Daily Archives: 29 November 2014

November 29, 1934 (a Thursday)

In 1934, a group of All-Stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Gomez, toured Japan playing 18 exhibition games against a Japanese all-star team. Baseball catcher Morris “Moe” Berg was invited at the last minute to make the trip. Fellow teammates and baseball fans wondered why a player with a lifetime average of only .243 was chosen for the All-Star team. The reason was never disclosed.

Among the items Berg took with him to Japan were a 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera and a letter from Movietone News, a New York City newsreel production company with which Berg had contracted to film the sights of his trip. When the team arrived in Japan, Berg gave a welcome speech in Japanese and also addressed the legislature.

On today’s date, 29 November 1934, while the rest of the team was playing in Omiya, Berg went to Saint Luke’s International Hospital in Tsukiji carrying a bouquet of flowers ostensibly intended for American Ambassador Joseph Grew’s daughter (Mrs. Cecil Burton), who had recently given birth. In fluent Japanese, he told the receptionist he was there to visit the Ambassador’s daughter. He was directed to take the elevator to her fifth floor room. Security guards allowed him to pass. But, instead of going to her fifth floor room, Berg took the elevator to the top floor, and then climbed the bell tower stairs.

Nicholas Dawidoff, a Berg biographer, describes what happened next:

He [Moe Berg] bluffs his way up onto the roof of the hospital, the tallest building in Tokyo at the time. And from underneath his kimono he pulls out a movie camera. He proceeds to take a series of photos panning the whole setting before him, which includes the harbor, the industrial sections of Tokyo, possibly munitions factories and things like that. Then he puts the camera back under his kimono and leaves the hospital with these films.

Berg never did see the Ambassador’s daughter.

A brief biography of Moe Berg from the CIA.

A brief biography of Moe Berg from the CIA.

Seven years later, the film that Berg had shot was used as an aerial map in the massive B-25 firebombing of Tokyo in 1942 led by General Jimmy Doolittle. Berg would eventually become an operative for the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, but many believe that his 1934 tour of Japan was his first mission as a spy. A brief biography on the CIA website seems to confirm this:

… In 1931, Moe was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and then to the Washington Senators. The move to Washington would change his life.

Being a baseball player with vast intellectual gifts, Moe was frequently invited to embassy dinners and parties. He impressed many with his exceptional language ability and quick wit. He soon became very well known around town and caught the attention of the Roosevelt administration.

Moe played with the Senators until 1934; that year, he toured Japan with the American All-Star baseball team. While in Japan, the Japanese-speaking ball player filmed Tokyo Harbor, military installations, and other facilities for the US government. [emphasis added]

If true, this would lend credence to assertions that the US — more specifically, the Roosevelt administration — anticipated a war with Japan as early as 1934. Pearl Harbor could not have been a complete surprise to the US military.

References:

  • Nicholas Dawidoff. The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994).
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November 29, 1974 (a Friday)

The remains of an adult female Australopithecus afarensis, known to all the world as "Lucy."

On this date, the paleoanthropologist Donald C. Johanson discovered “Lucy”, a 3.2 million-year old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton, on the slope of a desert channel at Hadar located in Ethiopia.

The discovery of Lucy was a significant development in the search for clues to understanding hominid evolution. Lucy was unique in that, as she was a very old, primitive, and small hominid (human-like species) that did not fit into the known hominid types. She was also the oldest and most complete hominid skeleton that had been found. Although only 40 percent of the skeleton was recovered, bones from both sides of the body were present, allowing paleoanthropologists to reconstruct approximately 70 percent of her skeleton by using mirror imaging. With mirror imaging, existing bones are used to determine what the missing counterpart on the other side of the body looked like. Lucy’s discovery confirmed the evolution of ape-like ancestors to human-like descendants.

When he was in high school, Donald Johanson was told by his guidance counselor to forget about going to college. The only son of a widowed Swedish immigrant mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Johanson had done so poorly on his SATs that the counselor did not believe he was capable of performing college-level work. Johanson ignored the counselor’s advice, pursued higher education, and earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Johanson’s books include Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and, most recently, From Lucy to Language. Dr. Johanson hosted the Emmy-nominated NOVA television series In Search of Human Origins.

November 29, 1627

John Ray

On this date, the naturalist and Anglican priest John Ray was born at the village of Black Notley in the county of Essex in England. He is often referred to as the father of natural history in Britain.

Ray published systematic works on plants, birds, mammals, fish, and insects, in which he brought order to the chaotic mass of names in use by the naturalists of his time. A basic problem of classification was to decide how much apparent variation can be allowed to plants or animals grouped as a single species. How can one know whether or not two individuals share the “same essence?” Ray’s most influential decision was to define a species as a group of organisms that reproduce the same traits from seed. He wrote in Historia plantarum generalis (1686):

In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species.”  After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species … Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.

This was the first recorded biological definition of “species.”

Like Linnaeus (1707-1778) whom he later inspired, Ray searched for the “natural system,” a classification of species that would reflect the “divine order of creation.” Unlike Linnaeus, whose plant classification was based entirely on floral reproductive organs, Ray classified plants by overall morphology; the classification in his book Methodus Plantarum Nova (1682) draws on flowers, seeds, fruits, and roots. In other words, Ray rejected the method of dichotomous division by which species were classified according to a series of pre-conceived, “either/or” criteria, and instead classified plants according to similarities and differences that emerged from observation. As a result, Ray’s plant classification was the first to group flowering plants into what are today known as monocots and dicots. His method produced more “natural” results than “artificial” systems based on one feature alone; it expressed the similarities between species more fully.  Ray’s system greatly influenced later botanists such as Jussieu and de Candolle, and systems based on total morphology came to replace systems based on only one feature or organ system. Eventually, Ray’s use of total morphology to classify species would become a powerful tool in the hands of evolutionary biologists trying to infer evolutionary relationships.

A devout Christian of his time, Ray was clearly a creationist. In his book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691), he explained that intricate contrivances like the eye or the hand could not have arisen by chance. Instead, they were designed. And their “perfection” displays the wisdom and benevolence of the Designer. Yet Ray did not define species in terms of special creation, as he explained in a letter to his friend Pfaff:

We imagine that a species is the total descendence [sic] of the first couple created by God, almost as all men are represented as the children of Adam and Eve. What means have we, at this time, to rediscover, the path of this genealogy? It is assuredly not in structural resemblance. There remains in reality only reproduction and I maintain that this is the sole certain and even infallible character for the recognition of the species.

A different aspect of Ray’s work represented another huge advance for science. Whereas many medieval and later theologians had taught that the natural world distracted people from salvation and should be avoided, Ray affirmed powerfully that Nature was a worthy subject for study and reason, and that such activity was pleasing to God. Expounding his belief in “natural theology,” Ray wrote in his Catalogue of Cambridge Plants (1660):

There is for a free man no occupation more worthy and delightful than to contemplate the beauteous works of nature and honour the infinite wisdom and goodness of God.

Also, unlike many academics of his day, Ray cautioned against blind acceptance of authorities; in The Wisdom of God, he wrote:

Let it not suffice to be book-learned, to read what others have written and to take upon trust more falsehood than truth, but let us ourselves examine things as we have opportunity, and converse with Nature as well as with books.

Unlike Linnaeus, who focused almost exclusively on classification for its own sake, Ray began to use classification to address questions in physiology, function, and behavior. He understood that living things showed adaptations to their environments.

References:

  • Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) pp. 256-7.