to the general public led him to contribute to debates surrounding creationism, evolutionary psychology, and biological determinations of race and intelligence. Gould wrote popular science essays in Natural History magazine and best-selling books on evolution. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life, Rocks of Ages, and Full House.  His work won many awards, including the National Book Award.

September 10, 1788 (a Wednesday)

Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes

On this date, the French geologist and archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecœur de Perthes was born. His discovery in 1846 of whole handaxes, tools, and fragments embedded in and scattered about the fossilized bones of extinct mammals in the Somme River valley showed that man existed at least as early as the ancient creatures. He announced his discovery in the first volume of a work he published in 1847, Antiquites Celtiques Et Antediluviennes (Celtic and pre-Flood Antiquities).

The very title of his book showed that Boucher de Perthes at first regarded these implements and weapons as having belonged to men overwhelmed at the Deluge of Noah; but it was soon seen that they were something very different. Being found in terraces at great heights above the Somme River indicated that they must have been deposited there at a time when the river system of northern France was vastly different from anything known within the historic period. This would have required a series of great geological changes since the time when these implements were made, disproving the prevailing theologically-based idea that 4004 B.C. was the year of the creation of man.

The type of handaxe discovered by Boucher de Perthes.

Although Boucher de Perthes was the first to establish that Europe had been populated by early man in the Pleistocene or early Quaternary period, he himself was not able to pinpoint the precise period because the scientific frame of reference did not then exist. Today, the handaxes of the Somme River district are widely accepted to be at least 500,000 years old and thus the product of Neandertal populations, while some authorities think they may be as old as one million years and therefore associated with Homo erectus.

September 9, 1794 (a Tuesday)

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist William Lonsdale was born in Bath. His study of coral fossils found in Devon suggested (1837) that certain of them were intermediate between those typical of the older Silurian System (408 to 438 million years old) and those of the later Carboniferous System (286 to 360 million years old). Geologists Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick agreed. They named (1839) this new geologic system after its locale – the Devonian System.

Lonsdale’s early career was as an army officer (1812-15). Residing afterwards for some years at Batheaston, he collected a series of rocks and fossils which he presented to the Literary and Scientific Institution of Bath. He became the first honorary curator of the natural history department of the museum, and worked until 1829 when he was appointed assistant secretary and curator of the Geological Society of London (GSL) at Somerset House. There he held office until 1842, when ill health led him to resign. Lonsdale was awarded the prestigious Wollaston Medal of the GSL in 1846. He recognised that fossils showed how species changed over time, and more primitive organisms are found in lower strata. Charles Darwin used this to support his theory of evolution by natural selection.

September 8, 1892 (a Thursday)

Southington, Connecticut school children pledge their allegiance to the flag, in May 1942.

Southington, Connecticut school children pledge their allegiance to the flag, in May 1942.

On this date, the Pledge of Allegiance was published in The Youth’s Companion, the leading family magazine and the Reader’s Digest of its day. It was written by Francis Bellamy in 1892 as a critique of the rampant greed, misguided materialism, and hyper-individualism of the Gilded Age. Furthermore, he wrote it in support of President Harrison’s public education programs, which were called socialist in 1892 just as Obama’s health care program is today.

He did not include the phrase “under God” as part of the original Pledge.

Bellamy, who lived from 1855 to 1931, was a Baptist minister and a leading Christian socialist. He was ousted from his Boston church for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist and for his work among the poor in the Boston slums.

Bellamy (cousin of Edward Bellamy, author of two best-selling socialist utopian novels, Looking Backward and Equality) believed that unbridled capitalism, materialism and individualism betrayed America’s promise. He hoped the Pledge of Allegiance would promote a different moral vision to counter the rampant greed he thought was undermining the nation.

In 1923, over the objections of the aging Bellamy, the National Flag Conference, led by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the opening, “I pledge allegiance to my flag” to “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”  In 1954, at the height of the Cold War — when many political leaders believed that the nation was threatened by godless communism — the Knights of Columbus led a successful campaign to get Congress to add the words “under God.”

The Pledge was now both a patriotic oath and a public prayer. Bellamy’s granddaughter said he also would have resented this second change: He had been pressured into leaving his church in 1891 because of his socialist sermons, and during his retirement in Florida he stopped attending church because he disliked the racial bigotry he found there.

When we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we should remind ourselves that it was written by a socialist who believed that “liberty and justice for all” meant more equality and a stronger democracy.

September 8, 1504

Plaster cast of original statue of 'David', by Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, 1501-4. Cast by unknown maker, Florence, Italy, about 1857.

Plaster cast of original statue of ‘David’, by Michelangelo, Florence, Italy, 1501-4. Cast by unknown maker, Florence, Italy, about 1857.

On this date, the original statue of David by Michelangelo was unveiled in Florence, Italy.

Interestingly, a replica of the statue of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ was originally presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857, but was immediately given by the queen to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). The story goes that on her first encounter with the cast of ‘David’ at the Museum, Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity that a proportionally accurate fig leaf was commissioned. It was then kept in readiness for any royal visits, when it was hung on the figure using two strategically placed hooks. In a photograph of the Art Museum taken around 1857-9 the figure of David is shown wearing a fig leaf. The fig leaf is likely to have been made by the Anglo-Italian firm D. Brucciani & Co., based in London.

Male nudity was then a contentious issue. A letter sent to the Museum in 1903 by a Mr Dobson complained about the statuary displayed: ‘One can hardly designate these figures as “art” !: if it is, it is a very objectionable form of art.’

In relation to Mr Dobson’s complaint, the then director Caspar Purdon Clarke noted: ‘The antique casts gallery has been very much used by private lady teachers for the instruction of young girl students and none of them has ever complained even indirectly’ (museum papers, 1903).

Tin fig leaves had been used during the early years of the Museum on other nude male statuary, but later authorities at South Kensington were dismissive of objections. Nowadays, the fig leaf is no longer displayed on the David. Instead, it is housed in its own case on the back of the plinth of the figure.

Hopefully, that’s where it will remain.

September 7, 1707 (a Wednesday)

Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon

On this date, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon was born in Montbard, France. Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière(1749-1778: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that time and was translated into many different languages, making him the most widely read scientific author of the day, equaling Rousseau and Voltaire. Buffon’s views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Buffon was one of the first philosophers to grapple with the questions of evolution, both of Earth and of living creatures. At the time, church doctrine insisted that Earth was only six thousand years old and that each type of creature had been made independently by a Creator. He proposed instead around 1778 that the Earth was hot at its creation and, from the rate of cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

Buffon noted that despite similar environments, different regions of the world have distinct plants and animals, a concept later known as Buffon’s Law, widely considered the first principle of biogeography. He made the radical conclusion that species must have both “improved” and “degenerated” (evolved) after dispersing away from a center of creation. He also asserted that climate change must have facilitated the worldwide spread of species from their center of origin. Buffon also proposed, in sharp contrast to his contemporary Carolus Linnaeus, that species are defined not by simple similarity of appearance but by reproductive fertility over time.

September 7, 1829 (a Monday)

Lithograph of dino fossils, Leidy (1860)

On this date, the American geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden was born. It is generally accepted that the first discovery of dinosaur remains in North America was made in 1854 by Hayden during his exploration of the upper Missouri River. At that time, the area was the hunting ground of the Lakota, Blackfeet, Atsina, and River Crow Indians. A lone white man in Indian Country was often fair game to the tribes, but Hayden’s passion for rocks and fossils earned him the name “He Who Picks Up Stones While Running” and a reputation for madness. The Indians left him alone.

Hayden explored what would later become known as the Judith River Formation, a large area of sedimentary materials deposited in the lowland areas bordering the Colorado Sea during the Late Cretaceous Period 78 to 74 million years ago. Here, Hayden’s party recovered a small collection of teeth which were later described (in 1856) by Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Three of the specimens described were dinosaurs – Trachodon, Troodon (now known as Stegosaurus), and Deinodon (notice the use of ‘don’ meaning ‘tooth’). This was the first published description of dinosaur remains in the United States. Leidy recognised that Trachodon was a creature similar to Iguanodon.

Interestingly, for centuries the Blackfeet have inhabited the high plains of Montana and Alberta – the same area in which the dinosaur-rich, Late Cretaceous Hell Creek and Oldman Formations occur. Dinosaur fossils were known to the Blackfeet, who considered them to be the remains of giant, ancestral buffalo. The Blackfeet used dinosaur bones in rituals intended to insure good hunting. Notwithstanding the religious significance dinosaur bones had for the Blackfeet, they were quite enlightened in their view toward dinosaurs. They hit on the antiquity, and the organic nature of dinosaur remains, and in comparing them to buffalo showed their sophisticated knowledge of vertebrate anatomy. Referring to dinosaurs as large buffalo was thus good scientific practice in the context of their perception of the natural world. In doing this, they were as close to the truth as was the Rev. Dr. Plot back in England, or any other European of the time.