Daily Archives: 13 December 2013

December 13, 1640

On this date, Robert Plot, British vicar and professor of chemistry at Oxford University, was born. Although totally unaware of dinosaurs, Plot published in his book, The Natural History of Oxford-shire, being an essay towards the Natural History of England (1677), the first known description of fossil material that was later identified as dinosaurian (now known to be from the dinosaur Megalosaurus):

Come we next to such [stones] as concern the … Members of the Body: Amongst which, I have one dug out of a quarry in the Parish of Cornwell, and given me by the ingenious Sir Thomas Pennyston, that has exactly the Figure of the lowermost part of the Thigh-Bone of a Man or at least of some other Animal, with capita Femoris inferiora, between which are the anterior … and the large posterior Sinus … : and a little above the Sinus, where it seems to have been broken off, shewing the marrow within of a shining Spar-like Substance of its true Colour and Figure, in the hollow of the Bone … In Compass near the capita Femoris, just two Foot, and at the top above the Sinus … about 15 inches: in weight, though representing so short a part of the Thigh-Bone, almost 20 pounds. [Plot, 1677, p. 132]

First recorded illustration of a dinosaur bone (fig. 4)

He initially thought that the specimen he had described was part of a leg bone of one of the war elephants that the Roman general, Plautius, supposedly brought with him when his legions invaded Britain in 72 C.E., but Plot soon realized this could not be the case. He finally settled on what, to us, is an even more bizarre suggestion:

There happily came to Oxford while I was writing of this, a living Elephant to be shown publickly at the ACT, An. 1676, with whose Bones … I compared ours; and found those of the Elephant not only of a different Shape, but also incomparably different to ours, though the Beast were very young and not half grown. If then they are neither the Bones of Horses, Oxen, nor Elephants, as I am strongly persuaded they are not … It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days. [Plot, 1677, p. 137]

Although Plot’s view may seem unsophisticated in light of what we now know about dinosaurs, Plot was doing good science in interpreting his observations on an unknown object by invoking information about similar objects which had been described or discussed in the literature of the time. His specimen was clearly part of a femur, or upper leg bone, of a terrestrial vertebrate. In suggesting that the bone came from a Roman war elephant, and later a human being, Plot made a rational interpretation based on knowledge available to him.

Although similarities between fossils and living organisms could clearly be perceived, it did not, to Plot, necessarily follow that the one had come from the other. According to the neoplatonic school of thought, the whole cosmos is a web of hidden affinities, made visible in the resemblances between Man and his external world, between the heavens and the Earth, and between living and non-living entities. Neoplatonists could therefore attribute organic resemblances to the action of a pervasive moulding force or “plastic virtue” that governed the growth of living organisms, but also operated within the Earth. For Plot, this “plastic virtue” was crystallization, which he felt capable of remarkable feats:

That Salts are the principal Ingredients of Stones, I think has so sufficiently been noted already, that to endeavour any further Evidence of the thing, would be actum agere in me, and loss of time to the Reader: And if of Stones in general, much rather sure of Formed Stones, it being the undoubted Prerogative of the Saline Principle to give Bodies their Figure, as well as Solidity and Duration: No other Principle that we yet know of naturally shooting into Figures, each peculiar to their own kind, but Salts; thus Nitre always shoots into Pyramids, Salt Marine into Cubes, Alum into Octo, and Sal Armoniac into Hexaedrums,and other mixt Salts into as mixt Figures. [Plot, 1677, p. 123]


December 13, 1937 (a Monday)

Chinese civilians being buried alive by Japanese Imperial Army.

In July 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army, which already controlled a large section of northeastern China, launched an undeclared war against the Republic of China (Nationalist China). Five months later, on this date, the capital city of Nanking fell to the Japanese.

The Japanese army swept into the ancient city and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenseless city but also systematically raped at least 20,000 women, tortured both men and women, and murdered probably at least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 300,000 Chinese civilians.  Rev. John G. Magee, an American Anglican pastor of the Deshen Church in Nanking and one of many eyewitnesses, wrote in a letter dated 11 January 1938:

Thousands of men, women and children have been murdered in addition to all the disarmed soldiers who have been discovered.  There were dead bodies in every street and alley in the city, so far as I could tell, and I went around quite extensively including Hsiakwan…


The raping of women has been beyond description or imagination.


Here and there among the solders there have been decent men, but it seems like most of them went mad after entrance into the city.  Such a ferocious body of men I have never seen and I have seen the worst type of Chinese bandits looting this city, too.  The marvel is that none of us foreigners have been killed.  This looks to me as though the officers could have controlled their men if they had wanted to…

What is still stunning is that this massacre was a public rampage, evidently designed to terrorize the Chinese. It was carried out in full view of international observers and largely irrespective of their efforts to stop it. And it was not a temporary lapse of military discipline, for it lasted seven weeks.   The international response to the Nanking atrocities was eerily similar to the more recent response to the atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda: while thousands have died almost unbelievably cruel deaths, the entire world has watched CNN and simply wrung its hands.  The Nanking atrocities were splashed prominently across the pages of newspapers like the New York Times, while the Bosnia outrages were played out daily on television in virtually every living room.  To the larger world, the “rape” of Nanking — as it was immediately called — turned public opinion against Japan in a way that little else could have.

  • “Wholesale looting, the violation of women, the murder of civilians, the eviction of Chinese from their homes, mass executions of war prisoners and the impressing of able-bodied men turned Nanking into a city of terror,” wrote Frank Tillman Durdin of the New York Times on 17 December 1937, two days after he escaped from the “reign of terror” aboard the USS Oahu.
  • Archibald Steele of the Chicago Daily News called the siege and capture of Nanking “Four Days of Hell” in his dispatch on Dec. 15.
  • C. Yates McDaniel of the Associated Press jotted down the following sentence in his diary on Dec. 16, which was wired to the United States the following day, “My last remembrance of Nanking: Dead Chinese, dead Chinese, dead Chinese.”

The Rape of Nanking should be perceived as a cautionary tale.  Those who have studied the patterns of mass killings throughout history have noted that the sheer concentration of power in government is lethal — that only a sense of absolute unchecked power can make atrocities like the Rape of Nanking possible.  In the 1990s historian R. J. Rummel, who coined the term “democide” to include both genocide and government mass murder, completed a systematic and quantitative study of atrocities in both the twentieth century and ancient times, an impressive body of research that he summed up with a paraphrase of the famous Lord Acton line:  “Power kills, and absolute power kills absolutely.”

Rummel found that the less restraint on power within a government, the more likely that that government will act on the whims or psychologically generated darker impulses of its leaders to wage war on foreign governments.  Atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking can be seen as a predictable if not inevitable outgrowth of ceding to an authoritarian regime, dominated by a military and imperial elite, the unchallenged power to commit an entire people to realizing the sick goals of the few with the unbridled power to establish them.

In view of countries like modern communist China and North Korea, this is a lesson that we cannot afford to forget.

Suggested reading/watching:

  • Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1997).
  • In the Name of the Emperor: The Rape of Nanking, a documentary (1997) with many of the horrifyingly intense images taken from home movies made by an American missionary, John Magee, who was there in 1937.  It has won:  Special Jury Award, San Francisco International Film Festival, 1995;  Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, 1995;  Asian American International Film Festival, 1995;  and Hong Kong International Film Festival, 1995.
  • R.J. Rummel, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).