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Original Essays | September 30, 2014

Brian Doyle: IMG The Rude Burl of Our Masks



One day when I was 12 years old and setting off on my newspaper route after school my mom said will you stop at the doctor's and pick up something... Continue »
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    Children and Other Wild Animals

    Brian Doyle 9780870717543

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Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy by Tim M. Berra
Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy

Michael Barton, December 12, 2013

There is much to take in on Darwin - a constant barrage of books, journal articles, magazine features, blog posts, podcasts, videos on YouTube, etc. It can be a daunting task to keep up with it all and stay current with what historians and writers are discussing about Darwin: his life, his scientific work, and his legacy which permeates many fields beyond those sciences in which he worked. Sometimes new work takes an unexplored avenue, other times rehashing worn territory. A new book by biologist and previous Darwin biographer Tim Berra explores Darwin’s life from a different angle but with largely familiar subject matter. If you’ve read about Darwin at length before, then you likely know that he and his wife Emma had a large family and that Darwin was very involved in raising their children. In Darwin and His Children: His Other Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013; 272 pp.), Berra describes the lives, careers, and achievements of the Darwin children, who, Berra shares, “were devoted to their father and mother, intensely loyal to the family and to each other, and protective of their father’s reputation.”

The book is organized chronologically by their birth years, beginning with a chapter on Darwin’s life and work (a summary, essentially), and a chapter on his marriage to Emma. The following ten chapters cover each child, so there tends to be some repetition of information, but the book is nicely organized. Illness in the family is a thread throughout the chapters, and this was a constant source of anxiety for Darwin (he felt that marriage to his first cousin may have created weakened offspring).

Darwin and Emma’s first son, William (1839-1914), “my little animalcule of a son,” he wrote to Captain Fitzroy, became a subject of infant behavior, and information from this was included in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). He was a banker, helped Darwin with mathematical calculations in a botanical study, and was an avid amateur photographer. Anne, or Annie (1841-1851), Darwin’s favorite, died young and this tore her father apart. Mary (1842-1842) only lived for 23 days, her cause of death unknown. Henrietta (1843-1927), or Etty, did much to help her father with his work. She assisted in pigeon breeding experiments, corrected proofs for The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868), and edited book manuscripts, including The Descent of Man (1871). She also edited a collection of family letters and biography of Emma. George (1845-1912) was a mathematician and became a world authority on tides. He befriended Lord Kelvin, who disagreed with Darwin on evolution, and defended his father against critique from St. George Jackson Mivart, speaking freely about his views on prayer and other religious matters (as opposed to Darwin’s avoidance of making public his views on religion). Elizabeth (1847-1926), or Bessy, was the Darwins’ eccentric daughter, and was helpful to her mother in household duties and caring for her father during his illnesses, and helped to raise her nephew Bernard. Francis (1848-1925) was an accomplished plant physiologist, was an assistant to his father on plant experiments, helped with his massive daily correspondence, and edited The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887) and, with A.C. Seward, More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903). Leonard (1850-1943) was a military engineer, politician, and economist who is most remembered for his work in eugenics (a term coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton). Berra notes: “The negative eugenics advocated by Leonard is shocking to today’s sensibilities, but it was a product of the times.” Horace (1851-1928), their ninth child, was an intelligent child (Darwin wrote in a letter about Horace’s grasp of natural selection when age 11). He was founder and director of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which succeeded due to World War I, a public servant in a variety of matters, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (joining his father and brothers George and Francis). Charles Waring (1856-1858), their tenth and last child, was their third to die in childhood. His funeral allowed Darwin to avoid the joint reading of his and Wallace’s papers on natural selection at the Linnean Society in July 1858.

However enjoyable this book is, I can’t help but point out the many myths about Darwin that continue to remain in popular treatment of the subject (this is not to blame Berra, of course, for it will be some time before corrections to these myths become mainstream). Darwin was not knighted, because “he was much too controversial for Queen Victoria’s taste (but Darwin did not carry out work in service of the British government, for which knighthoods were given). Darwin kept his ideas private, “except to broach them to his closest scientific colleagues” (Berra lists Lyell, Hooker, and Gray, however the list of who Darwin shared with is much longer). However, Berra rightly notes that Darwin was indeed the appointed naturalist on HMS Beagle, and that the common story of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in 1860 is exaggerated.

Berra’s sources are already published: Darwin’s Life and Letters volumes, his autobiography, reminiscences from some of the children as well as Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat. Given this, there are no grand revelations here. This is straightforward narrative history, and here Berra provides a charming, detailed narrative that gives due credit to Darwin’s children, whom he loved and shared in their griefs and successes in life. “Darwin” continued to be a very recognizable name in England, if not for Darwin’s own work, but the achievements of his descendants. An important takeaway from Darwin and His Children is how involved they were, from youth to adulthood in the case of some, with Darwin’s science: as editors, experimentalists, subjects of study, ambassadors (George and Francis traveled to the United States in 1871), and a variety of other roles. Several became respected scientists themselves, not too surprising given the nature-rich atmosphere and encouragement in which they were raised. The Darwins were truly a scientific family.
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I Wonder by Annaka Harris
I Wonder

Michael Barton, October 23, 2013

Scan book store and library shelves, and you'll see scores of books for children about scientific topics - space, cool animals, field guides, science experiments, gross science, etc. Yet how many of those books stress the importance of wonder in thinking about science? "I Wonder" does just that, and does so beautifully. As a parent, I strive to introduce my children to the natural side of the world they live in. But doing so can sometimes turn into looking at what we know, and if we don't know something, it feels like we aren't succeeding. But science would not be a human endeavor if scientists had everything all figured out! The exciting thing is that we don't know it all, and reading "I Wonder" helps in recognizing that perhaps most important attribute of living a life that embraces the importance of science: knowing that it is continuous and changing. What I love even more about this book is that in every illustration, Eva and her mother are outside: in the woods, at a beach, in the clouds, and in space (using their imaginations, of course). A first step to instilling an interest in science in a child is to step out the front door. A second step is to read and be read to, and a parent and a child cannot go wrong with getting comfortable under a tree and reading "I Wonder" together.
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The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild

Michael Barton, September 29, 2013

When you live in an urban environment, there are many things to deal with: pollution, traffic, noise, and other people going about their business. Another public nuisance is the ever-growing presence of urban wildlife. Whether birds or mammals, they encroach on our yards, our gardens, in our homes, and threaten our pets. Humans have devised many ways to control these critters, most to no avail. In her latest book, Lyanda Lynn Haupt seeks to turn around our usually negative impressions of urban animals and see them as neighbors and visitors worthy of our attention. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild is a defense of animals that essentially share our homes with us: from coyotes and moles and raccoons to pigeons and crows and owls (as Haupt describes them, The Furred and The Feathered). Each chapter shares general natural history, worldly mythology, and encourages us to be kind to our "gracious co-inhabitants." She also includes chapters on trees and humans; unfortunately, perhaps due to space, The Scaled and The Segmented are not included. Haupt drives home that urban animals are simply doing what is natural: being animals. And like us, they are only seeking food and shelter and protecting their young. Considering that it is human activity that pushes us into closer proximity with wild animals and that our sacrifices are small, are our wild neighbors really asking for too much?

This review originally done for the Portland Book Review.
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Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature by D. Graham Burnett
Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Michael Barton, August 5, 2012

In Trying Leviathan, Burnett, a historian of science at Princeton University and author of Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (UCP, 2000), explores a little known New York trial from 1818, Maurice v. Judd, in which a fish oil inspector (James Maurice) brought a candle maker and oil merchant (Samuel Judd) to court over his refusal to pay fees on whale oil (a law stated that fish oil had to be inspected for quality and purity). Maurice was represented by lawyers William Sampson and John Anthon, who desired to keep the trial about commercial regulation and away from, in Burnett’s words, the “muddy matters of taxonomy” (p. 17). Judd, whose defense included the testimony of the well-respected New York naturalist Samuel Mitchell, was represented by Robert Bogardus and William M. Price, who thought differently ��" they saw this as a taxonomic issue, and were willing to get dirty in the muddy matters (this case is also mentioned in the endnotes of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (W.W. Norton, 2007), pp. 384-385). What results is a splendid examination of questions about taxonomic systems, epistemology of natural historical knowledge, semantics, literary references, authority of various classes of New York citizens, and the relationship between science and society. Although the trial centers on the question of whether whale oil is fish oil, and hence if whales are fish, Burnett strives to look deeper into the reasons why the trial came to court at all, and what it meant beyond the straight science of taxonomy; he writes in his introduction: “It is perhaps cliché to assert that all taxonomy is politics, or to insist that epistemological problems are always problems of social order; Maurice v. Judd provides a striking occasion to test the viability (as well as the limits) of such sweeping claims” (p. 10).

Burnett organizes his book around three reasons why this case is important to study: the status of “philosophy” and natural history in learned institutions and intellectual culture of New York in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; the importance of whales and other cetaceans that were considered “problems of knowledge” to this period of history in the United States; and the shaky status of zoological classification, surely not one of a “golden age of the classifying imagination” (I do think I should fully read Harriet Ritvo’s The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard UP, 1997) ��" I read the first chapter for an animal histories course in 2005). These considerations, and the trial’s main question in general (is a whale a fish?), are investigated by chapters devoted to what different categories of people in New York did or did not know about whales: naturalists, sailors and whalemen, artisans, merchants, and dealers in whale products, and regular folk of New York. While Mitchell thought it important to understand the authority of the first three, Sampson added the last category, considering the opinion of everyday citizens as worthy of attention.

The everyday citizens are tackled first, with Burnett concluding that a majority of people ��" whose limited contact with whales (textually or physically) included the authority of the Bible and its tripartite taxonomy (fish/water, beasts/earth, and birds/sky), popular natural history texts, the occasional strandings or moorings of whales, and the whale jaw bone of Scudder’s American Museum ��" thought of whales as fish, and it was hard to stomach that whales could be in the same category (mammals) as humans. Whales seemed to sit outside of natural history, more as curiosities than as creatures which could be easily classified. Peculiar examples of animals pointed to exceptions to the rule of classification, which damaged the authority of the new philosophy of taxonomy, brought forth mainly by the comparative anatomy of Cuvier (as being different from the Linnean-style categorization of plants or animals based on external characteristics).

Yet the naturalists, “those who philosophize,” would make the case that whales are indeed mammals, the subject of Burnett’s third chapter. Anthon, who represented the oil inspector, stated to the jurors: “Many of us may not have seen a whale,” but this should not cause us to be “led astray by the learning of philosophers” (p. 41). At issue was the authority of the naturalist and ichthyologist Samuel Mitchell, author of “The Fishes of New-York” and star witness of the defense, and in the long run, the authority of the enterprise of science itself. If common sense tells regular citizens of New York that whales are fish (for the Bible says so, and they swim in water like fish), then on what grounds should a naturalist’s erudition and, maybe, mere opinion, tell them otherwise? Since taxonomy was brought to the forefront in the case, the prosecutors sought to show that the current state of taxonomy is in question, and that there is disagreement between the learned.
Not only did Mitchell represent the “new philosophy” of classification based on comparative anatomy, but he had big ideas about a program for a patriotic, American natural history, to make New York a scientific center by popularizing the city’s natural history collections and promoting natural history to its citizens through lectures. And it was to this up and coming natural history and scientific culture that Maurice v. Judd may have owed its time in court: “through the trial flowed the strong currents of opposition to the institutions, innovations, and schemes of state-sponsored ‘philosophy.’ Science in the service of the state looked to many New Yorkers suspiciously like the state in the service of the men of science” (p. 207), while there existed an “emerging cultural and intellectual ambitions of a rising community of artisans and merchants, who were seeking support for their own institutions for the advancement of learning” (p. 203). Maurice v. Judd was more about social order in New York than it was about figuring out what a particular type of creature was (such that Burnett could have titled his book Trying Natural History, or Trying Mitchell, but Trying Leviathan sounds better).

In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), the naturalist Pierre Aronnax, with his apprentice Counsel, and the harpoonist Ned Land at times disagreed over not only their fate aboard Nemo’s Nautilus, but also matters of life in the sea; and while Aronnax showed erudition as to the species of plants and birds (expert knowledge), Ned Land knew how to capture and prepare them for eating (practical knowledge). Naturalists and whalemen had different ways of looking at whales, and in the fourth chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett investigates what whalemen knew about their prey. Two whalemen were witnesses in the trial ��" one believed whales were not fish, noting similarities with humans, and the other did, until the trial caused him to possibly think otherwise. Whalers combined physical experience with whales with texts that discussed natural history of marine mammals, which may or may not have contrasted with the views of “cabinet naturalists.” Burnett uses the logs and journals of whalemen to understand how they understood cetaceans. One way whalers thought of whales was in terms of oil; they were not solely animals, but instead storehouses of a money-making product. But they also thought of whales in terms of zoology. Important to Burnett’s look into the whaleman’s natural history is their cutting-in patterns, diagrams which depicted the methods by which a whale would be cut up, a “high-seas butchery,” in which different whales necessitated different cutting-in operations due to different anatomies ��" anatomies different from those of naturalists, an “autonomous domain of natural knowledge” (p. 118). I like Burnett’s observation that a harpoon or shaft is just as much a pointer to anatomical detail as it is a whaler’s fatal tool. But he is quick to note that such anatomical detail represented for whalemen only a “superficial anatomy,” because whalemen learned the anatomy useful to their purpose (whale oil was found in areas near the outer layer, or “blanket,” of the animal), while naturalists learned as much as they could to have as complete a picture of nature as possible. With whales referred to as fish in logbooks, whalers not considering some whales to be “whales” (semantics), and whales as whales in the water yet fish if out of water, I take it that whalers generally considered their catch as fish.

In the fifth chapter, Burnett discusses the last group worth studying, those involved in the whale product industries (mainly oil), the “men of affairs.” Although the shortest of the chapters to look at what a group of people knew about whales, it is here that Burnett teases out more motives of Maurice v. Judd. He asks what was really at stake, since the fine put on Judd was only $75. Like the Scopes Trial in 1925, Maurice v. Judd best represented a formal test case for the New York law passed in March of 1818 that authorized “the appointment of guagers [sic] and inspectors of fish oils” (p. 147), to test the scope and interpretations of “fish oil.” Dealers in oil generally understood fish oil and whale oil to be distinct, while Gideon Lee, a leather industry man who drafted the statute, desired to have all oils under the term “fish oils” inspected for purity to clean up a messy oil industry, full of “deceptions and fraud” (p. 162). Plus, fish oils were important for leather manufacture, and for Lee, “money made its own taxonomic distinctions” (p. 161). In the end, Maurice v. Judd really concerned venders of oils (those who were inspected) and purchasers of oils (the leather tanning industry) protecting their commercial interests. Animals were classified differently in this context, in what Burnett calls “taxonomies of craft and trade” (p. 164).
In the pages of the penultimate chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett reveals the outcome of the trial, and for that reason, I am not going to discuss it. This book was an exciting read, and Burnett brought to life for the reader many characters and their arguments in early nineteenth century New York. I think the reader deserves to find out the outcome for themselves. He pulled from a multitude of sources ��" logbooks, natural history texts, lecture notes, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, letters, and illustrations ��" representing a variety of people concerned with the trial. It’s science history, social history, intellectual history, religious history, economic history, and law history (are there any others?) all brought together to illuminate one small and largely forgotten event in American history. There is much more in this book than I could possibly share, and I am still trying to decide if Maurice v. Judd owes its occurrence to a science vs. artisans issue or a venders vs. purchasers problem in New York.
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Tides of History: Ocean Science and Her Majesty's Navy by Michael S. Reidy
Tides of History: Ocean Science and Her Majesty's Navy

Michael Barton, August 5, 2012

In an essay in William K. Story’s edited volume Scientific Aspects of European Expansion (Varorium, 1996), historian Alan Frost shows how science conducted in the Pacific during European exploration of the late eighteenth century was essentially political in nature. Scientists acted with their respective nations in mind. Michael S. Reidy extends the notion of science for political purposes into the nineteenth century with Tides of History. But while the book’s subtitle, Ocean Science and Her Majesty’s Navy, underscores the connection between advancements in science and the imperial reach of maritime nations (predominantly Britain), Reidy aims for much more than just showing how the British used science to rule the waves. He has other interests in mind, and it is unfortunate that the title of his book misleads the reader of its primary content. Although Reidy does discuss the Admiralty and how tidal science was crucial to military matters, he is more interested in the scientist himself and his role ��" in particular one giant of science (William Whewell) and plenty of rather unknowns. Even larger still is Reidy’s contribution to a growing field of ocean history, a fresh understanding of history understood through looking at the spaces in between the land that most histories are focused with.

Much of Tides of History details the history of tidal science ��" of the data collection itself, and the theoretical understanding of the tides (whether or not it was based on data). The narrative of Reidy’s story, told through scientific publications, letters, and the use images (tables and graphs), almost mirrors the flux and reflux of the tides themselves, the ebb and flow of the seas across the globe. Tidal science, and the reasons for studying it, have shifted in importance to various parties through the centuries. Reidy outlines what has gone before, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before focusing on the nineteenth century, the highest period of Britain’s imperial expansion, and the regional and global tide experiments in the mid-1830s.

Reidy is fond of metaphors, and they abound in Tides of History. For example, Whewell “helped transform the spatial scope of science while simultaneously expanding the terrain of the scientist” (p. 240). This spatiality is important to Reidy in showing how Whewell transformed the study of tides into a Humboldtian research program, rather than the temporal nature of previous studies. In contrast to earlier and recent works on Whewell, Reidy shows how this evaluator of science in Britain was much more than just a man interested in the work of scientists, but a premier scientist himself. The study of tides, which held Whewell’s interest for more than two decades, also influenced Whewell’s philosophical contributions to science ��" how science should be done and who should do it. Despite Whewell’s insistence that only certain persons could be scientists ��" those who strived for theoretical understanding of phenomena ��" he recognized the efforts and contributions of the often overlooked figures in history. Data collectors, calculators, and computers, doing monotonous and tedious work with ink, provided crucial information for “scientists” to devise their theories with. By looking closely at the role of these “subordinate labourers,” as Whewell referred to them, Reidy gives us a much needed contribution to the history of science, a bottom-up history in a field which too often stresses the importance of the man of science. There were many men (and women) of science, whether or not they were considered “scientists.”

While Reidy succeeds in relating the study of the tides to those with economic interests in using that knowledge ��" merchants, traders, etc. ��" what is missing from Tides of History, despite its secondary role to an understanding of the emerging scientist in the early Victorian period, is how the military aspect of the study of the tides was actually used. Examples of how the Admiralty benefited from tidal knowledge, grounded in particular events (if records exist), would surely benefit an understanding of the importance of the study of the tides, and of the relationship of scientists with the larger society. Another mistake in Tides of History, in my opinion, is in the introduction of self-registering tide gauges in Reidy’s narrative. Through reading the text, we know that data collectors observed and marked down numbers concerning the tides. We do not know, however, if and how they utilized technological instruments in carrying out their tasks. So, the invention of the self-registering tide gauge, which made it possible to record data without the hand of a person, becomes not as exciting a turn in the narrative as if the reader truly understood how earlier “subordinated labourers” collected information about the rise and fall of tides.

Despite these few problems, Tides of History is a valuable contribution to understanding the culture of science in the early Victorian period, a time when the role of scientists was becoming more connected with commerce and government, in helping to ensure Britain’s imperialistic success and reaping rewards from it. Taken with Richard Drayton’s Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (Yale University Press, 2000), Tides of History offers a more complete picture of the relationship between science and society ��" of the political and economic importance of science and the increasingly important role of the scientist ��" in the nineteenth century. This is a valuable book for those interested in nineteenth-century science, the history of physical sciences, imperialism, environmental history, and maritime history to have on their shelves.
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