Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lost in Scientific Translation

“What’s this fish doing in my ear?”
“It’s translating for you.  It’s a Babel fish.  Look it up in the book if you like.”
          ~ Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The united intellect of my family has vainly tried to make it out. – I never tried such confoundedly hard German: nor does it seem worth the labour.
        ~ Charles Darwin to geologist Charles Lyell, February 18, 1860, regarding Heinrich Georg Bronn’s published review of The Origin of Species

I’d never really considered the challenges of translating scientific terms and concepts across language barriers until recently when, on occasion, I’ve had to use my once fluent Spanish to talk about fossils.  I don’t have the vocabulary for it.  My Spanish, acquired as a child and teen, rests on a vocabulary built for navigating social interactions among my then youthful peers and for travel through urban environments in Latin America; it’s not really adequate verbal equipment for describing fossils, and clearly laughable as a means for translating terms used in English to explain something like evolutionary theory.

This isn’t a trivial issue actually and the more I’ve thought and read about it, the more appreciation I should have for translation when it’s done well . . . but how would I know if it’s being done well?  Aye, there’s the rub.  (Try translating that into another language.)

As science historian Sander Gliboff observes, modern scholarship on the process of translating a text from one language to another now considers the “translators and interpreters as authors in their own right.”  (H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism:  A Study in Translation and Transformation (2008), p. 12, cited below as H.G. Bronn, I’ve only had access to the Introduction to this book.)  The consequences of this process for a scientific text are fascinating, because the properties of translation may render scientific theories as “historical entities that change through time and across national boundaries.”  (H.G. Bronn, p. 13)

A recent fossil hunt in a suburban Maryland stream took me up to the door to the maze of scientific translation, and the discovery of two small fossil shark teeth caught in my screen in the stream opened the door and I stepped in.

I believe the teeth are from Serratolamna serrata (Agassiz 1843), a Late Cretaceous mackerel shark (some 70 to 65 million years old, Severn Formation).  Views of the lingual and labial sides of the teeth appear below.  (Sources I consulted for the identification are provided in the Notes at the end of this posting.)

The scientific names of extinct and extant animals should easily navigate across language barriers, though deciphering the name and the taxonomic history behind a scientific name can still be blocked by language-related obstacles.  According to the scientific name Serratolamna serrata (Agassiz 1843), the shark was first formally identified in 1843 by naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873), but the parentheses state that some portion of the original name, or all of it, was changed one or more times in the ensuing more than a century and a half.  Too often I take those parentheses as a dare to attempt a reconstruction of the taxonomic history of the named fossil; this was one of those times.

Given the date associated with the name, Agassiz’s original name for the shark had to have been published in his multivolume Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Research on Fossil Fishes).  Agassiz published separate volumes (“atlases”) containing the plates illustrating the fish fossils described in the five volumes of text – one atlas per volume of text.  Scanning the atlas for Volume 3 (featuring sharks) uncovered the following two drawings by artist Joseph Dinkel which dovetail nicely with my stream finds.

The name associated with these two drawings?  Otodus serratus.  Here’s Agassiz’s description of O. serratus, translated crudely from French:
The distinguishing characteristic of this species is that the side cusplets, usually more or less rounded in other species, are here transformed into angular serrations, especially at the base of the posterior edge.  In this regard our 0. serratus brings itself a bit closer to Galeocerdo, so I'm not without some doubt about the generic position of this species, which cannot be determined in a rigorous manner until we study its microscopic structure.  If the result of this shows that the dentine is not as massive as that of the Otodus, but on the contrary is rather hollow, you should not hesitate to refer it to the genus Galeocerdo.  Meanwhile, it seemed to me that its external form has more to do with that of Otodus.
The originals of my figures are in the collection of Mr. Bronn, and come from Mount St Pierre de Maestricht, and both are seen by their outer surface [labial side? – hard to tell from Dinkel’s drawings].  (p. 272-273)
Knowing little French, I ran Agassiz’s original passage on O. serratus through the translate function in Google and then massaged the results.  Though my results aren’t pretty, I think they’re serviceable.  So much for the translation problem?  Well, I may still have things wrong and Agassiz is being exclusively descriptive here, no concepts, no theories, just a few terms that a collector of fossil shark teeth is likely to recognize in more than one language.

(All the volumes of text and illustrations for Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles are available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.)

If this is indeed the root origin of the Serratolamna serrata (and I think it is), how did the name Otodus serratus “evolve” into S. serrata?  The key apparently rests with the scientific name for the genus – Serratolamna Landemaine 1991.

In 1991, the Société Amicale des Géologues Amateures (Society of Amateur Geologists?) of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, published a piece by O. Landemaine titled Selaciens Nouveaux du Cretace Superieur du Sud-Ouest de la France; Quelques Apports a la Systematique des Elasmobranches.  Roughly translated, the title in English is:  New Upper Cretaceous Selachians from the Southwest of France; Some Contributions to the Systematics of Elasmobranchs.  (The Elasmobranchii is a subclass of the Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) which includes sharks.)

So, what does Landemaine have to say?  Wish I knew.  I have been unable to locate a copy.  Maybe not really a language barrier, but I usually have some hope of tracking down obscure publications in English, and little for those in other languages.  It would appear that Landemaine removed a number of species, including the one of interest, from the genus Cretolamna and “erected” Serratolamna for them.  This raises still another question, when and how did Otodus serratus move into Cretolamna?  His piece might tell me, but . . . .  [A much later edit:  O. Landemaine very kindly commented on this post, noting that his paper is now available on the web.  The link is here (click on the white arrow in the green button).  After I do some translating from the French, I'll see what he has to say on the subject.]

Having run into this dead end, I went back to Agassiz’s description of O. serratus and, on a whim, tracked down this Bronn character whose collection held the specimens illustrated in Recherches.  Sheer serendipity when it drew me deeper into the scientific translation maze.

Agassiz knew Heinrich Georg Bronn (1800 – 1862) well; in 1826, as a 19-year-old, Agassiz attended Bronn’s lectures on paleontology at the University of Heidelberg.  Bronn had been educated at the University and spent his career there, teaching natural history and zoology, among other subjects.  In time, he became “Germany’s most distinguished paleontologist, known for detailed fieldwork in Italy and throughout Western Europe, identifying and sequencing strata of sedimentary rock and the fossils they contained.”  (Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn and the History of Nature, Journal of the History of Biology, June 2007, p. 262.)  According to historian Edward Lurie, Bronn “took a personal interest in [the student Agassiz] and showed him how to study collections of fossils illustrating the history of the earth and its extinct species.”  (Louis Agassiz:  A Life in Science, p. 21.)

Agassiz also rose to prominence as a leading paleontologist in Europe and then emigrated to the United States in the late 1840s, where, in the ensuing decade, he reshaped American science and science education.  On a trip to Europe in the summer of 1859, Agassiz purchased Bronn’s fossil collection for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, from which he, in turn, taught students back in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Lurie, Louis Agassiz, p. 238.)

If Agassiz met with Bronn to complete the purchase, I’d love to have eavesdropped on that conversation (my little bit of searching has turned up no evidence they did).  Surely, Agassiz would have been charming, though he would likely have been convinced that he had long since eclipsed his old teacher.  I would guess that Agassiz knew of Bronn’s work of the 1840s and 1850s, work that constituted a powerful rebuttal to Agassiz’s theory of catastrophism (periodic catastrophes wiping out all species, followed by mass creation of new species with divine intervention under a divine plan).  According to science historian Sander Gliboff, Bronn “was most keen to refute” Agassiz.  (H.G. Bronn, p. 12.)

In his own theory, Bronn identified natural laws to explain the living world as he found it; the adaptation of species to their environment constituting a central one.  Change in the environment led to the extinction of species maladjusted to those changes.  The extinction occurred for individual species, not entire fauna.  In Bronn’s theory, species remained distinct, unrelated entities.  He remained agnostic as to how new species came into being.  In the preceding two decades, Bronn had made a break with the pre-Darwinian biology in Germany, rejecting in particular the constellation of ideas that argued that organic change was a matter of internally directed progress toward “perfect” forms or types.  (Although my descriptions of Bronn’s theorizing have relied on Gliboff’s work cited here, any inaccuracies in translating Gliboff’s text into my words are all mine.)

When, on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in England, the die was cast for both Agassiz and Bronn.  Agassiz would wage a campaign against Darwinian evolution for much of the remaining 14 years of his life, an effort that increasingly isolated him from the scientific community in America, and, indeed, seems to continue to cast a shadow today over his significant accomplishments in science.  (I presented my take on Agassiz and evolution in a previous post.)  For Bronn, The Origin of Species would also figure prominently in the remainder of his life (just three years) but in a markedly different way.  And translation would be at the heart of it.

Upon its publication, Darwin (1809 – 1882) sent copies of The Origin of Species to several German scientists, including Bronn.  Unexpectedly, Bronn’s responded quickly and enthusiastically, reviewing it in a journal he edited.  The question of translating the book into German emerged in their initial communications.  Bronn wanted to translate the book himself and after an exchange of several letters undertook the project.

Darwin’s ready agreement with this arrangement is a bit curious because he found German a struggle to understand and I’m not sure at what point he actually translated Bronn’s initial journal review of The Origin of Species in its entirety (if he did), but early on he had trouble with it.  Not only was Bronn’s German “confoundedly hard” as he wrote to Lyell on February 18, 1860, but what meaning he had managed to extract didn’t sit well, particularly Bronn’s choice of the phrase “wahl der lebensweise” as a translation of “natural selection.”  The German phrase can be translated back into English as roughly something like “choice of lifestyle,” hardly what Darwin had in mind and, as Darwin himself pointed out to Bronn, the German phrase carried Lamarckian connotations (in which characteristics acquired by a organism could be inherited by its offspring).  (Janet Browne, Charles Darwin:  The Power of Place, 2002, p. 142.)

Bronn’s translation of The Origin of Species appeared a few months later (how did he do it so quickly?), complete with an epilogue in which he critically analyzed the book (something that Darwin himself had suggested).  Darwin’s initial response to Bronn (April 10, 1860) after receiving the translation was short and, as usual, generous, beginning with the following:
I received this morning 4 Copies of the translation and I must trouble you with one line to say how much pleased I am with their appearance.
I have read some pages and my sense seems very clearly given; for poor German Scholar as I am, I could read it with some facility – . . . .
Well, I don’t believe Darwin actually read it with “some facility.”  He tried to wrestle his way through the translation, but with what success?  Historian Janet Browne describes Darwin coming to the task “[a]rmed with some heavy German dictionaries.”  (p. 141)  Bronn’s critical epilogue apparently befuddled him and so, this scientist at the summit of the English scientific community sought a translation of the epilogue from Camilla Ludwig . . .  the household’s new governess, who was German.  I also find it amusing and telling that, according to the Darwin Correspondence Project (see Notes at the end of this posting), of the single copy of Bronn’s translation that Darwin kept for himself, which came in three parts, the pages of parts two and three remained uncut, as did some of the pages of the first part!

Browne concludes that Darwin was dissatisfied with Bronn’s translation.  He “scarcely expected a translator, however eminent, to adjust the Origin’s argument to suit himself,” (p. 141) as he apparently felt Bronn had, and ultimately looked for a new translator.  Though it’s relatively easy to find evidence that Bronn’s translation troubled Darwin, he never broke his ties to the German paleontologist.  Indeed, Bronn translated the second and third editions of the book.

Gliboff identifies a number of inherent challenges in the translation process for getting author and translator – Darwin and Bronn – on the same page.  Differences between Darwin and Bronn that threatened a common understanding included training and scientific experiences, social and culture milieus, and even their understanding of the scientific enterprise.  (Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, p. 13-14.)

Whether or not Bronn came to the project intent on reinterpreting the original work, language was critical.  As translator he would have had to struggle with what the English words and phrases meant to their author, particularly if some of those words and phrases were being coined or used in new ways.  Further, he’d have to consider whether the specific examples given in the original to convey particular meanings would do the same in the other language (and for another society).  And so on.

There’s another aspect of language use that bedevils the translation process.  How the translator uses language and what he or she means by the words and phrases used.  Later scholars asserted that Bronn and other German translators of Darwin sought to tie Darwin’s evolutionary theory to Germany’s pre-Darwinian biology with its emphasis on progress toward “perfect” forms.  A clear misinterpretation, according to Gliboff, given how Bronn’s own thinking had changed in the preceding couple of decades.  What misled the critics was Bronn’s use of some of the same terminology as that of the German pre-Darwinians.  Such a maze.

Gliboff concludes with a nuanced assessment of Bronn’s work and other German translation efforts:
Darwin’s German interpreters, to some extent, made his theory their own and turned it to their own purposes.  But we must also beware of exaggerating the independence of the translation or interpretation from the original.  Much may have been lost or changed in translation, but much was also communicated successfully.  (H.G. Bronn, p. 13)
I came out of this convinced that translation of any text is part science and part art; translated works are at best approximations of the original, and sometimes other than that.  For a seminal scientific work such as The Origin of Species, the journey of the text from one language to another seems destined to generate something new, regardless of how much of the original is conveyed successfully.  Language barriers, for better or worse, are transformative.

And, yes, I do know the take in the Hitchhiker’s Guide on the impact of language barriers:
[T]he poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything in the history of creation.


1) All correspondence from and to Charles Darwin cited in this posting may be found in the wonderful Darwin Correspondence Project, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry2703, accessed on various dates in October, 2011.

2) I made the identification of the Serratolamna serrata teeth using two sources –Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994) by Bretton W. Kent, and The Collector’s Guide to Fossil Sharks and Rays From the Cretaceous of Texas (1993) by Bruce J. Welton and Roger F. Farish.  Among the key distinguishing features of these teeth are (1) asymmetry in the number of cusplets on either shoulder of the root – a larger number on the distal part (toward the rear of the mouth – the central crown curves toward the rear), and (2) divergent curvature of the cusplets – distal ones pointing to the rear, mesial ones pointing to the front of the mouth.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Who’s Nathan Myhrvold and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Paleontology?

Paleontology is ossified.
~ Nathan Myhrvold, Wired Magazine, October, 2011

I’ve been wresting for much too long with Nathan Myhrvold’s snarky quip about paleontology.  After an initial laugh, I reacted with hostility, particularly when he followed up that bit of word play by saying, “The methods [of paleontology] haven’t changed substantially in 100 years.”  I thought I understood the meaning of the comment and detected a nasty tone.  But, that’s hardly where I end up in this posting.  (So typical that, just after having written in my previous posting about the limits to my relationship with dinosaurs, I come back with one about those creatures.)

So, who is he and what’s he specifically complaining about?

It begins I suppose with renowned dinosaur paleontologist Jack Horner who wants to build a dinosaur from a chicken embryo, a chickenosaurus.  Horner, who was the first to find fossil baby dinosaurs in nests and fossil dinosaur embryos, believes the blueprint for a full-fledged dinosaur resides in the chicken genome given that he concludes, as do many scientists, that modern birds are not descended from dinosaurs but are, in fact, avian dinosaurs.  He’s written a book about this quest (How to Build a Dinosaur:  The New Science of Reverse Evolution, 1999).  Earlier this year he gave a funny and thought provoking talk about chickenosaurus at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference (this link is to the video of the talk).  Most recently, he is profiled in the October issue of Wired Magazine (Thomas Hayden, How to Hatch a Dinosaur).

Horner is aided and abetted in his effort to turn back the evolutionary clock by said Nathan Myhrvold.  I’ll admit it, I had no idea who Nathan Myhrvold was and whether his opinions about paleontology should carry any weight.

Is he a trained paleontologist?  No, though clearly he’s plenty smart.  Myhrvold finished high school at 14, earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton, and did research with Stephen Hawking.  New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell described Myhrvold as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  (In The Air:  Who Says Big Ideas are Rare?, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008).

He has done some paleontology work, appearing as co-author on several articles in peer-reviewed science journals.  In one, he and his co-author build a case based on the anatomical structure of diplodocid dinosaurs’ “enormous and graceful tails that taper to thin tips” and the physics of bullwhips to argue that these dinosaurs could have whipped their tails back and forth fast enough that the movement of the tips would have exceeded the sound barrier, creating a loud cracking sound.  This led the authors to counter the notion that the diplodocids’ long tails were used as contact weapons; instead, they suggested that these tails might have functioned as “noisemakers” perhaps for warding off predators or exerting social control within sauropod groups, among other possible uses.  (Myhrvold and Philip J. Currie, Supersonic Sauropods?  Tail Dynamics in the Diplodocids, Paleobiology, Autumn 1997).

When you look at the tail of a diplodocid, this hypothesis of a supersonic tail does not appear so far fetched.  These photos show the Diplodocus longus specimen on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (and also breakup the textual onslaught of this posting).  It's hard to isolate a specific specimen in this display given how many dinosaurs are packed in here.  The white arrows in the first picture identify the Diplodocus and the black arrows in the second point to its long, snaky tail.

Not hard to see how Myhrvold’s academic training and research might have well served this particular research effort.

A more recent piece with Myhrvold as a coauthor appeared this February and reports the results of a decade-long effort mounting a systematic collection of dinosaur fossils from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation in Montana, the so-called Hell Creek Project.  Jack Horner is the lead author of this piece.  (John R. Horner, Mark B. Goodwin, and Myhrvold, Dinosaur Census Reveals Abundant Tyrannosaurus and Rare Ontogenic Stages in the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation (Maastrichtian), Montana, USA, PLoS ONE, February 2011.)  Gladwell quotes Myhrvold on the project as saying, “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world. . . .  From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens.  From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more. . . .  We have dominant T. rex market share.

This report on the Hell Creek Project suggests how Myhrvold’s entree into paleontology may have been facilitated just a little bit by the fact that he’s yet another example of nerdiness paying off handsomely in financial terms.  He served as chief technology officer at Microsoft where he established that company’s research division, and left Microsoft in the late 1990s a very rich man.  He then went on to co-found Intellectual Ventures, a patent investment firm now armed with a $5 billion war chest.  For its fans, IV is a Robin Hood righting the balance in the playing field that for too long has been tilted toward big corporations who run roughshod over little guys holding patents.  In the eyes of its critics, IV is patent trolling, scooping up patents and exacting large licensing fees from corporations with the threat of lawsuits; they call the firm Intellectual Vultures.  (Transcript:  Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures, The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2008; Steve Lohr, Turning Patents into ‘Invention Capital’, The New York Times, February 18, 2010.)

The PLoS ONE article identifies the several sources of funding for the Hell Creek Project, among which is Intellectual Ventures.  The description of  “competing interests” notes that Myhrvold “contributed financially to the Hell Creek Project and intellectually to the design of the study.”  Is it unusual for a funder of a scientific research project to be listed as an author on the report of the results from the research?  In some circumstances that would certainly raise a question about whether the funder steered the results to a desired outcome.  Though that’s highly unlikely to be the case with this project, I was struck by a contradictory statement in the description of funding that accompanies the article – “The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”  Puzzling.

In a roundabout way I guess I’ve given Myhrvold’s bona fides.  His bone of contention with paleontology?  As he puts it,
Normally, paleontologists go out and walk around until they find fossils. . . .  But it turns out that there’s a place to look that’s just as good as the badlands of Montana, and that’s the genome of living creatures.  (How to Hatch a Dinosaur, Wired Magazine)
Ah, the pitting of paleontology against molecular biology.  I assumed at first that Myhrvold was alluding to the decades-long source of tension in the study and theorizing about evolution, the debate over the question of the completeness of the fossil record, and the squaring of the evolutionary history derived from that record with that embedded in genes.  As Derek Turner summarized it in Paleontology:  A Philosophical Introduction (2011, p. 199),
Each discipline has its own source of evidence – the fossil record vs. the genes and proteins of living creatures – and the issue is which of these sources of evidence can tell us more about the past.  The relative importance of paleontology as a contributor to evolutionary science is one of the things at stake in this debate, for paleontology’s disciplinary status and prestige have always been tied up with questions about the completeness of the fossil record.  Darwin dealt an early blow to paleontology when, in the Origin of Species, he lamented the incompleteness of the geological record.  Over a century later, [Stephen Jay] Gould and [Niles] Eldredge launched the paleobiological revolution by arguing that the fossil record is more complete than anyone had realized because the very gaps that Darwin complained about contain information.  Now, at the height of the paleobiological revolution, when paleontologists have become virtuosos at documenting patterns in the fossil record and assessing claims about evolutionary processes, molecular biology raises all the old worries:  What if the fossil record is so incomplete that it offers a radically misleading picture of evolutionary history?
For a similar take on this, see David Sepkoski’s essay titled Evolutionary Paleontology and the Fossil Record:  A Historical Introduction (From Evolution to Geobiology, The Paleontological Society, 2008).

But, actually (despite my quoting at length from Turner - it's just good stuff), I think Myhrvold’s complaint is less a critique of the collecting of fossils and the analyzing of the fossil record, and more to do simply with his enthusiasm about the exciting (terrifying to some) possibilities of reverse evolution from manipulating genes and creating . . . whatever.  Not hard to believe that about a man who could claim (facetiously or not), “We have dominant T. rex market share.”

I’m persuaded more fully to be generous in my interpretation of Myhrvold's witticism about paleontology by a piece he wrote in 1998 for Science advocating greater public funding for basic scientific research.  (Supporting Science, Science, October 1998.)  Applied research is all well and good, he stated, but one cannot “reduce knowledge to practice” without the basic knowledge acquired by basic research.  As a result, he asserted,
There is no useless research.  Many discoveries reach their full potential, given enough time.
I just love that first sentence.

But, you might ask, where would he place paleontology in the array of basic research efforts?  Right in the mix, it turns out.  He wrote,
My favorite example of unexpected utility is dinosaur paleontology.  What could be more useless than studying these extinct giants?  Recent work on the mysterious extinction of the dinosaurs has built a credible case that their demise was caused by the impact of an asteroid or comet.  Although this explanation remains controversial among experts in the field, the inquiry has sparked the realization that a future impact by a near-earth asteroid could kill millions of people, destroy civilization, or even drive our species to extinction.  Active research is now focused on this threat and on technological means to avoid it.  It is thus entirely possible that the “useless” study of dinosaurs might some day, decades or even centuries from now, lead to saving the human race.
Of course, this theory regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs is an example of an outsider – in this instance, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez (from Myhrvold’s own academic discipline) – coming to paleontology and stirring things up.  (Perhaps I shouldn't let Myhrvold off the hook so fast.)

Finally, in his defense of paleontology research, Myhrvold pointedly added, “Meanwhile the entire cost of funding dinosaur paleontology, from its inception to the present, is less than the production cost of the film Jurassic Park.”

As much as I enjoyed the article about chickenosaurus in Wired, I wish I hadn’t reacted to Myhrvold’s ossification comment because I would have had much more time to do some other things . . . like react to another smart remark.

In a recent article about dinosaurs and other fossils in New Jersey (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Jerseysaurus, The New Yorker, October 10, 2011), paleontologist Neil Landman of the American Museum of Natural History offered up the one-liner that will get me out of doors this coming weekend.
I think it was the Duchess of Windsor who once said, You can’t be too rich or too thin or have too many Cretaceous fossils.
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