Thursday, May 28, 2009

Louis Agassiz (1807 - 1873) -- On Being Here in His Absence

I used to work with a man, a hale-fellow-well-met sort, whose robust personality was such that when he was missing (which was often), we’d describe him as “being here in his absence.” I feel somewhat that way about Louis Agassiz whose 202nd birthday was today, May 28, 2009.

During the middle decades of the 19th Century, Agassiz was probably the most popular scientist in United States. He was a striking figure – a large man with heavy-lidded eyes set in a strong face. In later years, he became rather rotund. The cigar-smoking, Swiss-born Agassiz strode forcefully across the American scientific and cultural landscape from the 1840s until the 1870s, responsible in many ways for the maturation of science in this country and for fueling popular interest in natural history. He came to the United States in 1846, already a well-established figure in multiple scientific fields having entered the ranks of leading paleontologists with his multivolume Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Research on Fossil Fishes) published during the period 1833 to 1843, and having staked a claim on geology with seminal work on glaciers.

Always a visionary, Agassiz seemed to respond to the democratic energy and spirit of America by conceiving of ever grander plans for his scientific work and that of his adopted country. New plans constantly trumped old ones. Some he brought to fruition, others, to the frustration of colleagues, fell to the wayside only partly completed. Still, Agassiz’s legacy is impressive. It includes the founding of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology for which he was the original director and curator. He played important roles in the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences and Cornell University. As a professor at Harvard, he trained many of the leading American biologists and paleontologists of the 19th Century. He charmed the American public, who eagerly embraced him, flocking to the many lecture series on natural history he delivered in major east coast cities. He counted among his friends such leading cultural figures as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Despite the renown in his own day, he has largely faded from public consciousness. Well, not completely. The rush to honor him contemporaneously means the Agassiz name is familiar in the Boston area, adorning buildings, including schools, and communities. In the scientific world, I sense that Agassiz is really "here in his absence." One cannot contemplate 19th Century science in this country or the world without becoming aware of the Agassiz persona. Nevertheless, the marks he left on the scientific landscape that continue to exist are, for the most part, probably not the profound ones he would have hoped.

Take, for example, those who collect fish fossils, particularly from sharks. For them, there is no escaping the Agassiz name – it is everywhere, and, paradoxically, also mostly nowhere. The name appears in many of the full taxonomic names of fish species, signaling that Agassiz first identified them. Of the 99 different shark species for which a collector can find fossil teeth in the Chesapeake Bay region, 21 of them have Agassiz as the original identifier (though for only a few has the name he gave survived) and an additional species is named Hexanchus agassizi. (See Kent, Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994.) But, for most collectors, that’s as far as it goes – though Agassiz’s fingerprints are abundantly present, they are found in the dusty margins of scientific names. (It is in this very role that Agassiz appeared previously in posts on this blog -- see "Louis Agassiz" in Labels listing on right.) The paleontological aspects of his legacy seem pretty minor for a major scientist.

So, why is Agassiz not celebrated today for his science as his adoring 19th Century public might have expected? The man, whose work was often crowned with success, is perhaps best known to us, not for those good works, but for being the most prominent American scientist of his day to reject Darwinian evolution. Agassiz was not a biblical literalist, believing as he did in an old Earth. But, to him, that Earth was one that had experienced multiple catastrophes, each of which replaced extant species with new ones, all in line with God’s plan. Here there was no descent from common ancestors; rather, species were immutable and unrelated to each other. (That may help explain the prevalence of his name in the taxonomic histories – rather than the prevalence of variation, he saw many distinct species in differences among his specimens and, so, he named them.)

Is that the explanation for the lack of present day acclaim? That he was on the losing side?

Take the Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles. This master work is breathtaking in its scope – a comprehensive, detailed gathering of available information about fossil fishes, illustrated with beautiful plates. (An aside: I certainly hope someone will scan the volume with the plates and post them along with the five volumes of text that are already available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  [Later edit:  Indeed, the atlas of plates for each volume is now available.]  Agassiz brought a scientific eye to the task, reflected in the attention to detail, and the drive to be comprehensive and thorough – sound aspects of paleontology. The Poissons Fossiles is where many of the fossil fish species are first named.

. . . and yet, this work is also something else. In some eyes, it is principally that something else. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould described it as follows:

Les poissons fossiles is no simple list of old fishes; it is, perhaps most of all, a closely reasoned brief for Agassiz’s creationist world view – a theory that embodied the cultural consensus of 1830, but that Agassiz maintained doggedly to his death in 1873, long after its scientific demise in Darwin’s favor. (Eight Little Piggies, p. 414, 1993)

So, the master work is a fool’s errand. Being on the wrong side has a way of undercutting your accomplishments. Clearly, his position on evolution contributed to the fading of his star. Some blame should also be attached to how he used his platform to promote racist ideas about blacks, ideas that earned him accolades in the antebellum South and opprobrium in the Civil Rights era.

But, for me, the Agassiz story has a tragic theme that centers on the very success he enjoyed. As Gould wrote, Agassiz was in the majority in the 1830s, but did not change his view in light of the evolutionary framework that Darwin later erected. I don’t believe he was capable of changing.

In 1859, Agassiz was at the pinnacle of his success in America, with an adoring public and a wide circle of influential friends and supporters, most of whom were from outside the scientific community. Paradoxically, the very scientific establishment Agassiz had worked to build, into which he instilled rigor and discipline, was now populated with scientists who could weigh the theory of evolution, question it, test it, and, ultimately, see its power and its merits. But Agassiz couldn’t.

As he gained in public stature, labored to create, fund, and administer a world class museum, and remake the education of scientists in this country, he largely stopped doing science and became increasingly isolated from the maturing American scientific community. No longer an active participant in the scientific conversation, he had no answers to evolution except his old ones that had served him well in the past.

Ironically, his very success seemingly fated him to this magnificent failure to recognize the truth of evolution.

I trust I have been fair in this portrait of Agassiz. In his time, he was a figure larger than life. Even his critics could be impressed by the boundless energy and deep knowledge of the man. While a young medical student at Harvard University, psychologist and philosopher William James joined an expedition Agassiz led to the Amazon in 1865. In a delightful letter to his father written from Brazil, James offered his insight into the man:

I have profited a great deal by hearing Agassiz talk, not so much by what he says, for never did a man utter a greater amount of humbug, but by learning the way of feeling of such a vast practical engine as he is. No one sees farther into a generalization than his own knowledge of details extends, and you have a greater feeling of weight and solidity about the movement of Agassiz’s mind, owing to the continual presence of this great background of special facts, than about the mind of any other man I know. He has a great personal tact too, and I see that in all his talks with me he is pitching into my loose and superficial way of thinking. . . . Now that I am become more intimate with him, and can talk more freely to him, I delight to be with him. I only saw his defects at first, but now his wonderful qualities throw them quite in the background. I am convinced that he is the man to do me good. He will certainly have earned a holiday when he gets home. I never saw a man work so hard. Physically, intellectually and socially he has done the work of ten different men since he has been in Brazil; the only danger is of his over doing it. ... (September 12-15, 1865)

I wish Louis Agassiz a happy birthday.

The best source of background on Agassiz is Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, by Edward Lurie – a good, solid, readable biography, originally published in 1960. Also, of interest, are the various essays featuring Agassiz written by Stephen Jay Gould and included in his volumes of natural history reflections. The James letter can be found in The Letters of William James (Vol. 1) 1920, p. 65-66).) The citation information required by the Archives of American Art for the photograph of Louis Agassiz is: [Louis Agassiz], ca. 1860 / unidentified photographer. Photographic print : 1 item : b&w ; oval image 12 x 10 cm. on board 17 x 11 cm. Charles Scribner's Sons Art Reference Dept. records, 1839-1962. Archives of American Art. At URL:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Artistic License

After seven years without having people around, Hubble has lost its accommodation to people. It’s gone wild again.

David Leckrone, Hubble Telescope senior project scientist as quoted in “Once Again, Hubble Surprises Astronauts,” by Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post, May 17, 2009

When scientists indulge in artistic license in their written prose or spoken word, the images and comparisons are often, to me, startling and fresh. This certainly emerges when scientists address an audience beyond the scientific community.

I don’t really have in mind those comparisons that are the stock-in-trade of scientists writing popular science. Compare the alien and complex to the familiar in order to explain the former. That isn’t artistic license. These comparisons are necessary if the writer or speaker wants me to grasp, even marginally, the mechanics of a complex concept without my having the requisite deep understanding of, say, higher level mathematics or quantum physics. For example, Physicist Brian Greene, in The Elegant Universe, a popular work on string theory (1999), writes:

To see this [that the universe may have more than three spatial dimensions], it’s easiest to shift our sights temporarily from the whole universe and think about a more familiar object, such as a long, thin garden hose. (p. 186)

To be honest, he gave it a nice try, but, many pages in, even equipped with the image of the garden hose, I still didn’t get it.

No, what I really have in mind is the use of artistic license, the use of tropes, to capture emotions and essence. This language may seek to animate the inanimate, give tangible life to a concept. Darwin did this in On The Origin of Species, giving natural selection a vibrant presence.

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life. (p. 133, Penguin Books paperback edition, reprinted 1981)

The image this language conjures in my mind is that of an enveloping entity, even a brooding one, weighing and choosing. This is powerful language, breathing life into this concept.

To bring it home to fossils, the paleontologist Richard Fortey in his popular treatise on trilobites (Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, 2000) describes when, as a boy, he finds his first specimen:

This was my first discovery of the animals that would change my life. The long thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me and I returned the gaze. . . . there was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years. (p. 21)

That resonates with me. That childhood marveling follows into adulthood, as does the feeling that the fossil is alive.

For professional paleontologist and amateur, the sudden rush from discovery and recognition can imbue the discovered fossil with an organic beauty, a living essence that grows and flourishes. If not actually living, it is a portal to strange and distant life. This feeling from discovery inspires one to write and speak, at times, with artistic license.

This post was prompted by my father, now well into his eighth decade, for whom blogging is foreign, though he’s well adjusted to other actually useful aspects of this technological age, such as e-mailing.

The other day, after I rambled a bit about this blog, he asked if it had a name or title. “Fossils and Other Living Things,” I answered. He thought about it for a moment, a puzzled look came across his face, and he commented, “But, fossils aren’t alive.”

Though I tried to explain my feelings behind this title, I failed. This figure of speech simply didn’t connect with him. Artistic license offers no guarantee of crossing the divide separating writer from reader.

And I know there’s poetry in his soul. This is the man who was eager that I read, in my early adulthood, a book he loves, Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947). Halle was a diplomat, political scientist, and naturalist writer. This book is a beautiful treatise on the meanings of the seasons, not just Spring, in Washington, D.C. The following excerpt captures some of its poetry.

Now – the date being October 21, 1945 – I hold in the hollow of my hand the body of a little bird killed last night in its migration by flying against a railing atop the roof. I saw it lying in the sunlight on the tarred roof this morning, when I went up there, a creature hardly larger than a mouse, with flaming gold breast streaked with black, and gold elsewhere or russet blending into brown and black. It has a slender, pointed black bill. Its fragile, polished black feet simply hang from it, the toes grasping nothing. You would be surprised, holding it in your hand, how soft and thick is its coat of feathers. The plumage is most of the bird, for the body is simply a small hard core at the center which you feel with your fingers pinching through the downy mass. Surely this is some creature of art, created in a hothouse by a magician and raised on nectar fed it at the end of a hair! . . . The magic that produced this complete creature, this little world in itself, really does surpass all understanding. (p. 63-64)

And, yes, I still feel as if fossils are alive.

Source of image of Hubble Telescope: NASA at

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Just When I Think I Know Something About Something, I Enter the Rabbit Hole

Just when I think I know something about something, I find that perhaps I don’t. Well, at least, not well enough to have ventured out in writing as though I had the topic nailed. What follows reflects the stages I went through as I dropped down the rabbit hole of collecting fossils on federal land and tried to make sense of what I found.

In her blog (Dinochick Blogs), ReBecca Foster is continuing her excellent series of postings on paleontological field work. I look forward to these every Friday – a chance to watch and learn from professional paleontologists in the field. It’s great stuff.

Her latest post brought me up short, though. She described a Bureau of Land Management site in the House Range of Utah where she and a colleague were in pursuit of trilobites. They came upon row upon row of slabs of rock, stacked and banded pallet-style – seemingly waiting for a truck to come and haul them away. The slabs were replete with trilobites. ReBecca has some pictures of these slabs. Perhaps this effort to haul away the material had been interrupted because someone had been found violating a BLM permit requirement. Or, perhaps, the truck just hadn’t arrived yet.

ReBecca provided a BLM link that describes the policies governing fossil collecting on BLM land. Here’s what it has to say (the italics are mine, the all caps of “noncommercial” are by the BLM as was a misspelling of “amount” which I corrected):

You may collect common invertebrate and plant fossils for NONCOMMERCIAL purposes only. A reasonable amount is what you may keep for a personal hobby collection or display in your home. Collecting common invertebrate or plant fossils for landscaping (even if it's just around your house) is not a hobby activity and must be done as a mineral materials sale. (43CFR3602)
If you wish to collect common invertebrate or plant fossils for landscaping, sale, or commercial purposes you must apply to the BLM for a mineral materials sale. (43CFR3602)

Wait, wait, collecting fossils for commercial purposes???? No, no, that can’t be right.

That’s not what I thought I knew – isn’t the taking of fossils from federal land for commercial purposes absolutely prohibited?

Certainly, the Interior’s 2000 report, Fossils on Federal and Indian Lands, makes that clear. Table 1 in the report outlines the policies that applied at the time to Interior land – commercial collecting is not allowed. In the section with responses to public comments, the report succinctly states:

The possibility of commercial collection of fossil specimens from public lands was reviewed, but ultimately was determined not to be a viable option because of the likely loss of scientific and educational information and public enjoyment. Few comments supported commercial collection on federal lands. Fossils for commercial use may be collected from nonfederal lands.

Then there’s the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation, recently enacted as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11). It creates a uniform statutory framework that governs fossil collecting on federal land. There is absolutely nothing in that legislation suggesting that commercial collecting of fossils on federal land was, is, or will be allowed.

To be perfectly clear, the PRP legislation applies to some specific federal land: (1) land controlled or administered by Secretary of the Interior, except Indian land, and (2) the National Forest System land controlled or administered by the Secretary of Agriculture. The “casual collecting” of common invertebrate and plant fossils, that is collecting of such fossils by individuals for personal use, is allowed on a specific subset of these lands – those lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Forest Service. The legislation does not allow any commercial collecting under any of the land it applies to, including land under the jurisdiction of the BLM. All other collecting (including any collecting of vertebrate fossils) requires a permit. Fossils collected under a permit remain the property of the United States. Absolutely nothing commercial about that.

The BLM has posted an “instruction memorandum” on its website, describing the impact of the new legislation on its policies regarding casual collecting. It states that the new law doesn’t change its past practices regarding collecting by amateurs. I would hope not, given that the authority for casual collecting in the new law was based specifically on the BLM policy. The memorandum states:

The PRPA of 2009, Public Law 111-011, Title VI, Subtitle D, does not change the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) basic policy for allowing casual collecting of reasonable amounts of common invertebrate and plant fossils from public lands for personal use without a permit. Nor does the PRPA change the prohibition on bartering or selling common invertebrate and plant fossils.

Hmm, that last sentence certainly seems to keep closed any possible loophole for commercial collecting of common invertebrate and plant fossils. So, what gives?

Perhaps it’s a delightful bit of bureaucratic sleight of hand. Does the key to all of this lie in a transformation of common invertebrate and plant fossils into “mineral materials” which, presumably, can be dug out, hauled away, and sold?

The BLM site ReBecca linked to does say one needs to have a mineral materials sales permit in order to take fossils for commercial use. It also cites as its authority Part 3602 of Title 43 of the Code of Federal Regulations. This entire CFR part – 3600 – governs mineral materials disposal on BLM land. Interestingly, 43 CFR 3601.5 provides the definitions for this part, and includes the following:

Mineral materials means, but is not limited to, petrified wood and common varieties of sand, stone, gravel, pumice, pumicite, cinders, and clay.

So, petrified wood is covered by mineral materials sales (ouch), but are other fossils? The definition is open-ended (“is not limited to”). Other fossils? Possibly.

Perhaps the actual key is the use to which the mineral materials are put, that is the purpose of the purchase and sale. The BLM’s mineral materials program is designed to sell minerals from BLM land for use in such activities as highway construction, building construction, and landscaping. So, you can buy the mineral materials from this federal land and all of the fossils contained therein, as long as you don’t do this to collect and sell the fossils as fossils?

And, then, of course, the original BLM site that started this journey might simply have been mistaken or poorly crafted. (Occam’s Razor at work.)

But, I think we’re really down the rabbit hole.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Fossil Communities -- Miscellany

Amateur or professionals at this process of hunting, collecting, and studying fossils are, whether they like it or not, members of various communities. These are varied -- encompassing academic, professional, formal, and informal aggregations of the somewhat like-minded. With membership in these communities come various pleasures and nuisances (hopefully, never more than nuisances). These are not unique to the communities that have been built around fossil collecting and studying, but that’s my present context.

Swine Flu

An online fossil collectors’ community of which I am an occasional part was the source of some startling news – neither a pleasure nor a nuisance, just a bit of the unexpected. One of the teenage members (I take him at his word that he’s a teen, that he’s a he, that . . . ) announced that he, along with other members of his family, are among those in New York who have contracted the swine flu (that is, "swine-origin influenza A H1N1" – even flu viruses have aliases and may not be whom – what – we think they are). He’s recovering nicely and will now, I assume, have built up an immunity to it. When this flu virus comes back in spades this next winter (after it vacations with a vengeance in the southern hemisphere for the next several months), he’ll be in better shape than the rest of us.

I thought about his announcement and the fact that many of us in this community read his message, posted good, cheering sentiments in response – giving him, I guess, virtual hugs. The beauty of this online community of fossil collectors in these times is that we run no risk of contracting the virus from him, no matter how much of this contact we have.

I can see it now. The online experience which, for years, was decried as producing a generation of loners and social misfits, becomes the only place in which community can continue to exist when, in the rest of our lives, we avoid public places and people.

Then again. How immune is this community really? Not very.

Last week, it was hit with a vicious attack by hackers trying to bring it down.

Oldest Member

P.G. Wodehouse, in his many short stories about golf, created a character known only as the “Oldest Member” of his golfing club. He is the one who tells the stories. The Oldest Member sits in a comfortable chair, sometimes sipping lemonade, and watches the younger generation destroy itself on the golf links. He knows the sport inside and out, knows its history and how it has changed. He also knows something about life. When some member of the club approaches with a golfing problem, or, more likely, a problem in a romantic relationship, the Oldest Member has an “appropriate” golfing story to tell. (Many of these stories are no longer covered by copyright and are available on the web. Try The Clicking of Cuthbert.)

Every community has its Oldest Member. Fossil communities are no exception. For instance, each fossil club (or more typically, “gem, mineral, and (afterthought) fossil” club) has an Oldest Member, very much akin to the Wodehouse creation, though I doubt he or she is approached for advice of a romantic nature. These are usually silver haired (or no haired) members who, in some clubs, were part of the founding generation of members, those who nurtured the organization through the lean years. Now that the community has a more or less secure life of its own, the Oldest Member sits back and observes and comments (and comments . . .).

Sometimes, of course, the Oldest Member bemoans what’s happened to his or her creation. “That’s not how we did it.” “In my day, this would not have happened.” Specific to a fossil community, the Oldest Member may draw on his vast experience and intone, “I remember when we’d hunt at this site and you could find so many complete trilobites that you stopped looking for them.” Or, “Yes, I did a lot of collecting there . . . before Interstate 96 was built over it.”

Still, without their Oldest Members, these communities would be very much the poorer.
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