Thursday 23 January 2020

To observe wild animals..without at the same time gaining the impression, somewhat prevalent today, that watching animals in the wild constitutes 'high' science. Who said that?

The full quotation is: 

Climbing in the country provided ample opportunities to observe baboons and other wild animals, without at the same time gaining the impression, somewhat prevalent today, that watching animals in the wild constitutes 'high' science.

From Lord Solly Zuckerman's biography, From Apes to Warlords, Hamish Hamilton, 1978, page 7, describing his schooldays in South Africa.

But who, in the 1970s, was Zuckerman having a go at? My guess is the then up-and-coming primatologists like Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Non-genetic Inheritance, the Dutch Famine of 1944-45 and Operation Market Garden: Antony Beevor’s book 'Arnhem'

It is not often I get the chance to write a science article combined with a book review.

I have used the Dutch Famine in the winter of 1944-45 to illustrate talks on intergenerational maternal effects* for the past twenty-five years. For those unaware of this tragic ‘natural’ experiment, individuals who were in utero during the famine were found to be at increased risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease when adult and of cognitive decline with age. The important finding was that these conditions were also more prevalent in the next generation—the children of those children who were first affected.

Inheritance other than through maternal and paternal genes is now the hot topic of epigenetics. However, there are all sorts of possible mechanisms by which these effects may work. I use epigenetic in the wide sense of any non-genetic effect of mother or father on the phenotype of their offspring. Unfortunately, the molecular geneticists have defined the term more narrowly to mean an effect on the chromosomes, i.e. by activating or deactivating the genes. Confusion therefore abounds and we can have an epigenetic effect in the widest sense that is not an epigenetic effect in the narrowest. 

Research on the intergenerational effects of the Dutch Famine continues. The mechanism or mechanisms of the epigenetic, in the wide sense, effect(s) remains controversial but the important point here is that the phenomenon itself—long-term deleterious effects on the health of individuals one or more generations down the line from those originally affected, is a solid observation and one that has from tragic circumstances provided vital insights into the developmental origins of health and disease.

Given the importance of the Dutch Famine to the biological word I was surprised when I read Antony Beevor’s book, Arnhem, late last year that while he described the appalling suffering and bravery of the civilian population of the Netherlands after Operation Market Garden in September 1944, the long-term effects of the Dutch Famine only made a footnote and then only in relation to the incidence of schizophrenia in girls born to women who were pregnant during the famine, along with an inaccurate interpretation of the results of eating tulip bulbs or wheat in relation to coeliac disease.

The Famine came after the failed Arnhem Campaign and a railway strike in support of the Allied effort as a direct result of military action and deliberate retaliation by the German occupiers on the civilian population. Rations in the western region of the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, were reduced to over the months to reach a low of between less than a quarter to about one-third of the required energy intake per day. Deaths caused directly by under-nutrition were estimated as 18,000. In the late stages, a deal between the German occupiers and Allied Forces was done which allowed air drops of food by the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force in return for not bombing German positions. Proper relief and recovery only came after the Germans surrendered in the west on 4 May 1945.

I learnt a lot from Beevor’s book, the effectiveness of the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry (Sherwood Rangers) and the success of the British Firefly tank (a British 17-pounder anti-tank gun mounted in the turret of an American Sherman tank), for example. Beevor, as other have in the past, comes down heavily on the British generals and air marshals and their staffs involved in planning and executing Operation Market Garden—the daring bid to get into northern Germany by crossing the Rhine and thus bringing an early end to the War. The Americans also wanted to see their airborne forces used, almost come what may. Landing zones chosen by Royal Air Force planners were too far away from the vital bridges but the planners were not over-ruled. There was simply no slack in what was an already inadequate but ambitious plan. Every aspect had to go well and to time. But it didn’t. Beevor has nothing really new to say here but every work on Arnhem brings forth a barrage of criticism from those armchair generals who think Montgomery could do no wrong followed by a counter-blast from those who think the field-marshal could do no right.

Strategic failure though should cast no shadow over the often brilliant military tactics employed by units and individuals in the field and it is this aspect that Beevor captures in his account of Operation Market (the air-drop to take the bridges including the final one at Arnhem) and of Operation Garden (the race by land forces to reach those dropped by air). However, the book suffers from a dearth of maps. There are maps but many more are needed, containing all the place-names mentioned in the text, in order for the narrative to flow. I have noticed that professional historians seems loathe to illustrate books and talks as part of the narrative. They seem to prefer to rely on the written or spoken word with a few illustrations thrown in at the end. With complicated stories of simultaneous actions in an operation like Market Garden, the reader can easily be confused about what is happening to whom and where. This is where a good book editor, playing the part of the average reader, is essential to inject a greater degree of clarity.

*’where the mother makes a contribution to the phenotype of her progeny over and above that which results from the genes she contributes to the zygote’.

Beevor A. 2018. Arnhem. The Battle for the Bridges, 1944. Viking.

Thursday 16 January 2020

Frederic Wood Jones. Acerbic anatomist and those who came after him

Frederic Wood Jones
Biographical Memoir
In my article on Chapman Pincher and the evolution of the giraffe (1 December 2019) I wrote:

Frederic Wood Jones FRS (1879-1954), a classical anatomist, who had worked on all sorts of biological problems and phenomena from the formation of coral reefs to the lesions caused by judicial hanging, with very strange views on evolution and the value of genetics, wrote to the editor in reply to Pincher. Wood Jones pointed out that he and Robert Broom FRS (1866-1951)—the famous primate palaeontologist and anatomist also possessed of very strange views on evolution by ‘spiritual agencies’—had come up with the same idea as Pincher.

The job of writing Wood Jones’s biographical memoir for the Royal Society fell to Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark (1895-1971). Wood Jones had along with Arthur Keith FRS (1866-1955) and Grafton Elliot Smith FRS (1871-1937) inspired Le Gros Clark’s interest in primates and physical anthropology. However, none of the three escaped criticism by their pupil. Lord Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993) noted in his biographical memoir on Le Gros Clark that, in the biographical memoir on Wood Jones, Le Gros Clark had written:

Wood Jones he described as a man who ‘carried his arguments too far and sometimes rather seriously overstated the evidence on which he relied . . .’, as a man who was guilty of ‘needlessly caustic dis­paragement of some of the great biologists of past days’, and as one who was astute in controversy and intolerant of those who disagreed with him. 

But Le Gros Clark had gone much further than in Zuckerman’s examples. Thus:

He was obviously impressed with the precision and. detail of functional adaptations in the animal world, as pre­sumably all zoologists are. But, unlike zoologists in general, he allowed him­self to be so overwhelmed with this outstanding characteristic of living organisms that he was content to ascribe all adaptations to an obscure and undefined kind of directive force, and simply to leave it at that. There was, indeed, a distinct element of mysticism in his attitude to some of the fundamental problems of organic life and, as a result, his more popular writings aroused considerable response from the class of general reader to whom the methods and philosophy of science make little appeal. 

He ended:

A man of restless curiosity and of strong opinions, he sometimes gave an appearance of intolerance towards those who disagreed with him. He was also very critical of the development of new technical methods in anatomical research, even going so far as to imply that any method but that of scalpel and forceps (and perhaps the low power of the microscope) was beyond the proper domain of the science of anatomy. It is little wonder, therefore, that he was out of sympathy with the younger generation of anatomists; so much so, indeed, that he occasionaly [sic] allowed himself to be almost too brusque in his attitude towards them and their work. But although he was possessed of a certain natural acerbity of temperament which impelled him to express his views in somewhat unaccommodating terms, Wood Jones certainly contributed his full share (and more) to the store of comparative anatomical knowledge, and the stimulus which he gave to his students and contemporaries by his lectures and writings can hardly be exaggerated. 

I think it is worth pointing out that Wood Jones, Keith, Elliot Smith and Zuckerman (who, in turn, was critical of Le Gros Clark) came into the biological sciences through medicine. They were all professors of anatomy and clearly ill-equipped in that intellectual tradition, like, sadly, many biomedical scientists of today, to have much worth saying on the mechanisms of evolution or of the importance of the role of evolution in shaping biological systems. The zoologists and geneticists did that. Wood Jones was a man of his tradition and his time.

Le Gros Clark W. 1955. Frederic Wood Jones 1879-1954. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 1, 119-134.

Zuckerman S. 1973. Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark 1895-1971. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 19, 217-233.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

The Curious Case of Climbing Newts

My eye was drawn to a post in the UK Amphibian and Reptile Groups Discussion Forum on Facebook which reported that as many as 50 Palmate Newts (Lissotriton helveticus) were found in reeds and low vegetation as high a three feet—nearly a metre—from the ground. Various comments followed as to why they may have been doing that when their breeding pond was close by. One of the comments was from Henrik Bringsøe in Denmark pointing out that he had written a paper on similar behaviour he and others had observed in the Smooth or Common Newt these days known as Lissotriton vulgaris, rather than the Triturus vulgaris we grew up with.

Bringsøe reported newts being found on the trunks of trees, on leaves and branches in vegetation about 40-50 cm above the ground and on the top of dead rushes at the edge of a pond. One was found 180 cm above the ground on the branch of an alder. Another, which was possibly attracted to invertebrates around a lamp, was found at a height of 2 metres on the wall of a house.

From Bringsøe, 2013

An obvious question is why this phenomenon has been so rarely observed. I could find no mention in either of the old standard books on British amphibians and reptiles, Smith and Frazer. Has it simply been missed or not reported?

There are all sorts of possible explanations for this little-reported climbing behaviour by amphibians which seem so ill-equipped for any sort of arboreal life. Indeed, there may be more than one reason with seeking food on vertical surfaces an obvious example. One suggestion that has not previously been raised might pertain to the climbing into vegetation near breeding ponds. Newts—both males and females—are known to use pheromones in courtship in their breeding ponds. Could it be that they are using an elevated position to ensure pheromones are further and more widely distributed in the surrounding air currents rather than relying on short-range diffusion close to the ground? Importuning—I’m here, come and get me’—could be what some of the climbing newts are up to, the unpaired ones climbing into reeds and shrubs to advertise their presence. 

Bringsøe H. 2013. Height-seeking habits of the Smooth Newt, Lissotriton vulgaris – a neglected behavioural trait. Mertensiella 19, 131-138.

Dusenbery DB. 1992. Sensory Ecology. New York: WH Freeman.

Frazer. D. 1983. Reptiles and Amphibians in Britain. London:Bloomsbury.

Smith M. 1954. The British Amphibians and Reptiles. Revised Edition. London: Collins