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.

September 7, 1936 (a Monday)

Benjamin, the last known Thylacine (1933)

On this date, the last known Thylacine, commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf, died in captivity at Hobart Zoo, Tasmania, as a result of neglect. The animal, named Benjamin, was locked out of its sheltered sleeping quarters and exposed to freezing temperatures at night.

The Thylacine was the largest known carnivorous marsupial mammal of modern times. Like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere, the Thylacine was an apex predator. As a marsupial, it was not closely related to these placental mammals, but because of convergent evolution it displayed the same general form and adaptations. Its closest living relative is thought to have been either the Tasmanian Devil or Numbat. Interestingly, the Thylacine was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the Water Opossum). The male Thylacine had a pouch that acted as a protective sheath, protecting the male’s external reproductive organs while running through thick brush.

Thylacinus in Washington D.C. National Zoo, c. 1906.

Virtually wiped out in the wild due to constant hunting (they were thought to be a threat to sheep and other small farm animals) and the encroachment of humans on their already limited habitat, the Thylacine was finally recognized as being in danger of becoming extinct in 1936, but much too late. There have been no confirmed sightings in over 70 years.  It was the last extant member of its genus, Thylacinus, although several related species have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene.

A Prof Debunks Standardized Testing & Pearson Strikes Back

Pearson is an example of a corrupt corporation – it is in business to make money, not to support education. If push comes to shove, it will save itself at the expense of students (and faculty).

A Prof Debunks Standardized Testing & Pearson Strikes Back.

September 5, 1831 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, after having spent the weekend in Cambridge, Charles Darwin rode to London and went to the Whitehall Admiralty building to speak with Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy told Darwin that the person to whom he had offered the position of naturalist on board HMS Beagle had just turned it down five minutes ago (this might have been Harry Chester, a close friend of FitzRoy, and at the time a clerk in the Privy Council office across the street). He wanted to know if Darwin was still interested in the position. Interestingly, Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.

Of course, Charles enthusiastically accepted the offer and both men spent the next few hours going over the details of the voyage. Darwin learned that the sail date had been postponed until October 10, and that the voyage might extend longer than two years. Later that afternoon, Darwin took up lodgings at 17 Spring Gardens, just around the corner from Whitehall.

September 4, 1957 (a Wednesday)

A page from the Wolfeden Report.

A page from the Wolfeden Report.

On this date, the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden Report, after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) was published in Britain. It was significant for recommending that homosexual behavior in private between consenting adults, (i.e., over 21) should be decriminalized. The first printing of 5,000 copies of the 155-page document sold out in a matter of hours, and the report quickly went through numerous reprintings.

Male homosexuality had been illegal in England since the Buggery Act of 1533 (female homosexuality was never specified). The law became much more strict in 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made all homosexual acts illegal, even those carried out in private. Perhaps the most famous prosecution was that of the writer Oscar Wilde in 1895.

The number of convictions rose rapidly in the immediate period after World War II as the Home Office pursued prosecution more rigorously. In 1952, there had been 670 prosecutions in England for sodomy; 3,087 prosecutions for attempted sodomy or indecent assault; and 1,686 prosecutions for so-called gross indecency.

At that time, homosexuality was also the subject of sensationalist reporting in the popular press, and there were a number of high profile cases involving public figures. In 1951, the Russian spies Donald MacLean and Guy Burgess, both known to be homosexual, defected to the USSR. Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code, was victimized for his homosexuality. Charged in 1952 with “gross indecency”, he chose hormone treatment as punishment (the alternative was prison). He also lost his job. His death in June 1954 was treated as suicide. In 1953, newly-knighted Sir John Gielgud was arrested after trying to pick up a man in a public toilet who turned out to be an undercover policeman. He was found guilty of “persistently importuning for immoral purposes.” In 1954, the sensational trial of the Montagu/Pitt-Rivers/Wildeblood case was held, resulting in a peer (Lord Montagu of Beaulieu), his cousin (Michael Pitt-Rivers), and a journalist (Peter Wildeblood) being convicted of having had sexual relations with young working class men. They received sentences ranging from twelve to eighteen months imprisonment.

All of these events and controversies created pressure for a re-evaluation of the criminalization of homosexuality. Two MPs in December 1953 called upon the government to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the law relating to homosexual offenses, leading the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, to appoint the Departmental Committee in August 1954.

In addition to Wolfenden, the committee consisted of eleven men and three women, of whom thirteen served for the entire three years of the committee’s deliberations. The committee included, among others, two judges, a Foreign Office official, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, a Conservative MP, a consulting psychiatrist, the vice-president of the City of Glasgow Girl Guides, and a professor of moral theology. It was charged “to consider (a) the law and practice relating to homosexual offences and the treatment of persons convicted of such offences by the courts; and (b) the law and practice relating to offences against the criminal law in connection with prostitution and solicitation for immoral purposes, and to report what changes, if any, are desirable.”

The committee met for the first time on September 15, 1954. Over a period of three years, they interviewed religious leaders, policemen, judges, probation officers, psychiatrists, social workers, and homosexuals. When they issued their report in 1957, all but one of the thirteen members still sitting on the committee agreed that homosexual acts should be decriminalized if they took place in private, with consent, between persons at least 21 years of age and not members of the armed forces or the merchant navy.

The committee condemned homosexuality as immoral and destructive to individuals, but concluded that outlawing homosexuality impinged on civil liberties and that private morality or immorality should not be “the law’s business.” The function of the law, the committee wrote:

…is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others, particularly those who are specially vulnerable…. It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour, further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined.

_____________________________________________________________

Interview with Sir John Wolfenden in 1967.
_____________________________________________________________

The basis on which the Wolfenden committee made its recommendations was essentially a restatement of the famous “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill, which he stated in his best-known work, On Liberty (1859). Here, Mill’s defense of liberty is as uncompromising as he can make it:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.

The sole dissenter from the majority’s recommendation, James Adair, disassociated himself from the Wolfenden Report, declaring that relaxing the law on homosexuality would be regarded by many homosexuals as “licensing licentiousness.”

Interestingly, despite the testimony of numerous psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, the committee refused to classify homosexuality as a mental illness requiring psychiatric intervention. It found that “homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects.” It did, however, urge continued research into the causes and potential cures of homosexuality, such as hormone treatments and psychiatric therapy.

The recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality was widely condemned by many religious and political leaders and by a host of newspapers. The committee’s refusal to declare homosexuality a disease provoked the condemnation of psychiatrists. On the other hand, the British Medical Association, the Howard League for Penal Reform, and the National Association of Probation Officers supported the committee’s recommendations. Somewhat surprisingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Fisher, made an eloquent plea on behalf of the recommendations, declaring that:

There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility.

The home secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, was deeply disappointed in the Wolfenden Report. He no doubt expected the committee to recommend additional ways of controlling homosexual behavior, rather than decriminalizing it. In any case, he expressed doubt that the general population would support reform and declined to take action to implement the committee’s recommendation, calling instead for “additional study.” In fact, it took a good ten years for the recommendations in the Report to become law with the new Sexual Offences Act in 1967.

References:

September 3, 1945 (a Monday)

In the early hours on this date, Wilfred Graham Burchett entered Hiroshima alone, less than a month after the atomic bombing of the city. He was the first Western journalist — and almost certainly the first Westerner other than prisoners of war — to reach Hiroshima after the bomb and was the only person to get an uncensored story out of Japan. The story which he typed out on his battered Baby Hermes typewriter, sitting among the ruins, remains one of the most important Western eyewitness accounts, and the first attempt to come to terms with the full human and moral consequences of the United States’ initiation of nuclear war. It was published in the London Daily Express on September 5 and appears below in its entirety:

30th Day in Hiroshima: Those who escaped begin to die, victims of
THE ATOMIC PLAGUE
I write this as a Warning to the World
DOCTORS FALL AS THEY WORK
Poison gas fear: All wear masks

In Hiroshima, 30 days after the 1st atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly — people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague.

Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world.

In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war. It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden. The damage is far greater than photographs can show.

When you arrive in Hiroshima you can look around for twenty-five and perhaps thirty square miles and you can see hardly a building. It gives you an empty feeling in the stomach to see such man-made destruction.

I picked my way to a shack used as a temporary police headquarters in the middle of the vanished city. Looking south from there I could see about three miles of reddish rubble. That is all the atomic bomb left of dozens of blocks of city streets, of buildings, homes, factories and human beings.

STILL THEY FAIL

There is just nothing standing except about twenty factory chimneys — chimneys with no factories. A group of half a dozen gutted buildings. And then again, nothing.

The police chief of Hiroshima welcomed me eagerly as the first Allied correspondent to reach the city. With the local manager of Domei, the leading Japanese news agency, he drove me through, or perhaps I should say over, the city. And he took me to hospitals where the victims of the bomb are still being treated.

In these hospitals I found people who, when the bomb fell suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effects. For no apparent reason their health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose, and mouth. At first, the doctors told me, they thought these were the symptoms of general debility. They gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting away from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died. That is one of the after-effects of the first atomic bomb man ever dropped and I do not want to see any more examples of it.

THE SULPHUR SMELL

My nose detected a peculiar odor unlike anything I have ever smelled before. It is something like sulphur, but not quite. I could smell it when I passed a fire that was still smoldering, or at a spot where they were still recovering bodies from the wreckage. But I could also smell it where everything was still deserted.

They believe it is given off by the poisonous gas still issuing from the earth soaked with radioactivity by the split uranium atom.

And so the people of Hiroshima today are walking through the forlorn desolation of their once proud city with gauze masks over their mouths and noses. It probably does not help them physically.

But it helps them mentally.

From the moment that this devastation was loosed upon Hiroshima, the people who survived have hated the white man. It is a hate, the intensity of which is almost as frightening as the bomb itself.

‘ALL CLEAR’ WENT

The counted dead number 53,000. Another 30,000 are missing, which means certainly dead. In the day I have stayed in Hiroshima — and this is nearly a month after the bombing — 100 people have died from its effects.

They were some of the 13,000 seriously injured by the explosion. They have been dying at the rate of 100 a day. And they will probably all die. Another 40,000 were slightly injured.

These casualties might not have been as high except for a tragic mistake. The authorities thought this was just another Super-Fort raid. The plane flew over the target and dropped the parachute which carried the bomb to its explosion point.

The American plane passed out of sight. The all-clear was sounded and the people of Hiroshima came out from their shelters. Almost a minute later the bomb reached the 2,000 foot altitude at which it was timed to explode — at the moment when nearly everyone in Hiroshima was in the streets.

Hundreds and hundreds of the dead were so badly burned by the terrific heat generated by the bomb that it was not even possible to tell whether they were men or women, old or young.

Of thousands of others, nearer the center of the explosion, there was no trace. The theory in Hiroshima is that the atomic heat was so great that they burned instantly to ashes — except that there were no ashes.

If you could see what is left of Hiroshima, you would think that London had not been touched by bombs.

HEAP OF RUBBLE

The Imperial Palace [Hiroshima Castle], once an imposing building, is a heap of rubble three feet high, and there is one piece of the wall. Roof, floors and everything else is dust.

Hiroshima has one intact building — the Bank of Japan. This in a city which at the start of the war had a population of 310,000.

Almost every Japanese scientist has visited Hiroshima in the past three weeks to try to find a way of relieving the people’s suffering. Now they themselves have become sufferers.

For the first fortnight after the bomb dropped they found they could not stay long in the fallen city. They had dizzy spells and headaches. Then minor insect bites developed into great swellings which would not heal. Their health steadily deteriorated.

Then they found another extraordinary effect of the new terror from the skies.

Many people had suffered only a slight cut from a falling splinter of brick or steel. They should have recovered quickly. But they did not.

They developed an acute sickness. Their gums began to bleed and then they vomited blood. And finally they died.

All these phenomena, they told me, were due to the radioactivity released by the atomic bomb’s explosion of the uranium atom.

WATER POISONED

They found that the water had been poisoned by chemical reaction. Even today every drop of water consumed in Hiroshima comes from other cities. The people of Hiroshima are still afraid.

The scientists told me they have noted a great difference between the effect of the bombs in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki.

Hiroshima is in perfectly flat delta country. Nagasaki is hilly. When the bomb dropped on Hiroshima the weather was bad, and a big rain-storm developed soon afterwards.

And so they believe that the uranium radiation was driven into the earth and that, because so many are still falling sick and dying, it is still the cause of this man-made plague.

At Nagasaki on the other hand the weather was perfect, and scientists believe that this allowed the radioactivity to dissipate into the atmosphere more rapidly. In addition, the force of the bomb explosion was, to a large extent, expended in the sea, where only fish were killed.

To support this theory, the scientists point to the fact that, in Nagasaki, death came swiftly and suddenly, and that there have been no after-effects such as those that Hiroshima is still suffering.

Burchett’s firsthand account was censored throughout the United States but had been wired around the world. On the morning of September 7th at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, senior U.S. officials called a press conference to refute his story, which Burchett attended. Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, deputy head of the super-secret Manhattan Project, explained that the atomic bomb had been exploded at a sufficient height over Hiroshima to avoid any risk of “residual radiation.” Burchett’s first question to the briefing officer was, “Have you been to Hiroshima?”

“No,” he replied, but then added, “Those I had seen in the hospital were victims of blast and burn, normal after any big explosion. Apparently the Japanese doctors were incompetent to handle them or lacked the right medication.” He discounted allegations that those who had not been in the city at the time of the blast were later affected.

Burchett asked, “Why were fish still dying a month after the blast?”

Giving a pained expression, the spokesman replied, “I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to Japanese propaganda.”

Burchett later recounted that he was then “whisked to a U.S. Army hospital where doctors told me my low white-corpuscle count was caused by antibiotics I had been given for a knee infection.” Years later he found out this condition was related to radiation sickness.

Shortly before he died of cancer in 1983, Burchett’s book entitled Shadows of Hiroshima was published.

References:

September 3, 1907 (a Tuesday)

Loren Corey Eiseley

On this date, the highly respected anthropologist, ecologist, science writer, and poet Loren Corey Eiseley was born. He published books of essays, biography, and general science in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Eiseley is best known for the poetic essay style called the “hidden essay”. He used this to explain complex scientific ideas, such as human evolution, to the general public. He is also known for his writings about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. These helped inspire the environmental movement.

Eiseley’s first book, The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature (1946), a collection of writings about the history of humanity, established him as a writer with the unique ability to combine science and humanism. In the essay from it entitled “The Snout”, he wrote:

The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only. No man can return across that threshold, though he can look down still and see the green light waver in the water weeds.

Eiseley’s book, Darwin’s Century (1958), focuses on the development of the theory of evolution and was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Science prize in 1959. His other books include The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), the memoir All The Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975), and Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists (1979).

When Loren Eiseley was 3 his father held him up to watch Halley’s Comet blaze across the sky and told his son to look for its return in 75 years. But Loren Eiseley did not live that long. He died July 9, 1977, having used his brief seventy years to leave behind a heritage that continues to enrich the lives of all who come to know his work.

September 3, 1939 (a Sunday)

On this date, two days after the outbreak of World War II, the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, written by Dalton Trumbo, was published by J. B. Lippincott.

September 3, 1838 (a Monday)

Frederick Douglass in 1845.

On this date, Frederick Douglass successfully escaped slavery by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. He was dressed in a sailor’s uniform and carried identification papers provided by a free black seaman. He crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, then continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he went by steamboat to “Quaker City” — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — and eventually reached New York; the whole journey took less than 24 hours.

And so began the remarkable career of an American abolitionist, women’s suffragist, editor, orator, author, statesman, and reformer. Called “The Sage of Anacostia” and “The Lion of Anacostia”, Douglass is one of the most prominent figures in African-American and United States history. He was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant. Douglass was fond of saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

One of my personal favorites is an excerpt from a speech Douglass delivered at Corinthian Hall in his adopted hometown, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done!

The historian David W. Blight has said of this speech, “If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the fictional masterpiece of American abolitionism, a book Abraham Lincoln would later acknowledge as powerful enough to ’cause this big war,’ then Douglass’s Fourth of July address is abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece.”

The bust of Ludwig Feuerbach owned by Frederick Douglas that he displayed at his home in Washington, D.C. in later life.

One might wonder, based on the excerpt above: was Douglas an atheist?   Apparently not in 1852, but a letter dated May 15, 1871 by his friend Ottilie Assing, written to the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, reveals that Douglas did in fact years later make the leap:

Personal sympathy and concordance in many central issues brought us together; but there was one obstacle to a loving and lasting friendship—namely, the personal Christian God. Early impressions, environments, and the beliefs still dominating this entire nation held sway over Douglass. The ray of light of German atheism had never reached him, while I, thanks to natural inclination, training, and the whole influence of German education and literature, had overcome the belief in God at an early age. I experienced this dualism as an unbearable dissonance, and since I not only saw in Douglass the ability to recognize intellectual shackles but also credited him with the courage and integrity to discard at once the old errors and, in this one respect, his entire past, his lifelong beliefs, I sought refuge with you. In the English translation by Mary Anne Evans we read the Essence of Christianity together, which I, too, encountered for the first time on that occasion. This book—for me one of the greatest manifestations of the human spirit—resulted in a total reversal of his attitudes. Douglass has become your enthusiastic admirer, and the result is a remarkable progress, an expansion of his horizon, of all his attitudes as expressed especially in his lectures and essays, which are intellectually much more rich, deep, and logical than before. While most of his former companions in the struggle against slavery have disappeared from the public stage since the abolition, and, in a way, have become anachronisms because they lack fertile ideas, Douglass now has reached the zenith of his development. For the satisfaction of seeing a superior man won over for atheism, and through that to have gained a faithful, valuable friend for myself, I feel obliged to you, and I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing my gratitude as well as my heartfelt veneration.

Frederick Douglas had first met Ottilie Assing when she traveled to Rochester in 1856 as a German journalist for the prestigious German newspaper Morgenblatt für gebildete Leserto to interview him. She then spent the next 22 summers with the Douglass family, working on articles, the translation project, and tutoring his children.

At the same time, Anna Douglass, Frederick’s wife, was somewhat older than Frederick, illiterate, and ill much of the time. She shared little of her husband’s intellect or interests, and seemed unable to cope with the large household.

Assing, on the other hand, was a passionate abolitionist, was politically astute, and contributed a great deal to Douglass’ work.  The affair was never confined to the domestic sphere, and it was never a secret. For most of their 26 year friendship, when apart, Frederick and Ottilie weekly wrote each other.  Assing was confident that, upon Anna’s death, Douglass would marry her.  However, when Anna died in 1882, Douglass wed another woman – white, bright and 20 years his junior.  Heartbroken and ill with breast cancer, Assing walked into a park, opened a tiny vial and swallowed the potassium cyanide within.  Still, Ottilie left Frederick Douglass as the sole beneficiary in her will.

References:

  • Diedrich, Maria. Love across Color Lines: Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999), pp. 259-260. Original German letter published in Ausgewälte Briefe von und an Ludwig Feuerbach, ed. Hans-Martin Sass (Stuttgart: Friedrich Frommann, 1964), vols. 12/13, pp. 365-366.
  • Assing, Ottilie. Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing’s Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass, edited, translated, and introduced by Christoph Lohmann. (New York: Peter Lang, 1999). (New Directions in German American Studies; v. 1)

September 2, 1998 (a Wednesday)

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.

– Article I of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Zen stones

Bodies of murdered Tutsis from Rwanda, pulled from Lake Victoria by Ugandan fishermen. The bodies had traveled more than 200 miles by river from Rwanda.

On this date, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (a court established by United Nations Security Council Resolution 955 on 8 November 1994) found Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of the small Rwandan town of Taba, guilty of 9 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity (Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu, ICTR-96-4), marking the first time that the 1948 law banning genocide was enforced. Because mass killings had occurred in several countries since the law went into effect, the UN received heavy criticism for waiting 50 years before finally enforcing it.

After the Rwandan genocide began on April 7, 1994, Akayesu initially kept his town out of the mass killing, refusing to let militia operate there and protecting the local Tutsi population. But following an April 18 meeting of mayors with interim government leaders (those who planned and orchestrated the genocide), a fundamental change took place in the town and apparently within Akayesu. He seems to have calculated that his political and social future depended on joining the forces carrying out the genocide. Akayesu exchanged his business suit for a military jacket, literally donning violence as his modus operandi: witnesses saw him incite townspeople to join in the killing and turn former safe havens into places of torture, rape, and murder.

Sentencing occurred on October 2, 1998, when Jean-Paul Akayesu was given life imprisonment for his role in the deaths of 2,000 Tutsis who had sought his protection, as well as 80 years in prison for other violations, including rape. Although Akayesu claimed that he was powerless to stop the killings, Judge Laity Kama ruled that the mayor was “individually and criminally responsible for the deaths.” The ruling not only marked the first time a guilty verdict was handed down on the basis of the 1948 Genocide Convention, but also the first time in international law that mass rape was considered an “act of genocide.” This judgement was upheld on appeal.

References:

September 2, 1831 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Early in the morning on this date, Charles Darwin rode out to Cambridge to speak with Revd. Henslow about his father’s approval of his voyage on the HMS Beagle. When he arrived, Darwin learned that Capt. FitzRoy might have already selected another person as naturalist for the voyage.

September 1, 1831 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

Early in the morning on this date, Charles Darwin woke up and, while out shooting pheasants on the Wedgwood estate, received word that his uncle Josiah wanted the two of them to return to Shrewsbury at once. Upon arriving at The Mount (home of the Darwins’), Charles found that his uncle’s letter had done the trick: his father would allow him to go on the voyage of the HMS Beagle and would support him in any way necessary.

August 30, 1831 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin wrote to Revd. Henslow that his father would not allow him to go on the voyage of the HMS Beagle. At the same time, Darwin’s father wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood II, about the offer Darwin had been given, listing all the reasons why Darwin should not go on the voyage. Later that afternoon, Darwin rode out to Maer Hall (home of the Wedgwood’s) with his father’s letter for the start of the bird shooting season on September 1. Upon his arrival at Maer Hall, Darwin spoke to his uncle Josiah about the voyage and presented his father’s objections to it. After much discussion, Josiah sent a letter off to Darwin’s father, expressing his view that the voyage was a good idea.

August 30, 1909 (a Monday)

Canadia is a polychaete, a segmented marine worm, from the Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Canada.

On this date, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered interesting fossils while traveling alone along a horse trail near Burgess Pass in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Legend has it that his horse stopped in front of a rock which he then cracked open, discovering fossils. He returned the next day accompanied by his wife Helena and his son Stuart. Together they found several other remarkable fossils that Walcott immediately sketched in his field notebook. Obviously impressed by this discovery, Walcott’s entry for Aug. 31st – Sept 1st reads:

Out with Helena, Stuart collecting fossils from the Stephen Formation. We found a remarkable group of Phyllopod crustaceans – Took a large number of fine specimens to camp. [The next day:] We continued collecting found a fine group of sponges on slope (in-situ) – Beautiful warm days

Charles and Stuart Walcott at the fossil bed, August 1910.

The fossils discovered by the Walcotts represented types of animals that had never been seen before.

The Walcotts spent a total of five days that year collecting fossils in the area, mostly from loose slabs of rock found near the trail and on slopes.

Walcott quickly realized the importance of his finds. In a letter sent later that year to William Arthur Parks (his colleague and long-term correspondent at the University of Toronto) Walcott wrote: “…I had a few days collecting in the Stephen Formation [today's Burgess Shale] in the vicinity of Field in September, and found some very interesting things.”

The following season, he located the source of the fossils higher up on Fossil Ridge, and began excavating.

*Pikaia* is the earliest known representative of the phylum Chordata, to which humans belong, although it was not a vertebrate.

The fossils, with their exquisite preservation, were unlike anything he had seen before. Walcott named the site the Burgess Shale, after nearby Mt. Burgess, but they received little attention until fifty years later. The Burgess Shale fossils, as they have come to be known, provide a glimpse of what life was like on Earth 505 million years ago. Over 60,000 unique fossils have been found, dominated by arthropods, although other fossils are found in great abundance, including worms, crinoids, sea cucumbers, chordates, and other organisms with no mineralized shell.

August 29, 1831 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On the evening of this date, upon returning from Northern Wales where Adam Sedgwick had given him a crash course in field geology, Charles Darwin found letters waiting for him from Revd. John Henslow and George Peacock. Darwin had been invited to be a naturalist for the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle. The ship was to set sail on September 25 on a two-year expedition (later extended to five years) to chart the coastline of South America. Darwin wanted to go but his father and sisters were totally against the idea, seeing it as a continuation of his long line of idle pursuits.

Darwin’s father objected to his proposed journey on several grounds:

  • Such a voyage would reflect badly on his future prospects as a member of the clergy.
  • The entire plan seemed adventurous and wild.
  • Why was a naturalist still being considered so close to the start of the voyage? Other people must have been considered. Why had they refused the offer?
  • Going on the voyage would prevent Charles from settling down to a real life.
  • The accommodations on the ship would be very poor.
  • The voyage would offer Charles another excuse to change his focus in life.
  • It would be a complete waste of his time.

However, his father’s refusal was not absolute; he told his son that if he could find a man with common sense who thought it was a good idea, then he would allow him to go.

August 28, 1963 (a Wednesday)

Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering *I Have a Dream* speech.

On this date, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C.

Dr. King was a clergyman and civil rights leader but, as Jeff Nall pointed out in 2005, his wisdom has too often been forgotten:

Today it’s fashionable to recall Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights hero and passionate reverend. But sadly, amidst his legacy the entirety of his intellectual prowess and vast philosophical wisdom often goes unrecognized. Particularly troubling, King has become a tool for a variety of causes wrongly associated with him, including the attack on the separation of church and state.

In 2003 George W. Bush said, “There’s still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land.” But considering the president’s efforts to combine God and government, it seems that Bush himself is ignorant of King’s words and at least two of his salient ideas. King was a proponent of the separation of church and state and also one of religion’s most ardent critics.

In a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, Dr. King was asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional. In response he said:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

Church/State sign.

In another clear endorsement of church-state separation, King stated that the church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

Dr. King also blamed organized religion for its support of contemporary dogma — the kind that insists on favoring creationism over evolution — at the expense of truth.  He berated what he called softmindedness. “Softminded individuals,” he said, “are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. . . . The soft-minded man always fears change.” More specifically, King wrote in his book entitled Strength to Love (1963):

Softmindedness often invades religion. This is why religion has sometimes rejected new truth with a dogmatic passion. Through edicts and bulls, inquisitions and excommunications, the church has attempted to prorogue truth and place an impenetrable stone wall in the path of the truth-seeker….

Softminded persons have revised the Beautitudes to read ‘Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God.’ This has led to a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between softminded religionists and toughminded scientists, but not between science and religion….

Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.

His appreciation of science, though hardly acknowledged by most admirers of Dr. King, isn’t surprising. In arguing against notions of black racial inferiority, he frequently cited current anthropological research. In the same book cited above, King wrote:

Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The toughminded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he post judges. The tenderminded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently softminded to belief in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the toughmindedness research of anthropologists who reveal the falsity of such a notion.

In his article on Dr. King, Jeff Nall concluded:

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. was much more than just a reverend or just a civil rights champion; he was a learned philosopher who understood the importance of reason and balance in society. Unlike some of the Christian extremists who use his name for their cause and political gains, King valued the pluralism of American society, respected the U.S. Constitution, and never would have supported the corrupt motivation behind efforts to unite church and state.

Suggested reading:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Strength to Love (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1963).
  • Jeff Nall, “Will the real Martin Luther King please stand up?” The Humanist (May/June 2005).

August 27, 413 B.C.E.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.)

On this date, a lunar eclipse caused panic among the sailors of the Athens fleet in Sicily and eventually affected the outcome of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.). Just as the Athenian forces were ready to sail home from Syracuse, the Moon was eclipsed. The soldiers and sailors were frightened by this celestial omen and were reluctant to leave. Their commander, Nicias, described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides as a particularly superstitious man, asked the priests what he should do. They suggested the Athenians wait for another twenty-seven days, and Nicias agreed. The Syracusans took advantage of this, and seventy-six of their ships attacked eighty-six Athenian ships in the harbor, beginning what has become known as the Second Battle of Syracuse. The Syracusans ultimately defeated the entire Athenian fleet and army in September and executed Nicias.

Why do I mention this footnote to the history of ancient Athens? It illustrates that the failure (or refusal) to recognize the natural causes of natural events, such as a lunar eclipse, may seem harmless but can have disastrous consequences.

August 26, 1909 (a Thursday)

Otto Hauser

On this date, an almost perfectly preserved Cro-Magnon male skeleton, about 34,000 years old, was discovered by Swiss-German antiquities dealer and historian Otto Hauser. He was a member of a party hunting fossils in the Combe-Capelle rockshelter, France. The following year, Hauser sold this and an earlier discovery of Neandertal skeletal remains from Le Moustier (1908) to the Berlin Völkerkunde-Museum. Most of the skeleton itself is believed to have been destroyed during WW II by allied bombing raids.

The Cro-Magnons are the earliest known European examples of Homo sapiens, living between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago, whose skeletons were first discovered in March, 1868. They were anatomically identical to tall and muscular modern humans, but slightly more robust on average. Finely crafted stone and bone tools, shell and ivory jewelry, and polychrome paintings found on cave walls all testify to the cultural advancement of Cro-Magnon man.

August 25, 1835 (a Tuesday)

On this date, the the first in a series of six articles announcing the supposed discovery of life on the moon appeared in the New York Sun newspaper (subsequent installments appeared on August 26, 27, 28, 29, and 31). It bore the headline:

GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES
LATELY MADE
BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

"A View of the Inhabitants of the Moon" Illustration from an 1836 English pamphlet, publisher unknown. Note the biped beavers on the right.

The article began by triumphantly listing a series of stunning astronomical breakthroughs that the famous British astronomer, Sir John Herschel, had apparently made “by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle.” Herschel, the article declared, had established a “new theory of cometary phenomena”; he had discovered planets in other solar systems; and he had “solved or corrected nearly every leading problem of mathematical astronomy.” Then, almost as if it were an afterthought, the article revealed Herschel’s final, stunning achievement: he had discovered life on the moon!

The article continued on and offered an elaborate account of the fantastic sights viewed by Herschel during his telescopic observation of the moon. It described a lunar topography that included vast forests, inland seas, and lilac-hued quartz pyramids. Readers learned that herds of bison wandered across the plains of the moon; that blue unicorns perched on its hilltops; and that spherical, amphibious creatures rolled across its beaches. The highpoint of the narrative came when it revealed that Herschel had found evidence of intelligent life on the moon: he had discovered both a primitive tribe of hut-dwelling, fire-wielding biped beavers, and a race of winged humans living in pastoral harmony around a mysterious, golden-roofed temple. Herschel dubbed these latter creatures the Vespertilio-homo, or “man-bat”.

1835 lithograph of the lunar "Ruby Amphitheater" and moon men, described in the New York Sun's moon hoax.

The article, of course, was an elaborate hoax. Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown, South Africa, in January 1834 to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope. But Herschel had not really observed life on the moon, nor had he accomplished any of the other astronomical breakthroughs credited to him in the article. In fact, Herschel was not even aware until much later that such discoveries had been attributed to him. Furthermore, the Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication years earlier, and Grant was a fictional character. However, the New York Sun managed to sell thousands of copies of the article before the public realized that it had been hoaxed.

The articles were most likely written by Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter educated at Cambridge University. Intended as satire, they were designed to poke fun at earlier, serious speculations about extraterrestrial life, particularly those of Reverend Thomas Dick, a popular science writer who claimed in his bestselling books that the moon alone had 4.2 billion inhabitants.

However, Locke never publicly admitted to being the author of the hoax, and rumors have persisted that others were also involved in the production of the story. Two men in particular have been mentioned in connection with the hoax: Jean-Nicolas Nicollet, a French astronomer who was travelling through America at the time (though he was in Mississippi, not New York, when the moon hoax appeared), and Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that anyone but Locke was the author of the hoax.

“New Inhabitants of the Moon” from Delle Scoperte Fatte Nella Luna del Dottor Giovanni Herschel, Napoli, 1836 (Italian edition of the Moon Hoax).

Readers were completely taken in by the story, however, and failed to recognize it as satire. The craze over Herschel’s supposed discoveries even fooled a committee of Yale University scientists, who traveled to New York in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. After Sun employees sent them back and forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to discourage them, the scientists returned to New Haven without realizing they had been tricked.

Despite the intense public speculation about the moon story, the Sun never publicly conceded that it was a hoax. On September 16, 1835 the Sun did publish a column in which it discussed the possibility that the story was a hoax, but it never confessed to anything. Quite the contrary. It wrote that, “Certain correspondents have been urging us to come out and confess the whole to be a hoax; but this we can by no means do, until we have the testimony of the English or Scotch papers to corroborate such a declaration.” This is the closest the Sun ever came to an admission of guilt.

People were generally amused by the whole thing, and sales of the paper didn’t suffer.

References:

  • Michael J. Crowe. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900. (Cambridge University Press, 1986) pp. 202-15.
  • David S. Evans. “The Great Moon Hoax.” Sky and Telescope. September, 1981 (196-198); October, 1981 (308-311).
  • William N. Griggs (ed.). The Celebrated “Moon Story,” its origin and incidents; with a memoir of the author, and an appendix containing, I. An Authentic description of the moon; II. A New Theory of the Lunar Surface, in relation to that of the earth. (New York, 1852).
  • Frank M. O’Brien. The Story of The Sun. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928). Chapters 1-6.
  • Edgar Allan Poe. “Richard Adams Locke,” from “The Literati of New York City No.VI,” October 1846, Godey’s Lady’s Book, pp.159-162.
  • Gibson Reaves. “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” The Griffith Observer. November, 1954. Vol. XVII, No. 11, pp. 126-134.
  • Ormond Seavey (ed.). The Moon Hoax, Or, A Discovery That The Moon Has A Vast Population of Human Beings. (Boston: Gregg Press, 1975).

August 25, 1609 (a Tuesday)

Bell Tower in St. Mark’s Square

On this date, the Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei marched the Doge of Venice (Leonardo Donato), his counsellor, the Chiefs of the Council of Ten, and the Sages of the Order, who commanded the Venetian navy, up the Bell Tower (Campanile) in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. Once at the top, Galileo showed them views of distant cities, ships on the horizon, and parishioners entering a church on the island of Murano – all of which had been invisible to the eye alone – with the aid of his first telescope. The Doge was awestruck. The military had a powerful new secret weapon. Venice was confirmed again as a triumph. Galileo presented the Doge with the telescope on his knees and received a doubled salary, a lifetime appointment, and a bonus amounting to a year’s wages.

Throughout the the rest of 1609, particularly during the winter, Galileo made many astronomical studies. On January 7, 1610 Galileo observed with his telescope what he described at the time as “three fixed stars, totally invisible by their smallness,” all close to Jupiter, and lying on a straight line through it. Observations on subsequent nights showed that the positions of these “stars” relative to Jupiter were changing in a way that would have been inexplicable if they had really been fixed stars. On January 10 Galileo noted that one of them had disappeared, an observation which he attributed to its being hidden behind Jupiter. Within a few days he concluded that they were orbiting Jupiter. He had discovered three of Jupiter’s four largest satellites (moons): Io, Europa, and Callisto. He discovered the fourth, Ganymede, on January 13. Galileo named the four satellites he had discovered Medicean stars, in honor of his future patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Cosimo’s three brothers. [Later astronomers, however, renamed them the Galilean satellites in honor of Galileo himself.] On March 12, 1610 Galileo published the results of his studies in a brief treatise entitled Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger).

These observations over a six night period, from January 7 through January 13, provided a view to Galileo that revealed that perhaps not everything orbited the Earth (geocentric model), as Ptolemy as well as the Catholic Church had adopted. And, if these small, but bright points of light went around Jupiter and not the Earth, perhaps there were other objects that did not orbit the Earth. His findings allowed him to confirm the Sun-centered theory of Copernicus. This short period of time from the summer of 1609 through to March of 1610, when Siderius Nuncius was published, had a revolutionary impact on astronomy almost overnight and it catapulted Galileo into the scientific spotlight and into the fire and wrath of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church condemned Galileo for his theories on June 22, 1633. He was forced to disown them and to live on his own for the rest of his life. In the following century the Vatican began changing its attitude. A mausoleum was built in 1734 to honor him. In 1822 Pope Pius VII gave permission for Galileo’s theory to be taught in schools. In 1968 Pope Paul VI had the trial against Galileo reassessed, then Pope John Paul II took the final step in the Church’s rehabilitation of the scientist in 1984 when he formally acknowledged that the Catholic Church had erred when it condemned the Italian astronomer for maintaining that Earth revolved around the Sun.

August 24, 1953 (a Monday)

Alfred Kinsey appears on Time magazine (1953-08-24).

On this date, the American biologist and professor of entomology and zoology Alfred Kinsey appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The article in the issue stated that:

Kinsey . . . has done for sex what Columbus did for geography.

Kinsey had published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male on 5 January 1948. His report had found that 10 percent of all American males are largely homosexual, and that half of all men in the United States have experienced homosexual arousal to the point of orgasm at least once since puberty. On 14 September 1953, Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Based on his research, Kinsey concluded that:

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

At a time when any kind of human sexuality was rarely mentioned in public, and homosexuality was especially hidden, repressed, and punished, the Kinsey Reports came as a shocking revelation, with their statistical, scientific findings that homosexual behavior is more widespread than most people had suspected, and appears to be within the normal range of human behavior.

Suggested Reading:

August 24, 410 C.E.

Sack of Rome by Visigoths, 410 C.E., painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1890). [Naturally, being naked makes you a barbarian. - ed.]

Sack of Rome by Visigoths, 410 C.E., painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1890). [Naturally, being naked makes you a barbarian. - ed.]

On this date, Rome was attacked by the Visigoths, led by Alaric I. At that time, Rome was no longer the capital of the Western Roman Empire, replaced in this position initially by Mediolanum and then later Ravenna. Nevertheless, the city of Rome retained a paramount position as “the eternal city” and a spiritual center of the Empire.

This was the first time in almost 800 years that Rome had fallen to an enemy. The previous sack of Rome had been accomplished by the Gauls under their leader Brennus in 387 B.C.E. The sacking of 410 is seen as a major landmark in the fall of the Western Roman Empire. St. Jerome, living in Bethlehem at the time, wrote that “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”

This sack of Rome is generally considered to mark the end of classical history and the beginning of the Middle Ages, characterized by the rise of small feudal regions rather than one unitary empire and Christian chivalry as opposed to secular investigation. In truth, of course, the matter is more complicated, as scientific inquiry continued to some degree during the Middle Ages and the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire) continued for a further 1000 years.

August 23, 1975 (a Saturday)

Our own tyrants learned this lesson through bitter experience, when the love between Aristogiton and Harmodius grew so strong that it shattered their power. Wherever, therefore, it has been established that it is shameful to be involved in sexual relationships [of men] with men, this is due to evil on the part of legislators, to despotism on the part of the rulers, and to cowardice on the part of the governed.

— Plato, Symposium

Zen stones

Leonard Matlovich comes out.

History tells us that a man being able to admit to the other men in his unit that he is gay is not the antithesis of a successful war-fighting culture. On Saturday, 23 August 1975, U.S. Air Force Tech Sergeant Leonard Matlovich, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, appeared in his Air Force uniform on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “I Am A Homosexual”. Nevertheless, on 22 October 1975 he was given a general discharge. Matlovich was in many ways the first prominent face of the unjust treatment of gays and lesbians in the U.S. military. He was awarded the bronze star and a purple heart for his valor in combat. When he decided to stand up and tell the truth he knew what he was doing. The story goes that when Matlovich gave his superior officer his coming-out letter, the African-American officer asked: “What the hell does this mean?” Matlovich told him “It means Brown v. the Board of Education.”

Matlovich's tombstone at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.

In 1979, after winning a much-publicized case against the U.S. Air Force, his discharge was upgraded to “honorable.” In 1988, Matlovich died at the age of 44 of complications from AIDS. He was buried with full military honors at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.   His grave bears his famous statement:

When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.

Suggested Reading:

  • John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, (New York, NY: Villard, 1994).
  • Plato, Symposium
  • Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book 6

August 23, 1769 (a Wednesday)

Georges Cuvier

On this date, Georges Cuvier was born at Montbéliard, France (then Mömpelgard in the duchy of Württemberg). Cuvier, who possessed one of the finest minds in history, was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology by comparing living animals with fossils.

At the opening of the National Institute of France in April in 1796, he read his first palaeontological paper. At the time, it was still widely believed that no species of animal had ever become extinct, because God’s creation had been perfect. In his paper, Cuvier analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, demonstrating that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct.

In the second paper he presented in 1796, Cuvier demonstrated that a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he named “megatherium,” represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.

Figure of the jaw of an Indian elephant and the fossil Jaw of a mammoth from Cuvier's 1798–99 paper on living and fossil elephants

Cuvier believed that organisms were functional wholes; their functional integration meant that each part of an organism, no matter how small, bore signs of the whole. In a 1798 paper on the fossil remains of an animal found in some plaster quarries near Paris, he wrote:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

This idea is sometimes referred to as “Cuvier’s principle of correlation of parts.” Thus, Cuvier was able to use his deep knowledge of the comparative anatomy of living organisms to produce reconstructions of organisms from fragmentary fossils, many of which turned out to be strikingly accurate.

Ironically, Cuvier’s insistence on the functional integration of organisms prevented him from accepting biological evolution, for he believed that any change in an organism’s anatomy would have rendered it unable to survive. Since organisms were functional wholes, any change in one part would destroy their delicate balance. He also pointed out that Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt had retrieved animals mummified thousands of years previously that seemed no different from their modern counterparts.

To explain the discontinuities seen in the fossil record, Cuvier hypothesized that a vast number of species was originally created in the beginning and that, although the Earth was immensely old and for most of its history conditions had been more or less like those of the present, periodic “revolutions” had occurred, each causing the extinction of many species of animals. This view came to be known as “catastrophism.” Cuvier regarded these “revolutions” as events with natural causes, and considered their causes and natures to be an important geological problem. Although he was a lifelong Protestant, Cuvier did not explicitly identify any of these “revolutions” with Biblical or historical events. The species we see today, according to his hypothesis, are the species that were present at the beginning and whose unmodified descendants have survived all the later catastrophes. (Unfortunately for Cuvier, the lowest and oldest layers of sedimentary rock do not contain any fossils of present-day species that would be expected if his hypothesis was correct.)

The harshness of his criticism and the strength of his reputation continued to discourage naturalists from speculating about the transmutation of species, right up until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species more than two decades after Cuvier’s death.