Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ask a Simple Question

Sitting on a bookshelf next to my desk at home is a jar filled with about 30 grams of washed and screened sediment from the Oxford Clay Formation, collected at a lakeside site just northeast of Yaxley, Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom.  This is Late Jurassic in age – roughly 160 million years ago.  This sample of sediment is a recent purchase from UKGE Limited, a Suffolk, UK company with an amazing array of geology and paleontology supplies (the best restraint for overindulging in UKGE’s stock is the fact that shipping costs to the U.S. come close to doubling the price of what it has to sell).  The jar cost ₤4.95, or $7.81 USD.  Add in the shipping costs and I may have spent $15.60, give or take a bit, for the jar.  In my defense, my 30 grams is still cheaper than gold (at current prices, 30 grams of gold is about $52).

I have examined merely a pinch of this material and, unless I want to make this my sole occupation for the foreseeable future, I will have to become more selective as I go.  Foraminifera and ostracodes abound, as do tiny gastropods, and fragments of bone and shell.  Just to give a flavor of what this sediment contains, here is a picture of several foraminifera from that pinch of material and a close-up of one of the specimens.  These are all less than 1 millimeter across.

I tentatively identify these as Lenticulina muensteri which reportedly are normally quite variable in appearance.  (Though neither article is precisely on point regarding the formation in question, my identification relies on the illustrations in a couple of articles by W.A. Gordon – Some Foraminifera From the Ampthill Clay, Upper Jurassic, of Cambridgeshire, Palaeontology, Vol. 4, Part 4, 1961, and Foraminifera from the Corallian Beds, Upper Jurassic, of Dorset, England, Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 39, No. 5, September, 1965.  His illustrations of L. muensteri are pretty persuasive.)

Of mine and of any microfossils, Giles Miller, the Curator of Micropalaeontology at the Natural History Museum, London, asks in one of his blog posts a simple question,
How much is a microfossil worth?
Parenthetically, I would note that Miller’s blog is about his work with microfossils, and he pens posts that inform and entertain, really all that one might ask of a natural history blog, and with micropaleontology as his focus, he’s feeding my current paleontological obsession.

His lead question is a great one but his discussion reflects the ambiguities and difficulties of fashioning an answer.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that, in the final analysis, Miller’s answer seems to be, “It depends.”  He approaches the issue as the curator of these tiny fossils with a focus on assigning “a monetary value on microfossils,” (emphasis should be placed on monetary).  It’s a perspective that is perhaps a wee bit narrow for me.  Further, as Miller considers worth he mixes price, cost, and value.  They’re not the same thing, but I don’t think trying to be anally retentive about them is worth the effort.  And, frankly, everyone is fairly lax when using them, except, perhaps, economists.

Miller begins to answer to his lead question by asking another, “Why value?”  That is, why assign a value to a microfossil (or any other natural history specimen) in the first place?  His answer encompasses insurance, guidance for acquisitions, and defense (“remind funding bodies about the value of the collections in our care”).

He follows one good question with another – “Is there a market value?” –  which he answers affirmatively by describing his discovery that microfossils can be bought in a straight forward transaction on the web (as I know) or sometimes in an eBay auction.  That’s it for his explicit treatment of the market.  That’s a shame.  Markets are important because you need exchanges to determine price, and, besides, I have to assume that the market on the web isn’t the one he’s actually interested in.  Particularly, since, from my own experience I know ignorance is one mechanism at strong play in that market.  That was highlighted by a recent message posted on a natural history discussion forum in its identification section by someone looking for an ID of some kind of sea urchin (not a fossil, but the point made here is still the same).  I’ve excluded the picture that accompanied it, but retained the original spelling and syntax:  “I actually purchased this item on ebay, so I have no knowledge about it's history, my guess is that it is from the UK shores, but I cannot guarantee that of course.”

No, the market I assume that Miller would be most concerned about is a scientific market, or, perhaps to be more precise, a marketplace accessed by museum curators of micropaleontology.  There are other markets, formal or otherwise, and other types of potential buyers and sellers that could put a price tag on microfossils.  These markets are composed of different combinations of participants with different interests whose willingness to spend on the same microfossil specimen may vary dramatically.  Totally clueless buyers will pay a price for a specimen that differs from that agreed to by impassioned (and mildly informed) amateur collectors, and that price may well differ from one derived by scientific professionals, which, in turn, will differ from that drawn out of thin air (and the misinformed biases) of politicians sitting in an appropriations committee markup debating funding for, say, the Smithsonian, . . . .  I would like to have learned more about the marketplaces that curators of micropaleontology actually participate in.

The additional questions Miller raises address replacement costs, history of the specimen (e.g., a fossil Darwin collected presumably has added value), and scientific import – all factors that are likely to be among those influencing any market for microfossils.  His discussion suggests how difficult it is to determine how to assess them, or, put another way, how easy it might be to manipulate one’s assessment of those factors.  Take replacement costs – one could estimate what the entire operation that generated a specific specimen required in terms of outlay (travel, recovery, preparation, curation, etc.) or, more reasonably perhaps, figure out just the added costs of finding that specimen.  But what of specimens from sites that are no longer accessible (covered over by a shopping mall, for example)?  Even if the same kind of specimen could be had from other sites, is there some value associated with those that come from an unreachable site?  What of type specimens – those first-finds that were the basis of the original published descriptions?  That type specimen status carries great value in some markets and to some people, though sometimes the type specimen is vastly inferior to subsequent finds of the same kind of fossil.  What’s the added value of a fossil collected by Darwin?  It all gets so problematic.  Letting the market resolve these issues isn’t responsive since we have to figure out which market accessed by which combination of parties.

And I come back to that web market Miller discovered.  In addition to eBay as an arbiter of worth, he learned that “you can buy a whole jar of sand including literally thousands of microfossils for ₤1.49 – significantly less than one pence per individual specimen.”  At a recent exchange rate, that ₤1.49 is $2.35 USD.  Possibly a better deal than the one I struck with UKGE, though the volume of Miller’s jar of sand is unstated.

So, what are the microfossils in his jar or my jar worth?  He approaches that by dividing the price paid for the jar of sand by the number of microfossils recovered.  But that’s not a reasonable thing for me to do because I may never know precisely how many microfossils are in my jar (and does a bone fragment of less than a millimeter in length count as a microfossil for this calculation?).  What else should be factored in?  The time invested, overhead costs, commonness and rarity of the finds?  Miller addresses that kind of multifaceted calculation.
Some species in the ₤1.49 jar of microfossils may be 10 to a penny but for others there may be only one example in the jar.  Time taken for an expert to look through the residue under a microscope and provide an identification should also be built into any valuation in this instance.  A rare specimen in this jar may well be worth far more than ₤1.49 as a result.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I was left a bit dissatisfied by Miller’s post.  As I noted at the outset, it seemed to be built on too narrow a perspective, even if he did consider a wide range of factors that might influence that determination of “worth.”  To see if I could identify the root of my discontent I decided to read up on price and value.  All that I had at hand was a 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica (the best my summer cottage had to offer and, besides, I wanted to turn real pages).  In addition to confirming that Miller was creating a melange of price, cost, and value, it offered the following (written by philosopher Wilbur Marshall Urban):
The economic theory of value made its first scientific steps by abandoning the notion of value, whether in use or exchange, as an objective quality inherent in the thing, and conceiving it as the function of the relation of the object to satisfaction of desire.  (p. 962 of Volume 22.)
That’s the key – “satisfaction of desire.”  (Admittedly I didn’t really study the Britannica offerings – the mind did wander – isn’t it time for the beach?)  Though microfossils are not, under nearly any circumstances, among those things that money absolutely cannot buy (they’re not a “priceless” thing as described in those MasterCard ads), I raise another simple question regarding the worth of microfossils whose answer may contribute to what price I would assign to (but not necessarily be able to pay for) microfossils, but which is not susceptible to any sort of cold, hard calculation and which is inherently psychological:
What do they mean to me?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Digression ~ Microfossils and Life Among Facts

On the evening of August 26, 1868, biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895) raised high the microfossil in a lecture titled On A Piece of Chalk which he delivered to a group of men from the “operative classes” (i.e., workingmen) of Norwich, England.  This masterful piece of exposition took its listeners from the quotidian (a piece of chalk) to the profound (an understanding of geological and biological processes on an old earth).  It remains one of best examples of popular science writing, flowing easily and succinctly, drawing in the listener (and reader) on a mutual exploration with the speaker.  We are, indeed, on this journey with Huxley; this is no pronouncement from the citadels of science.  (Full disclosure:  Huxley's status in my pantheon of heroes continues to rise and rise.  What an impressive and impassioned intellect.)

National Public Radio science correspondent Robert Krulwich introduced me to this lecture in a post on his blog Krulwich Wonders . . . .  The post, titled Thinking Too Much About Chalk, is an interesting and eminently readable discussion of chalk, focused primarily on the conceit of Huxley’s lecture – that, from a study of a piece of chalk, one can logically derive fundamental scientific understanding.

How could I not find Huxley's lecture appealing with microfossils front and center, playing the critical role?  He described for his Norwich audience the chemical nature of chalk by illustrating how it behaves under circumstances his listeners would probably appreciate – when it is burned or when it is powdered and dropped into vinegar.  But, he went deeper, into the heart of the matter, explaining what one would see if this rock were examined under a microscope.
The general mass of it is made up of very minute granules; but, imbedded in this matrix, are innumerable bodies, some smaller and some larger, but, on a rough average, not more than a hundredth of an inch in diameter, having a well-defined shape and structure.
(I bristled a bit at how easy Huxley seems to make the process of disaggregating the “bodies” from the “matrix.”  As any reader of this blog knows, that’s certainy not been my experience washing sedimentary material to free microfossils from matrix – see this earlier post for example.)

Then he told his listeners what those “innumerable bodies” looked like under the microscope:
[E]ach of the rounded bodies may be proved to be a beautifully-constructed calcareous fabric, made up of a number of chambers, communicating freely with one another.  The chambered bodies are of various forms.  One of the commonest is something like a badly-grown raspberry, being formed of a number of nearly globular chambers of different sizes congregated together.
Huxley identifies the organism creating these bodies as Globigerina, a genus of foraminifera.  (The photo above is of a shell from Globigerina juvenilis Bolli and was downloaded from the Smithsonian website.  It has catalog number USNM PR 5617.  This isn’t a species from the Cretaceous when the chalk formations in England such as the White Cliffs of Dover were laid down, but you get the idea of what the misshapened “raspberries” look like.)

Well, to be even more exact about the genus Huxley identified for his audience, it is Globigerina d’Orbigny, 1826.  (Amazing how insular all of this is.  D’Orbigny is the subject of a previous post.)

It’s these forams in the chalk that enabled Huxley to use a piece of the rock to reconstruct the geological upheavals of the distant past, taking his listeners back to a time when a great sea covered England and Europe, among other places, and the tiny shells of these creatures (and the products of other organisms) very slowly accumulated into great masses on the sea floor, creating raw chalk.

Huxley asserted that the granules in the rock, those which bound it all together, were inorganic, despite having “definite form and size.”  These he named coccoliths.  These coccoliths, he noted, had been found assembled in spheres – coccospheres, “the nature of which is extremely puzzling and problematical.”

In cutting a corner and, I think, to his discredit, Krulwich suggest that in 1868 Huxley understood that the center of his story about chalk were the coccoliths and that he knew them to be products of once living organisms – wrong on both counts.  It particularly grieves me that, in doing so, Krulwich drops forams from the picture entirely.  For Huxley, the primary materials in the chalk created by ancient organisms were the shells of forams and the value of the forams was the tale they told of marine life in an ancient sea.  Were there no forams in chalk, Huxley would probably not have written this piece about chalk, at least not in 1868.

(In a footnote appearing in the printed version of the lecture, as published in the 1908 edition of Discourses:  Biological & Geological that I read (Volume VIII of Collected Essays), Huxley states categorically, I "no longer doubt that they [coccoliths] are produced by independent organisms, which, like the Globigerinae, live and die at the bottom of the sea."  I've traced this footnote back at least to 1886.)

Though coccoliths are, in fact, also produced by living creatures and, indeed, make up the bulk of organically produced remains in chalk, the tale they tell is the same as the one Huxley told.

Krulwich also plays it a bit loose when he states that coccoliths are “single-celled phytoplankton algae.”  Well, that’s not quite right.  Coccoliths are the plates produced by coccolithopores, the actual planktonic organism in question.  (See, Bringing Fossils to Life, by Donald Prothero, 1998, p. 207 et seq., and Microfossils by Howard A. Armstrong and Martin D. Brasier, 2005, second edition, p. 129 et seq.)

(This wonderful picture of a Gephrocapsa oceanica was taken by NEON ja and colored by Richard Bartz.  It is reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license and is available on Wikipedia.  This is an extant species of coccolithopore.)

I suppose I’m sniping at Krulwich because I envy the flow of his post.  It’s a good read, despite my quibbles.  That said, I have still another nit to pick and a more expansive (digressive) observation.

I don’t understand the title he gave his piece.  Might it be taken to be mocking Huxley, the man of science, for imbuing a piece of chalk with such value?  Though that's certainly not a perspective reflected in Krulwich’s essay itself.  Puzzling.

Finally, other than noting it, Krulwich does little with, what for me is a key context for Huxley’s lecture – that he was addressing the workers of Norwich.  This kind of lecture was near and dear to Huxley; it had value for many reasons.  Not the least of which was the income derived from it (I assume Huxley was paid for this specific lecture).  Not coming from a well-to-do family, he usually had to cobble together a living from writing articles, lecturing, and teaching.

But the value was not only monetary.  In the preface to the 1894 edition of Man’s Place in Nature (as quoted in Life and Letters of  Thomas Henry Huxley, Volume 1 by Leonard Huxley, 1913), he explained one of the roles lectures such as these played for him.
Some experience of popular lecturing had convinced me that the necessity of making things clear to uninstructed people was one of the very best means of clearing up the obscure corners in one’s own mind.  (p. 259)
That squares with my belief that, unless you can explain something to the uninitiated, you don’t really know it.

Further, Huxley inveighed against the label “popular” for the many lectures he delivered over the years to workingmen, preferring to call them “people’s” lectures (admittedly,  he was not consistent in this regard).  These were the people.  He delivered these science talks to workers because they brought to these topics, not an academic, but a real world perspective and real world experience.  As he wrote in 1855, “I am sick of the dilettante middle class, and mean to try what I can do with these hard-handed fellows who live among facts.”  (Letter to Dr. Frederick Dyster, February 27, 1855, Life and Letters, p. 199.)  Indeed, that “life among facts” was at the heart of Huxley’s very approach to science – apply common sense while you go where the facts lead.

Huxley was a recognized educational reformer having been elected to the first School Board of London.  I have only begun to read what he had to say and do about education but, of the educational system he saw around him in mid-19th century England, it’s clear he had little patience.  About the education received by the middle and upper classes, of which the English were so proud, his tone is deeply sarcastic.  Reformers, he said in a lecture on January 4, 1868, to the South London Working Men's College,
ask whether the richest of our public [private] schools might not well be made to supply knowledge, as well as gentlemanly habits, a strong class feeling, and eminent proficiency in cricket.  They seem to think that the noble foundations of our old universities are hardly fulfilling their functions in their present posture of half-clerical seminaries, half racecourses, where men are trained to win a senior wranglership, or a double-first, as horses are trained to win a cup, with as little reference to the needs of after-life in the case of the man as in that of the racer.  (A Liberal Education; And Where To Find It, Lay Sermons, Addresses, And Reviews, 1893, p. 29.)
As for his view of the then current state of the education of the working classes, one detects a note of anger.  He describes the various reasons that so many people at the time, including the clergy and men of business, were questioning the educational system in England, and observes that a “few voices” promote a “doctrine that the masses should be educated because they are men and women with unlimited capacities of being, doing, and suffering, and that is as true now, as ever it was, that the people perish for lack of knowledge.”  This minority of voices is one, Huxley notes, “with whom I confess I have a good deal of sympathy.”  (p. 28.)

At the heart of the reform that Huxley promoted for all of British society was an understanding of “the laws of Nature” conceived broadly.  As he observed in A Liberal Education,
education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affection and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws.  (p. 32.)
Embedded in that last observation is a social reform perspective that I don’t quite understand.  It is more bluntly stated elsewhere.  For example, in the 1855 letter to Dyster, Huxley wrote
I want the working classes to understand that Science and her ways are great facts for them – that physical virtue is the base of all other, and that they are to be clean and temperate and all the rest – not because fellows in black with white ties tell them so, but because these are plain and patent laws of nature which they must obey “under penalties.”  (as quoted in Life and Letters, p. 199)
This gross characterization of the working class (that its members are intemperate and unclean, and presumably not virtuous) leaves me a bit uneasy.  And exactly how might an understanding of the forces of Nature, as learned through a lecture on chalk, change such circumstances?  What “penalties?”  That they will lead nasty, brutish, and short lives?  Curious.  Still, for Huxley, the microfossils in chalk were a gateway to such knowledge and so, in his view, potentially, to better lives.

Of course, discussing why Huxley was addressing this particular audience would have been a digression for Krulwich, but I guess my standards are different, reflected by the fact that many of my posts are mostly digressions.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Voyages of Discovery Sometimes Open Minds

For the past several weeks, I’ve been on an island, a big, very long one.  It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Long Island, New York, is an island.  Crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge is perhaps the clearest signal for me that this product of the last ice age is separate from the mainland.  Each summer I undertake a little voyage of discovery to this island’s flora and fauna, particularly the wildflowers along the lanes of the North Fork and the invertebrates whose shells decorate Flanders Bay.  (I have written several posts on this part of the island, including one about examining some of the shells in Flanders Bay by touch.)

But this island and my explorations bear little resemblance to the lands of the southern hemisphere and grand sagas of exploration described in a beautiful piece of historical writing that I just recently read.  There are a few books that must be shared and Darwin’s Armada:  Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution (2009) is one of them.  Written by historian Iain McCalman (University of Sydney), this is a masterfully and succinctly told story of four sea voyages that reshaped modern scientific thinking.  Four young Britons in the first half of the 19th century set sail for southern lands in search of adventure and discovery on voyages that served to awaken their latent scientific brilliance and propel them into the forefront of evolutionary science.  These were also voyages of self-discovery; they returned changed men.

The first of these voyages, Charles Darwin’s nearly five-year voyage to South America, the Galapagos, Australia, and the South Seas aboard the Beagle between 1831 and 1836, was the seminal event, not only for Darwin (1809 – 1882), but for the three who came after him, each of those inspired by Darwin’s book Voyage of the Beagle.  They were Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 – 1911), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 – 1895), and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913).

Following McCalman's lead, I have gathered portraits (in the public domain) of each of these voyagers because one needs to keep in mind that they were young men.  Each shows the man shortly before or after his journey of discovery.

The portrait below of Charles Darwin was painted in the 1830s by George Richmond.  Darwin would have been in his very late 20s or early 30s and just returned.  (This has been downloaded from Wikimedia Common which states it is in the public domain.)

Joseph Hooker is seen below at age 32 in an image from Leonard Huxley's Life and Letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (Volume 1, p. 340, 1918).  This was some six years after the voyage that Calman describes in his book. 

Hooker served as assistant surgeon and botanist on Captain James Clark Ross’ vessel HMS Erebus during the 1839 – 1843 expedition to Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, the Falklands, among other places in the southernmost regions of the globe.  (Ross considered him the ship's botanist, though it was an unofficial title.)  This voyage was part of a broader effort to map the behavior of the earth’s magnetic field.  Hooker truly modeled himself after the Darwin depicted in the pages of the Voyage of the Beagle, though his natural history expertise lay principally in botany.

Huxley is pictured below in a daguerreotype taken in 1846 when he was 21.  It is the frontispiece of Volume 1 of The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, by Leonard Huxley (1901).  Here he is about to begin his voyage.
From 1846 to 1850, Huxley sailed on the HMS Rattlesnake as a surgeon’s mate.  This was a surveying expedition to New Guinea, the Coral Sea, and Australia, specifically the western side of the Great Barrier Reef.  Huxley’s natural history interests centered on the structure of extant creatures and their interrelationships.  His initial focus was on jellyfish, but his ethnographic interests came to the fore as the journey continued.

Finally, this is Wallace in 1848 when he was 25, just as his voyages were about to begin.  It is taken from his My Life:  A Record of Events and Opinions (Volume 1, 1905, p. 264).

Wallace, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit of an outlier in this group.  His was not one voyage of discovery, but several, and his initial motive was profit.  He was a collector of natural history specimens wherever he might find them, and so he took himself to those places where exotic and sought-after flora and fauna were – the Amazon and Southeast Asia.  During a period from 1848 to 1866, he was mostly abroad, collecting from, and thinking about, the disparate plants and animals he was observing and collecting.

McCalman’s accounts of these journeys of exploration are lively and informative, moving briskly through the details, but capturing the critical discoveries each man made and the maturation of their thinking about the history of the earth and its myriad inhabitants.  Further, the introductory pages to each provide the reader with a critical understanding of the social and economic backgrounds of each man.  There is no way to understand why Hooker and Huxley, in particular, fought so vigorously for evolution against the British scientific establishment if one doesn’t appreciate that they were in allegiance to tear down the walls of privilege and church-influence that surrounded that establishment and much of British society.  By the end of the evolution wars, all four of these men had become pillars of British science.

I came away with the strong sense that, because these men often explored islands on these voyages, they were primed to formulate (Darwin and Wallace) or embrace (Hooker and Huxley, the latter with some well-planned persuading) the explanatory power of the theory of evolution by descent with modification, powered by natural selection.  [Later edit:  Huxley's relationship to Darwin's theory is much more complex than I made it out to be here.  For instance, he never embraced natural selection as adequate enough to be the driving force behind evolution.  These and other points of tension are delineated in Sherri L. Lyons' book Thomas Henry Huxley:  The Evolution of a Scientist (1999).  Her book is a challenging read on Huxley's thoughts on evolution but well worth the effort.]  They learned to recognize the unique attributes of the flora and fauna in distinct, isolated locations, as well as those features that tied those living systems to those of other places.  That each man had undergone a passage of discovery was critical, according to McCalman, to what followed.

Through their South Seas odysseys, these four young, romantically minded amateur naturalists gained access to one of the richest natural laboratories on the globe.  They each discovered evidence from which to build new scientific theories, and each stored life-long memories of a common experience of hardship and pleasure that bound them together like shipmates.  Out of these southern adventures grew their friendship, their interlocking scientific interests, and finally, their joint participation in Darwin’s evolution war.  The southern oceans were the training ground of the seamen who would lead Darwin’s armada to ultimate victory.  (p. 12-13)

Though McCalman’s account of the evolution war itself is well done, it’s the story of the development of these young naturalists on their voyages to the southern hemisphere that makes his book so worthwhile.

In a curious way, a common jingle shell I found on the beach at the Great Peconic Bay (east of Flanders Bay) has led me to wonder about how frequently Britons, and Europeans in general, for that matter, in the early 19th century made these sea voyages to distant southern places and whether they were always as transformative.

My little, falling apart, paperback version of R. Tucker Abbott’s How to Know the American Marine Shells (1961), a still useful guide, describes the common jingle shell, providing its scientific name – Anomia simplex Orbigny.  At first blush, the most striking piece of information in this description is that, for this mollusk, the two valves are dramatically different.  The upper valve or shell is often strongly convex while the lower is flat with a large hole at the apex, where it is hinged to the upper shell.  The animal attaches itself to rocks, pilings, shells, and other surfaces through the hole in its lower shell.  The color of these generally smooth, thin shells varies from bright orange to a yellowy silver, often with a sheen.  The upper and lower shells can be colored very differently even in the same specimen.  Frankly, the upper and lower valves are so dissimilar that, though I could readily identify the upper as a common jingle shell, I was agnostic about what creature that bottom shell might be from.  In the picture below, the two valves of a single specimen are shown.    A small Atlantic slipper shell (Crepidula fornicata Linné) has attached itself to the upper valve.

With McCalman’s book fresh in mind, the taxonomic history of Anomia simplex had a different impact than it would have otherwise had.  Abbott followed the convention of identifying the individual who first named the shell as Orbigny.  The French naturalist in question is Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny (1802 – 1857).  (As an aside, I think the naturalist’s full last name should be given in the scientific name for this shell – Anomia simplex d’Orbigny, but that seems to be infrequently done.)  It’s not hard to see why some aspects of his life seemed so familiar to me.  As a young man he showed great promise in natural science, in part, using the microscope to study foraminifera (how can I not be attracted to him when he’s sometimes referred to as the “father of micropaleontology").  His talent and skill prompted the Académie des Sciences and leading European naturalists, including Georges Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt, to support him on a voyage of exploration to South America.  He sailed in 1826 and remained in South American for 8 years, exploring, collecting fossils, and amassing a huge collection of specimens from the region’s flora and fauna.  He ultimately reached Bolivia and stayed there for much of his time in South America.

It is only appropriate to include an image of d'Orbigny.  Clearly, he is young in this image, but I cannot read the script that appears below his portrait that might help me date it.  This is from the frontispiece to a work that d'Orbigny edited, titled Voyage Pittoresque Dans Les Deux Amériques (1841).  (Google Translate renders this title in English as Picturesque Voyage In The Two Americas.)

His account of his South American expedition appeared in 8 volumes published from 1837 through 1847.  A small translated excerpt from Voyage dans l'Amérique Méridionale appears in South America:  The Green World of the Naturalists, edited by Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen (1951).  It recounts his adventure traveling in Bolivia, from Moxos to Cochabamba.  In one passage, he describes his journey along a trail in the mountains with a wonderful blend of natural history and matter of fact observation about the perils he was facing.  (I presume the mountain range he mentions is part of the Andean Cordillera Oriental.  The entry is dated June 8th, but no year is given in this excerpt.)

Passing through deep ravines both to the east and to the west of the crest covered with eternal snows, I arrived at the highest point of the mountain range where, at an altitude of almost five thousand meters above sea level and in a Silurian terrain broken up by geological upheavals, I found to my amazement a great quantity of fossil sea shells.  In these savage regions everything is contrast; if I raised my eyes I could see above me peaks partly covered with snow, the blackish color of the rock emphasizing their whiteness.  Where I was passing I could see loose rocks and some rare plants such as geraniums, violets, malvaceas [malvaceae? – a plant family that includes the hibiscus], saxifrage plants and valerian which grew to a height only of a few centimeters above the ground. . . . I passed near a frozen lake between two ravines; and further on at the beginning of one of the lateral valleys I found the celebrated grotto of Palta Cueva under an immense rock which can shelter about ten people.  The numerous skeletons of mules scattered in all directions warned us clearly of the danger of staying there, a danger nevertheless which is difficult to avoid in view of the length of the journey and roughness of the trail.

D’Orbigny has come down in history as a preeminent taxonomist of invertebrates, naming many, many species.  He was a follower of Cuvier and, so, subscribed to the theory that species were created periodically, following catastrophes that wiped out earth’s previous cadre.  (The Natural History Museum, London, has a short and sweet backgrounder posted on d’Orbigny and his scientific thinking.)

But voyages of self discovery are not all the same, certainly not as transformative for some explorers as for others.  Apparently, d’Orbigny’s years in South America, exploring its geology and collecting its flora and fauna did nothing to challenge his basic views on the processes through which the earth changes and through which new species might arise.  To be fair, Darwin was primed to see things differently by his reading of geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology during his Beagle voyage.  (More on Lyell’s geology in a bit.)

D’Orbigny was in South America when Darwin came through, and though they did not cross paths, Darwin was aware of his presence.  In a letter dated November 24, 1832 and written in Montevideo, Darwin groused to John Steven Henslow (a naturalist and a clergyman)

. . . by ill luck the French government has sent one of its Collectors to the Rio Negro. – where he has been working for the last six month, & is now gone round the Horn.— So that I am very selfishly afraid he will get the cream of all the good things, before me. –

(Darwin Correspondence Project.  The editors at the Darwin Correspondence Project identify this French “collector” as d’Orbigny though the Darwin’s comment that he had “gone round the Horn” is a little puzzling.  What little I’ve read about d’Orbigny in South America doesn’t suggest he did that.)

In a later missive to Henslow (Lima, Peru, August 12, 1835), Darwin still complained about the Frenchman’s presence, but he realized that he could take advantage of what d’Orbigny might have collected and learned.

— I lately got hold of <  > report on M. Dessalines D’Orbigny’s labors in S. America.  I experienced rather a debasing degree of vexation to find he has described the geology of the Pampas, & that I have had some hard riding for nothing; it was however gratifying that my conclusions are the same, as far as I can collect, with his results.—  It is also capital, that the whole of Bolivia will be described. I hope to be able to connect his Geology of that country, with mine of Chili.— (Darwin Correspondence Project.)

Ah, the Pampas.  Darwin’s assertion that he and d’Orbigny agreed on the formation of the Pampas region was very premature and very mistaken.  He didn’t, and it was later a source of great irritation to him because d’Orbigny adhered to what Darwin considered to be geological reasoning conclusively disproved and discredited by Lyell.  In explaining how the Pampas (a huge geographic area of flat land, mostly in Argentina but including portions of Uruguay and Brazil) came to be, d’Orbigny, ever the disciple of Georges Cuvier, argued that entire region, Pampas and distant mountainous areas, were created in a sudden cataclysm.  Darwin believed unreservedly that the formation was the ancient estuary of the River Plata and was created slowly over time.

This was the quintessential distinction between the old and new in geology at the time.  Lyell had marked out the new thinking, positing that the geological features of the earth could be explained by the working of the same geological processes we see today over earth’s long history.  In his Geological Observations on South America (1846), Darwin went to great lengths to disprove d’Orbigny’s hypothesis about the formation of the Pampas.  I read the following excerpt from the book as a wonderfully subtle snide remark (on the order of “how in the world could someone with such a reputation hold to such a ridiculous theory?”):

To my mind it is little short of demonstration, that a great lapse of time was necessary for the production and deposition of the enormous amount of mud-like matter forming the Pampas; nor should I have noticed the theory of a debacle, had it not been adduced by a naturalist so eminent as M. d’Orbigny. (p. 98.)

Though Darwin and d’Orbigny disagreed on the big things, theirs was still a productive relationship (despite how much the Frenchman’s beliefs got under the Englishman’s skin).  In the same volume on the geology of South America, Darwin praised d’Orbigny and thanked him for the work he had done on some of the Andean specimens Darwin had collected during the Beagle voyage.

M. Alcide d’Orbigny, in his great work on South America, having published descriptions of many fossil mollusca, I took the liberty of writing to him to request that he would be so good as to look through my collection, and to this request, he acceded in the most obliging manner:  hence every species, with M. d’Orbigny’s name attached to it, has been identified by him.  Not only did M. d’Orbigny render me this important service, but, as will be apparent in the course of this work, he has favoured me with his opinion on the age of the several groups of fossils, and on the distinctness and affinities of many of the species:  considering that I had no claim on M. d’Orbigny’s time, I cannot express too strongly my sense of his extreme kindness.  (p. iv.)

Yes, the two might not see eye to eye on the fundamental issues, but Darwin recognized d’Orbigny’s taxonomic skills and, as was his want, enlisted his expertise.

Speaking of taxonomy, there’s a taxonomic story to be told about the Anomia simplex, one of inconsistency in the sources cited as to where d’Orbigny actually named and described the shell.  But it’s de minimis in the scheme of the stories told here, better to stick to voyages of discovery.
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