Tuesday 17 October 2017

‘For the good of the species’—Where did we get that crazy idea?

How we all cringe when we read or hear ‘for the good of the species’ or ‘for the survival of the species’ when an aspect of the life of an animal is being described. Such solecisms jar the brain even more than the one that could cause grammar school teachers to explode into exasperation and rage: putting a ‘the’ in front of Magna Carta—a clear demonstration according to our Latin master and history masters of a lack of proper education.

But in the past we often came out with such trite and unthinking statements that animals reproduced for ‘the good of the species’ or this and that adaptation was important for ‘the survival of the species’. Such an implication of natural selection at the species level—even when selection at the individual level was implicit in Neo-Darwinism—was commonplace, glibly trotted out not only by popularizing natural historians but by professional biologists. But there came a major change in attitude in the early 1960s when biologists in the street actually started to think about what they had been saying for years. Wynne-Edwards came up with his now widely derided ideas that amounted to group selection in his 1962 book, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour. The upshot of that and the correspondence and comments on the simple refutation by David Lack in Britain and then by G.C. Williams in the U.S.A. meant the beginning of the end ‘for the survival of the species’. BBC natural history script writers and commentators are now virtually flawless by using such phrases as ‘successful in passing on his or her genes’.

Richard Dawkins remarked in an obituary of Williams who died in 2010:

Neo-Darwinism had fallen into lazy habits since the glory days of Ronald Fisher and the Modern Synthesis. The loose, intellectually shoddy idea of “group selection” was rife, and Williams dispatched it.

Rife in certain quarters certainly but I do remember E.T.B. Francis dinning it in to us during his lectures on vertebrates in 1963-64 in Sheffield that natural selection acts on the individual.

But where were the notions of selection at levels beyond that of the individual promulgated? Well, I was surprised to find it in the most famous and influential textbook of my generation.

J.Z. Young’s Life of Vertebrates was and still is deservedly praised for its revolutionary approach. In his obituary for the Royal Society, Brian Boycott (1924-2000) wrote on the background to the book and of the author’s intentions:
G.R. de Beer, became his tutor; E.S. Goodrich was the Professor of Zoology. Both were leading comparative anatomists who continued the early post-Darwinian tradition largely associated with e.g. K. Gegenbauer, F. Balfour, E. Haeckel and K.E. von Baer. They regarded the principal task of zoological research to be to establish firm evidence for the doctrine of organic evolution (Goodrich 1930). J.Z. found the formal courses dull, but in retrospect considered the intellectual rigour of comparative anatomical reasoning to have provided 'an excellent foundation for a lifetime of research', and, 'as the science of biology woke up during the subsequent decades I found that the morphology I had learned was an admirable basis for understanding the advances of genetics and embryology'. He also attended lectures on the 'newly developing subjects' of ecology (C. Elton) and genetics (E.B. Ford). J.R. Baker taught him histology. Some evidence of the style and matter of the main courses may be gleaned from the books by de Beer (1928, 1940) and Goodrich (1930). Reading them makes it easy to understand why J.Z. as a teacher added and always emphasized the functional and behavioural aspects of morphology and soon began drafting his first textbook, The Life of Vertebrates. Interrupted by the Second World War, this did not appear in print until 1950. The preface is a fascinating essay on the major, largely European, comparative vertebrate zoology texts that he sought to re-express in terms of the life of vertebrates and the evolution of that life. His book was very well-received; it was a breath of fresh air. There was a third English edition in 1981, and, after 48 years, it still remains in print. In old age, J.Z. wistfully remarked that he seemed better known for this book than his research. He perhaps did not fully realize how extraordinarily influential it has been over many years in keeping a lot of people interested in biology, and how much teachers have relied on it as a text. It is one of the few textbooks ever written that can be read from cover to cover with profit and pleasure.

But there is this strange statement in his introductory chapter under the sub-heading, Living things tend to preserve themselves, which is a bit about selection, a bit what we would now call evo-devo and a bit about species concepts:

Though we speak of ‘individuals’ they are no more the final units than are the cells, the heart, or the brain, the bones, hair, or nails. A whole interbreeding population is the unit of life that tends to preserve the type, assisted in social species, by individuals that play a part in life without participation in reproduction, such as worker bees.

In J.Z. Young’s first (1950) and second (1962) editions I think we get some clue about his thinking from Boycott’s obituary. JZ began his book in the 1930s before and during concretion of the Modern Synthesis and I think this is where it shows. This line of reasoning had gone by the final, 1981, edition. Selection on individuals was the only level considered and while current evolutionary scholars would take exception to the notions of Stephen Jay Gould being given prominence, textbooks do after all reflect, rightly or wrongly, ideas that were being discussed at the time of their writing together with an active selection of what the author considers important for the next generation of biologists.

J. Z Young’s textbook has to be seen as a brilliant revolt against the orthodoxy of zoological thinking and practice in the later decades of the 19th Century and the early decades of the 20th. While one can point out the misconceptions that it contains, the basic message that J.Z. put across is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it:

…every biologist must know as much as possible of the life of the whole organism with which he deals…

John Zachary Young 1907-1997
from here

Sunday 15 October 2017

At last…a Giant Anteater

Who amongst those of us of a certain age can forget the film and photographs of a Giant Anteater and of the visit to Edward ‘Tiny’ McTurk's ranch in BBC’s Zoo Quest to Guiana in 1955 or in the book of that name by David Attenborough?

Sadly, when we went to the McTurk’s Karanambu Ranch* in 2006 there were no Giant Anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) around, although further north some of our party going birdwatching one way (while we were similarly occupied in the opposite direction) did see one crossing the path through the forest.

In the right (for anteaters) part of South America again in September would we see eventually see a Giant Anteater in the wild for sufficiently long to appreciate these fantastic animals?

This one was at Pouso Alegre, a lodge at the end of a turning from the Transpantaneira Highway between Poconé and Porto Jofre in the northern Pantanal of Brazil. We were on a Naturetrek Tour entitled ‘Just Jaguars’ but we saw a lot more than just jaguars (more on them in a later post). Our personal list of mammals seen totalled 24 species (the number for the group as a whole was 26) with 6 reptiles and 156 birds. A great trip led by Marcos Felix.

*I was sorry to see that Diane McTurk, our host at Karanambu and known for her work on rescuing, rearing and rehabilitating giant otters orphaned by hunters as well as campaigning for conservation and promoting tourism, died in December 2016 aged 84.

Thursday 12 October 2017

On making a living as a naturalist and on Galapagos tortoises in the 19th Century

Archives of Natural History, the journal of the Society for the History of Natural History, always contains articles that inform and entertain. The latest issue does not disappoint.

The question of how people with an abiding interest in animals and wildlife generally found jobs that satisfied that interest when there was no career path to follow or any form of established employment in the offing has always interested me. In the late 19th and  20th centuries there were very few graduates and very few graduate jobs. Some worked up their interest and started small zoos; others worked as collectors of dead or alive specimens to satisfy the craze for natural history that gripped Victorian Britain, or as animal dealers sometimes added on to a pet shop, while others worked in publishing.

In the first paper in the latest issue Susannah Gibson has written The careering naturalists: creating career paths in natural history, 1790-1830. She describes the life of Edward Donovan (1768-1848) who carved a niche for himself as a ‘writer, artist, engraver, collector, curator and popularizer of natural history’. Donovan wrote and illustrated volumes of works on mainly British insects, birds, shells and plants. He also founded a museum in London to display his collections. He was highly successful, other than with his museum which lost money but seems eventually to have been diddled out of his earnings by the bookseller (then, as in Samuel Pepys’s time, in St Paul’s Churchyard) he had collaborated with throughout. The sums involved were, for the day, enormous at £60,000-£70,000. The only way he could attempt to get his money was through the Court of Chancery, an enormously expensive process. He tried to raise the money from his subscribers but he failed and he died with the matter unresolved.

Gibson contrasts Donovan’s career with that of George Shaw (1751-1813) who had degrees from Oxford and Edinburgh. He got a job at the Natural History Museum so could write books while being paid by the museum. By contrast, Alexander Macleay (1767-1848) became a civil servant in the Transport Office and pursued his interests as an amateur; he made an extensive collection, became Secretary of the Linnean Society, and then, when appointed Colonial Secretary in New South Wales became an important figure in Australian natural history. Money was a great problem to Macleay as well as to Donovan. They and other naturalists spent a lot of money buying specimens for their collections. In the end many collections, including those of Donovan and Macleay had to be sold in whole or in part to stave off bankruptcy. The sale of Donovan’s was by auction of close on 8000 lots over 65 days.

The second paper by Storrs Olson, The early scientific history of the Galapagos tortoises, deals with just that, up to and including the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1835. Olson takes to task those authors who have repeated the myth that the differences between the tortoises from different island contributed to Darwin’s thinking that led to the Origin of Species. He concludes (after naming the culprits in references):

Contrary to the mythology still being perpetuated today, Galapagos tortoises played almost no role in the development of Darwin’s evolutionary thinking. It would be nearly eight decades after the voyage of the Beagle before appreciation of the full extent of diversity of tortoises in the Galapagos would be revealed following the expedition of the California Academy of Sciences in 1905-1906.

Giant tortoises from the Cerro Azul population at the captive breeding centre
on Isabela (Albemarle). This form is now being treated as a separare species,
Chelonoidis vicina. 20 January 2013

Gibson S. 2017. The careering naturalists: creating career paths in natural history, 1790–1830. Archives of Natural History 44, 195-214 https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2017.0444

Olson SL. 2017. The early scientific history of Galapagos tortoises. Archives of Natural History 44, 241-258 https://doi.org/10.3366/anh.2017.0447