Tag Archives: History

November 30, 1680 (a Saturday)

The Great Comet of 1680.

The Great Comet of 1680.

On this date, the Great Comet of 1680, known today as C/1680 V1, passed only 0.42 AUs from Earth. It became one of the brightest comets of the 17th century – reputedly visible even in daytime – and was noted for its spectacularly long tail. Reaching its peak brightness on 29 December, it was last observed on 19 March 1681.

Naturally, people thought it presaged the apocalypse. According to The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America, by John Fiske, 1903 Edition, Vol II, at page 59:

Late in the autumn of 1680 the good people of Manhattan were overcome with terror at a sight in the heavens such as has seldom greeted human eyes. An enormous comet, perhaps the most magnificent one on record, suddenly made its appearance. At first it was tailless and dim, like a nebulous cloud, but at the end of a week the tail began to show itself and in a second week had attained a length of 30 degrees; in the third week it extended to 70 degrees, while the whole mass was growing brighter. After five weeks it seemed to be absorbed into the intense glare of the sun, but in four days more it reappeared like a blazing sun itself in the throes of some giant convulsion and threw out a tail in the opposite direction as far as the whole distance between the sun and the earth. Sir Isaac Newton, who was then at work upon the mighty problems soon to be published to the world in his “Principia,” welcomed this strange visitor as affording him a beautiful instance for testing the truth of his new theory of gravitation. But most people throughout the civilized world, the learned as well as the multitude, feared that the end of all things was at hand. Every church in Europe, from the grandest cathedral to the humblest chapel, resounded with supplications, and in the province of New York a day of fasting and humiliation was appointed, in order that the wrath of God might be assuaged… Newton’s comet looked down, while Dominie Nieuwenhuysen [who was a Calvinist minister] and Dominie Frazius [who was a Lutheran minister] were busy with prayers to avert the direful omen.

The Great Comet of 1680 also has the distinction of being the first comet discovered by telescope, on 14 November 1680.


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.


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

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.


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

November 27, 1950 (a Monday)

On this date, a Senate subcommittee released a report entitled, “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government”, that sanctioned homophobia by the federal government in harsh, offensive terms. After running through one stereotype after another and saying that gay people “must be treated as transgressors,” the report rendered the panel’s conclusion:

In the opinion of this subcommittee homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in Government for two reasons; first, they are generally unsuitable and second, they constitute security risks.

It’s true that gay men and lesbians in the closet of a homophobic world could be blackmail targets. But the Senate report went way beyond that possibility in rationalizing blatant discrimination:

The lack of emotional stability which is found in most sex perverts, and the weakness of their moral fiber, makes them susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent.

Lest one think this represents more bark than bite, the report says “that between January 1, 1947, and August 1, 1950, approximately 1,700 applicants for Federal positions were denied employment because they had a record of homosexuality or other sex perversion.”

Another report, from March 1950, was titled “Employment of Moral Perverts by Government Agencies.”

By March 1950 Republicans were calling for an investigation of the homosexuals in government problem. When President Truman's loyalty board refused, political cartoons like this one from the Washington Times-Herald,the city's most widely read newspaper, accused Truman of protecting "traitors and queers."

By March 1950 Republicans were calling for an investigation of the homosexuals-in-government problem. When President Truman’s loyalty board refused, political cartoons like this one from the Washington Times-Herald, the city’s most widely read newspaper, accused Truman of protecting “traitors and queers.”

Nineteen-fifty was also the year that Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed 205 communists were working in the State Department. The State Department responded by denying that it had uncovered any communists in its ranks, but Undersecretary of State John Peurifoy admitted that it had fired 91 homosexuals. To the public, this seemed to confirm McCarthy’s charges. In the popular imagination, communists and homosexuals were soon conflated. Both seemed to comprise hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty. In the 1950s, fear of political and sexual deviance became intertwined.

McCarthy hired Roy Cohn — who some claim was a closeted homosexual — as chief counsel of his Congressional subcommittee. Together, McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for the firing of scores of gay men from government employment, and strong-armed many opponents into silence using rumors of their homosexuality.

U.S. security officials were concerned that many gay men and lesbians who were fired from the State Department were finding employment in the United Nations and other international organizations. They were afraid that McCarthy and his allies might expose this situation and so they put extreme pressure on these organizations to copy the anti-gay employment policies of the U.S. government. They also pressured America’s NATO allies to exclude homosexuals from sensitive positions within their governments.

However, although a congressional committee spent several months in 1950 studying the threat homosexuals allegedly posed to national security, they could not find a single example of a gay or lesbian civil servant who was blackmailed into revealing state secrets – not one. Subsequent studies have confirmed this. But the myth of the homosexual as vulnerable to blackmail and therefore a security risk endured for decades.

The term for this anti-homosexual persecution was popularized by David K. Johnson’s book on it, The Lavender Scare (2004) which drew its title from the term “lavender lads” used repeatedly by Sen. Everett Dirksen as a synonym for homosexuals. In 1952 he said that a Republican victory in the November elections would mean the removal of “the lavender lads” from the State Department. The phrase was also used by Confidential magazine, a periodical known for gossiping about the sexuality of politicians and prominent Hollywood stars.

The Senate subcommittee’s report from November 1950, according to a Justice Department legal brief filed in July 2011 in the case of a federal court employee seeking health benefits for her same-sex wife, led President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 to issue Executive Order 10450, “which officially added ‘sexual perversion’ as a ground for investigation and possible dismissal from federal service.””

November 26, 1911 (a Sunday)

Sherwood L. Washburn

On this date, the American primatologist and anthropologist Sherwood L. Washburn was born.

November 24, 1859 (a Thursday)

The title page of the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species.

On this date, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by the British naturalist Charles Darwin, was published in England. The book was offered to booksellers at Murray’s autumn sale on November 22, and all available copies were taken up immediately. In total 1250 copies were printed, but after deducting presentation and review copies, and five for Stationers’ Hall copyright, around 1,170 copies were available for sale. In the book, Darwin detailed the scientific evidence he had collected since his voyage on H.M.S. Beagle in the 1830s. He presented his idea that species are the result of a gradual biological evolution through natural selection. Natural selection is the differential reproductive success of individuals due to advantageous heritable traits, which are also known as adaptations. The book was an immediate success and Darwin started editing it today for a second edition.

November 21, 1953 (a Saturday)

At the Piltdown site.

On this date, the 40-year-long hoax of the Piltdown Man ended when the British Museum revealed that it was a “perfectly executed and carefully prepared fraud.” The Piltdown forgery was conceived, planned and executed sometime between 1907 and 1911. The faux hominid skull was constructed from the remains of a recent human cranium, later shown to have been thickened by disease during the subject’s lifetime (thus giving the primitive look); half the lower jaw of an orangutan from which telltale parts had been removed and whose teeth had been filed to resemble worn human teeth; and a doctored canine tooth, probably from the same lower jaw. In all, 37 pieces of carefully selected bone and stone were involved, each altered and stained.

November 18, 1810 (a Sunday)

Asa Gray By John Whipple, 1864

On this date, America’s leading botanist in the mid-nineteenth century, Asa Gray, was born. On a visit to England in 1851, Gray met for lunch with Charles Darwin, and they formed a lasting connection. When Gray returned to the United States, he was able to see that North American plant life had evolved under the disruption of the ice age. In a famous letterto Gray dated September 5, 1857, Darwin wrote:

As you seem interested in subject, & as it is an immense advantage to me to write to you & to hear ever so briefly, what you think, I will enclose (copied so as to save you trouble in reading) the briefest abstract of my notions on the means by which nature makes her species. Why I think that species have really changed depends on general facts in the affinities, embryology, rudimentary organs, geological history & geographical distribution of organic beings. In regard to my abstract you must take immensely on trust; each paragraph occupying one or two chapters in my Book. You will, perhaps, think it paltry in me, when I ask you not to mention my doctrine; the reason is, if anyone, like the Author of the Vestiges, were to hear of them, he might easily work them in, & then I shd’have to quote from a work perhaps despised by naturalists & this would greatly injure any chance of my views being received by those alone whose opinion I value.—…

Gray was the third scientist Darwin told of his theory (after Hooker and Lyell). [Less than a year later, both Darwin and Wallace publicly proposed that evolution occurred by natural selection. It was Darwin’s good luck that his early correspondence with Gray showed that he had been first to articulate the idea.] The depth of their friendship was evident in a letter dated January 23, 1860 concerning the help the American botanist wished to give Darwin in presenting his book to the American public. In this letter Gray wrote:

Your candor is worth everything to your cause. It is refreshing to find a person with a new theory who frankly confesses that he finds difficulties, insurmountable at least for the present. I know some people who never have any difficulties to speak of. The moment I understood your premises I felt sure you had real foundation to hold on. Well, if one admits the premises, I do not see how it is to stop short of your conclusions, as a probable hypothesis, at least.

In 1856, Gray published a paper on the distribution of plants under the title Statistics of the Flora of the Northern United States; and this paper was followed in 1859 by a memoir on the botany of Japan and its relations to that of North America, a paper of which Sir J. D. Hooker said that “in point of originality and far-reaching results [it] was its author’s opus magnum.” Gray’s discovery of close affinities between East Asian and North American floras was a key piece of evidence in favor of evolution. He explained this disjunct distribution pattern by suggesting that New England and temperate Asia had once been geographically continuous and had had a uniform flora which only diverged after the areas were separated by later geological events. This hypothesis has not only held up, supported by the discovery of continental drift and plate tectonics, it has also proved fruitful enough to provide a basis for current and important research in vicariance biogeography.

From 1855 to 1875, Gray was both a keen critic and a sympathetic exponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. His religious views were those of the Evangelical bodies in the Protestant Church; so that, when Darwinism was attacked as equivalent to atheism, he was in position to answer effectively the unfounded allegation that it was fatal to the doctrine of design. He openly avowed his conviction that the present species are not special creations, but rather derived from previously existing species; and he made his avowal with frank courage, when this truth was scarcely recognized by any naturalists, and when to the clerical mind evolution meant atheism. The Rev. R. W. Church, the Dean of St. Paul, had met Gray in 1853 and later wrote about his life-long friend:

His religious views were a most characteristic part of the man, and the serious and earnest conviction with which he let them be known had, I am convinced, a most wholesome effect on the development of the great scientific theory in which he was so much interested. It took off a great deal of the theological edge, which was its danger, both to those who upheld and those who opposed it. I am sure things would have gone more crossly and unreasonably if his combination of fearless religion and clearness of mind and wise love of truth had not told in the controversy.

Gray wrote numerous botanical textbooks and works on North American flora, including Flora of North America that he co-authored with his mentor John Torrey.


  • Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, September 5, 1857; Reprinted in Frederick Burkhardt, ed., Charles Darwin’s Letters: A Selection 1825-1859 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 177-179.
  • “New Publications; Asa Gray’s Life and Letters: Letters of Asa Gray,” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 19, 1893) 23.

November 17, 1877 (a Saturday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, Charles Darwin received an honorary Doctorate of Law from Cambridge University. This was one of the proudest moments of his life.

November 15, 1871 (a Wednesday)

Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg

On this date, the Austrian agronomist Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg was born.  He was one of the scientists, the others being Hugo De Vries and Carl Correns, who independently rediscovered the work that Gregor Mendel did in the 1860s on the laws of heredity.  Von Seysenegg published his findings in June 1900.  The priority of Mendel was acknowledged without restriction by all three researchers.  Mendel’s discovery that inheritance is particulate, and confirmation of his discovery by Von Seysenegg, De Vries, and Correns, constitutes one of the main pillars of the theory of evolution.

November 14, 1797 (a Tuesday)

Sir Charles Lyell circa 1865-1870

On this date, the geologist Charles Lyell was born at Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Scotland. His first book, entitled Principles of Geology and published in three volumes in 1830-33, was also his most famous, most influential, and most important. Lyell was an important influence on Charles Darwin.

November 13, 1874 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin

On this date, the second edition of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin was published. It was generally the edition most commonly reprinted after Darwin’s death and up to the present. In the introduction to the first edition, Darwin gave the purpose of his treatise:

The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.

One of the more controversial scientific questions of Darwin’s day was whether the different races of human beings were of the same species or not. Darwin was a long-time abolitionist who had been horrified by slavery when he first came into contact with it in Brazil while touring the world on the Beagle voyage many years before. [With the passage of The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Parliament had finally ended slavery throughout the British Empire.] He reasoned that most of the visual differences between the human races were superficial – issues of skin color and hair type – and that most of the mental differences were merely cases of “civilization” or a lack of it. For example, Darwin interpreted the “savage races” he saw in South America at Tierra del Fuego as evidence of a more primitive state of human civilization. He concluded that the visual differences between races were not adaptive to any significant degree, and were more likely simply caused by sexual selection – different standards of beauty and mating among different peoples – and that all of humankind was one single species. Darwin never argued nor implied that human races had been evolved at different times or stages, nor that any of the races was inferior to the others.

November 12, 1968 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Susan Epperson et al v. Arkansas was decided.  The U.S. Supreme Court found that Arkansas’ law prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional because the motivation was based on a literal reading of Genesis, not science.

November 11, 1572

Tycho Brahe

On this date, the Danish nobleman, astrologer, and alchemist Tycho Brahe observed (from Herrevad Abbey) a very bright star, now named SN 1572, that had unexpectedly appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia.  Since it had been maintained since antiquity that the world beyond the orbit of the moon, i.e., the world of the fixed stars, was eternal and unchangeable (a fundamental axiom, known as “celestial immutability”, of the Aristotelian world view), other observers held that the phenomenon was something in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Tycho, however, noticed that the parallax of the object did not change from night to night, suggesting that the object was far away.  He argued that a nearby object should appear to shift its position with respect to the background.  Tycho published a small book, De Stella Nova (1573), thereby coining the term nova for a “new” star (we now know that Tycho’s star in Cassiopeia was a supernova 7500 light years from Earth).  He knew the cosmological ramifications of his discovery and was strongly critical of those who dismissed the implications of the astronomical appearance, writing in the preface to De Stella Nova: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores” (“Oh thick wits.  Oh blind watchers of the sky”).

November 9, 1934 (a Friday)

Carl Sagan

On this date, the astronomer Carl Sagan was born in New York City. He helped define two new disciplines: planetary science and exobiology. In terms of scientific achievements, Sagan is best known for his research on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. Sagan was also an advocate of the search for extraterrestrial life. He helped Dr. Frank Drake write the Arecibo message, a radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974, aimed at informing extraterrestrials about Earth. Sagan also urged the scientific community to listen with radio telescopes for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. So persuasive was he that by 1982, he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science, signed by 70 scientists, including seven Nobel Prize winners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field. Sagan believed that the Drake equation suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations pointed out by the Fermi paradox suggests technological civilizations tend to destroy themselves rather quickly. This stimulated his interest in identifying and publicizing ways that humanity could destroy itself, with the hope of avoiding such a cataclysm and eventually becoming a spacefaring species.

A professor of astronomy and space sciences at Cornell University after 1968, Sagan was involved with numerous NASA planetary space probes and was the creator and host of the 1980 public television science series Cosmos. His publications include the book co-authored with the Russian astronomer I. S. Shklovskii Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966); The Dragons of Eden (1977; won a Pulitzer); a novel, Contact (1985); with Richard Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought (1990), on nuclear winter; with Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1992); Pale Blue Dot (1994); The Demon-Haunted World (1996); and the posthumously published Billions and Billions (1997).

November 8, 1656

Edmund Halley

On this date, the astronomer Edmund Halley was born on the eastern edge of London, England. Although he is chiefly remembered for the comet which bears his name, he also made a mark for himself in geology. In 1715, he lectured the Royal Society of London that the age of the Earth could be calculated by measuring the ocean’s salinity since ocean salts result from sediments carried by rivers and streams. Interestingly, he began his talk by rejecting a literal interpretation of Genesis for the Earth’s age:

Whereas we are there told that the formation of man was the last act of the creator, ’tis no where revealed in scripture how long the earth had existed before this last creation, nor how long those five days that proceeded it may be to be accounted; since we are elsewhere told, that in respect of the almighty a thousand years is as one day, being equally no part of eternity; nor can it well be conceived how those days should be to be understood of natural days, since they are mentioned as measures of time before the creation of the sun, which was not till the fourth day.

Halley had no doubt that the Earth had existed long before the accepted date of the Creation, 4004 B.C., the date arrived at by Archbishop Ussher in 1620 by counting back all the generations in the Bible. It has often been thought that Halley was concerned about demonstrating a very old age for the Earth by making his proposal to the Society. However, he was actually trying to provide a maximal estimate of the Earth’s age. Halley objected to the notion that the Earth is eternal, as he later stated in his talk:

….the foregoing argument, which is chiefly presented to refute the ancient notion, some have of late entertained, of the eternity of all things.

Needless to say, these views led him to be regarded as something of a heretic by the Church authorities.


  • Edmund Halley, “A Short Account of the Cause of the Saltness of the Ocean, and of the Several Lakes That Emit no Rivers; With a Proposal, by Help Thereof, to Discover the Age of the World,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1683-1775), Volume 29: 296-300.
  • Stephen Jay Gould, Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993) 168-180.

November 7, 1545

John Calvin, by Hans Holbein

Want someone to blame for your credit card bills?

On this date, the banker Claude de Sachinus wrote to John Calvin, whom he described as a brother (frère) in the faith, and asked him for his opinion on levying interest. Contemporaries, he said, were of the view that levying interest, in so far as it was honest, fair (“une sorte d’usure honnête”), and in moderation (the right “proportion”), could also be advocated as Christian. But for him, indebted as he was to the Reformation, Holy Scripture alone was the criterion, even if it ran counter to his own business interests.

Calvin for his part, in great intellectual honesty, wanted to do justice to the biblical text which in the Old Testament pronounces a prohibition on usury and sought to interpret it for his time. He did this in a long letter, now known as De Usuris Responsum, which in all probability was addressed to the banker (although not published until 1575). In his letter:

  • After a short introduction, he began his argument with “‘First, there is no scriptural passage that totally bans all usury”.
  • He then makes the claim, “For Christ’s statement, which is commonly esteemed to manifest this [the total ban on all usury], but which has to do with lending, has been falsely applied to usury”, reminding the reader of the simple but often neglected fact that just because Christians have (perhaps for centuries) related a saying of Scripture to discussion of a particular moral issue does not infallibly prove that such a text is being correctly interpreted or that it is right to appeal to it in their moral argument.
  • Calvin paid close attention to the plain sense of the text in its original languages and in the original context of that text.  Calvin’s argument against a blanket prohibition on usury is therefore in part a careful study of key Hebrew terms showing that because the Hebrew word tok can generally mean “defraud”, ‘it can be translated otherwise than “usury” and that other terms refer to usury which “eats away at its victims”‘.
  • Calvin was quite frank about the strength of biblical opposition to usury, speaking in his letter of “the Holy Spirit’s anger against usurers” displayed in the prophets and psalms and even acknowledging that “the Holy Spirit … advises all holy men, who praise and fear God, to abstain from usury”. His commentary on Ps 15.5 admitted that David seems to condemn all kinds of usury in general, and without exception. Nevertheless, despite statements such as these his letter still maintained that “we need not conclude that all usury is forbidden”.
  • Calvin then turned to the rationale offered in Lev 25:35-36 to argue that “the end for which the law was framed was that men should not cruelly oppress the poor”. This then qualifies Ezekiel who “seems to condemn the taking of any interest whatever upon money lent; but he doubtless has an eye to the unjust and crafty art of gaining, by which the rich devoured the poor people”.  In effect, Calvin was arguing that the purpose (or justification) behind a biblical moral rule carries greater weight than the rule itself.
  • Calvin argued that “we ought not to judge usury according to a few passages of scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity”.   In stating his limits on usury, he insisted that “everything should be examined in the light of Christ’s precept: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This precept is applicable every time” and argues that what is lawful in regard to usury is to be based on “a principle derived from the Word of God”.
  • The crucial paragraph in Calvin’s letter followed his discussion of Ezekiel which concluded that “the prophets only condemned usury as severely as they did because it was expressly prohibited for Jews to do”. It reads as follows:

    Today, a similar objection against usury is raised by some who argue that since the Jews were prohibited from practicing it, we too, on the basis of our fraternal union, ought not to practice it. To that I respond that a political union is different. The situation in which God brought the Jews together, combined with other circumstances, made commerce without usury apt among them. Our situation is quite different. For that reason, I am unwilling to condemn it, so long as it is practiced with equity and charity.

  • In his rejection of the tradition’s appeal to Lk 6.35 as referring to usury, Calvin highlighted Christ’s command “to lend to those from whom no hope of repayment is possible” and called on Christians “to help the poor” as “Christ’s words far more emphasize our remembering the poor than our remembering the rich”. He insisted that nobody should take interest from the poor and those lending must not neglect their duties or disdain their poor brothers.

It is important to recognize what a radical change Calvin’s work represented. In the words of John T Noonan:

Once upon a time, certainly from at least 1150 to 1550, seeking, receiving, or hoping for anything beyond one’s principal – in other words, looking for profit – on a loan constituted the mortal sin of usury. The doctrine was enunciated by popes, expressed by three ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians. The doctrine was not some obscure, hole-in-the-corner affection, but stood astride the European credit markets, at least as much as the parallel Islamic ban of usury governs Muslim countries today…The great central moral fact was that usury, understood as profit on a loan, was forbidden as contrary to the natural law, as contrary to the law of the church, and as contrary to the law of the gospel.

In fact, Martin Luther regarded the biblical prohibition of usury as permanently binding. In his 1524 sermon on trade and usury, Luther lashed out at any attempt to charge interest. In his view, Christians “should willingly and gladly lend money without any charge.” The Elizabethan Protestant bishop John Jewel reflected the views of his age when he raged from his pulpit against the iniquities of usury. “It is theft, it is the murdering of our brethren, it is the curse of God and the curse of the people.” This uncompromising opposition to usury was embodied in a statute passed by the English Parliament in 1571, which had the unforeseen and unintended effect of legitimating usury at a fixed rate of 10 percent.

It is generally acknowledged by those who have studied Calvin’s economic and political views that he was the first of the Reformers to give a theological defense of the practice of lending money at interest.

Calvin’s views, which were seen by many as running counter to the clear meaning of the Bible, took some time to become accepted. By the middle of the seventeenth century – more than one hundred years after Calvin’s groundbreaking analysis – usury was fully regarded as acceptable. Protestant jurists such as Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf supplemented Calvin’s theological analysis with clarifications of economic concepts, especially in relation to price and value, that finally removed any remaining scruples about lending money at interest. The Catholic church did not sanction usury, however, until 1830, apparently in response to the widespread acceptance of the practice within predominantly Protestant western Europe.


November 7, 1840 (a Saturday)

Aleksandr Onufriyevich Kovalevsky

On this date, the Russian founder of comparative embryology and experimental histology Aleksandr Onufriyevich Kovalevsky was born. He was the first to establish that there was a common pattern in the embryological development of all multicellular animals.

Kovalevsky began by studying the lancelet, a fish-shaped sea animal about 2-in. (5-cm) long; he then wrote Development of Amphioxus lanceolatus (1865). In 1866, he demonstrated the similarity between Amphioxus and the larval stages of tunicates and established the chordate status of the tunicates. In 1867, Kovalevsky extended the germ layer concept of Christian Heinrich Pander and Karl Ernst von Baer to include the invertebrates, such as the ascidians, establishing an important embryologic unity in the animal kingdom. This was important evidence of the evolution of living organisms. In the Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin took serious note of Kovalevsky’s interpretation of the embryonic development of ascidians, writing:

M. Kovalevsky has lately observed that the larvae of the Ascidians are related to the Vertebrata in their manner of development, in the relative position of the nervous system and in possessing a structure closely like the chorda dorsalis of vertebrate animals; and in this he has since been confirmed by Prof. Kupffer. M. Kovalevsky writes to me from Naples, that he has now carried these observations further; and, should his results be well established, the whole will form a discovery of the greatest importance. Thus if we may rely on embryology, ever the safest guide in classification, it seems that we have at last gained a clew in the source whence the vertebrates were derived. I should then be justified in believing that at an extremely remote period a group of animals existed, resembling in many respects the larvae of our present ascidians, which diverged into two great branches – the one retrograding in development and producing the present class of Ascidians, the other rising to the crown and summit of the animal kingdom by giving birth to the Vertebrata.

Kovalevsky was elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1890.

Xinjiang: An Inconvenient Truth for the Chinese Communist Party

“URUMQI, China — An exhibit on the first floor of the museum here gives the government’s unambiguous take on the history of this border region: ‘Xinjiang has been an inalienable part of the territory of China,’ says one prominent sign.

But walk upstairs to the second floor, and the ancient corpses on display seem to tell a different story.”

- Edward Wong. “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To“, The New York Times, 18 November 2008

Zen stones

Uncomfortably for the Communist Chinese authorities, hundreds of mummies unearthed in remote parts of the Tarim Basin in what is now the Xinjiang region of China offer a far more nuanced history of settlement than the official Chinese version. By that official account, Zhang Qian, a general of the Han dynasty, led a military expedition to Xinjiang in the second century B.C.E. His presence is often cited by the ethnic Han Chinese when making historical claims to the region ( even though ancient Chinese sources describe the existence of “white people with long hair” — the Bai people of the Shan Hai Jing — beyond their northwestern border).

Tian Chen mummy, close-up of head. One of the mummies from four burial sites between the Tian Shan (‘Celestial Mountains’) of north-west China and the Taklimakan Desert.

The Tarim mummies show, though, that humans entered the region thousands of years before Zhang Qian, and almost certainly from the west. In fact, the mummies provide evidence of heterogeneity throughout the region’s history of human settlement. As a result, the Chinese authorities have been unwilling to give broad access to foreign scientists to conduct genetic tests on the mummies.

What is indisputable is that the Tarim mummies are among the greatest recent archaeological finds in China, perhaps the world.

The corpses, dating from about 2000 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E., are astonishingly well preservedand Caucasian. In contrast to most central Asian peoples, these corpses have obvious European features — blond hair, long noses, deep-set eyes, and long skulls. Unlike the roughly contemporaneous mummies of ancient Egypt, the Xinjiang mummies were not rulers or nobles; they were not interred in pyramids or other such monuments, nor were they subjected to deliberate mummification procedures. For this reason, these so-called mummies are technically desiccated corpses. Unlike Egyptian mummies, their lifelike appearance is due not to any artificial intervention on the part of those who buried them. Rather, it is the outcome of environmental conditions in the parched, stony desert of the region, with the best-preserved bodies being those who died in winter and were buried in especially salty, well-drained soils — all of which would inhibit putrefaction and prevent deterioration; after thousands of years, not even slight amounts of moisture penetrated these burials. The bodies were quickly dried, with facial hair, skin, and other tissues remaining largely intact. The famous mummies of Egypt appear dry and shriveled, blackened like discarded walnut husks, compared with these lifelike remains.

A Tarim Basin mummy photographed by Aurel Stein circa 1910.

At the beginning of the 20th century European explorers such as Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein recounted their discoveries of desiccated bodies in their search for antiquities in Central Asia. However, no further attention was given to the mummies until 1978 when Wang Binghua, one of China’s most distinguished archaeologists, found one. Before Wang’s work in the region, evidence of early settlements had been virtually unknown. In the late 1970s, though, Wang had begun a systematic search for ancient sites in the northeast corner of Xinjiang Province. Knowing that ancient peoples would have located their settlements along a stream to have a reliable source of water, Wang followed one such stream from its source in the Tian Shan, asking locals along the way whether they had ever found any broken bowls, wooden artifacts, and so forth. Finally, one older man tipped him off to a place they called Qizilchoqa, or “Red Hillock.” It wasn’t much to look at — a sandy slope in a green ravine next to a village called Wupu.

In the early 1990s, several Western academics accompanied Wang to the region to observe the excavations. Among them were Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, executive director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, and English archaeologist Charlotte Roberts.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published in February 2010 in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, the research team concluded that the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

East Asian peoples only began showing up in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, largely based in modern day Mongolia, around the year 842. But politically, the region came under Chinese control only under the Qing Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Uighur separatists resist the term Xinjiang — which means “New Frontier,” given to the region by the Chinese in 1884 — and prefer East Turkestan.

Interestingly, in the preface to the 2002 book, The Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang, written by Wang Binghua, the Chinese historian and Sanskrit specialist Ji Xianlin soundly denounced the use of the mummies by Uighur separatists as proof that Xinjiang should not belong to China.

“What has stirred up the most excitement in academic circles, both in the East and the West, is the fact that the ancient corpses of ‘white (Caucasoid/Europoid) people’ have been excavated,” Ji wrote. “However, within China a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are acting like buffoons. Some of them have even styled themselves the descendants of these ancient ‘white people’ with the aim of dividing the motherland. But these perverse acts will not succeed.”

Further on, in an apparent swipe at the Chinese government’s lack of eagerness to acknowledge the science and publicize it to the world, Ji wrote, “a scientist may not distort facts for political reasons, religious reasons, or any other reason”.

And, Ji Xianlin, the facts speak for themselves.


November 6, 1913 (a Thursday)

East portico of the NHMLAC

On this date, the “Los Angeles County Historical and Art Museum“, the precursor to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, opened its doors.  On its fascade above these doors appears the museum’s motto, carpere et colligere, Latin for “to pluck and to gather”, an apt saying for a repository of approximately 33 million artifacts.

November 6, 1990 (a Tuesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Webster v. New Lenox was decided.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that school boards have the right to prohibit teaching creationism because such lessons would constitute religious advocacy.

November 5, 1892 (a Saturday)

John Haldane

On this date, British geneticist and biometrician John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born. He was one of the three major figures to develop the mathematical theory of population genetics. (He is usually regarded as the third of these in importance, after R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright.) Population genetics became one of the key elements of what would be called the Modern Synthesis. It revealed how mutations arise and, if they are favored by natural selection, can spread through a population, causing evolutionary change without the help of imaginary Lamarckian forces. Haldane also worked in biochemistry, and on the effects of diving on human physiology. He was the first to suggest that membranes played a role in the origin of life in his prescient note in The Rationalist Annual (1926). He wrote that “The cell consists of numerous half-living chemical molecules suspended in water and enclosed in an oily film. When the whole sea was a vast chemical laboratory the conditions for the formation of such films must have been relatively favorable . . .” In 1954, Haldane, speaking at the Symposium on the Origin of Life, suggested that an alternative biochemistry could be conceived in which water was replaced as a solvent by liquid ammonia.

J.B.S. Haldane began studying science at the age of eight, as assistant to his father (the noted physiologist John Scott Haldane). A Marxist from the 1930s, Haldane was well known for his outspoken Marxist views. He resigned from the Communist Party around 1950 on the issue of Lysenko’s claims to have manipulated the genetic structure of plants and “Stalin’s interference with science.” He became known to a large public as a witty popularizer of science with such works as Daedalus (1924), Possible Worlds (1927), and The Causes of Evolution (1932).

Purportedly, it is Haldane who made the famous comment that all that biology tells us about the nature of God is that he has “an inordinate fondness for beetles” (reported in G. E. Hutchison, 1959, Amer. Natur. 93:145-159).


  • J.B.S. Haldane, “The Origin of Life,” The Rationalist Annual 148: 3-10 (1929).

November 4, 1855 (a Sunday)

Frederick Orpen Bower

On this date, the botanist Frederick Orpen Bower was born in Ripon, England. His study of primitive land plants, especially the ferns, contributed greatly to a modern emphasis on the study of the origins and evolutionary development of these plants. A man who did not shy away from theorizing, one of his most productive “working hypotheses” was his application of the alternation of generations model to explaining the way the land was colonized by early plants. This subject was explored most completely in his book entitled The Origin of a Land Flora: A Theory Based upon the Facts of Alternation, published in 1908.

From his many years studying liverworts, mosses, and ferns, Bower concluded that they had evolved from algal ancestors. Bower’s hypothesis states, in essence, that the sporophyte generation (the conspicuous vegetative stage in familiar vascular plants) developed de novo from a haploid alga that lacked a diploid sporophyte generation but instead had merely a diploid zygote (a cell formed by the fusion of two gametes, such as sperm and egg). Before the evolution of embryos, this zygote would have immediately undergone meiosis (to relieve the diploid condition) and produced spores, the propagules of the next haploid generation. Growth of such a spore into a gametophyte is analogous to growth of an isolated human sperm or egg cell into a hypothetical haploid generation. Thus, the sporophyte generation first appeared as an added generation that came into existence as a result of delayed zygotic meiosis – sort of a delayed plant puberty. In other words, what might otherwise have become the new haploid cells of the next generation by chromosome reduction instead retained its diploid character and thus added, aà la Bower, a new generation to the life cycle. The final step of spore production still eventually occurred, but not until after the diploid cells had grown and developed into a new sporophyte generation, in essence an overgrown zygote.

Under Brower’s hypothesis, we suppose that, from the point of view of the gametophyte, the sporophyte generation is like a giant multicellular spore factory. For example, in Coleochaete pulvinata, a modern freshwater green alga, the surface of the mature zygote is covered by a layer of haploid cells, which form ingrowths that penetrate the zygote to provide nutrition. The protected diploid zygote in Coleochaete gives the aquatic alga advantages because many more spores can be produced from a single fertilization event than would be the case if the zygote hurried straight to meiosis and the formation of one of those four spore tetrads so common in the fossil record. Bower’s hypothesis remains to be tested, but if it is correct, the sporophyte generation (diploid cells) came to develop inside (and be protected by) the gametophyte generation (haploid cells) precisely because the arrangement ultimately benefited both generations.

An older, competing hypothesis dating back to 1874 held that the algal ancestor of embryophytes already had had alternation of two generations for a long time and was thus diplobiontic, as opposed to haplobiontic. Haplobiontic organisms, such as humans, have the gametes as the only haploid cells; diplobiontic organisms develop those haploid cells into a multicellular life stage. The diplobiontic hypothesis of 1874 is less favored now because it fails to explain how the sporophytes and gametophytes, which in modern diplobiontic green algae have no long-term physical connection, could have evolved the intimate physical connection, in both nutritional and developmental respects, shared by the haploid and diploid components of all embryophytes.

Bower’s other publications included Ferns (three volumes, published 1923-28) and Primitive Land Plants (1935). Bower was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891 and was awarded the Linnean Medal in 1909, the Royal Medal in 1910, and the Darwin Medal in 1938, the latter “In recognition of his work of acknowledged distinction in the field in which Darwin himself laboured.”

November 1, 1977 (a Tuesday)

Carl Woese

On this date, the American microbiologist and physicist Carl Woese published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in which he defined the Archaeabacteria (a new super-kingdom of life) by phylogenetic analysis of 16S ribosomal RNA.  This technique was pioneered by Woese and is now standard practice. By 1990 Woese shortened the name Archaebacteria to Archaea and adopted the term “domains” for the three new branches of life: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Archaea are neither Bacteria nor Eukaryotes. In other words, they are Prokaryotes that are not Bacteria. More than twenty kingdoms exist under the domains in the tree of life, far more than the five original kingdoms suggested by R.H. Whittaker in 1969. In fact, Woese found that Archaea are more closely related to Eukarya (plants, animals, fungi, etc.) than to Bacteria. This accounted for the renaming of Archaebacteria, the original name given by Woese, to Archaea.

According to Woese:

The archaea are unique organisms. While prokaryotes in the cytological sense, they are actually more closely related to eukaryotes than to the bacteria. They are of particular interest for this reason alone-they are simple organisms whose study should provide insights into the nature and evolution of the eukaryotic cell. Their study is also central to an understanding of the nature of the ancestor common to all life. The archaea are, of course, interesting in their own right. The group contains both the methanogens and numerous organisms that grow at extremely high temperatures (in some cases above 100°C). As such, they provide potential insights into mechanisms of thermophilia and methanogenesis.

by Carl Woese

The acceptance of the validity of Woese’s classification was a slow and painful process. Famous figures, including Salvador Luria and Ernst Mayr, objected to his division of the prokaryotes. Not all criticism of him was restricted to the scientific level. Not without reason has Woese been dubbed “Microbiology’s Scarred Revolutionary” by the journal Science. The growing amount of supporting data led the scientific community in general to accept the Archaea by the mid-1980s. A shrinking minority of scientists still adhere to concepts of evolutionary radiation, but Woese appears to have been vindicated in his convictions.