Category Archives: Zoology

July 28, 1840 (a Tuesday)

Edward Drinker Cope

On this date, the American paleontologist, herpetologist, and mammalogist Edward Drinker Cope was born. Cope was a scientist by self-study and personal nature — he held no degrees except honorary ones from Haverford College and, late in life, from the University of Munich. He made many important dinosaur discoveries in western North America but spent 20 years in a protracted battle with his archrival, O.C. Marsh, for professional prestige in what came to be known as the Great Bone Wars. Financially ruined in his later years, Cope had to sell his house and move in with his museum collections. He spent his final days on a cot surrounded by piles of bones.

Cope accepted the fact of evolution but thought that change in developmental (embryonic) timing, not natural selection, was the explanation for how evolution occurs. That is, a new developmental stage would be tacked onto the end of the developmental process, pushing the old end stage further back in development. Such was the view of the American school of self-proclaimed, so-called neo-Lamarckians, who invoked an internal drive for “accelerated growth” as well as Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics to account for the seemingly linear pattern of biological evolution that they detected in specimens from the rich fossil beds of the American West. That is, new developmental stages would cause some body parts to become very well developed if those body parts were in heavy use. Thus, the neo-Lamarckians thought that variation and speciation were due to changes in timing of development in different organ systems due to use. In Europe, important contemporaneous neo-Lamarckians included the German biologist Ernst Haeckel and the British botanist George Henslow.

July 20, 1804 (a Friday)

Sir Richard Owen, photo by Herbert Rose Barraud.

On this date, English anatomist, taxonomist, and paleontologist Richard Owen was born. He studied briefly at Edinburgh (1824), then at a private London anatomy school. Owen established a reputation as a great anatomist with his Memoir on the Pearly Nautilus (1832). He gave us many of the terms still used today in anatomy and evolutionary biology, such as “homology” which he famously defined in 1843 as “the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function.”

In an article published in the Proceedings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in April, 1842, Owen formally named a new group of extinct reptiles, including Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, as the “Dinosauria” — that is, the dinosaurs (from the Greek “deinos” meaning fearfully great and “sauros” meaning lizard). Owen named and described the following dinosaurs: Anthodon (1876), Bothriospondylus (1875), Cardiodon (1841), Cetiosaurus (1841, although Owen incorrectly thought that it was a kind of crocodile and not a dinosaur), Chondrosteosaurus (1876), Cimoliornis (1846), Cladeidon (1841), Coloborhynchus (1874), Dacentrurus (1875), Dinodocus (1884), Echinodon (1861), Massospondylus (1854), Nuthetes (1854), Polacanthus (1867), and Scelidosaurus (1859).

Richard Owen died on December 18, 1892.

June 23, 1894 (a Saturday)

On this date, the American biologist and professor of entomology and zoology Alfred Charles Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1947, he founded the Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, now called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Kinsey’s research on human sexuality profoundly influenced social and cultural values in the United States and many other countries.

The Kinsey Scale

Kinsey is generally regarded as the father of sexology, the systematic, scientific study of human sexuality. He initially became interested in the different forms of sexual practices around 1933, after discussing the topic extensively with a colleague, Robert Kroc. It is likely that Kinsey’s study of the variations in mating practices among gall wasps led him to wonder how widely varied sexual practices among humans were.

The Kinsey Reports — starting with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, followed in 1953 by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female — reached the top of bestseller lists and turned Kinsey into an instant celebrity. Based on his research, Kinsey concluded that:

The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform.

During this work, Kinsey developed a scale classifying sexual behavior, now known as the Kinsey Scale. The scale ranges from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual and 6 is exclusively homosexual; a rating of 7, for asexual, was added later by Kinsey’s associates. It is important to note that Kinsey said in both the Male and Female volumes that it was impossible to determine the number of persons who are “homosexual” or “heterosexual”. It was only possible to determine behavior at any given time.

The 2000s have seen renewed interest in Kinsey. The musical Dr. Sex focuses on the relationship between Kinsey, his wife, and their shared lover Wally Matthews (based on Clyde Martin). The play—with score by Larry Bortniker, book by Bortniker and Sally Deering—premiered in Chicago in 2003, winning seven Jeff Awards. It was produced off-Broadway in 2005. The 2004 biographical film Kinsey, written and directed by Bill Condon, stars Liam Neeson as the scientist and Laura Linney as his wife. In 2004 as well, T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel about Kinsey, The Inner Circle, was published. The following year, PBS produced the documentary Kinsey in cooperation with the Kinsey Institute, which allowed access to many of its files. Mr. Sex, a BBC radio play by Steve Coombes concerning Kinsey and his work, won the 2005 Imison Award.

June 16, 1902 (a Monday)

George Gaylord Simpson

On this date, the American evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson was born. Simpson was the most influential paleontologist of the twentieth century and a major participant in the Modern Synthesis, contributing Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) and Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals (1945). Among other things, he is notable for anticipating such concepts as punctuated equilibrium (in his 1944 work, see quantum evolution), and dispelling the myth that the evolution of the horse was a linear process culminating in the modern Equus caballus.

[My favorite Simpson quotes - Ed.:]

“Any sensitive person must feel a basically religious awe in the face of the mysteries of life and of the universe, but belief in an anthropomorphic god, in a savior, or in a prophet is nonsense” (Autobiographical Notes, 1970, p. 17).

“The fact – not theory – that evolution has occurred and the Darwinian theory as to how it occurred have become so confused in popular opinion that the distinction must be stressed” (This View of Life: The World of an Evolutionist, 1964, p. 10).

May 23, 1905 (a Tuesday)

Nettie Stevens (1904)

Nettie Stevens (1904)

On this date, Nettie Maria Stevens submitted her manuscript “Studies in Spermatogenesis with Especial Reference to the ‘Accessory Chromosome'” to the Carnegie Institution for publication in the Carnegie monograph series. It was sent on May 29 to E.B. Wilson, a member of the institution’s advisory committee, for his opinion. He returned it on June 13 with the brief statement: “It is in every way a most admirable piece of work which is worthy of publication by any learned society, and I do not hesitate to recommend it to you for publication by the Institution.” Wilson’s comments were an understatement; her research paper was one of the 20th century’s major scientific breakthroughs.

Stevens’ monograph was published in September 1905, the first documentation that observable differences in chromosomes could be linked to an observable difference in physical attributes, i.e. if an individual is a male or a female. This caused many at the time to re-evaluate earlier conclusions of sex determination, and to begin looking more generally at a chromosomal basis for animal sex determination.

Nettie Stevens, educated at Stanford University and Bryn Mawr College (Ph.D., 1903), taught throughout her relatively short life, inspiring many students to careers in science. She published more than 38 papers from 1901 to her death (1912), in cytology and experimental physiology.

May 3, 1877 (a Thursday)

Baron Nopcsa

Baron Nopcsa

On this date, the paleontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (or Baron Franz Nopcsa) was born in Transylvania, which at that time was a part of Austria-Hungary. Making no effort to hide his homosexuality, he was often dismissed as “whacky” by other scientists, yet he made significant contributions to the fields of paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology. He was also fascinated by the language and culture of Albania and aspired to become king of that country.

A gifted student, Nopcsa graduated from the prestigious Maria-Theresianum in 1897. His younger sister Ilona having discovered fossilized dinosaur bones in 1895 at the family estate at Szentpéterfalva in Săcele (Szacsal), Transylvania, Nopcsa enrolled at the University of Vienna to study them. He advanced quickly in his studies; on 21 July 1899, at the age of twenty-two, he held his first lecture at the Academy of Sciences in Vienna on “Dinossaurierreste in Siebenbürgen” (“Dinosaur remnants in Transylvania”) and attracted much attention with it.

With the defeat of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, Nopcsa’s native Transylvania was ceded to Romania. As a consequence, the Baron of Felső-Szilvás lost his estates and other possessions. Compelled to find paid employment, he landed a job as the head of the Hungarian Geological Institute.

Bajazid Elmaz Doda (left) and Franz Baron Nopcsa (right), ca. 1931

Bajazid Elmaz Doda (left) and Franz Baron Nopcsa (right), ca. 1931

But Nopcsa’s position in the Geological Institute was short-lived. He moved to Vienna with his long-standing male Albanian lover and secretary Bayazid Doda (also known as Bajazid Elmas Doda) to study fossils. Yet there he ran into financial difficulties and was distracted in his work. To cover his debts, he sold his fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London. Soon Nopcsa became depressed. Finally, in 1933, he fatally shot first his lover and then himself. In a letter left for the police, he explained that his decision to commit suicide was the result of a nervous breakdown. He also stated:

The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr. Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much.

Nopcsa was one of the first researchers who tried to “put flesh onto bones”, which became his main contribution to paleontology – and hence “paleobiology”. That is, he was fascinated not with the bones but rather with the living animals to whom they had belonged. He wanted to understand the world of the dinosaurs and how they lived in it – how they moved, how they fed, how they mated, and so on. For example, Nopcsa was the first scientist to suggest that these reptiles cared for their young and exhibited complex social behavior. Another of Nopcsa’s hypotheses that was ahead of its time was that birds evolved from ground-dwelling, feathered dinosaurs, an idea that found favor in the 1960s and later gained wide acceptance.  Additionally, Nopcsa’s conclusion that at least some Mesozoic era reptiles were warm-blooded is now shared by much of the scientific community.

The last meal of Compsognathus, illustration by Nopsca (1903)

Nopcsa studied Transylvanian dinosaurs intensively, even though they were smaller than their relatives elsewhere in the world. For example, he unearthed six-meter-long sauropods, a group of dinosaurs that elsewhere commonly grew to 30 meters or more. Nopcsa deduced that the area where the remains were found was an island (now called Haţeg or Hatzeg basin in Romania) during the Mesozoic era. He suggested that “limited resources” found on islands commonly have an effect of “reducing the size of animals” over the generations, producing a localized form of dwarfism. Nopcsa’s theory of insular dwarfism – also known as the island effect – is today widely accepted. Additional pygmy sauropods were recently discovered in northern Germany (analyzed by P. Martin Sander in Nature, 8 June 2006).

As a result of his investigations and publications, Nopcsa is sometimes considered to be the father of modern paleobiology, even though his original term for the field was “paleophysiology.”

References:

May 2, 1933 (a Tuesday)

Many a man has been hanged on less evidence than there is for the Loch Ness Monster.

— G.K. Chesterton

Zen stones

First modern "Nessie" report

When the Romans first came to northern Scotland in the first century C.E., they found the Highlands occupied by fierce, tattoo-covered tribes they called the Picts, or painted people. From the carved, standing stones still found in the region around Loch Ness, it is clear the Picts were fascinated by animals, and careful to render them with great fidelity. All the animals depicted on the Pictish stones are lifelike and easily recognizable—all but one. The exception is a strange beast with an elongated beak or muzzle, a head locket or spout, and flippers instead of feet. Described by some scholars as a swimming elephant, the Pictish beast is the earliest known evidence for an idea that has held sway in the Scottish Highlands for at least 1,500 years—that Loch Ness is home to a mysterious aquatic animal.

However, the modern legend of the Loch Ness Monster was actually born on today’s date, when a sighting made local news. The Inverness Courier ran a story about George Spicer and his wife who had been taking a leisurely drive around the Loch when they spotted something strange on the water. According to Spicer “[it was] the nearest approach to a dragon or pre-historic animal that I have ever seen in my life.” The IC story was the first time that Nessie had been called a “monster” hence the title “Loch Ness Monster” was born. The story of the monster became a media phenomenon, with London newspapers sending correspondents to Scotland and a circus offering a 20,000 pound sterling reward for capture of the beast.

Within a year the first photo of Nessie was taken by Hugh Gray (on December 6th 1933). Later that month, the London Daily Mail hired an actor, film director, and big-game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell to track down the beast. After only a few days at the loch, Wetherell reported finding the fresh footprints of a large, four-toed animal. He estimated it to be 20 feet long. With great fanfare, Wetherell made plaster casts of the footprints and, just before Christmas, sent them off to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis. While the world waited for the museum zoologists to return from holiday, legions of monster hunters descended on Loch Ness, filling the local hotels. Inverness was floodlit for the occasion, and traffic jammed the shoreline roads in both directions.

Carvings of this unidentified animal, made by the ancient inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands some 1,500 years ago, are the earliest evidence that Loch Ness harbors a strange aquatic creature.

The bubble burst in early January, when museum zoologists announced that the footprints were those of a hippopotamus. They had been made with a stuffed hippo foot—the base of an umbrella stand or ashtray. It wasn’t clear whether Wetherell was the perpetrator of the hoax or its gullible victim.

The famous Surgeon’s Photograph taken the following April (which has now been proven fake) was published spawning even more interest in the legendary beast. For the next three decades, most scientists scornfully dismissed reports of strange animals in the loch. Those sightings that weren’t outright hoaxes, they said, were the result of optical illusions caused by boat wakes, wind slicks, floating logs, otters, ducks, or swimming deer.

April 7, 1727 (a Monday)

Michel Adanson

On this date, the French botanist Michel Adanson was born. Following study at the Plessis Sorbon, the Collège Royal, and the Jardin du Roi, Adanson traveled to Senegal where he spent four years collecting natural history specimens. The report of this expedition appeared in 1757 as Histoire naturelle du Sénégal, and it contained a novel systematic arrangement of mollusks that won Adanson some notoriety in zoological circles. He is best remembered, however, for his comprehensive Familles des plantes (Paris, 1763–1764), in which he rejected systems (such as those of Linnaeus) that were based on only a few selected characters (artificial systems), in favor of an arrangement that takes all features of the plant into account (a natural system). As an associate of Buffon, Adanson was a significant contributor to the Historie naturelle, and his own herbarium, numbering about 30,000 specimens, came to rest in Paris at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle.

April 6, 2006 (a Thursday)

*Tiktaalik roseae* fills in the evolutionary gap between fish and land animals.

On this date, two articles were published in the science journal Nature reporting the discovery of a fossil that might in time become as much of an evolutionary icon as the proto-bird Archaeopteryx. Several specimens of this transitional form, named Tiktaalik roseae, were found in late Devonian river sediments on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Arctic Canada.

References:

April 5, 1802 (a Monday)

Illustration by Felix Dujardin

On this date, the French physiologist, morphologist, and taxonomist Félix Dujardin was born. Dujardin is primarily known for his work with microscopic animal life, and in 1834 proposed that a new group of one-celled organisms be called Rhizopoda (meaning “root-foot”). This name was later changed to protozoa. In 1835, he disproved Ehrenberg’s hypothesis that microorganisms have the same organs as the more complex animals.

Also in 1835, he was the first to describe protoplasm, the jellylike material in animal cells which he called sarcode (from the Greek word σάρξ, meaning “flesh”). [Hugo von Mohl is credited with introducing the name protoplasm for it in 1846.] This substance, now called cytoplasm, was later found in living plant cells. Although the term protoplasm is rarely used any more in a strictly scientific sense, many of the notions associated with the term have survived. Thus it is still accepted that all living organisms are made largely of the same classes of substances such as salts and organic molecules, that some of these are organized into structures large enough to be seen in the microscope, and that water almost always is by far the most abundant material.

Dujardin’s written works include Histoire naturelle des infusoires (1840), Manuel de l’observateur au microscope (1842), and Histoire naturelle des helminthes (1844).

March 27, 1827 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin read papers on original research on the biology of tiny marine organisms found along the Scottish coast to the Plinian Society at Edinburgh University.

March 20, 1904 (a Sunday)

The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.

– Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English lawyer and philosopher

Zen stones

On this day, the American psychologist, author, inventor, social philosopher, and poet B(urrhus) F(rederic) Skinner was born. He developed the theory of operant conditioning — the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, be they reinforcements or punishments, which make it more or less likely that the behavior will occur again. His principles are still incorporated within treatments of phobias, addictive behaviors, and in the enhancement of classroom performance (as well as in computer-based self-instruction).

B.F. Skinner and quote.

Skinner believed that the only scientific approach to psychology was one that studied behaviors, not internal (subjective) mental processes. He denied the existence of a mind as a thing separate from the body, but he did not deny the existence of thoughts, which he regarded simply as private behaviors to be analyzed according to the same principle as publicly observed behaviors. To further improve the objective scientific value of observed behaviors, he invented the “Skinner box”, or operant conditioning chamber. It was a small, soundproof enclosure in which an animal could be isolated from all distractions and outside influences, responding only to the controlled conditions within the box, and is still used today.

Skinner’s analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior (1957). He was a prolific author who published 21 books and 180 articles. In a June, 2002 survey, B.F. Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Review of General Psychology, June, 2002, pp. 139-152). He was named “Humanist of the Year” in 1972 by the American Humanist Association.

One of Skinner’s most interesting and famous experiments, a classic in psychology, examined the formation of “superstition” in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon “at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior.” He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered (accidental reinforcement), and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their “rituals” and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing — or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

It is easy to see other human parallels of this type of behavior. A person playing a slot machine may alter the way he puts money in the machine and the way he pulls the handle if he thinks that doing these things a certain way will bring him luck. Independent of these behaviors the machine will occasionally pay off (reinforcement). Such a situation allows the person to develop a superstitious behavior, such as not looking at the machine while he pulls the handle. Observation of a gambling casino will reveal a large number of people displaying their superstitious behaviors at the slot machines. Each person’s superstition may be unique to him, as each of Skinner’s pigeons had a unique superstition.
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Human superstitions are quite abundant. A college student in an elevator may keep pushing the button of his floor as if this would cause the elevator to move faster. A card player may pick up his cards one at a time as if to improve the hand he was dealt. A businessman may wear a “special” tie when going to an important meeting.

Many ancient beliefs involve superstition. For example, the rain dance: once when someone was doing the so-called rain dance, it started to rain. This person thought that perhaps their dance affected nature. After this rain dance was reinforced intermittently on a frequent enough schedule it became established as a superstitious behavior.

However, the pigeons’ behaviors were later reinterpreted as behaviors that improve foraging efficacy (analogous to salivation in Pavlov’s dogs), which suggests that the pigeons’ behavior does not correspond to Skinner’s intended meaning of superstition.  Nevertheless, Skinner’s early account is notable in two respects. First, it recognized the possibility of superstition occurring outside the human realm. Second, and linked to this, Skinner emphasized the behavioral aspect of superstition: “The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking.”  That is, he focused on there being an incorrect response to a stimulus (behavioral outcome), rather than the conscious abstract representation of cause and effect (psychological relationship), with which human superstitions are often associated.

There other differences between human superstitions based on psychological relationship and animal superstitions based on behavioral outcome:

  • First, humans, as opposed to animals, often spend considerable time justifying why they are not reinforced each time they do their superstitious behavior. (“I have some questions about that so- called virgin we sacrificed to the volcano god.” “I lost the golf match today because my lucky hat doesn’t seem to work two days in a row.”)
  • Second, humans spend more time than animals trying to convince others to adopt their superstitious behaviors. Children often carry on many of the superstitions of their parents.
  • Finally, as Herrnstein (1966) points out, “Human superstition, unlike that of animals, arises in a social context.” The acquired superstitions in humans are not as arbitrary as those of animals. Rather they are molded by the person’s culture. Thus, although it is possible to develop a superstition about Wednesday the 11th, it is more probable in our culture to be superstitious about Friday the 13th.

It has only been with the advent of the scientific method that people have been able to distinguish between that which is superstitious and that which has a scientific basis.

References:

  • B.F. Skinner. “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 38: 168-172 (1948).
  • Kevin R. Foster and Hanna Kokko.
    The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour,”
    Proc R Soc B 276 (1654): 31-37 (January 2009). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0981
  • R.J. Herrnstein. “Superstition: A corollary of the principles of operant conditioning,” in W. K. Honig (ed.), Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966) pp. 33-51.

March 19, 1827 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin made his earliest scientific discovery, at age 18. He dissected some specimens of a barnacle-like marine organism, the polyzoan Flustra. Thus he began what became a lifelong interest in natural history.

February 22, 1830 (a Monday)

Geoffroy aged about 70

On this date, the historical debate that took place at the French Academy of Sciences between Georges Cuvier and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire began.

The zoologist and historian of science E.R. Russell summed up the great biological controversy of the first half of the nineteenth century: “Is function the mechanical result of form, or is form merely the manifestation of function or activity? What is the essence of life — organization or activity?” While Cuvier founded the “functionalist” school of organismal biology, with his insistence on animals as functionally integrated wholes, Geoffroy continued the more “formalist” tradition of biology that had started with Buffon and was being continued by Goethe, Lamarck, and others.

Cuvier viewed every part of an animal as having been designed by the Creator to contribute to the animal’s functional integrity. Thus, similarities between organisms could only result from similar functions, writing in 1828, “If there are resemblances between the organs of fishes and those of the other vertebrate classes, it is only insofar as there are resemblances between their functions.” Cuvier argued that all animals could be subdivided into four and only four distinct embranchements: vertebrates, molluscs, articulates (insects and crustaceans), and radiates.

Cuvier’s viewpoint is diametrically opposed to Geoffroy’s view, which stressed the primacy of structure over function; Geoffroy wrote in 1829: “Animals have no habits but those that result from the structure of their organs; if the latter varies, there vary in the same manner all their springs of action, all their faculties and all their actions.”

Geoffrey said that unity of plan could be identified by the relative positions and spatial interrelationships of elements, rather than primarily by their shape or size. Parts may expand and contract according to their function, but topology remains unaltered, and the archetype can be traced by an unvarying spatial pattern.  He called this the principle of connections. (This is still a favored basis for recognizing anatomical homologies.)

Geoffroy wrote in 1807 (see Appel, 1987, p. 89):

It is known that nature works constantly with the same materials. She is ingenious to vary only the forms…One sees her tend always to cause the same elements to reappear, in the same number, in the same circumstances, and with the same connections.

As Charles Darwin described his work in 1859, in The Origin of Species:

What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions? Geoffroy St. Hilaire has insisted strongly on the high importance of relative connexion in homologous organs: the parts may change to almost any extent in form and size, and yet they always remain connected together in the same order.

In 1822, Geoffroy had dissected a lobster and placed it in an inverted position with respect to the ground. In this upside down orientation the lobster’s normally ventral nerve cord was located above the digestive tract, which in turn was placed above the heart. In his own words: “What was my surprise, and I add, my admiration, in perceiving an ordering that placed under my eyes all the organic systems of this lobster in the order in which they are arranged in mammals?” Geoffroy went on to argue that there was a unity of plan, or unity of composition, among animals, so that the dorsal side of the vertebrates was homologous to the ventral side of the arthropods. In 1822, he wrote that “insects formed another class of vertebrated animals, and that they were, consequently, brought under the common law of uniformity of organization”.

Thus, Geoffroy and his followers argued that all animals, vertebrates and invertebrates alike, were built on the same basic plan. Therefore, animal life could be strung into a more or less continuous, related series, rather than broken into discrete “divisions”, as Cuvier had claimed. This series implied that the history of each organism, rising in complexity from starfish to humans, could be interpreted in an evolutionary manner.

Matters between Cuvier and Geoffry came to a head in 1830, when two young naturalists, Meyranx and Laurencet, presented a comparison of the anatomy of vertebrates and cephalopods (squids, cuttlefish, and octopi), claiming that they were based on the same basic structural plan. Geoffroy enthusiastically adopted this claim as proof of the unity of plan shared by all animals; Cuvier could not reconcile it with the results of his careful anatomical research. Thus was set up one of the most famous debates in the history of biology: eight public debates between Cuvier and Geoffroy, from February to April 1830. In these debates, Cuvier showed convincingly that many of Geoffroy’s supposed examples of unity of structure were not accurate; the similarities between vertebrates and cephalopods were contrived and superficial.

Generalized protostome and chordate body plans illustrating inversion in the two lineages.

Generalized protostome and chordate body plans illustrating inversion in the two lineages.

Remarkably, Geoffroy’s idea today is supported by a growing body of molecular developmental evidence. Holley et al (1995) have demonstrated that not only do the fruit fly and frog have homologous genes that promote dorsoventral patterning, but the homologous genes have opposite effects within each animal. In fact, the genes are functionally interchangeable –- even though the product of sog ventralizes fly embryos, it dorsalizes frog embryos just like its homologue in the frog, chordin.

It would be an error to call Geoffroy an evolutionary biologist in anything like the modern sense. Archetypes were abstractions, not once-living ancestors; shared archetypal form did not necessarily indicate common ancestry. Geoffrey used the term “homologous” in its anatomical sense, meaning those parts in different animals which were “essentially” the same, even though the parts might have different shapes and functions. However, later in his career, Geoffroy published some ideas that resemble the theory of evolution by natural selection. The following quote from “Influence du monde ambiant pour modifier les formes animales” (1833) shows that Geoffroy considered that heritable changes in an organism might be selected for or against by the environment, and thus that present-day species might have arisen from antediluvian (before the Biblical Flood) species:

The external world is all-powerful in alteration of the form of organized bodies.. . these [modifications] are inherited, and they influence all the rest of the organization of the animal, because if these modifications lead to injurious effects, the animals which exhibit them perish and are replaced by others of a somewhat different form, a form changed so as to be adapted to the new environment.

But these ideas apparently were never a key part of Geoffroy’s thought. Geoffroy believed that there were limits to how far an organism might evolve, and he never developed his ideas into a complete theory, as Darwin later did.

Part of the power of modern evolutionary biology comes from its ability to synthesize elements from both schools of thought. Organismal lineages change with time, in response to changing environments, and their form constrains the functions that they can take on; at the same time, it is the ability of organisms to function in their environments that is a major component of evolutionary fitness, and form is often altered to fit a particular function. Cuvier and Geoffroy had grasped separate parts of a more complex reality.

References:

  • Toby A. Appel. The Cuvier-Geoffrey Debate: French Biology in the Decades before Darwin (Oxford University Press, 1987).
  • Stephen J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 2002) pp. 298-312.
  • S.A. Holley, P.D. Jackson, Y. Sasal, B. Lu, E.M. De Robertis, F.M. Hoffmann, and E.L. Ferguson.  A conserved system for dorsal-ventral patterning in insects and vertebrates involving sog and chordin, Nature 376: 249-253 (1995).
  • Ernst Mayr. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982) p 262.

February 9, 1849 (a Friday)

On this date, Richard Owen gave a public lecture entitled “On the Nature of Limbs,” at an evening meeting of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. This lecture laid out to a general audience Owen’s notion of homology in general, and his account of vertebrate limbs in particular. Earlier, in 1843, Owen had defined a homology as the “same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function” (Owen 1843, p.379). The 1848 book On the Archetype and the Homologies of the Vertebrate Skeleton had introduced his sophisticated theoretical and observational framework in comparative morphology. Now in the 1849 lecture, Owen forcefully argued for fins as found in different groups of fish and limbs as occurring in different tetrapod taxa being homologous, by pointing to homologies among the individual skeletal parts of fins and limbs. Published in the same year under the title On the Nature of Limbs, this lecture, together with On the Archetype, marks Owen’s most innovative contribution to comparative biology, which made him the most prominent naturalist in Britain before Darwin.

February 8, 1825 (a Tuesday)

Plate from Bates’ Contributions to an Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley: Heliconiidae (1862) illustrating Batesian mimicry between Dismorphia species (top row, third row) and various Ithomiini (Nymphalidae) (second row, bottom row).

On this date, the English entomologist Henry Walter Bates was born. Bates became friends with Alfred Russel Wallace when the latter took a teaching post in the Leicester Collegiate School. Wallace was also a keen entomologist, and he had read the same kind of books as Bates had, and as Darwin, Huxley and no doubt many others had – Thomas Malthus on population, James Hutton and Charles Lyell on geology, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and above all, the anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which put evolution into everyday discussion among literate folk. They also read William H. Edwards on his Amazon expedition, and this started them thinking that a visit to the region would be exciting, and might launch their careers. Bates accompanied Wallace on an expedition to the Amazon in 1848.

Whereas Wallace returned to England after four years in South America and then went on to Indonesia, Bates stayed in the Amazon for eleven years but continued to correspond with him, encouraging Wallace’s developing theories on organic evolution. Bates discovered that closely related species often were separated geographically by rivers, and later realized that this was evidence of geographical speciation. His 1862 study of color patterns in butterflies established what is now called Batesian mimicry, in which non-poisonous animals mimic the bright warning coloration of poisonous animals. Bates argued that this kind of mimicry could not be produced by Lamarckian use-inheritance and was clear evidence of selection. In his book The Naturalist on the River Amazons (1863), he wrote:

on these expanded membranes [i.e., butterfly wings] Nature writes, as on a tablet, the story of the modifications of species, so truly do all changes of the organisation register themselves thereon. Moreover, the same colour-patterns of the wings generally show, with great regularity, the degrees of blood-relationship of the species. As the laws of nature must be the same for all beings, the conclusions furnished by this group of insects must be applicable to the whole world.

Bates assumed the post of Assistant Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society in 1864 where he edited the society’s Transactions and organized expeditions. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1881.

February 3, 1790 (a Wednesday)

Illustration of fossil Iguanodon teeth with a modern iguana jaw from Mantell’s 1825 paper describing Iguanodon.

On this date, the British physician, geologist, and paleontologist Gideon Algernon Mantell was born. He discovered 4 of the 5 genera of dinosaurs known during his time.

Mantell’s life-long hobby was all-consuming. While walking with his wife in 1822, he discovered fossils that he identified as teeth. When he saw the connection with teeth of the present lizard, the iguana, in 1825, he named the animal the Iguanadon (“fossil teeth”). Subsequently, he made additional finds of fossil bones of other large animals which he described accurately: the Hylaeosaurus, Pelorosaurus, and Regnosaurus. His contemporary, paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, coined the word dinosaur (“terrible lizards”). Mantell’s books include Medals of Creation (1844).

January 31, 1910 (a Monday)

Ichthyostega

On this date, the Swedish geologist and paleontologist Gunnar Säve-Söderbergh was born. He took bachelor’s and licentiate’s degrees at Uppsala University in 1931 and 1933, respectively, and was appointed professor of historical geology at Uppsala in 1937.

In 1928, Säve-Söderbergh led a team that discovered extraordinarily fossiliferous beds in the upper Devonian of east Greenland. These 360-million-year-old rocks contained numerous fossils of bony fish and one set of particularly interesting remains. These latter fossils possessed a fish-like tail, ribs, and back, yet also had limbs with fingers and toes. This new species was dubbed Ichthyostega by Säve-Söderbergh in 1932 and was described in a series of papers by Erik Jarvik. It is widely featured in the scientific literature as the first “four-legged fish”. Although Ichthyostega may not be the ancestor of today’s terrestrial vertebrates, it no doubt is a transitional form.

The hind limb of Ichthyostega.

Ichthyostega‘s combination of fish and amphibian characters led to speculation about how the origin of tetrapods and the invasion of land by vertebrates could be related. One hypothesis, formulated by Joseph Barrell and later revised by Alfred Romer, held that one group of fish, such as Ichthyostega, adapted to more terrestrial environments due to the drying of Devonian ponds. Recent discoveries have changed this conception entirely.

Säve-Söderbergh was made an honorary doctor at Uppsala in 1942 and was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1948. Unfortunately, tuberculosis put an untimely end to his career. He died in 1948 at Solbacken, a sanatorium in Dalarna, Sweden.

January 18, 1823 (a Saturday)

William Buckland

William Buckland

William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and an ordained priest in the Church of England, had been contacted by the Talbot family of Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, England, who had reported finding “bones of elephants” on 27 December 1822. Descending into Paviland Cave (or Goat’s Hole Cave) on today’s date, Buckland discovered one of the best-known prehistoric burials in Britain – the notoriously misnamed “Red Lady of Paviland.”

In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender and age of the skeleton had changed with a new and better, but still erroneous, story.

Found at Paviland

Buckland, a devout Christian, believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. He believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and ivory jewelry. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate that the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch. He later wrote in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood):

[I found the skeleton] enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle…which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12mm] around the surface of the bones… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods…[also]…some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.

The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21, who lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP). It remains the first human fossil found and identified soon after its discovery and the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom.

Buckland is also famous for being the first person to discover, name, and scientifically describe a fossilized creature that came to be recognized as what Richard Owen was to call a dinosaur. Buckland’s name for the animal was Megalosaurus, Greek for “great lizard”. Though he was not the first person to find a Megalosaurus bone (Robert Plot discovered a fossilized femur of one as far back as 1676), Buckland was the first to realize that these fossils belonged to an unknown class of huge reptiles. According to his calculations, the animal must have exceeded forty feet in length and weighed as much as a large elephant. Some people think his 1824 paper to the Geological Society of London (“Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield”) inaugurated the modern study of dinosaurs.

Buckland’s interest in dinosaur remains included more than bones. He also carried out a large amount of research into fossilized dinosaur feces. At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 6 February 1829, Buckland described them and introduced the term coprolites (from the Greek words “kopros”, meaning dung, and “lithos”, meaning stone). His paper, “On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, states that they have “undergone no process of rolling, but retain their natural form, as if they had fallen from the animal into soft mud, and there been preserved,” later comparing them to “oblong pebbles or kidney-potatoes.”

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

Interestingly, Buckland was very eccentric. He caused such a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles that The Times of London felt he should restrain his enthusiasm “in the presence of ladies”. He always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals. Monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig).

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist — an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did — from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham, and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (there had been a fire at the London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles.

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him “martyr’s blood” dripping from the rafters — Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it.

Buckland’s eccentricities earned him a famous description by Charles Darwin, who wrote: “though very good-humoured and good-natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science.”

References:

January 16, 1932 (a Saturday)

Dian Fossey in November 1985; photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

On this date, Dian Fossey, an American primatologist who for years made a daily study of the mountain forest gorillas of Rwanda, central Africa, was born in San Francisco, California. Her strong interest in animals led her to enter college as a pre-veterinary student. However, she soon switched to occupational therapy and obtained her degree from San Jose State College in 1954.

But Fossey dreamed of seeing more of the world and its abundant wildlife. Therefore, in 1963, she took out a bank loan and began planning her first trip to Africa. Her trip included visits to Kenya, Tanzania (then Tanganyika), Congo (then Zaire), and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

An experience that Fossey would later point to as a pivotal moment in her life was her visit to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. There, she met Dr. Louis Leakey, who encouraged her initial interest in gorillas.

I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.

Upon arriving home in Kentucky Fossey returned to work as an occupational therapist to repay the loan she had taken to pay for her trip to Africa … all the while dreaming of the day she would return.

There was no way that I could explain to dogs, friends, or parents my compelling need to return to Africa to launch a long-term study of the gorillas. Some may call it destiny and others may call it dismaying. I call the sudden turn of events in my life fortuitous.

In December 1966, Fossey was again on her way to Africa. She arrived in Nairobi, acquired the necessary provisions, and set off for the Congo. On the way, she made a stop to visit the Gombe Stream Research Centre to meet Jane Goodall and observe her research methods with chimpanzees. Eventually, Fossey moved her focus to Volcanoes National Park on the Rwandan side of the Virungas. On 24 Sept. 1967, she established and then directed the Karisoke™ Research Centre in Rwanda.

Little did I know then that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virungas I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilized by students and scientists from many countries.

Dian Fossey with two juvenile gorillas in Rwanda sometime between 1968 and 1970 (photo credit: National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell).

Living a solitary life for many years, Fossey observed the gorillas’ habits and gradually gained their acceptance. In 1970, she enrolled in the department of animal behavior at Darwin College, Cambridge, under Dr. Robert Hinde, who had also been Jane Goodall’s supervisor. She traveled between Cambridge and Africa until 1974, when she completed her Ph.D. Armed with the degree, she now felt that she could be taken more seriously. This also enhanced her ability to continue her work, command respect, and most importantly, secure more funding.

In 1980, Fossey moved to Ithaca, New York, as a visiting associate professor at Cornell University. She used the time away from Karisoke™ to focus on the manuscript for her book, Gorillas in the Mist. Published in 1983, the book is an account of her years in the rainforest with the mountain gorillas. Most importantly, it underscores the need for concerted conservation efforts.  Praised by Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch ethologist and ornithologist who won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the book was well received and remains popular to this day.

Fossey was brutally murdered in 1985, her attacker or attackers splitting her skull with a machete, the type commonly used by poachers. She was found in the bedroom of her cabin at Karisoke™ and had apparently tried to load her pistol during the attack. To this day her killer or killers have not been found.

There are de-classified diplomatic cables from Fossey’s time which indicate outright collusion between Melvin Payne, then President of the National Geographic Society, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and Rwandan Ambassador Frank Crigler to remove Fossey from Rwanda. A smear campaign was underway to discredit her so that money-making “conservation” schemes could be implemented by the African Wildlife Fund (AWLF) and the colonialist Mountain Gorilla Project.

Also, diplomatic cables and writing from that time indicate that higher ups realized Protais Zigiranyirazo, governor of Ruhengeri Province in Rwanda when Fossey worked there, was a likely suspect in Fossey’s murder. He was involved in illegal trading in endangered species and gold smuggling out of Congo, and there is much additional evidence in the historical record that Fossey was about to expose him when she was killed. Zigiranyirazo is now living in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast.

Fossey was laid to rest in the graveyard behind her cabin, among her gorilla friends. The last entry in her diary read:

When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.

As Fossey’s legacy is reflected upon, it is clear that she significantly contributed both to science and conservation. Primatology benefited from her ability to endure many years of fieldwork and in turn reveal new knowledge concerning gorilla behavior, while primate conservation gained great momentum from the combination of Fossey’s bravery and ability to attract and hold the public’s attention.

References:

January 1, 1758 (a Sunday)

Cover of the tenth edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1758).

On this date, the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae was published, which is considered the starting point of zoological nomenclature; the oldest scientific names of animals accepted as valid today can be traced to this edition. Here, Linnaeus introduced the modern practice of using binomials for animal species, something he had done for plant species in the 1753 publication of Species Plantarum. Interestingly, in the first edition of Systema Naturae, the whales were erroneously classified as fishes; in the 10th edition, the whales were moved to the mammals.

December 30, 1818 (a Wednesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date,  Samuel Latham Mitchill appeared in the packed chambers of the Mayor’s Court in New York City Hall as the star witness in the case of James Maurice v. Samuel Judd, a dispute arising under a New York State statute that obliged purveyors of “fish oils” to ensure that their casks had been inspected.

The facts of the case today seem boring. On March 31, 1818, the New York State Legislature passed a law to ensure the quality of fish oils, which were widely used in the tanning and preservation of leather at the time. The law called for a corps of inspectors to “seek out any parcels of fish oil” and to certify the amount of water, sediment, and pure oil each cask contained. It also stipulated that a fine of twenty-five dollars per cask be levied on any buyer of uninspected fish oil. Three months later, a certain Mr. Samuel Judd, owner of the New-York Spermaceti Oil & Candle Factory at 52 Broadway, bought three casks of “fish oil” that had not been “gauged, inspected, and branded, according to law.” Judd claimed he didn’t have to pay the required fine because he had purchased spermaceti, or whale oil, so James Maurice, a city inspector of fish oil, began proceedings to collect the fine.

Judd’s view reflected an intellectual quandary of his time: If a whale is a fish, then why is its tail horizontal rather than vertical? Why do whales not have scales? Why are whales warm-blooded, not cold-blooded like fish? Why do whales breathe air (that whales could drown was a proven fact by then), and give birth (and nurse their young with milk) rather than lay eggs? Why were whales so much smarter than lesser fish? (Apart from the challenge of their size was the challenge of their brains — whaling is hunting, not mere fishing.) And, perhaps most importantly, why did the insides of whales — which were known in the most minute detail as a simple commercial matter — resemble not the lesser fishes but rather cows and pigs?

A New York whaleman’s drawing of a sperm whale, ca. 1810.

However, to many zoologists of the time (but not all), the inside of a whale would have been totally irrelevant.  [Interestingly, Linnaeus himself had said whales were fish in the 9th edition of the Systema Naturae, but formally separated them in the 10th edition, published only two years later in 1758.]  In terms of what today is known as taxonomy, shape and environment were the categorical bases for grouping animals, not internal anatomy. Whales looked like fish (tails and blowholes notwithstanding) and lived where fish lived. The 1817 edition of a leading English dictionary defined fish simply as “an animal that lived exclusively in water”. Even Genesis clearly delineated creation by environment: “fish of the sea” (so, as a matter of elementary Judeo-Christian theology, oysters and crabs are “fish”), “fowl of the air” (bats?), and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Again, whales don’t creepeth upon the earth, so the notion that they are “animals” was fundamentally un-Christian and even bordered on blasphemy. Therefore, whales are fish.

Image of a whale being flensed, from a book called Medieval Life and People.  It has a fish face. It has a fish backbone and tail (bending from side to side rather than flexing up and down). But it has breasts.

Image of a whale being flensed, from a book called Medieval Life and People. It has a fish face. It has a fish backbone and tail (bending from side to side rather than flexing up and down). But it has breasts.

Nevertheless, by 1818 zoologists had generally conceded that their field was far from complete and that debate and dissent about proper taxonomic classification was not only permissible but inevitable — especially as new species of just about everything kept being discovered. Moreover, the leading naturalists — particularly Samuel Latham Mitchill, a retired politician who also happened to be the preeminent authority on the fishes of New York and the founder of what would become the New York Academy of Sciences — aimed to convert taxonomy to a science of dissection: that species should be grouped together by how they looked on the inside rather than on the outside. Mitchill presented the Linnaean argument from anatomy: whales breathe air and have lungs, not gills; they have four-chambered hearts, like horses but unlike fish; their fins contain bones that are exact analogs of the hands and arms of apes and people; they even have eyelids that move. He famously remarked that “a whale is no more a fish than a man.”

Yet William Sampson, the lead prosecutor, challenged Mitchill at every turn, using arguments that have echoes in recent debates about Darwinian evolution. Was it not true, Sampson asked, that there was wide disagreement among scholars as to exactly how various animals should be classified? And what were common folk to make of the unlikely associations Linnaean taxonomy called upon them to make? Quoting Sampson:

Now, is not man strangely mated or matched when the whale and the porpoise are his second cousins, and the monkey and the bat his germans [close relations]? Other gentlemen may choose their company, [but] I am determined to cut the connection.

So what happened? After some wrangling about whether statutory interpretation should even be a question left to the lay jurors of a municipal trial court (a debate we sometimes have to this day), the judge charged the jury which, after only 15 minutes of deliberation, announced a verdict for the plaintiff.  [However, within a month, the New York State Legislature essentially overturned the verdict by exempting whale oil from inspection — in the eyes of the law, the whale would no longer count as a fish.]

More than a century before Scopes, science was put on trial, and was convicted.

References:

  • D. Graham Burnett, Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth Century New York Court Case that Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (Princeton University Press, 2007).
  • Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (W.W. Norton, 2007) pp. 384-385.

December 28, 1894 (a Friday)

Alfred Sherwood Romer

Alfred Sherwood Romer

On this date, the American vertebrate paleontologist and comparative anatomist Alfred Sherwood Romer was born. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which Romer helped establish, says that he “was the leading contributor to the discipline of vertebrate paleontology throughout the twentieth century. . . Romer’s major contributions were in the areas of the ancestry of vertebrates, Paleozoic tetrapods, and the antecedents of mammals.” Perhaps Romer’s most notable gift to scientific posterity were his three seminal works: Osteology of the Reptiles (1956), Vertebrate Paleontology (1966), and The Vertebrate Body (1977) – immortal tomes which still adorn the shelves of any self-respecting student of vertebrate paleontology and evolution.

December 23, 1810 (a Sunday)

Edward Blyth

On this date, the English zoologist and chemist Edward Blyth was born in London. Although he was considered one of the leading zoologists in India, and a prominent figure overall in his field, he is best known for his early recognition of some of the principles of natural selection. In three articles on variation published in The Magazine of Natural History between 1835 and 1837, he discussed the effects of artificial selection and described the process in nature (later called natural selection) as restoring organisms in the wild to their archetype (rather than forming new species). Also, he never actually used the term “natural selection”.

Blyth believed that natural selection only preserves a constant and unchangeable type or essence of created form, by eliminating extreme variations or unfit individuals that deviate too far from this essence. Ernst Meyer wrote that:

Blyth’s theory was clearly one of elimination rather than selection. His principal concern is the maintenance of the perfection of the type. Blyth’s thinking is decidedly that of a natural theologian…

In fact, according to Stephen Jay Gould, natural selection was a common idea (but not a term) among biologists of the time, as part of the argument for created permanency of species. It was seen as eliminating the unfit, while some other cause created well fitted species. Blyth considered that species had “invariable distinctions” establishing their integrity, and therefore could not accept the formation of new species because if it occurred, “we should seek in vain for those constant and invariable distinctions which are found to obtain”. Blyth did not see the ramifications of the principle (nor did anyone else), and did little to develop his thoughts any further.

In contrast, Darwin introduced the idea that natural selection was creative in giving direction to a process of evolutionary change in which small hereditary changes accumulate. He did not read Blyth until after formulating his own theory.

Blyth remained a valued correspondent of Darwin’s after his formal publication of evolution by natural selection, and remained a strong friend of Darwin. Blyth was one of the first to embrace Darwinism, and was a vocal supporter for the remainder of his years.

Interestingly, Blyth’s writings had a major influence on Charles Darwin. There can be no doubt of Darwin’s regard for Edward Blyth – in the first chapter of The Origin of Species he wrote:

…Mr Blyth, whose opinion, from his large and varied stores of knowledge, I should value more than that of almost any one…

References:

    • de Beer, Gavin. Charles Darwin: Evolution by Natural Selection. (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1963) p. 102.
    • Gould, Stephen Jay. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002) pp. 137–141.
    • Mayr, Ernst. The Growth of Biological Thought. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984) p. 489.

December 22, 1938 (a Thursday)

Preserved specimen of Latimeria chalumnae in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria.

Preserved specimen of Latimeria chalumnae in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria.


On this date, a coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) was caught at the mouth of the Chalumna River on the east coast of South Africa. The fish was caught in a shark gill net by Captain Goosen and his crew, who had no idea of the significance of their find. They thought the fish was bizarre enough to alert the local museum in the small South African town of East London.

The director of the East London Museum at the time was Miss Marjorie Courtney-Latimer. She alerted the prominent south African ichthyologist Dr J.L.B. Smith to this amazing discovery. This modern coelacanth was eventually named in honor of Miss Courtney-Latimer.

This coelacanth specimen led to the discovery of the first documented population, off the Comoros Islands, between Africa and Madagascar. For sixty years this was presumed to be the only coelacanth population in existence. However, on July 30, 1998, a coelacanth was caught in a deep-water shark net by local fishers off the volcanic island of Manado Tua in northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, about 10,000 km east of the Western Indian Ocean coelacanth population. In 1999 the Sulawesi coelacanth was described as a new species, Latimeria menadoensis, by Pouyaud, Wirjoatmodjo, Rachmatika, Tjakrawidjaja, Hadiaty and Hadie.

In 1836, the eminent naturalist Louis Agassiz described the first fossil coelocanth. Since then, fossils of some 125 species have been discovered, dating back over 360 million years, with a peak in abundance about 240 million years ago. Before 1938, coelacanths were thought to have become extinct approximately 66 million years ago, when they disappeared from the fossil record, so the discovery of a living coelacanth was very significant.

But why are there no coelacanth fossils since the days of the dinosaurs? The explanation seems to be that the coelacanths from the fossil record lived in environments favoring fossilization, whereas modern coelacanths, both in the Comoros and Sulawesi, are found in environments that do not favor fossil formation. They inhabit caves and overhangs in nearly vertical marine reefs, at about 200 meters depth, off newly formed volcanic islands.

One of the most distinctive features of the coelacanth is that, along with all six living species of lungfishes but unlike all other fishes, it has paired “lobed fins”. The fins of such “lobe-finned fishes” project from the body on stalks rather than attaching directly to the body. The stalks that support the fins contain the same basic bones as the arms and legs of terrestrial four-limbed animals (tetrapods). Coelacanths even move their paired fins much like land animals move their limbs: The right pectoral fin moves in conjunction with the left pelvic fin, for example. And their movement is extremely dexterous; they scull the water like oars and can rotate through 180 degrees.

In fact, at the time of its discovery in 1938, the coelacanths were thought to be the ancestors of the tetrapods. Although it is now thought that the lungfishes are the closest living relative of tetrapods, the coelacanths may still provide answers to some very interesting evolutionary questions.

Other interesting features of the coelacanths include an intracranial joint and a rostral organ, not known in any other living fish.

References:

  • Samantha Weinberg. A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth (Harper Perennial, 2001).