Daily Archives: 17 January 2014

January 17, 2012: British scientists announce ‘lost’ Darwin fossils rediscovered

A glass microscope slide from the British Geological Survey preserves a fossil specimen from Chiloe Island, labeled *C. Darwin Esq.*

A glass microscope slide from the British Geological Survey preserves a fossil specimen from Chiloe Island, labeled *C. Darwin Esq.*

On this date, British scientists announced the rediscovery of scores of fossils that were collected by the great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and his peers but were lost for more than 150 years.

Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that in April 2011 he stumbled upon the glass slides containing the fossils in an old wooden cabinet that had been shoved in a “gloomy corner” of the massive, drafty British Geological Survey (BGS). Using a flashlight to peer into the drawers and hold up a slide, Falcon-Lang saw one of the first specimens he had picked up was labeled “C. Darwin Esq.”

Falcon-Lang’s find was a collection of 314 slides of specimens collected by Darwin and other members of his inner circle, including John Hooker — a botanist and best friend of Darwin — and the Rev. John Henslow, Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, whose daughter later married Hooker. Also included were some of the first thin sections ever made by William Nicol, the pioneer of petrography. The first slide pulled out of the dusty corner at the BGS turned out to be one of the specimens collected by Darwin during his famous expedition on the HMS Beagle, which changed the young Cambridge graduate’s career and laid the foundation for his subsequent work on evolution.

J.D. Hooker

J.D. Hooker

Falcon-Lang said one of the most “bizarre” slides was a specimen of prototaxites, a 400 million-year-old tree-sized fungi. The collection of slides had been assembled by Hooker while briefly working for the BGS in 1846, according to Royal Holloway, University of London.

The slides — “stunning works of art,” according to Falcon-Lang — contain bits of fossil wood and plants ground into thin sheets and affixed to glass in order to be studied under microscopes. Some of the slides are half a foot long (15 centimeters), “great big chunks of glass,” Falcon-Lang said.

Royal Holloway, University of London said the fossils were ‘lost’ because Hooker failed to number them in the formal “specimen register” before setting out on an expedition to the Himalayas. In 1851, the “unregistered” fossils were moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly before being transferred to the South Kensington’s Geological Museum in 1935 and then to the BGS’s headquarters near Nottingham 50 years later, the university said.

References:

Advertisements

January 17, 1961 (a Tuesday)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office (29 Feb 1956)

On this date, President of the United States (and former General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the threat of a “military-industrial complex” in his Farewell Address to the Nation:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. . .

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together [emphasis added].

Perhaps the most stubborn misconception about the phrase “military-industrial” is that it began life with an attached third term that was excised prior to the speech’s delivery, usually either the word “congressional” or the word “scientific.” However, the historical evidence for both claims is essentially nil – there is no extant draft of the speech that contains any other version of the phrase except the one we know today. The Eisenhower Library has posted online a draft of the speech dated nearly a month before it was delivered, and the phrase military-industrial complex is intact, just as in every other draft. Moreover, a speechwriter staff memorandum dated 31 October 1960 — before the speech had even been drafted — referred to the “war based industrial complex,” very close to the phrase Eisenhower eventually said out loud.

A few months ago, the son of Malcolm Moos, a journalist and academic who was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, came across among his deceased father’s papers a batch of folders marked “Farewell Address.” He sent the boxes off to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Texas. As archivists began to go through the papers, they discovered twenty-one previously unknown drafts, as well as memos and research materials that had long been missing from the record of one of the twentieth century’s most important speeches.

_________________________________________________________
_________________________________________________________

Some historians have regarded the Farewell Address as an afterthought, hastily composed at the end of 1960 as an adjunct to the 1961 State of the Union. Others have regarded it as the soulful expression of an aging President who was determined to warn the American people of dangers ahead. But the Moos papers make clear that the address, far from being an afterthought, was among the most deliberate speeches of Eisenhower’s Presidency. Regarded in his day as inarticulate and detached, Eisenhower in these papers is fully engaged, grappling with the language of the text and the radical questions that it raised.

Notable in view of events that have occurred since Eisenhower’s address, George F. Kennan wrote in his preface to Norman Cousins’s 1987 book The Pathology of Power:

Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.

Furthermore, U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history. Here are some excerpts from an article entitled, “Why military spending remains untouchable“, written by Andrew Bacevich and posted by Mother Jones on 28 January 2011:

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War – this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a “peer competitor.” . . .

What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. . . .

The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate “military supremacy” into meaningful victory. . . .

Yet the defense budget — a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought — remains a sacred cow. Why is that? The answer lies first in understanding the defenses arrayed around that cow to ensure that it remains untouched and untouchable . . . . [T]hat protective shield consists of four distinct but mutually supporting layers:

Institutional Self-Interest: . . . within Washington, the voices carrying weight in any national security “debate” all share a predisposition for sustaining very high levels of military spending for reasons having increasingly little to do with the well-being of the country.

Strategic Inertia: In a 1948 State Department document [Memo PPS/23], diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.” Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership. . . .

The effort [to maintain this disparity] has been a largely futile one. . . .

Yet . . . the pre-existing strategic paradigm stubbornly persists; so, too, as if by default do the high levels of military spending that the strategy entails.

Cultural Dissonance: The rise of the Tea Party movement should disabuse any American of the thought that the cleavages produced by the “culture wars” have healed. The cultural upheaval touched off by the 1960s and centered on Vietnam remains unfinished business in this country. . . .

In effect, soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive, even if confined to a small and unrepresentative segment of American society. . . .

Misremembered History: . . .American politics once nourished a lively anti-interventionist tradition. Leading proponents included luminaries such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams. That tradition found its basis not in principled pacifism, a position that has never attracted widespread support in this country, but in pragmatic realism. What happened to that realist tradition? Simply put, World War II killed it – or at least discredited it. In the intense and divisive debate that occurred in 1939-1941, the anti-interventionists lost, their cause thereafter tarred with the label “isolationism.” . . .

Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors – institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history – insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny.

Suggested reading:

  • Andrew J. Bacevich. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books – Henry Holt and Company, 2010).
  • Memo by George Kennan, Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff. Written 28 February 1948, Declassified 17 June  1974. George Kennan, “Review of Current Trends, U.S. Foreign Policy,” Policy Planning Staff, PPS No. 23. Top Secret.  Included in the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, volume 1, part 2 (Washington DC Government Printing Office, 1976), 524-525.
  • James Ledbetter. Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
  • Jim Newton, “Paper Trail: ‘Ike’s Speech’,” The New Yorker, 20 December 2010, p. 42

January 17, 1834 (a Friday)

August Weismann

On this date, the German biologist August (Friedrich Leopold) Weismann was born in Frankfurt. Ernst Mayr ranked him the second most notable evolutionary theorist of the 19th century, after Charles Darwin. Weismann was one of the founders of modern genetics, who is best known for his opposition to the concept of the inheritance of acquired traits and for his “germ plasm” theory, the forerunner of DNA theory.

During his career, Weismann grappled with Christian creationism as a possible alternative to evolutionary theory. In his work Über die Berechtigung der Darwin’schen Theorie (On the Justification of the Darwinian Theory) published in 1868, he compared creationism and evolutionary theory, concluding that many biological facts can be seamlessly accommodated within evolutionary theory but remain puzzling if considered the result of acts of creation. After he completed this work, Weismann accepted evolution as a fact on a par with the fundamental assumptions of astronomy (e.g., heliocentrism).

In a lecture in 1883 entitled “On inheritance” (“Über die Vererbung”), Weismann proposed the so-called germ-plasm theory of heredity. This theory states that a multicellular organism’s cells are divided into somatic cells (the cells that make up the body) and germ cells (cells that produce the gametes).  His great insight was to see that the two do not exchange information – variation must be produced in the germ cells. In other words, genetic information cannot pass from somatic cells to germ cells and on to the next generation. This was referred to as the Weismann barrier.  In addition, the germ cells are neither influenced by environmental conditions nor by learning or morphological changes that happen during the lifetime of an organism, which information is lost after each generation.  Thus, the germ-plasm theory ruled out the inheritance of acquired characteristics as proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  In stating definitely seven years later that the material of heredity was in the chromosomes, Weismann anticipated the chromosomal basis of inheritance.

In October 1887, Weismann began the famous experiment of chopping off the tails of fifteen hundred white mice, repeatedly over 20 generations. He subsequently reported that no mouse was ever born in consequence without a tail, stating that:

901 young were produced by five generations of artificially mutilated parents and yet there was not a single example of a rudimentary tail or any other abnormality of the organ.

Weismann knew that it might be objected that the number of generations had been far too small:

Hence the experiments on mice, when taken alone, do not constitute a complete disproof of [inheritance of acquired characteristics]: they would have to be continued to infinity before we could maintain with certainty that hereditary transmission cannot take place. But it must be remembered that all the so-called proofs which have hitherto been brought forward in favour of the transmission of mutilations assert the transmission of a single mutilation which at once became visible in the following generation. Furthermore the mutilation was only inflicted upon one of the parents, not upon both, as in my experiments with mice. Hence, contrasted with these experiments, all such ‘proofs’ collapse; they must all depend on error.

Weismann made it clear that he embarked on the experiment precisely because, at the time, there were many claims of animals inheriting mutilations (he refers to a claim regarding a cat that had lost its tail having numerous tail-less offspring). There were also claims of Jews born without foreskins. None of these claims, he said, were backed up by reliable evidence that the parent had in fact been mutilated, leaving the perfectly plausible possibility that the modified offspring were the result of a mutated gene. The purpose of Weismann’s experiment was to lay the claims of inherited mutilation to rest.  Its results were consistent with Weismann’s germ-plasm theory.

Mitosis and meiosis compared.

Meiosis was discovered and described for the first time in sea urchin eggs in 1876, by noted German biologist Oscar Hertwig (1849-1922). It was described again in 1883, at the level of chromosomes, by Belgian zoologist Edouard Van Beneden (1846-1910) in Ascaris worms’ eggs. However, the significance of meiosis for reproduction and inheritance was grasped only in 1890 by Weismann, who noted that two cell divisions were necessary to transform one diploid cell into four haploid cells in order to maintain the correct number of chromosomes in the offspring.

References: