Monthly Archives: December 2013

December 31, 1514 (Julian calendar/old style: a Sunday)

Andreas Vesalius

On this date at 5:45 AM, the physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (at that time part of the Holy Roman Empire). Vesalius sought to understand the mechanisms of the natural world through careful observation, no longer relying on texts by ancient authorities. He is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy.

Vesalius studied in Louvain and Paris before earning a doctorate in medicine at the University of Padua in 1537. Appointed there as a lecturer in surgery at the age of twenty-three, he quickly consolidated his reputation as both a teacher and an anatomist.

Perhaps his most famous accomplishment was the publication in 1543 of De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (Seven Books on the Construction of the Human Body), or simply the Fabrica, a text that contained the first accurate illustrations of internal human anatomy. His book overthrew many of the previously uncontested doctrines of the second-century anatomist Galen, and caused a storm of criticism from other anatomists. It was revolutionary, as he was among the first to perform thorough cadaver dissections himself. He showed that Galen’s anatomy was merely an attempt to apply animal structure to the human body, and was not based on any direct knowledge of human anatomy. In the preface of the Fabrica, dated August 1, 1542, Vesalius wrote:

Title page of the Fabrica.

To this man they have all so entrusted their faith that no doctor has been found who believes he has ever discovered even the slightest error in all the anatomical volumes of Galen, much less that such a discovery is possible: even though (notwithstanding that Galen often corrects himself, that more than once after learning better he points out in some books a careless error he has made in others, and that he often contradicts himself) – even though it is just now known to us from the reborn art of dissection, from the careful reading of Galen’s books, and from the welcome restoration of many portions thereof, that he himself never dissected a human body, but in fact was deceived by his monkeys (granted a couple of dried-up human cadavers came his way) and often wrongly disputed ancient doctors who had trained themselves in human dissections. In fact, you will find many things in Galen which he misunderstood even in monkeys, not to mention the most astonishing fact that among the many and infinite differences between the organs of the human body and the monkey Galen noticed only those in the fingers and the flexion of the knee; he would no doubt have missed these as well, had they not been obvious to him without dissecting a human.

Vesalius’s discovery of the important differences between species also helped usher in the science of comparative anatomy, in which researchers studied animals to find their similarities and differences. In the process, they gradually began to recognize humans as being one species among many, with a few unique traits but many others shared in common with other animals. Some 300 years after Vesalius first shook off the blind obedience to Galen, Darwin used that vast stock of anatomical knowledge to build his theory of evolution.

December 30, 1924 (a Tuesday)

Andromeda (seen here in ultraviolet).

Andromeda (seen here in ultraviolet).

On this date, Edwin Hubble announced his findings: “We are not alone”. Previously, the Milky Way Galaxy was considered the extent of the starry universe, but Hubble discovered that the spiral nebula Andromeda is actually a galaxy and that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies in the universe. His discovery revolutionized the field of astronomy.

Hubble not only found a number of stars in Andromeda, he found Cepheid variable stars, which brighten and dim on a regular basis. Their brightness and periodicity had enabled a bright Harvard scholar, Henrietta Leavitt, twelve years earlier to figure out how to calculate their distances from Earth. Hubble used Leavitt’s formula to calculate that Andromeda was approximately 860,000 light years away. That’s more than eight times the distance to the farthest stars in the Milky Way. This conclusively proved that the nebulae are separate systems and that our galaxy is not the universe.

Hubble’s advances led to finding many more galaxies and the fact that they are moving away from ours – that the universe is still expanding.

Before Copernicus and Galileo, humans thought our world was the center of creation. Then (except for a few notable stragglers) we learned that the sun and planets did not revolve around the Earth, and we discovered that our sun — though the center of our solar system — was not the center of the universe or even an important star in our galaxy.

But we still grandiosely thought our own dear Milky Way contained all or most of the stars in existence. We were about to be knocked off our egotistical little pedestal once again.

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.


  • 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 29, 1890 (a Monday)

View of the slain body of Chief Big Foot propped up in the snow at Wounded Knee.  U.S. soldiers, civilian burial party members, and a “Chunk" or "Stick" Stove of the type used to heat the Conical or Sibley army tent are shown in the background. (The Stick Stove almost certainly marks the location of Big Foot's tent, which was very close to the council circle. Major Samuel Whitside of the 7th Cavalry ordered a stove placed in Big Foot's tent on the night before the massacre.)

View of the slain body of Chief Big Foot propped up in the snow at Wounded Knee. U.S. soldiers, civilian burial party members, and a “Chunk” or “Stick” Stove of the type used to heat the Conical or Sibley army tent are shown in the background. (The Stick Stove almost certainly marks the location of Big Foot’s tent, which was very close to the council circle. Major Samuel Whitside of the 7th Cavalry ordered a stove placed in Big Foot’s tent on the night before the massacre.)

On this date, nearly 300 men, women, and children of Big Foot’s Minneconjou band of Sioux (Lakota) were murdered by the U.S. Army with four Hotchkiss guns near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. This massacre is now recognized as one of the most significant and tragic episodes in the history of white and Native American relations. As the band fell dead that winter morning, so too would a people’s dream.

Zen stones

Indian agents in 1890 were not too concerned about the Ghost Dance until Charles L. Hyde, a citizen of Pierre, South Dakota, wrote a letter on May 29 to the Secretary of the Interior stating that he had reliable information from a Pine Ridge Lakota at the Pierre Indian School that the Lakota were planning an outbreak.

View of the twisted, frozen slain body of Chief Big Foot, Miniconjou Lakota, propped up after the Wounded Knee massacre.

View of the twisted, frozen slain body of Chief Big Foot, Miniconjou Lakota, propped up after the Wounded Knee massacre.

Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) was the Paiute mystic whose religious pronouncements spread the Ghost Dance among many tribes across the American West. In the late 1880’s, Wovoka began to predict the dawning of a new age in which whites would vanish, leaving Indians to live in a land of material abundance, spiritual renewal, and immortal life. Like many millenarian visions, Wovoka’s prophecies stressed the link between righteous behavior and imminent salvation. Salvation was not to be passively awaited but welcomed by a regime of ritual dancing and upright moral conduct. Despite the later association of the Ghost Dance with the Wounded Knee Massacre and unrest on the Lakota reservations, Wovoka charged his followers to “not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always… Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them.”

While the Ghost Dance is sometimes seen today as an expression of Indian militancy and the desire to preserve traditional ways, Wovoka’s pronouncements ironically bore the heavy mark of popular Christianity. His invocation of a “Supreme Being,” immortality, pacifism, and explicit mentions of Jesus (often referred to with such phrases as “the messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man but was killed by them”) all speak of an infusion of Christian beliefs into Paiute mysticism.

The Ghost Dance spread especially among the more recently defeated Indians of the Great Plains. Local bands would adopt the core of the message to their own circumstances, writing their their own songs and dancing their own dances. In 1889 the Lakota sent a delegation to visit Wovoka. This group brought the Ghost Dance back to their reservations, where believers made sacred shirts – said to be bullet-proof – especially for the Dance. In the summer of 1890, white people living south and west of the Lakota reservations became alarmed and believed an Indian uprising would occur.

In October 1890, Daniel F. Royer was appointed Indian Agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was a victim of a political plum system that handed incapable people precarious jobs after they had failed at everything else. He had no business meddling in Indian Affairs. On November 18, Royer dispatched a panicky telegram to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, demanding military intervention and the arrest of the Lakota leaders to prevent an outbreak:

Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. I have fully informed you that employees and government property at this agency have no protection and are at the mercy of these dancers. Why delay by further investigation? We need protection, and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined in some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.

Special Edition Buffalo Echo, 22 November 1890.

Special Edition Buffalo Echo, 22 November 1890.

Sensationalistic accounts of purported Indian plots clotted the air and darkened the pages of newspapers across the country. For example, on November 22, 1890, the Buffalo Echo in Buffalo, Wyoming, put out a extra edition reporting under the headline, “THE MASSACRE BEGUN”, that “religion crazed Redskins” had broken out of the Pine Ridge Agency. The paper reported that 20,000 troops were being called up and that Fort Robinson had been left unprotected. It further reported that ranchmen and their families were “fleeing in terror”. The entire issue was based on conversations with a lady who was passing through by stage and who had no first hand knowledge, but was merely repeating what she had heard.

In December 1890, white officials banned the Ghost Dance on Lakota reservations. When the rites continued, officials called in troops to Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. The military, led by veteran General Nelson Miles, geared itself for another campaign.

View from the center of the Lakota camp to the northeast, across the council circle, after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek; shows scattered frozen bodies (women in foreground) in the snow, tepee poles; one with a soldier standing under them, a broken down wagon and U.S. soldiers with horse in the distance.

View from the center of the Lakota camp to the northeast, across the council circle, after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek; shows scattered frozen bodies (women in foreground) in the snow, tepee poles; one with a soldier standing under them, a broken down wagon and U.S. soldiers with horse in the distance.

The presence of the troops exacerbated the situation. Short Bull and Kicking Bear led their followers to the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge reservation, to a sheltered escarpment the Lakota called “Oonakizin,” or the Stronghold. The dancers sent word to Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas to join them. However, on 15 December, before he could set out from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, Sitting Bull was arrested by federal Indian police, who mistakenly believed he was a Ghost Dancer. A scuffle ensued in which Sitting Bull and seven of his warriors were slain, as well as six of the Indian policemen; tensions increased at Pine Ridge.

On December 16, the South Dakota Home Guard, a militia which had been created by Governor Arthur C. Mellete less than a month earlier, ambushed and massacred and scalped about 75 Lakota Ghost Dancers on the Pine Ridge reservation. Pete Lemley, later known as “the Badlands Fox”, was a twenty-year old daredevil, a renowned horseman who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, so naturally he was just the kind of fearless rider needed to lead the Home Guard Ambush. Pete became a millionaire rancher and lived to be ninety-one years old. In 1959, at the request of his son (Dr. Ray Lemley), Pete tape recorded details of his participation in the attacks against Ghost Dancers during the month of December 1890. His account of the Home Guard Ambush on December 16, 1890, is a cowboy’s unashamed narrative of the day he considered one of the most exciting in his life:

There was a bunch of men there. We went over [Cheyenne River] and stirred them [Lakota] up and a lot of our fellows laid in at the head of a gulch. We went over to the Stronghold and got ’em after us and they chased us down Corral Draw. Riley Miller was at the head of it and layin’ up there behind the trees and rocks. This Riley Miller was a dead shot, and he just killed them Indians as fast as he could shoot. Francis Roush, Roy Coates, George Cosgrove, Paul McClellan was up with us. We killed about seventy-five of them. Riley Miller and Frank Lockhart went back there and got some pack horses and brought out seven loads of guns, shirts, war bonnets, ghost shirts, and things. Riley took ’em to Chicago and started a museum. He made a barrel of money out of it.

“Stirred them up” means Lemley and others galloped in upon a band of Ghost Dancers and fired directly into them. The Lakota ran to their tents for weapons. They mounted and chased the cowboys, falling directly into a well-planned ambush at the head of the Corral Draw, three miles south of Heutmacher Table. It is possible that some of the cowboys believed they were helping to protect white “settlers”, but most members of the Home Guard were out for the sport of killing Indians and nothing more.

The Home Guard also killed a small band of Lakota in early December near French Creek. The band had gone to Buffalo Gap to hunt at the ranch of a friendly whiteman they knew. They were greeted with a gun. They were unaware of the events that were transpiring around them. They sensed something wrong and attempted to leave. Because their horses were tired, they had to make camp between French Creek and Battle Creek. They were massacred in a surprise attack the next morning, December 10. The Lakota refer to the ambush as Buffalo Gap, which points to the origin of the hostility, not the location of the ambush. One young woman managed to escape to tell the story.

A group portrait of Big Foot's Miniconjou Lakota band at a Grass Dance on the Cheyenne River, South Dakota,  in August 1890. Nearly all these people were killed at Wounded Knee just a few months later.

A group portrait of Big Foot’s Miniconjou Lakota band at a Grass Dance on the Cheyenne River, South Dakota, in August 1890. Nearly all these people were killed at Wounded Knee just a few months later.

In early December 1890, Troops A & B of the 8th Cavalry under Capt. Almond B. Wells was stationed at Olrichs, South Dakota. Wells allowed Lt. Joseph C. Byron to enter the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and massacre a small band of Indians under Chief Two Strike on Cuny Table with cannon fire. All the Indians were killed. This incident appears to have been covered up by the United States Army for about 100 years. The property of the Indians was buried and the soldiers of the 8th Cavalry were sworn to secrecy, so that even General Miles, the overall commander at Wounded Knee in 1890, may not have been aware of it. This and the Home Guard massacres are documented in the Renee Sansom Flood Collection at Vermillion, South Dakota.

While serving as the editor and publisher of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper published in Aberdeen, South Dakota, L. Frank Baum, the future author of The Wizard of Oz, wrote an editorial that was published on December 20:

Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead. He was not a Chief, but without Kingly lineage he arose from a lowly position to the greatest Medicine Man of his time, by virtue of his shrewdness and daring. He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his [tribe].


With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are…

Today, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry — the reconstructed regiment lost by George Armstrong Custer in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (“Custer’s last stand”) — surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Chief Spotted Elk (“Big Foot” was the name soldiers gave him) near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, an altercation occurred between a Lakota man and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. The massacre and precipitating events were described by the Commanding General, Nelson A. Miles, in his letter dated 13 March 1917 to the federal Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

I was in command of that Department in 1889, 1890 and 1891, when what is known as the Messiah Craze and threatened uprising of the Indians occurred. It was created by misrepresentations of white men then living in Nevada who sent secret messages to the different tribes in the great Northwest calling upon them to send representatives to meet Him near Walker Lake, Nevada.

This was done, and returning to their different tribes in the Northwest and West, and even in the Southwest, they repeated the false statement to the different tribes that the Messiah had returned to earth and would the next year move East, driving large herds of wild horses, buffalo, elk, deer and antelope, and was going to convert this into an Indian heaven – in other words, the Happy Hunting Grounds.

This, together with the fact that the Indians had been in almost a starving condition in South Dakota, owing to the scarcity of rations and the nonfulfillment of treaties and sacred obligations under which the Government had been placed to the Indians, caused great dissatisfaction, dissension and almost hostility. Believing this superstition, they resolved to gather and go West to meet the Messiah, as they believed it was the fulfillment of their dreams and prayer and the prophecies as had been taught them by the missionaries.

Several thousand warriors assembled in the Bad Lands of South Dakota. During this time the tribe, under Big Foot, moved from their reservation to near the Red Cloud Agency in South Dakota under a flag of truce. They numbered over four hundred souls. They were intercepted by a command under Lt. Col. Whitside, who demanded their surrender, which they complied with, and moved that afternoon some two or three miles and camped where they were directed to do, near the camp of the troops.

While this was being done a detachment of soldiers was sent into the camp to search for any arms remaining there, and it was reported that their rudeness frightened the women and children. It is also reported that a remark was made by some one of the soldiers that “when we get the arms away from them we can do as we please with them,” indicating that they were to be destroyed. Some of the Indians could understand English. This and other things alarmed the Indians and a scuffle occurred between one warrior who had a rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the parry were hunted down and killed. The official reports make the number killed 90 warriors and approximately 200 women and children.

The action of the Commanding Officer, in my judgment at the time, and I so reported, was most reprehensible. The disposition of his troops was such that in firing upon the warriors they fired directly towards their own lines and also into the camp of the women and children. and I have regarded the whole affair as most unjustifiable and worthy of the severest condemnation.

View of the snow-covered ravine where many Lakota sought shelter during the massacre near Wounded Knee Creek; shows frozen bodies where soldiers fired and killed from both sides of the ravine, a few men with horses, and a broken wagon.

View of the snow-covered ravine where many Lakota sought shelter during the massacre near Wounded Knee Creek; shows frozen bodies where soldiers fired and killed from both sides of the ravine, a few men with horses, and a broken wagon.

As a matter of fact, soldiers chased and killed Lakota women and children as far as two miles from the camp site. One of the survivors, a Lakota woman, was treated by the Indian physician Dr. Charles Eastman at a make-shift hospital set up in a church in the village of Pine Ridge. Before she died of her wounds she told about how she had concealed herself in a clump of bushes. As she hid there she saw two terrified little girls running past. She grabbed them and pulled them into the bushes. She put her hands over their mouths to keep them quiet but a mounted soldier spotted them. He fired a bullet into the head of one girl and then calmly reloaded his rifle and fired into the head of the other girl. He then fired into the body of the Lakota woman. She feigned death and although badly wounded, lived long enough to relate her terrible ordeal to Dr. Eastman.

It does not take a genius to conclude from the above facts that the incident at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890 was nothing less than a massacre. The fact that 23 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who carried out the mass murders there still boggles the mind. Despite the current view that the battle was a massacre of innocents, the Medals still stand. Some Native American and other groups and individuals continue to lobby Congress to rescind these “Medals of dis-Honor“. ___________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________
Conflict came to Wounded Knee again in February 1973 when it was the site of a 71-day occupation by the activist group AIM (American Indian Movement) and its supporters, who were protesting the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. During the standoff, two Indians were killed, one federal marshal was seriously wounded, and numerous people were arrested.

Finally, every year on December 15th people gather at Sitting Bull Camp, near Bullhead, South Dakota, to ride horseback nearly three hundred miles to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The ride is called the Omaka Tokatakiya (Future Generations) Ride and the majority of the riders come from three Lakota reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Pine Ridge. Others come from as far as Germany and the Czech Republic. In two weeks they travel across rivers and farms, cross a major interstate, and arrive at Wounded Knee on the anniversary of the massacre. While the ride is in many ways in homage to Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and those who lost their lives at Wounded Knee, this ride is also meant to foster leadership qualities in the youth. Along the way, the riders experience some of what their ancestors endured by embodying an intellectual, spiritual, and physical remembrance. Braving the cold — down to −20°F — these kids, some of them barely into puberty, ride as many as 35 miles in a day.
___________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________

Post Script:
I have heard some conservative extremists recently use the Wounded Knee Massacre in an argument against any restriction on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, such as a prohibition on the sale of modern assault weapons. An example is an article entitled “A Little Bit Of History To Think About” that may have first appeared on the “Common Sense Junction Political Blog” on 14 January 2013 and has been re-blogged several times on right-wing extremist websites. It reads in part:

Wounded Knee was among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history. It ended in the senseless murder of 297 people… The Second Amendment was written by people who fled oppressive and tyrannical regimes in Europe, and it refers to the right of American citizens to be armed for defensive purposes, should such tyranny arise in the United States… Ask any Native American, and they will tell you it was inferior technology and lack of arms that contributed to their demise… Wounded Knee is the prime example of why the Second Amendment exists, and why we should vehemently resist any attempts to infringe on our Rights to Bear Arms. Without the Second Amendment we will be totally stripped of any ability to defend ourselves and our families. [emphasis in original]

Interestingly, the owner of the above website commented following the article: “This was posted as received in its entirety even though I don’t know who wrote it. If its yours and you want credit and a link let me know.”  So, no one knows who originally wrote it — Native American or immigrant, first generation or tenth generation.

To begin with, the Lakota were not citizens of the United States at the time — they were members of their own nation, by treaty and therefore according to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the Second Amendment did not apply to them. The Lakota were entitled to arm themselves because they were in their own country.

There can be no doubt that Big Foot had surrendered himself and his people. On the morning of 29 December 1890, they were prisoners of war. General Miles recognized this. But the author of the above article neglects to point out that they were prisoners of war. As POWs, the army was prohibited from summarily executing them, even in those days. This is why killing the Lakota at Wounded Knee was murder and the incident was a massacre. The disarmed prisoners of war at Wounded Knee were killed in cold blood.

Wounded Knee was not “among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history”, because the Lakota were not U.S. citizens. I don’t think even conservatives would blame the U.S. military for disarming foreign nationals that are perceived to be enemies — the army has been doing this since 1776. Nor were the Lakota being “totally stripped of any ability to defend [them]selves and [their] families” by their own leaders.

The sophomoric author of the above article has taken the Wounded Knee Massacre, which was a horrible tragedy, out of its historical context to use it to justify the sale of assault weapons today. This is unjustified and reprehensible.


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 27, 1831 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin on board set sail from Plymouth, England, beginning its epic voyage with a crew of 73 men under clear skies and a good wind. Darwin became sea-sick almost immediately. Later, he wrote in his diary:

A beautiful day, accompanied by the long wished for E wind.—Weighed anchor at 11 o’clock & with difficulty tacked out.—The Commissioner Capt Ross sailed with us in his Yatch.—The Capt, Sullivan & myself took a farewell luncheon on mutton chops & champagne, which may I hope excuse the total absence of sentiment which I experienced on leaving England.—We joined the Beagle about 2 o’clock outside the Breakwater,—& immediately with every sail filled by a light breeze we scudded away at the rate of 7 or 8 knots an hour.—I was not sick that evening but went to bed early.

December 27, 1822 (a Friday)

Louis Pasteur

On this date, the chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was born in Dole in the Jura region of France.

From the time of the ancient Romans, through the Middle Ages, and until the late nineteenth century, it was generally accepted that some life forms arose spontaneously from nonliving matter. Such “spontaneous generation” appeared to occur primarily in decaying matter. For example, a seventeenth century recipe for the spontaneous production of mice required placing sweaty underwear and husks of wheat in an open-mouthed jar, then waiting for about 21 days, during which time it was alleged that the sweat from the underwear would penetrate the husks of wheat, changing them into mice. Likewise, the spontaneous generation hypothesis was proposed by scientists to explain the origin of the “animalcules” observed by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in his magnifying lenses and had received wide acceptance all over Europe. Although such a concept may seem laughable today, it was consistent with the other widely held cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur that this fallacy was finally disproved. In 1859, the French Academy of Science offered the Alhumbert Prize of 2500 francs to whoever could shed “new light on the question of so-called spontaneous generation”. Young Pasteur’s award winning experiment was a clever variation of earlier experiments performed by John Needham (1713-1781) and Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Pasteur filled a long necked flask with meat broth. He then heated the glass neck and bent it into an “S” shape. Air could reach the broth, but gravity acted to trap airborne microorganisms in the curve of the neck. He then boiled the broth. After a time, no microorganisms had formed in the broth. When the flask was tipped so that the broth reached the microorganisms trapped in the neck, the broth quickly became cloudy with microscopic life.

Pasteur filled a flask with medium, heated it to kill all life, and then drew out the neck of the flask into a long S. This prevented microorganisms in the air from entering the flask, yet allowed air to flow freely. If the swan neck was broken, microbes could enter the flask and grow.

Thus, Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation. Furthermore, Pasteur proved that some microorganisms are airborne. “There is no known circumstance in which it can be confirmed that microscopic beings came into the world without germs, without parents similar to themselves,” he concluded in 1864. His experiment also supported germ theory. Germ theory states that specific microscopic organisms are the cause of specific diseases. While Pasteur was not the first to propose germ theory (Girolamo Fracastoro, Agostino Bassi, Friedrich Henle and others had suggested it earlier), he developed it and conducted other experiments that clearly indicated its correctness, thereby managing to convince most of Europe it was true.

Despite what creationists and proponents of “intelligent design” may insist, Pasteur’s research on spontaneous generation did not demonstrate the impossibility of life arising in simple form from nonliving matter under conditions vastly different from those today and by means of a long and propitious series of chemical steps/selections. In particular, he did not show that life cannot arise once, and then evolve. Neither Pasteur, nor any other post-Darwin researcher in this field, denied the age of Earth or the fact of evolution. What Louis Pasteur and the others who denied spontaneous generation did demonstrate is that life does not currently spontaneously (i.e., within a matter of weeks) arise in complex form from nonlife in nature.

Memorable Quote:

One does not ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, this is enough for me: you belong to me and I shall help you.

— quoted in Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science (1950) by René Jules Dubos, p. 85

December 25, 1801 (a Friday)

Peale's painting of 1801 excavation of mastodon.

Peale’s painting of 1801 excavation of mastodon.

On this date, the first complete skeleton of a mastodon found in the United States, mounted in the “Mammoth Room” of Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was opened for exhibition to the public. It was the museum’s centerpiece and became an overnight success.

The massive bones had been discovered in the Hudson River Valley of New York state in the spring of that year, described only as Incognitum (“unknown”). They were acquired by Charles Willson Peale who traveled there to supervise their excavation. The site was depicted in a well-known painting by Peale, whose career included working as a portrait artist.

Peale’s 1801 excavation on the Hudson Valley farm drew international attention.  Convinced that “the movements of nature are in never ending circles,” Thomas Jefferson expected Lewis and Clark to find mastodons and other extinct animals still living in the American west.  Periodically, from then until now, additional complete skeletons of mastodons have been unearthed in the state of New York.


  • Charles Coleman Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum (W.W. Norton & Co., 1980)

December 24, 2013 (a Tuesday)

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by National Physical Laboratory Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by National Physical Laboratory Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

Today, Alan Turing, the British mathematician credited with development of the early computer, was finally given a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth II 60 years after being convicted for and chemically castrated for being gay. Homosexuality was a crime in England at the time. You can read a summary of Turing’s arrest and trial here.

The pardon was announced by British justice secretary, Chris Grayling, who had made the request to the Queen. Touring “deserves to be remembered and recognized for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science,” Grayling wrote in his plea.

Turing pioneered the field of computer science, conceiving a “universal machine” that could be programmed to carry out different tasks years before the creation of the world’s fully functional electronic computer. His ideas matured into a fascination with artificial intelligence and the notion that machines would someday challenge the minds of man. When the war ended, Turing went to work programing the world’s early computers, drawing up — among other things — one of the first computer chess games.

Turing is perhaps best remembered as the architect of the effort to crack the Enigma code, the cipher used by Nazi Germany to secure its military communications. Turing’s groundbreaking work — combined with the effort of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park near Oxford and the capture of several Nazi code books — gave the Allies the edge across half the globe, helping them defeat the Italians in the Mediterranean, beat back the Germans in Africa, and escape enemy submarines in the Atlantic.

Royal Pardon of Alan Turing signed by Queen Elizabeth II

Royal Pardon of Alan Turing signed by Queen Elizabeth II

Today, Touring’s contribution to Britain’s success during World War II and our modern computing environment is undisputed. Jean Barker, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said that “until Turing came along with his wonderful work, our ships were being sunk by the German submarines at [an incredible rate], I hate to say.” Barker admitted that without him, German U-boats would have surely crippled their naval fleet and the country, an island, would have starved. British prime minister David Cameron also recognized Touring’s significance: “His action saved countless lives. He also left a remarkable national legacy through his substantial scientific achievements, often being referred to as the ‘father of modern computing.’

For lawmaker Iain Stewart, one of many who campaigned for the pardon, the act helped right a massive wrong. “He helped preserve our liberty,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “We owed it to him in recognition of what he did for the country — and indeed the free world — that his name should be cleared.”

Others say the pardon doesn’t go far enough. British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “I pay tribute to the government for ensuring Alan Turing has a royal pardon at last but I do think it’s very wrong that other men convicted of exactly the same offense are not even being given an apology, let alone a royal pardon. We’re talking about at least 50,000 other men who were convicted of the same offense, of so-called gross indecency, which is simply a sexual act between men with consent.”

Glyn Hughes, the sculptor of the Alan Turing Memorial in Manchester, England said, “The problem is, of course, if there was a general pardon for men who had been prosecuted for homosexuality, many of them are still alive and they could get compensation.”

Ultimately, Touring’s pardon has come at a time when arguably the contributions of LGBT people can no longer go unrecognized.


December 23, 1924 (a Tuesday)

First fossil skull of Australopithecus.

On this date, Raymond Dart completed his work removing the first fossil skull of Australopithecus from its matrix of rock. Being one of the “missing links” in man’s evolution, Dart had taken exquisite care during 73 days to separate skull and stone, at work in his laboratory in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dart with his students made the find in the Taung limestone works in the Harts Valley of Bechuanaland. When an endocranial cast was found, at first it seemed to be just another primate skull. Then, Dart noticed how amazingly close to human it looked. Dart had discovered the Taung child, who was only three years old at the time of death. He named it Australopithecus africanus. (Australis means “south” and pithecus means “ape”).

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…


    • 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, 1857 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin (1855)

On this date, Charles Darwin replied to a letter that Alfred Russel Wallace had sent him on 27 September. He praised Wallace for his dedication to natural science, and for his work on the distribution of species. Darwin also told Wallace he will not discuss the topic of man’s origins, even though it would be of highest interest to naturalists. Darwin pointed out that he had been working on the problem of species origins for twenty years, but would not publish for a few years yet:

You ask whether I shall discuss “man”;—I think I shall avoid whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest & most interesting problem for the naturalist.— My work, on which I have now been at work more or less for 20 years, will not fix or settle anything; but I hope it will aid by giving a large collection of facts with one definite end: I get on very slowly, partly from ill-health, partly from being a very slow worker.— I have got about half written; but I do not suppose I shall publish under a couple of years. I have now been three whole months on one chapter on Hybridism!

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.


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

December 22, 1956 (a Saturday)

Colo the gorilla (24 Aug 2009)

On this date, a gorilla was born in captivity for the first time in history. Born at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio and named Colo (a combination of Columbus and Ohio), the western lowland gorilla weighed four pounds. She was the daughter of Millie and Mac, two gorillas captured in French Cameroon, Africa, who were brought to the Columbus Zoo in 1951. For decades after people had first tried to keep gorillas in captivity, any gorilla’s path from the forest to the zoo was soaked in blood. The animals had to be captured in the wild when they were young — before they grew too big and powerful to handle. Hunters would first have to kill the baby’s parents and sometimes its entire family.

She almost didn’t make it,” says Jeffrey Lyttle, author of Gorillas In Our Midst, a book about the Columbus Zoo gorillas.

“At the time, the zookeepers knew that Colo’s [mother] was pregnant, but nobody knew the gestation period of a gorilla,” Lyttle recalls. “They thought it was nine months, like humans, but it turns out it is closer to eight and a half months. So they weren’t expecting the birth. A vet named Warren Thomas was making his morning rounds when he discovered Colo, in her amniotic sack, lying on the concrete floor of her mother’s cage. He reached in, tore open the sack, and began giving Colo mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”

Luckily, the little gorilla lived. “It was huge national news,” says Lyttle. But zookeepers believed that Colo’s mother wasn’t up to the task of raising her baby. They were probably right, since many captive gorillas never had a chance to learn parenting skills from their own parents in the wild. “So Columbus built a special nursery for her,” Lyttle explains. “Zoo visitation went through the roof. They would dress Colo up for the holidays — put her in an Easter bonnet and fancy dresses. Some people say she still likes to wear her food dish as a hat because she spent so much of her infancy wearing hats.”

Colo is also the oldest living gorilla in captivity, following the death of 55 year old Jenny in September 2008.

December 21, 1889 (a Saturday)

Sewall Wright

Sewall Wright

On this date, the American mathematician and biologist Sewall Green Wright (he later dropped the middle name) was born. He was one of the founders, along with R. A. Fisher and J. B. S. Haldane, of modern theoretical population genetics. He researched the effects of inbreeding and crossbreeding with guinea pigs and, later on, the effects of gene action on inherited characteristics. The synthetic theory of evolution as described by Sewall Wright synthesizes (combines) the principles of natural selection outlined by Charles Darwin with the principles of genetics. Wright explained evolution in terms of changes in gene frequencies.

The classic example which supports this theory is that of the peppered moth in England. The moth can be either dark or light colored. Scientists have determined that body color in the peppered moth is controlled by a single gene with two alleles: the allele for dark body color is dominant and the allele for light body color is recessive. Prior to the industrialization of central England, the light-colored allele was most prevalent. The light-colored moths would hide on the white-barked trees and avoid bird predation. But the pollution generated by the new industries stained the light-colored trees dark. Gradually the light-colored moth was attacked and that allele became much less prevalent. In its place, the dark-colored allele became the most predominant allele because moths that carried that allele could camouflage themselves on the stained trees and avoid being eaten by their bird predators. Clearly the population had evolved to a better adaptive condition.

Wright is perhaps best known for his concept of genetic drift, formerly known as the “Sewall Wright effect.” Genetic drift results when small populations of a species are isolated and due to pure chance, the few individuals who carry certain relatively rare genes may fail to transmit them. The genes may therefore disappear and their loss may lead to the emergence of new species, although natural selection has played no part in the process. Genetic drift can be summarized as “bad luck, not bad genes.”

Wright had long been concerned with cases in which genes interacted in ways not predictable from their individual effects. He believed that evolutionary creativity often depended on putting together favorable combinations of genes that were individually deleterious. But natural selection will not ordinarily incorporate such genes in a large, sexually reproducing population. Wright’s answer was his “shifting balance theory“, which holds that the best opportunity for adaptive evolution lies in the population structure.

Wright thought that many, if not most, species were subdivided into small populations that exchanged only a few migrants with each other and thus were not completely isolated. Because of the small size of each of these populations, genetic drift would have a significant effect on the genetic composition of each, thus allowing the populations to differentiate genetically by an appreciable amount. In this way, each of the populations would act as a small experiment in evolution.

Wright’s shifting balance theory consists of three distinct phases:

  • Phase 1, the exploratory phase, is characterized by the action of genetic drift in a local population. One or more may drift into an advantageous gene combination.
  • In phase 2, a new advantageous combination of genes is naturally selected in one or more populations.
  • Finally, in phase 3, those populations will then increase or, more likely, send out migrants to adjacent local populations, introducing the advantageous gene combination of the immigrants. As a result of this process, eventually all of the populations attain the favorable gene combination.

Although Wright’s theory remains controversial, it has been very popular and influential in the biological community. It is one of the things that biologists argue over. They do not argue over whether or not evolution occurs; that evolution occurs is a biological fact.

December 21, 1835 (a Monday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, HMS Beagle arrived at New Zealand with Charles Darwin on board. He was not too impressed with the natives (Maori), whom he viewed with suspicion (they practiced cannibalism before the missions arrived).

I should think a more warlike race of inhabitants could not be found in any part of the world than the New Zealanders. Their conduct on first seeing a ship, as described by Captain Cook, strongly illustrates this: the act of throwing volleys of stones at so great and novel an object, and their defiance of “Come on shore and we will kill and eat you all,” shows uncommon boldness. This warlike spirit is evident in many of their customs, and even in their smallest actions. If a New Zealander is struck, although but in joke, the blow must be returned; and of this I saw an instance with one of our officers.


The first European impression of Māori people, by Isaac Gilsemans (the artist on Abel Tasman's voyage to New Zealand in 1642).

The first European impression of Māori people, by Isaac Gilsemans (the artist on Abel Tasman’s voyage to New Zealand in 1642).

Looking at the New Zealander, one naturally compares him with the Tahitian; both belonging to the same family of mankind. The comparison, however, tells heavily against the New Zealander. He may, perhaps, be superior in energy, but in every other respect his character is of a much lower order.


Whilst at New Zealand we did not hear of any recent acts of cannibalism; but Mr. Stokes found burnt human bones strewed round a fire-place on a small island near the anchorage; but these remains of a comfortable banquet might have been lying there for several years. It is probable that the moral state of the people will rapidly improve.


December 21, 1767 (a Monday)

William Paley

William Paley

On this date, William Paley was ordained as an Anglican priest. He was a prolific author, but his most influential contribution to biological thought was his book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, first published in 1802. He introduced one of the most famous metaphors in the philosophy of science, the image of the watchmaker:

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker – that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.

Even Charles Darwin commented on Paley in his Autobiography:

In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy… The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced of the long line of argumentation.

Natural theology had dominated English thinking for nearly two centuries, Paley’s arguments going back to authors such as John Ray, and have had a long intellectual history, surviving to the present day in many a piece of creationist rhetoric. Although totally discredited in modern science, natural theology was important scientifically because it guided researchers to the fundamental question of how life works. Even today, when scientists discover a new kind of organ or protein, they try to figure out its function.

December 20, 2005 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Districtwas decided.

First, some background information. In October 2004, the Dover [PA] Area School District Board of Directors had decided that “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” In November 2004, they had announced that Dover High School’s ninth-grade biology teachers would read a statement informing students that “Darwin’s Theory . . . is not a fact” and that “intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” The statement referred students to the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People to learn “what intelligent design actually involves.” On December 14, 2004, eleven parents had filed suit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania against the District’s Board of Directors. [Interestingly, in January 2005, science teachers refused to read the ID statement; administrators read it themselves.] The trial had begun on September 26, 2005.

Judge John Jones

The presiding judge, John E. Jones III, was not fooled by the defendants’ denials that they are creationists: “[Intelligent Design] cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.” He was especially displeased that board members Buckingham and Bonsell had lied under oath during their depositions:

[T]he inescapable truth is that both Bonsell and Buckingham lied at their January 3, 2005 depositions about their knowledge of the source of the donation for Pandas. . . . This mendacity was a clear and deliberate attempt to hide the source of the donations . . . to further ensure that Dover students received a creationist alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution [emphasis added].

Presented with the truth about the board’s policy and the ID creationism it promoted, Jones ruled accordingly:

A declaratory judgment is hereby issued in favor of Plaintiffs . . . such that Defendants’ ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and . . . the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The victory was not just legal; the pro-ID school board was replaced by the voters on November 8, 2005.

December 19, 1944 (a Tuesday)

Richard E. Leakey

On this date, the Kenyan physical anthropologist and paleontologist Richard E. Leakey was born. Leakey, second of three sons of noted anthropologists Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, decided at an early age that he wanted nothing to do with paleoanthropology and started a expedition business. In 1964, he led an expedition to a fossil site which sparked his interest in paleontology. Since then he has been responsible for extensive fossil finds of human ancestral forms in East Africa, including a Homo habilis skull found in 1972, and a Homo erectus skull found in 1975. His discoveries showed that man’s ancestors used tools, which shows intelligence, and lived in eastern Africa at least 3 million years ago – almost doubling the previously accepted age of human origins.

December 18, 1832 (a Tuesday)

HMS Beagle off Tierra del Fuego
(from an original by Raymond A Massey)

On this date, after passing through the straight of Le Maire at Tierra del Fuego, HMS Beagle anchored at Good Success Bay. Here Charles Darwin had his first encounter with savages. He was shocked by the primitive way of life they led but was also fascinated by them. A group of four male Fuegians (Yamana) met the landing party. After an attempt to communicate with the Fuegians the party presented them with some bright red cloth and the Fuegians immediately became friendly with them. The natives initiated a dialog by patting the crewmen on their chests. Apparently they had the most amazing ability to mimic the crew’s gestures and even the words they spoke, often repeating whole English sentences back to them. Darwin was bewildered by all this, and it left a lasting impression on him.

In chapter 21 entitled “General Summary and Conclusion” of his Descent of Man published years later in 1871, Darwin wrote:

We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped probably arboreal in its habits and an inhabitant of the Old World.


I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts at such a conclusion, whether or not we are able to believe that every slight variation of structure,– the union of each pair in marriage, the dissemination of each seed,– and other such events, have all been ordained for some special purpose.


The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to say, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians.

Darwin then reiterated his assessment of the Fuegians:

The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind – such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

Yamana Family Group, photo by Martin Gusinde (early 20th century)

Yamana Family Group, photo by Martin Gusinde (early 20th century)

It is often pointed out that Darwin frequently used the term “savages” when discussing the tribal people whom he wrote about. In his use of the term savages, however, Darwin was simply using the standard lexicon of his time; it was a term that everyone, from Popes to Presidents, used. Also, Darwin was hardly alone in his attitude towards tribal people, and his observations of “savages” are indeed accurate. The cultures that he came into contact with did engage in these practices, and it can hardly be surprising that he felt displeasure towards these qualities. Virtually everyone in Western civilization was repulsed by these traits in other cultures, as they should have been.

But in contrast to the existing views on race, Darwin showed that:

  • People cannot be classified as different species.
  • All races are related and have a common ancestry.
  • All people come from “savage” origins.
  • The different races have much more in common than was widely believed. [He also freely admitted to having had sexual relations with a black woman, something else unheard of in his time. (Darwin, 1874, p. 178)]
  • The mental capabilities of all races are virtually the same and there is greater variation within races than between races.
  • Different races of people can interbreed and there is no concern for ill effects.
  • Culture, not biology, accounted for the greatest differences between the races.
  • Races are not distinct, but rather they blend together.

The language of some of Darwin’s work on race was crude by today’s standard, but it was revolutionary in its opposition to the established ideas of the day, which held that the “savages” were inferior and had no hope of ever living in a state of equality with whites. Instead of being criticized as a racist, Darwin should rightfully be honored as one of the leaders of opposition to racism. He showed through his careful study and through his theory of evolution that we are indeed all related and that the key to social success as a species lies in extending our cooperation, sympathy, and assistance to people of all races and all nations. If Darwin had any social message, that, certainly, was it. In chapter 4 in Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. … This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and “not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.” Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, “Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”


December 18, 1912 (a Wednesday)

Working at Piltdown.

On this date, the discovery of the skull known as Piltdown man, the first important fossil human skull ever to be unearthed in England, was announced at a meeting of the Geological Society of Great Britain. Charles Dawson, steward of Barkham Manor, an attorney, and secretary to the Sussex Archaeological Society, and Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the British Museum, announced their remarkable find had been made at Piltdown Common. The specimen, known as Piltdown man, occupied an honored place in the catalogues of fossil hominids for the next 40 years. But in 1953, thanks to some rigorous scholarly detective work, Piltdown man was revealed to be nothing more than a forgery, manufactured from modern human and animal remains.

December 16, 1859 (a Friday)

Bryophytes on brook.

On this date, the American botanist Douglas Houghton Campbell was born. He was an expert on the anatomical structure and life cycles of mosses, ferns and liverworts. Throughout his entire life, Campbell was interested in the evolution of vascular plants, which he thought occurred on land from primitive mosses. He also studied the modern geographic distribution of plants.

At a time before it was generally accepted, Campbell thought Wegener’s theory of continental drift (proposed in 1912) was plausible. Campbell recognized that a primordial supercontinent, Gondwana, splitting into smaller land masses that drifted apart would resolve many of the puzzling facts in geographical distribution, both of animals and plants:

Acceptance of the recent hypothesis of Du Toit, that there were two primordial continents, Laurasia in the Northern Hemisphere and Gondwana in the South, and from these primary continents, the existing continents were separated and shifted to their present positions, would, if true, remove most of the difficulties in explaining the present distribution of many existing plant families.


  • Douglas Houghton Campbell, “Relations of the temperate floras of North and South America,” Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences 25, 4th ser. (1944): 139-146.

December 15, 1869 (a Wednesday)

Joseph Barrell

Joseph Barrell

On this date, the American geologist Joseph Barrell was born. He was professor of structural geology at Yale University from 1908 until his death in 1919.

Barrell proposed that sedimentary rocks were produced not only by marine sedimentation but also by the action of rivers, winds, and ice (continental sedimentation).

He also proposed (1916) that the bright red color of many Devonian rocks meant that the rocks had been baked dry, like bricks, in arid conditions. [Barrell had been only half right; red rocks do sometimes form in droughts, but they form in moist tropical soils as well.]

Barrell, and subsequently the American paleontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer, speculated that droughts had caused lungfish to evolve into air-breathing land vertebrates, including tetrapods. According to this hypothesis, as the ponds dried, the fish had to adapt to life on land and so evolved features that enabled them to hop from pond to pond. [However, evidence discovered more recently suggests that the fish-to-tetrapod transition likely happened not in creatures that were adapting to land but in creatures living in water. In fact, everything special about tetrapods – limbs, digits, ribs, neck, and so on – might well have evolved in water, not on land.]

At a meeting of the Geological Society of America held in Albany, New York, in 1916 Barrell presented a paper on “Rhythms and the measurement of geologic time” that was later published in full in the Society’s Bulletin in 1917. The article became an instant classic in geology. Barrell argued that geological processes vary in intensity in a cyclical rather than a uniform fashion. Thus, current rates of geological change could not, as uniformitarians claim, be a reliable guide to the past. He suggested that the new radiometric dates should be used to interpret the sedimentological record. Thus, he accepted an age for the Earth of a few billion years at a time when many geologists still preferred an age of 100 million years.

Nature vibrates with rhythms, climatic and diastrophic [tectonic], those finding stratigraphic expression ranging in period from the rapid oscillation of surface waters, recorded in ripple-mark, to those long-deferred stirrings of the deep imprisoned titans which have divided earth history into periods and eras. The flight of time is measured by the weaving of composite rhythms- day and night, calm and storm, summer and winter, birth and death such as these are sensed in the brief life of man. But the career of the earth recedes into a remoteness against which these lesser cycles are as unavailing for the measurement of that abyss of time as would be for human history the beating of an insect’s wing. We must seek out, then, the nature of those longer rhythms whose very existence was unknown until man by the light of science sought to understand the earth. The larger of these must be measured in terms of the smaller, and the smaller must be measured in terms of years. Sedimentation is controlled by them, and the stratigraphic series constitutes a record, written on tablets of stone, of these lesser and greater waves of change which have pulsed thru geologic time. [“Rhythms and the Measurements of Geologic Time”, Bulletin of the Geological Society of America (1917) 28: 746]

Although Barrell’s concerns were seemingly diverse, they were actually variations on a common theme: the effects of physical agents on the evolution of the Earth and its inhabitants. Thus, “The Origin of the Earth” (1916), a lecture delivered to Yale’s Sigma Xi Society, discussed the conditions required for the genesis of the solar system and the development of the Earth; Barrell’s papers on sedimentology always related sedimentological processes to the larger problems of historical geology, as did his treatments of structural geology; he maintained that biological evolution was the result of physical and chemical agents, in that these are the factors determining the environment of organisms.


  • Joseph Barrell, “Rhythms and the Measurements of Geologic TimeGeol. Soc. America Bull. (1917) 28: 745-904.
  • Patrick Wyse Jackson, The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 195-6.

December 14, 1914 (a Monday)

Sol Spiegelman

On this date, the American molecular biologist Sol Spiegelman was born. He developed the technique of nucleic acid hybridization, which helped to lay the foundation for advances in recombinant DNA technology. He is also given credit for an experiment that produced a self-reproducing RNA chain of only 218 nucleotides, which was nick-named Spiegelman’s Monster.


December 14, 1900 (a Friday)

Max Planck

On this date, Max Planck, today considered the inventor of quantum theory, presented his paper Zur Theorie des Gesetzes der Energieverteilung in Normalspektrum (On the Theory of the Law of Energy Distribution in Normal Spectrum) at a meeting of the German Physical Society in Berlin. He shocked the science world by showing that atoms emit or absorb energy in bundles, or quanta, not in a continuous stream. This concept of energy quanta conflicted fundamentally with Newtonian physics, and its importance was not fully appreciated at first, even by Planck himself, who was something of a reluctant revolutionary. However, the evidence for its validity gradually became overwhelming as its application accounted for many discrepancies between observed phenomena and classical theory, among them Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect. In 1918 Planck’s fundamental contribution was recognized with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics, “for the discovery of energy quanta.”

Happy Birthday!

As a result, in view of its significance, today is considered the birthday of quantum mechanics.