Monday, April 30, 2012

Did Our Contract With Dogs Include This?

For most of my life, I have been accompanied by dogs – a source of companionship, challenge, joy, humor, distraction, and, yes, sadness.  We know how nearly every account of some special dog that graced a writer’s life typically ends; I guess I’m unduly squeamish about such narratives.

With that as context, it’s not surprising that I’ve been thinking about the relationship of humans and dogs given that I have just finished reading Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth:  Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole, a masterful, gripping account of the efforts by the Englishman Robert Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen to reach the Pole in 1911 - 1912.  Amundsen succeeded, reaching the South Pole on December 15, 1911, and returning to tell the tale; tragically, Robert Scott and his team attained the Pole a month after Amundsen but perished during their return.  Though failing to make it back, Scott managed to tell the tale through his moving journal.  I’ve posted on Scott previously and the fossils he collected on the way back.

Scott approached the journey to the Pole by employing disparate means of transportation – he used motorized sledges, ponies, dogs, and men.  The first were an abysmal failure due to mechanical breakdowns, and ponies became a burden to the expedition because they were largely ill-suited for life or movement in the polar environment.  Dogs . . . ah, despite evidence to the contrary, Scott was biased against dogs as beasts of burden in polar regions and, as a result, used them poorly.  A reading of his journal leaves little doubt that, for Scott, the appropriate way to reach and return from the South Pole was by “man hauling” where the men pulled the sledges themselves, sometime using skis, sometimes not.

In contrast, Amundsen relied on dogs to provide the brute strength needed to pull the sledges, accompanied by men on skis.  Huntford posits that Amundsen and his team worked to make the dogs succeed because of a deep antipathy to man hauling.

Before exploring Amundsen’s use of dogs, I must acknowledge that Huntford and others, beginning in the 1960s, wrote histories of Scott that created a portrait of dramatically failed leadership.  These histories challenged the orthodox view that held up the man as a great leader and hero done in by the fickleness of nature and fortune.  Huntford, in particular, generated significant blowback by Scott loyalists, perhaps because his account is so well written and persuasive.  Be that as it may, I am using Huntford principally for his account of Amundsen’s plans for, and use of dogs, not his take on Scott.

The reasons that motivated Amundsen to rely on dogs for polar travel were myriad – their service as beasts of burden was the primary one.  He was convinced dogs were best suited to travel in polar regions and so expressed surprise at Scott’s general rejection of this animal.  “There must be some misunderstanding or other at the bottom of the Englishmen’s estimate of the Eskimo dog’s utility in the Polar regions.  Can it be that the dog has not understood his master?  Or is it the master who has not understood his dog?”  (Roald Amundsen, The South Pole:  An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,’ 1910- 1912, translated by A.G. Chater, Volume 1, 1913, p. 58)  The Norwegian brought only Greenland Huskies to Antarctica; not just because those dogs were able to handle the harsh conditions, but they also had a host of personality traits that helped make life in these brutal and often monotonous landscapes bearable.  In his portrait of the Eskimo dog, Huntford strings together a powerful array of descriptors – “loyal, intelligent, brave, persevering.”  At the same time, this dog could be “thieving, bullying, malingering.”  He adds that it is “is a compulsive fighter and a social animal.”  “His relation to his master is not that of servile beast, but of contractual dependent, performing certain duties in return for food and protection.”  (Last Place on Earth, p. 94 – 95)

The consequences for most of the dogs that began the trek to the South Pole with Amundsen were dire.  There was an inexorable and deadly logic at work.  This is what I’ve come to understand from Huntford’s account and other sources.  Before the 1911 Antarctic winter had set in, Amundsen had created a massive depot of nearly 2 tons of supplies at 80º south latitude (some 100 miles south of his base camp, Framheim, on the Ross Sea) and substantial depots housing about a ton of supplies further south at the 81º and 82º south latitudes.  When the actual assault on the Pole was launched in October, 1911, the supplies in these depots were to be hauled deeper south into the Antarctic wilderness to nourish men and dogs not only on the journey to the Pole, but, through the creation of additional depots, for the journey back north again.  At the outset, a large force of dogs would be needed to haul all of the supplies from these first depots.  But as the team moved south consuming food and fuel as it went, and offloading supplies at new depots, the number of dogs required would decline.  Continuing with unnecessary dogs increased both the amount of food needed to be carried on the sledges and the demand on the supplies cached in the depots necessary for the journey back north.  At some juncture on the trek south, many of the dogs would have to be put down.  Indeed, the bodies of those victims would feed their canine brothers and sisters, as well as the men.  Amundsen was frank about this calculus regarding his choice of the dog as his beast of burden – “[T]here is the obvious advantage that dog can be fed on dog.  One can reduce one’s pack little by little, slaughtering the feebler ones and feeding the chosen with them.”  (The South Pole, Volume 1, p. 58.)  It’s brutal mathematics but, once the expedition was set in motion, the death of most of the dogs was inevitable.

On October 26, 1911, Amundsen and 4 of his men left their depot at 80º south latitude with 4 sledges each being pulled by a team of 12 dogs.  The South Pole lay 600 miles to the south.  Of the 48 dogs that set forth that day, I believe only 12 made it back to Framheim on January 26, 1912.  Most of the dogs died at the hands of the men who had charge of their teams.  (Amundsen did not have a team, rather he sometimes acted as “forerunner,” leading the expedition and offering the dogs an object to follow in the white sameness).

From 80º south latitude, Amundsen followed his plan to run all of the dogs until the expedition traversed the Great Ice Barrier (Ross Ice Shelf) and found its way through the Transantarctic Mountains to the Polar Plateau, roughly two-thirds of the way to the Pole, with the worst of the hauling behind them.  When they stopped on November 21st on the Polar Plateau, the number of dogs was down to 42 dogs, a half dozen having either wandered off or been killed for certain “transgressions” (such as coming into a heat, an event drastically disruptive to the functioning of a dog team).  Here on the Polar Plateau, at what came to be called the Butcher’s Shop Depot, each man in charge of a team of dogs had to kill a number of his dogs to bring the overall total number of dogs down to 18, a group that would be reorganized into 3 teams.  As Amundsen wrote in his account, “It was hard – but it had to be so.  We had agreed to shrink from nothing in order to reach our goal.”  (The South Pole:  An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,’ 1910- 1912, translated by A.G. Chater, Volume 2, 1913, p. 67.)  The Butcher’s Shop was a scene of massacre but also one of feast for dogs as well as men.  In addition to the nutrition provided, the fresh meat served to ward off scurvy for man and dog.  Later, more attrition occurred until just a dozen dogs made it back from the Pole.

Pictured below is Oscar Wisting at the South Pole with a team of the fortunate dogs.  (This picture is from Amundsen’s The South Pole, Volume 2.)

I am conflicted by the sacrifice of so many of Amundsen’s dogs to the achievement of his goal.  To suggest why, I offer a photograph of one of my beloved dogs, the one that came closest to exemplifying all of the traits Huntford ascribes to the Eskimo dog.  My dog purportedly had large dollops of Chow and Husky in her.

My first reaction on reading about the fate of Amundsen’s dogs was to assert, in my usual anthropomorphizing fashion (particularly when it comes to dogs),
Wait!  That’s not part of the contract struck by the first dogs and humans.
But the more I’ve read of the scientific literature on the evolution of wolves (Canis lupus) to dogs (Canis familiaris), and the initial domestication of protodogs, the less certain I am about the validity of my complaint.

Within scientific circles the consensus position appears to accept the wolf as the source of the dog.  Biologist Rodney L. Honeycutt makes this point in his succinct and informative article on the dog’s evolution (Unraveling the Mysteries of Dog Evolution, BMC Biology, Volume 8, Number 20, 2010.)  The strongest evidence for the wolf as the source is based on genetic analysis.  Bones from early dogs and wolves cannot be used to construct this evolutionary narrative because distinguishing among those bones is so often problematic.

Archaeological and genetic analyses have, as yet, failed to answer a number of important, related questions, including:  Did the dog originate once from a single stock of wolf, or more than once from multiple stocks?  Where did it originate?  When?

As Honeycutt observes, much of the available research to date supports the notion that dogs arose on multiple occasions from several wolf stocks, and that archaeological evidence suggests European or Middle Eastern points of origin.  Work on the genetic evidence is clearly proceeding apace, generating some fascinating, though contradictory results.  Some genetic analysis has posited the Middle East as a key point of origin for the dog (see Bridgett M. vonHoldt, et al., Genome-wide SNP and Haplotype Analyses Reveal a Rich History Underlying Dog Domestication, Nature, April 8, 2010).  Most recently, teams of researchers, in several studies analyzing the mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome of an array of dogs and wolves, have concluded that dogs originated just once, and the place of origin was in Asia, south of the Yangtze River (ASY), from a stock of several hundred wolves.  Their reading of their findings is based principally on the premise that canine genetic diversity should be greatest at the place or places of origin, and, indeed, these researchers found far greater canine genetic diversity in ASY than elsewhere.  (Jun-Feng Pang, et al., mtDNA Data Indicate a Single Origin for Dogs South of the Yangtze River, Less than 16,300 Years Ago, from Numerous Wolves, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Volume 26, Number 12, 2009; Z-L Ding, et al., Origins of Domestic Dog in Southern East Asia Is Supported by Analysis of Y-chromosome DNA, Heredity, Volume 108, 2012.)

I don’t have the background to assess such genetic studies, but I do recognize and enjoy debate and disagreement when I find it.  Honeycutt criticizes the ASY research because of an imbalance in the sampling – the number of canine DNA sequences analyzed far exceeded the number of wolf sequences.  “Such asymmetry in sampling of the wolf population is likely to bias any conclusions about origin.  Given the fact that wolves, dogs and other members of the genus Canis are inter-fertile, there is a high likelihood that dogs and wolves interbred subsequent to hybridization, thus complicating the derivation of the number of founders for dog lineages.”  (Honeycutt, p. 3)

In general, estimates of the timing of the dog’s origin varies depending upon whether the analysis is based on archaeological or molecular evidence.  Honeycutt cites a range of between 13,000 to 17,000 years ago for the former, and between 76,000 and 135,000 for the latter.  Though Pang’s report – see above – suggests an origin more recent than 16,300 years ago, it presumably conforms to Honeycutt’s contention that “most recent molecular studies embrace data provided by archaeological evidence.”  (Honeycutt, p. 3)

Nevertheless, disputes about places of origin and its timing should not obscure the fact that humans and dogs have had a longstanding relationship.
The dog was probably the first domesticated animal and the only one accompanying humans to every continent in ancient times and has therefore a central position in human history.  (Pang, p. 2849)
Juliette Clutton-Brock suggests that the forging of a hunting partnership between protodogs and humans may have marked the first element in the original canine-human “contract” (that’s my term, not hers).  (Origins of the Dog:  Domestication and Early History, in The Domestic Dog:  Its Evolution, Behavior, and Interactions With People, edited by James Serpell, 1995.)  Given where this post began, I find her discussion of the uses of dogs in Australia and North America to be particularly interesting.
For thousands of years, on the two continents of Australia and North America, the native peoples had dogs but no other domestic mammals until the arrival of Europeans.  Although the dog was never used for traction in Australia, as it was by the native Americans, it was greatly valued by the Aborigines as a hunting partner, companion, bedwarmer and occasional item of food.  (Clutton-Brock, p. 15, emphasis added)
To drive the point home even harder, I turn once more to Pang’s research article that posits an ASY point of origin.  In that piece, the authors go well beyond the reach of the genetic evidence they gathered and fashion a storyline for the initial domestication of wolves.  Rather than a contract struck between hunters – human and protodog – the authors suggest that the life-changing interaction came in a human society with sedentary aspects because “[i]t seems probable that some degree of sedentary life would have facilitated the wolf taming and domestication process.”  Not only was such a sedentary society forming in southeast Asia, more to the point, the authors note that southeast Asia has had a long historical tradition of eating dog.
It may therefore be speculated that the wolf was domesticated for its use as a source of food rather than for hunting, guarding, or companionship as mostly suggested, perhaps under influence of a European non-dog easting perspective.  (Pang, p. 2863)
Whoa, I didn’t see that coming.  But, upon some reflection, I suspect these researchers are incorrect with regard to the primary motivation for domestication.  The other sources of protodog’s value to humans would, in my European-biased view, far outweigh any of its value as food.  Writer Mark Derr in How the Dog Became the Dog:  From Wolves to Our Best Friends (2011) argues vehemently against the idea that wolves were domesticated for their food value.  Anyway, to my mind, it’s much easier to latch on to Clutton-Brock’s portrait of Australian Aborigines opting for all of the above in terms of their relationship to dogs.  Of course, that multi-faceted relationship developed long after the first dogs were domesticated.

In the final analysis, biased or not, I think killing and eating one’s canine companion lies outside the bounds of our mutual contract of interdependence.

The canine story I enjoyed most from Huntford’s account of the Amundsen race to the Pole (besides the fact that every time Amundsen and his men pitched their tent, they had to bank snow around it to keep the dogs from pissing on it) is actually a post-Antarctic one.  Wisting’s lead dog, The Colonel (presumably among those pictured above) survived the polar expedition and went on to live with Wisting in Norway.  Wisting wrote of his dog, “[H]e enjoyed his retirement with gusto.”  And there was the quiet side to The Colonel's old age when he would visit the Salvation Army.  “He sat outside their premises every evening in all kinds of weather and listened reverently to the speeches, songs and music.”  (As quoted in Huntford, p.461)  Of course, The Colonel’s story ends as nearly all dog stories do and, even after all of this, I wont go there.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Scientific Names from an Auction Catalogue ~ The Reach of an 18th Century Natural History Collection

I appreciate auction catalogues.  On occasion I participate in the online auctions of stereoviews that John Saddy runs.  A stereoview, one of more intriguing products of the early years of photography, is a card featuring two slightly shifted images of the same scene which appears to be in three-dimensions when viewed through a stereoscope.  Each of these auctions runs for several weeks, featuring several thousand stereoviews organized into sometimes more than 1,000 lots of various themes.  Each lot includes 1 or more stereoviews – some exceed 100.

The heart of each auction is its catalogue featuring a succinct description of the stereoviews in each lot, accompanied by photographs of at least a few of the views in each.  I’ve concluded that fashioning a successful catalogue, for any type of auction, is an art.  Indeed, poring over the contents of its catalogue can be more than half the fun of an auction.

When is an auction catalogue more than simply a means to the end of moving the merchandise?  How does one become, say, an important scientific resource?

Research on the 18th century naturalist Daniel Solander for my previous post led me to an auction in 1786 of a fabulous natural history collection, an auction with enduring consequences.

To set the stage, I need to consider that ever present, ever demanding, and often unwelcome companion to almost every fossil hunt – what might be called curating the finds.  No question, it can be a chore to prep, identify, label, describe, catalogue, store, and, sometimes, display the fossils that make it back from the field.  For obvious reasons, curating is a safeguard for the fossils.  Paleontologist Bretton Kent (Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994, p. 125) writes,
A curated collection, in its basic form, requires (1) labelled specimens, (2) an information system for collecting data, keyed to individual specimens, and (3) a secure, organized method of storage.  The integration of these three components is necessary to produce a study collection, rather than a mere accumulation of fossils.  (p. 125)
Though Kent distinguishes preparation from curation, I am inclined to add preparation into the mélange of curation activities because it’s such an integral part of doing right by your finds.  The American Museum of Natural History provides nicely detailed guidance on its website that takes the collector through the key steps for “managing fossil collections.”  Though targeted to museum collections, much of it is highly relevant for the amateur and his or her material.  Would that I could achieve the Museum’s standards.

Still, I try.

I spent part of a recent sultry April afternoon (with a high temperature nearly 30 degrees fahrenheit above the period’s average) taking some of the steps to curate thirteen fossil shells from the cliffs at Barton on Sea, England.  The fossils are a gift from a friend; one shell, Sycostoma pyrus, was the focus of the previous post on this blog.  These shells date from the Middle/Late Eocene (41 to 34 millions years ago).  I’ve photographed each and begun to enter identifying information into a database which will also include the images.  In the course of the afternoon, I moved the lot into plastic case, with each fossil now ensconced in a separate compartment.  I think most are too small to label directly, so each is also in small plastic bag with a loose identifying label inside and a comparable label affixed to the bag.  A meager but satisfying accomplishment.

At times I’ve thought it would be grand to be able to turn over the curating to someone else, someone with the necessary expertise and patience to identify, label, and describe my fossils.  But mine is a trivial accumulation of disparate, common fossils, hardly meriting such an investment – no scientific payoff from that.  But that was hardly the case for Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715 – 1785) whose collections of art and natural history specimens, including modern and some fossil varieties, simply staggers the imagination.  Many of the specimens, particularly the shells, were unknown scientifically.  She had the resources to have done what needed to be done.  Still, despite her wherewithal and good intentions, it didn’t all turn out the way she planned.

Born to a wealthy, prominent family (her father became the 2nd Earl of Oxford and her mother was the daughter of the 3rd Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne), Margaret married well (William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland (1709 – 1762)), outlived her husband, and amassed a huge fortune.  (For information on the Duchess of Portland, see, among other sources, Biography of Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), at the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections website.)

(This image is in the public domain and available on Wikipedia.)

Living in a highly intellectual, social environment, one that included such visitors as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she was an intelligent and, apparently, highly driven collector of art, antiques, and, above all, natural history specimens, particularly sea shells.  With vast financial resources, she gathered extensive collections.  But she sought to do more than that.  As historian Evan M. Gaughan concluded, the Duchess managed to navigate the contemporary constraints placed on women in the sciences and arts by bringing the public sphere (off limits to women) into her home (women’s domain).  Bulstrode House, her country estate, was, according to Gaughan, “the site of an elaborate natural history program.”  (Naturalists, Connoissuers [sic] and Classicists:  Collecting and Patronage as Female Practice in Britain, 1715 – 1825, Master’s Thesis, Indiana University, 2010, p. 13.)
An adroit networker with deep pockets, the Duchess understood the benefits that associations with professionally skilled, well-connected individuals could offer.  Patronage of such men afforded the Duchess unparalleled opportunities to develop her [natural history] cabinets, make valuable links within the exploratory and natural history communities, and enhance her scientific erudition.  (Gaughan, p. 14)
Her impulse to acquire overwhelmed her ability to have her collected objects described and catalogued.   Bulstrode was awash with her acquisitions.

At some point, Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, one of the most renowned scientists in England and a former protégé of Carl Linnaeus, took an interest in cataloguing the Duchess’ conchology collection.

(This image is in the public domain and available on Wikipedia.)

At least as early as 1765, the Duchess of Portland had swept Solander into her orbit.  Gaughan cited a letter English naturalist Peter Collinson (1694 – 1769) wrote to Linnaeus on May 1, 1765, in which he reported that “Dr. Solander  goes on very successfully at the [British] Musæum, and has been lately much engaged in surveying the Duchess of Portland’s Musæum, where there is a very great collection of shells and marine productions, gems and precious stones.”  (A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, and Other Naturalists From the Original Manuscripts, James Edward Smith, ed., 1821,  p. 65.)

Presumably it was after his return in 1771 from his nearly three-year journey on the first of Captain Cook’s voyages of exploration, that Solander began to work on the Duchess’ collection seriously, devoting one day a week, reportedly Tuesdays, to the task of describing and cataloguing.  This was in addition to his obligations at the British Museum where, by 1773, he had been made “keeper of the printed books,” as well as his responsibilities to Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), for whom he was librarian and curator of the Banks natural history collection.  Solander may have been prompted to invest his energy in the Portland collection because he contemplated updating the Linnaean Systema Naturae.  (See, The Collector’s Voice, Critical Readings in the Practice of Collecting, Volume 2, 2000, by Susan M. Pearce and Ken Arnold, p. 139-140.  They posited that his work on the collection began in 1778.)

Solander’s premature death in 1782, left many tasks unfinished, including the cataloguing of the Portland conchology collection.  The Duchess wanted Solander’s descriptions published but was thwarted by Solander’s friend and confidant Joseph Banks.  The Duchess died a scant three years later.

With her family uninterested in maintaining the incredible array of objects collected by the Duchess in her lifetime, and in need of cash to pay debts, all of the collections came up for auction.  With the dispersion of her collections, the “Portland Museum” ceased to exist.

The number of objects in the collections is incredible and the lion’s share appears to be natural history specimens, many of them shells.  A formal, published catalogue to the items up for auction was a necessity.  Published as A Catalogue of the Portland Museum, Lately the Property of The Duchess Dowager of Portland Deceased . . . ., the catalogue briefly described over 4,000 lots of items to be auctioned.  Though the catalogue stated that the auction was to run for a total of 38 days, the record of sales indicates it extended to a 39th day.  The auction raised over ₤11,500, a total that could be the equivalent of more than $1 million today.  (For what it’s worth, I used the conversion function at Eric Nye’s Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website.)

Shown below are the catalogue’s frontispiece suggesting the bounty at auction, and the title page.

According to the Portland Catalogue, a vast majority of the lots consisted of “Shells, Corals, Petrifactions, &c.” or some different combination of those terms.  Relying on the definitions in paleontologist Gideon Algernon Mantell’s Petrifactions and Their Teachings; or, A Hand-Book to the Gallery of Organic Remains of The British Museum (1851)  I suspect that the author of the catalogue was actually describing fossils when using the term “petrifactions.”  Still, it may not be that simple, since one block of 45 lots is specifically described as containing “Recent and Fossil Shells, Corals, &c.” – the only time the word “fossil” appears in the catalogue.  Anyway, since I have not traced every name and reference cited in the catalogue, I don't know the extent to which fossils actually appeared among the shells being auctioned, but it appears that nearly all of the specimens were from extant species.

Over the more than two centuries since its publication, the Portland Catalogue has taken on a number of roles, such as serving as an historical measure of the extent of one prominent 18th century English woman’s commitment to the study of natural history.  Over time, the catalogue has also assumed a scientific role, principally as a noteworthy resource for conchology taxonomy, a role not without some debate and controversy.  Central to this scientific function is how the Portland Catalogue described the contents of individual lots, particularly that of shells.  A fairly typical example is the entry for lot #1960 which reads as follows:
1960  A pair of undescribed species of Murex, Lister, 930, 25. and a fine Buccinum
               pustulosum, S. Rum.  49.  B.  rare
Focusing on the third shell listed for that lot, Buccinum pustulosum, we have several abbreviations to explain.  The list of abbreviations at the front of the catalogue states that an “S.” appearing after specific names “refers to a Manuscript Copy of Descriptions of Shells, made by the late Dr. Solander, now in the possession of Sir Joseph Banks . . . .”  “Rum.” refers to a text by Georgius Everhardus Rumphius titled “Thesaurus Cochlearum, Concharum, Conchyliorum, &c.,” published in 1739.  I do not know what the “B.” refers to – it is not listed among the abbreviations being used.  (At first I thought the “B.” might refer to Buccinum but it is used in other entries as well.)

Relatively soon after the catalogue’s publication, some of its new names began to appear in the scientific literature.  Ultimately, this raised questions.  Was the catalogue an appropriate taxonomic resource given that it did not actually provide a taxonomic description of the specimens?  Did the anonymity of its author compromise its taxonomic value?  Indeed, who was the unknown author whose taxonomic work was being recognized?

Several scientists took on these questions in papers published in the first two-thirds of the 20th century.  I’ll reference several of these here.

In 1916, Tom Iredale, Australian ornithologist and conchologist, assessed the taxonomic value of the Portland Catalogue and asserted in no uncertain terms that under the laws of taxonomy “anonymity is no bar to acceptance . . . .”  (Solander as a Conchologist, Proceedings of the Malacological Society, Vol. XII, November, 1916, p. 87.)  Further, he cited authorities supporting the position that the absence of descriptions was not fatal because “names accompanied by the citation of a published figure are perfectly valid and must be recognized . . . .”  (p. 87)  Iredale ascribed the many entries that met those criteria (names and citations to previously published work) to Solander because “I think that as Solander drew up the descriptions and named the specimens in the Portland Museum and ‘the Compiler’ [i.e., the author of the catalogue] simply saw that there was no discrepancy [,] the credit must belong to Solander.”  (p. 88)  He was agnostic as to who “the Compiler” might be.

I would note that a dip into the current edition of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the defining set of rules governing zoology taxonomy, turns up provisions reflecting Iredale’s understanding.  For names published prior to 1931, a new name need be accompanied only by an “indication” which is defined as “a bibliographic reference to a previously published description or definition . . . ."  (Article 12.2)  Further, Article 14 provides that anonymity in a work published before 1951 doesn’t preclude its availability under the Code.

In a piece published in 1921, paleontologist William Healey Dall was fully ready to accept the numerous new names from the catalogue that referenced published works.  He noted that the “anonymous editor of the Catalogue added a few names on his own account [in addition to those from Solander] and was apparently a conchologist of some note . . . .”  He ascribed all of those names in appropriate entries in the catalogue followed by an “S.” to Solander.  (Species Named in the Portland Catalogue:  I, American, and Molluscan Species Named in the Portland Catalogue, 1786, Part II, Foreign Species, The Nautilus, Volume XXXIV, 1921.)

Some 40 years later, conchologist S.P. Dance argued, apparently persuasively, in his article The Authorship of the Portland Catalogue (1786), that the unknown author was in fact the Reverend John Lightfoot (1735 – 1788), a botanist and conchologist, who worked extensively with the Duchess of Portland’s collection and served as her chaplain.  (Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, January, 1962, Vol. 4, No. 1 : pp. 30-34.)  (Unfortunately, I have been unable to access this key article, thwarted by a “paywall.”)

Malacologist E. Alison Kay described how Dance compared the Solander manuscript descriptions (which came into Banks’ possession on Solander’s death and then were given to the British Museum) with the Portland Catalogue, and showed that those names followed by an “S.” in the catalogue were not necessarily consistent with those in the manuscripts.  Dance concluded, according to Kay, that “a number of names bearing an ‘S.’ did not originate with Solander and to avoid confusion it may be preferable to attribute all of them to Lightfoot.”  (The Reverend John Lightfoot, Daniel Solander, and the Portland Catalogue, The Nautilus, Volume 79, Number 1, July 1965, p. 11.)  She endorsed this approach to the problem of authorship for the Portland names.  (I will do the same in the rest of this post, though it masks some ambiguity and, in several instances, may deprive Solander of some credit that should accrue to him.)

In a slightly later piece, Harald A. Rehder, Smithsonian malacologist, noted that most opposition to using the Portland Catalogue in taxonomy had fallen to the wayside, and the catalogue “is now generally considered a valid source of scientific names.”  (Valid Zoological Names of the Portland Catalogue, Proceedings of the United States National Museum, Volume 121, 1967.)

Among the many entries in the catalogue that Rehder cited as containing valid names is that for lot #1960 (presented above).  He outlined the taxonomic history for Buccinum pustulosum, noting that, although it was named Murex argus in 1791, the name Lightfoot had assigned to it previously had taxonomic precedence.  Later, the genus name was changed so that the species name for this gastropod, according to Rehder, was now “Argobuccinum pustulosum (Lightfoot, 1786).”  This was clearly in keeping with Dance’s proposal that all of the new names from the catalogue be attributed to Lightfoot, not Solander, a position certainly reflected today in the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS), an online database of extant marine species managed by taxonomists.

The image below is of an Argobuccinum pustulosum (Lightfoot, 1786) as presented in the Encyclopedia of Life (it is in the public domain, and posted on the web by Jan Delsing from his own collection).

A search of the WoRMS database reveals another 20 species names, in addition to that of Argobuccinum pustulosum, that are still attributed to Lightfoot, though his name appears in parentheses because some aspect of the names has changed in the ensuing 226 years.  Perhaps even more impressive are the additional 15 scientific names for genera, subgenera, species, subspecies, and varieties listed in the database derived directly from the 1786 auction catalog and attributed to Lightfoot.  No parentheses around the "Lightfoot, 1786" following those names.

What a delightful twist of fate that the demise by auction of the Duchess of Portland’s natural history collection ensured that its influence would live on.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Fossilia Hantoniensia, Daniel Solander, and Sycostoma pyrus ~ Translating Across Multiple Divides

The act of translation – the science and art of it – is often at the heart of my efforts to decipher the taxonomic histories of fossils that come my way.  And it extends beyond language.

David Bellos has written an engrossing and witty book on the possibilities and impossibilities of translation (there are few of the latter).  Is That a Fish in Your Ear?  Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011) addresses the translation of the oral and the written, the sacred (e.g., the Bible) and the profane (e.g., comics).  In the process, Bellos, Princeton University professor of French and comparative literature, as well as the director of the university’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, challenges the accepted wisdom about what transpires with translation, and asks and answers the fundamental questions (such as, what does it mean to translate).  One of his essential points is made relatively early on.
It’s a well-known fact that a translation is no substitute for original.
It’s also perfectly obvious that this is wrong.  Translations are substitutes for original texts.  You use them in place of work written in a language you cannot read with ease.  (p. 37)
Bellos’ title pays homage to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its Babel fish which performed instant translation of all of the universe’s languages if you stuck it in your ear.  I suspect Bellos forgot that the Babel fish turns out not to be a good thing.  Anyway, the Babel fish appears in one of my previous posts on scientific translation.

A friend recently gave me a small, graceful fossil shell from the Eocene gastropod Sycostoma pyrus (Solander, 1766).  Pursuit of its taxonomic history has taken me into a metaphorical landscape of unexpected crevasses, each dramatically different from the other, that threaten to swallow me unless I successfully translate my way across.  In the end, I didn’t do so well.

The fossil (pictured below) was found along the sea cliffs in Hampshire County, between Highcliffe and Barton on Sea, on the south coast of England, and dates from 41 to 34 million years ago.  It is 31 mm in length (at bit more than 1.2 inches).

On of the first fractures to bar my path was the shell’s original Latin description published in 1766 in Fossilia Hantoniensia Collecta, Et In Musæo Britannico Deposita, a Gustavo Brander.  (Several copies of the volume are available on the web.  I’ve used the one at this link.)  I translate the title as Hampshire Fossils Collected, and Deposited in the British Museum, by Gustavus Brander.  This particular volume holds a revered place in paleontological history.  According to the British Museum, it was the “first to describe a collection of fossils using the new biological classification devised by Carl Linnaeus.”

The collector, Gustavus Brander (1720 – 1787), born in London to a Swedish family, was a successful businessman who rose to become a director of the Bank of England.  His income and a large inheritance enabled him to indulge his eclectic interests which included natural history.  He became a fellow of the Royal Society and a curator of the British Museum.  (See the “Gustavus Brander” entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, Volume VI, edited by Leslie Stephen, 1886.)

Brander wrote Fossilia Hantoniensia’s delightful preface.  The four pages are arranged in two columns, the left hand side a Latin version, the right hand an English version.  (In which language the preface was first written isn’t clear –  Brander, as other educated individuals of his time, may have had the ability to compose in Latin.)  In addition to an excellent description of the cliffs from which the fossils were collected, the preface offers a brief discussion of the origins of fossils, a treatment which seems somewhat unenthusiastic about the “Deluge” and particularly doubtful about the process through which fossils end up in the midst of rock (“upon the whole I am apt to think this affair will for ever remain a mystery,” p. iv)  (In this and all other quotations from the volume, I’ve attempted to replace the ubiquitous f’s with s’s where I thought appropriate, as in “myftery.”)  Brander thanks “the learned and ingenious Dr. Solander, one of the Officers of the British Museum,” for his scientific descriptions of the fossils which appear in the body of the volume.

What I find amusing about the preface is how it speaks directly to my translation travails.  The side-by-side Latin and English versions of the preface were a welcome introduction to the volume.  Brander states that he would have given the same treatment to the scientific descriptions, except he found English to be inadequate to the task.
[A]s the Subject [fossils] had never yet been treated Scientifically in the English Tongue, I found of course too many Difficulties in giving a literal Translation of the learned Terms . . . . (p. v – vi)
A challenge to be sure – use the terms without translation, attempt to convey them in mundane terms in the “English Tongue,” coin new words, or just punt.  Brander chose the last and the scientific descriptions of his fossils written by Daniel Solander appear solely in Latin.  But, not to worry, continues Brander.  That isn’t much of a limitation for the present volume because
the Study of Natural History in general, is rarely attempted, but by such as are in some degree acquainted with the Latin . . . .
But, for those poor souls unable to navigate in Latin, Brander adds,
I thought this Preface in the Vulgar Tongue, and the Accuracy of the Drawings might be sufficiently satisfactory to those who are wanting in that particular.  (p. vi)
Ah, if only I could be content with the drawings and the little bit in the vulgar tongue.

The man behind the scientific descriptions in the book, the “learned and ingenious” Dr. Solander (1733 – 1782), had come to England from Sweden in 1760, sent by the preeminent naturalist Carl Linnaeus whose remarkable Systema Naturae brought an order to scientific taxonomy in part through its binomial nomenclature.  Solander arrived in response to a request British naturalists Peter Collinson (1694 – 1769) and John Ellis (1710? – 1776) made to Linnaeus, asking for his best student who could provide assistance in bringing the Linnaean Systema Naturae to England.

Even as I positioned myself to bridge the Latin to English chasm of the fossil description, I had to cross bothersome gaps in the path, gaps that required a kind of translation that is of no interest to Bellos because it wasn't one of language.  These were the recurrent challenges any writer of history faces – distinguishing fragments of facts from perhaps-not-facts and canards about a person or an event, and then translating, if you can, what you've come to believe into a faithful representation of that person or event.

(I consulted various sources for my portrait of Solander, but historian Roy Anthony Rauschenberg's extensively detailed article, Daniel Carl Solander:  Naturalist on the “Endeavour” (Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 58, Number 8, 1968) proved invaluable.)

Solander, himself, poses an interesting challenge for the translation of historical research into a life.  The available facts really aren’t in dispute (though the rendition of his middle name is a moveable feast).  Instead, it's that translation step, the act of interpreting, that looms large.  As noted, Solander left Sweden as a young man on a mission from his teacher Carl Linnaeus.  That he accomplished that mission is without doubt – he was a successful advocate of the Linnaean system, and, as he applied the system to the natural history collection in the British Museum and those in private hands in England (Brander, for example), he rose to the top of the ranks of English scientists.  Rauschenberg concludes that Solander “was a leading, if not the leading, botanist in England in the 1760’s and 1770’s.”  (p. 6)  From what I’ve read, it seems an accurate assessment.  That’s not actually the difficulty in trying to capture Solander on paper.

Rather, the nub of the matter is his commitment to his work.  Shortly after his arrival in London, Solander was employed cataloguing plants at the British Museum, ultimately rising to become “keeper of the printed books” at the institution.  Nominated for the Royal Society, he was admitted in 1764.  He circulated widely in English scientific circles.  On occasion he joined the visiting American Benjamin Franklin, once participating in an experiment to see the effects of oil on rough water.  His close friendship with Sir Joseph Banks, a committed amateur natural historian, influenced the course of much of Solander’s adult life.  When the government commissioned a ship, the HMS Endeavour commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, to travel to the South Seas to observe Venus’ transit across the sun in June, 1769, Banks bought his way on board with a retinue of artists and aides.  Solander asked to join him, and so spent almost three years sailing around the world collecting thousands of natural history specimens.  He later became Banks’ private librarian and curator, living in his London home.

Appears to me to be a full, productive life, but Solander’s scientific vita includes very little published under his own name – a couple of articles and a booklet.  More damning, Solander and Banks never managed to get into print the drawings and descriptions of the specimens brought home from that first Cook voyage of exploration.  Some writers have also made much of Solander’s limited correspondence with Linnaeus, which often prompted Linnaeus to write others in England inquiring about Solander and requesting that they ask Solander to write.  The request that Linnaeus made to Ellis on behalf of Solander’s mother is a classic – she hadn’t heard from him in several years.  It is undisputed that Solander loved to socialize and made room in his life for a wide circle of friends, many of them fellow scientists.  That predilection coupled with the lack of published work lie behind disparaging assessments of the man, such as this one in the Dictionary of National Biography:
[T]he attractions of London society in which his agreeable manners made him popular, and a constitutional indolence prevented his accomplishing much that he might have done.  (Entry for “Daniel Charles Solander,” Volume LIII, 1898, p. 212.)
Rauschenberg strikes a strong revisionist note in his portrait of the scientist, arguing that any suggestion that Solander was lazy is a mischaracterization and needs to be laid to rest.  He stresses that Solander’s work was often for others, citing one source that identified 66 works featuring some contribution from him.  Further, Rauschenberg points to the many collections Solander described and catalogued, such as those of the British Museum, Banks’ museum, the Kew Gardens, and the Duchess of Portland.  His catalogues in manuscript are extensive.  (p. 13)

But, against the standards his contemporaries might have used to gauge productivity, Solander may have come up short.  Still, those same individuals also recognized his vast knowledge and actual assistance to their efforts.  On the one hand, naturalist Peter Collinson, one of those who petitioned Linnaeus for a disciple to spread his system to England, wrote to the American botanist John Bartram (1699 – 1777) on September 19, 1765, regarding some specimen’s Bartram had previously asked about.  Observed Collinson in this letter,
Doctor Solander is a strange, idle man.  I cannot get thy spring specimens from him, is the reason thou hears nothing from me, about them.  (Rauschenberg, p. 25)
On the other hand, in another letter to Bartram two years later, Collinson mentions some specimens Bartram had collected and remarks,
If I have time, I will give thee Dr. Solander’s observations on them, who is a very acute botanist, little inferior to Linnaeus, and not only in Botany, but in all branches of Natural History.”  (Rauschenberg, p. 25)
After casting about for a firm reading of this aspect of Solander’s life, I find myself in Solander’s camp – not that of his critics or his strong advocates.  I applaud the balance that he fashioned for himself – a life of work and play.  I am persuaded in this regard by the comments made by his great friend Joseph Banks as he memorialized the recently deceased Solander in a letter.
Solander’s mode of living in England you know as well as I.  During the brightest part of the day he honored botany; but his proclivity for companionship never allowed him to return to the museum at night.  Even if he had sought that action his countless friends would not have allowed it.  (Roy Rauschenberg, A Letter of Sir Joseph Banks Describing the Life of Daniel Solander, Isis, Volume 55, Number 1, March, 1964, p. 66)
Would that we could all strike such a balance.

What of Solander’s description of Sycostoma pyrus?  Actually, that full name isn't in Fossilia Hantoniensia.  It was Solander's name (in parentheses) in the full scientific name attached to the shell as it came to me that led to the work, but the parentheses indicated the scientific name had changed since he'd first described it in 1766.  The British Museum website on the Gustavus Brander collection confirmed that Fossilia Hantoniensia was the book in which the name had first appeared and indicated that Sycostoma pyrus was the modern name.  Enough to start with.  [This paragraph is a sorely needed later edit.]

Here is the Murex sycostoma description as it is in the original Latin (I’ve changed f’s meriting conversion to s’s – capitals, small capitals, and italics are as they are in the original):
MUREX (Pyrus) testa ovata læviuscula, anfractibus supra concavis, apertura lævi, cauda brevi.
TESTA magnitudine admodum variat, interdum vix uncialìs, interdum ovum anserinum æquat, læviuscula est.
SPIRA in junioribus magis protracta seu exquisita:  Anfractibus supra canaliculo obtuso exaratis.
APERTURA oblong, lævis.  Columella crassiuscula.
CAUDA brevis, aperta.
As I have done previously, I turned to Google Translate (GT) for the magical conversion into English.  Bellos in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is remarkably keen on GT which applies brute strength to accomplish its translation feats.  As he describes the program,
It uses vast computing power to scour the Internet in the blink of an eye looking for the expression in some text that exists alongside its paired translation. . . . Drawing on the already established patterns of matches between these millions of paired documents, GT uses statistical methods to pick out the most probably acceptable version of what’s been submitted to it.  Much of the time, it works.  It’s quite stunning.  (p. 254)
Well, judge for yourself how well it did translating Solander’s description.  In all fairness, GT offers alternatives for many of the suggested translations and, following Bellos admonition that “you should never use GT to translate into a language you do not know very well,” a few of those alternatives do remove some of the silliness generated initially.  Here’s that first pass, warts and all.
ROCK (Pear) shell læviuscula ovate, concave bends over, opening his left, a short tail.
HUD size varies greatly, sometimes barely uncialìs, at times, levels of goose egg, is læviuscula.
ROLL in our youth program, or more exquisite, bends over the gutter obtuse letters.
APERTURE oblong, smooth. Columella thick.
TAIL short, it was open.
Not quite “stunning” – to wit, “Roll in our youth program.”

Despite the glaring limits of this first pass, it was a starting point.  I identified the couple of strictly technical terms that didn’t need translating (i.e., Murex pyrus and columella – the axis around which a shell’s whorls rotate), chose some of the suggested GT alternatives, consulted Thomas McCarthy’s Inflected Digital Latin Dictionary (Version 1, July 10, 2011), turned to the online site Glosbe – Multilingual Online Dictionary a couple of times, and came up with this:
MUREX (Pyrus) – shell smooth and ovate, hollow whorls on the top, opening smooth, a short tail.
SHELL size varies greatly, sometimes barely an inch, sometimes the size of a goose egg, it is smooth.
SPIRE among juveniles more extended or refined: Whorls on the top have obtuse grooves.
APERTURE oblong, smooth.  Columella thick.
TAIL short, open.
Not great and, yes, I also took some liberties with some of the words, but I think this probably conveys much of the information Solander intended.  For the moment, let me avoid the issue of the translation of the genus name – from Murex to Sycostoma.

It’s important at this juncture to see the illustrations in Fossilia Hantoniensia for this shell (figures 52 and 53 on plate IV).  (I am always struck by how, in many of these early taxonomic works, the artist behind the drawings and engravings goes unmentioned.  In this instance, beyond the fact that each plate bears the name Green in the lower right hand corner, there is no reference to the artist.  Martin J.S. Rudwick posits this was Benjamin Green (Bursting the Limits of Time:  The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, 2005, p. 67).  I don’t know who he was; it’s a name I will leave for perhaps a later date.)  The Murex pyrus specimen is depicted in the two large shells in this portion of plate IV.

I tumbled early to the fact that there’s something wrong here, the illustrations bear only a faint resemblance to the fossil shell I have.  Fortunately, soon after, I came across Alan Morton’s fantastic website dedicated to fossils from this part of England.  It clarified a key portion of  Solander’s description of Murex pyrus, the part in the initial GT pass that begins “Roll in our youth program.”

Morton’s website, titled A Collection of Eocene and Oligocene Fossils, offers detailed, precise images of the bivalves, gastropods, vertebrates, and other taxa that might be found in five rock strata or clusters of strata here – Hamstead-Bembridge-Osborne Beds, Headon Beds, Barton Beds, Bracklesham Beds, and London Clay.  And it is amid the pictures of gastropods from the Barton Beds that I found images of a mature Sycostoma pyrus (68 mm in length) and, most significantly, a juvenile of the same species (34 mm).  These images are reproduced below with Alan Morton’s permission and can be found at this page on his website.  The image of the mature specimen is first.

These images make it clear – Green’s illustrations of the Murex pyrus in Fossilia Hantoniensia are of a mature gastropod shell.  Mine is that juvenile with the more extended or refined spire.  For better or worse, that first adjective from Solander’s description of the juvenile spire – extended – is one of those for which I exercised some license, particularly after considering the mature and juvenile specimens on Morton’s site.

With all of that now behind me, what of the taxonomic quest that launched this posting in the first place?  How did the scientific name applied by Solander in 1766 evolve over the intervening nearly 250 years into the name by which we know it now?

Not much success on this front.  It is reassuring that Morton notes that Sycostoma pyrus has also been known as Sycum pyrus, Leiostoma pyrus, and Murex pyrus.  But, though the link between Sycostoma pyrus and Murex pyrus is real, the various pieces of the taxonomic puzzle that I’ve managed to accumulate so far remain, I hate to say it, Greek to me.  I cannot translate those pieces into a coherent taxonomic history, though I continue to try.

One final translation note in closing.  Roy Rauschenberg’s article about Joseph Banks’ letter memorializing Solander presents the text of the letter in English.  Well, it’s a version of the letter, not actually the English text Banks wrote.  Banks composed his thoughts about his dear friend’s life in England at the behest of Johan Alstroemer, president of the Swedish Royal Scientific Society.  An edited version of the letter was published as part of an article in Swedish in early 1785; a German version was published later in 1785.  Rauschenberg notes,
Surprisingly, in light of Banks’s position [president of the Royal Society], neither the original letter nor the article ever appeared in English.  The following version is accordingly an English translation of a German translation of a Swedish translation of an English original no longer extant.  Thus, while it conveys Banks’s meaning, his actual words may well have been different.  (A Letter of Sir Joseph Banks, p. 63)
Yes, it is a substitute for the original.
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