Tuesday 28 February 2023

OUCH. Medawar’s Demolition of Teilhard de Chardin’s 1950s book, The Phenomenon of Man

P B Medawar in 1960

In his review published in 1961, now deservedly more famous than the book* itself, Peter Medawar started as he meant to go on. After quoting five aphorisms he extracted, Medawar wrote:

This little bouquet of aphorism, each one thought sufficiently important by its author to deserve a paragraph to itself, is taken from Père Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man. It is a book widely held to be of the utmost profundity and significance; it created something like a sensation upon its publication in France, and some reviewers hereabouts called it the Book of the Year — one, the Book of the Century. Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure — a feeble argument, abominably expressed — and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is a cause as well as merely a symptom of Teilhard's alarming apocalyptic seizures.

The dissection, analysis and demolition of the Jesuit priest’s bestseller on the evolution of man—which kept him in trouble with the Catholic Church—is so well known and readily available online that I will not include large extracts. Some, however, are too delicious to resist:

Laymen firmly believe that scientists are one species of person. They are not to know that different branches of science require very different aptitudes and degrees of skill for their prosecution. Teilhard practised an intellectually unexacting kind of science in which he achieved a moderate proficiency. He has no grasp of what makes a logical argument or of what makes for proof. He does not even preserve the common decencies of scientific writing, though his book is professedly a scientific treatise.

It is written in an all but totally unintelligible style, and this is construed as prima-facie evidence of profundity. (At present this applies only to works of French authorship; in later Victorian and Edwardian times the same deference was thought due to Germans, with equally little reason.) It is because Teilhard has such wonderful deep thoughts that he's so difficult to follow—really it's beyond my poor brain but doesn't that just show how profound and important it must be?

The fire of Medawar’s review was not just aimed at the author. Sir Julian Huxley came in for it as a backer of Teilhard de Chardin or at least part of what Huxley thought he was saying. Perhaps, like me, Medawar thought that Huxley, but not the other Huxleys, was a grossly over-rated player in early 20th century biology. Oh, and the French did not escape:

French is not a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has according resorted to the use of that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit.

Medawar concluded:

I have read and studied The Phenomenon of Man with real distress, even with despair. Instead of wringing our hands over the Human Predicament, we should attend to those parts of it which are wholly remediable, above all to the gullibility which makes it possible for people to be taken in by such a bag of tricks as this. If it were an innocent, passive gullibility it would be excusable: but all too clearly, alas, it is an active willingness to be deceived.

When the English translation of Teilhard’s book appeared in Britain, Medawar was preparing his Reith Lectures for BBC Radio. They were on ‘The Future of Man’. Medawar returned to his review and republished it as a chapter in his 1982 book, Pluto’s Republic. He discussed it in an introductory chapter and ended with:

My aged mother was very shocked by my review of Teilhard: 'How could you be so horrid to that nice old man? she asked me. The reason, I told her, was that Teilhard had described his book as a work of science—and one executed with remorseless logic—and as a work of science it has been accepted by its more gullible readers. If only he had described it as an imaginative rhapsody 'based on science’ in much the same way as some films are said to be based on books to which in the outcome they seem to bear little resemblance, then The Phenomenon of Man would have caused no offence.

Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is now perhaps better remembered for his role in the initial excavations of Piltdown Man, that greatest hoax. Some suspect he was involved but on Medawar’s reasoning his own gullibility was so great that he would have easily been fooled. He was involved in the excavation of Peking Man, spending 20 years in China as priest/explorer/geologist/theologian/palaeontologist, also the cause of friction between him and his superiors in Rome.

Teilhard de Chardin

*The French original was published in 1955, the years of Teilhard’s death. The English translation was published in 1959.

Medawar PB. 1961. The Phenomenon of Man. By Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. With an introduction by Sir Julian Huxley. Collins, London, 1959 .Mind 70, 99-106.

Medawar PB. 1982. Pluto’s Republic. Oxford University Press.

Saturday 25 February 2023

Blue-headed (Blue-capped) Waxbill: a colour plate from 1962

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the 3rd in the series.

– – – – – – – – – –

This plate illustrates an article by Derek Goodwin (Richard Patrick Goodwin 1920 –2008) who went on to write the book Estrildid Finches of the World in 1984.

This bird is usually called the Blue-capped Waxbill (Uraeginthus cyanocephalus) these days but Blue-capped Cordon-bleu is still seen. It occurs in Tanzania and Kenya with smaller number in countries further north.

The artist for this plate was Chloe Elizabeth Talbot Kelly (born 1927) who went on to illustrate a number of field guides. Her paintings of birds appear in art sales. She began painting in 1945 at the Natural History Museum in London, the place of work of Derek Goodwin.

Avicultural Magazine 68, 1962

Tuesday 21 February 2023

OUCH. Attacks in Print: Francis Crick under fire from an embryologist

This letter appeared in Nature in 1970:

Diffusion in Embryogenesis

SIR,—As an embryologist who started work during the heyday of "fields" and "gradients", I suppose I ought to be grateful to Dr Francis Crick for allowing me a nostalgic look back at these long-discredited concepts which he has now resurrected—or should I say, canonized—with the double halo of his own reputation and some elegant mathematics (Nature, 225, 420; 1970). There is, however, one point that he appears to overlook: the extreme rarity with which sheer diffusion processes occur in living systems. Twenty years ago my better-informed colleagues told me about active transport and permeases. Ever since then, if materials have diffused in and out of my experimental embryos, I have regarded it as a sign that they are dying or dead. A sheet of frozen-dried tissue, extended between source and sink, might fit Dr Crick's formulae, but-alas-it would not differentiate!

Yours faithfully


The Medical School, University of Bristol

Well, Francis Crick couldn’t fail to get that message. Leave it to the real embryologists is the bit between the lines. And indeed Elizabeth Marion Deuchar was a real embryologist in the days before embryology morphed into developmental biology. She was born on 13 February 1927 in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. After graduating in zoology from Oxford in 1948 she moved to Edinburgh where as a member of staff of the Agricultural Research Council (now BBSRC) at the Animal Breeding Research Organisation she worked with Conrad Hal Waddington FRS (1905-1975) for a PhD. From 1953 to 1966 she was Lecturer and then Reader in Embryology at University College London. She then appears to have taken what turned out to be a very different path. She resigned in order to attend theological college. However, in 1968 she returned to embryology, in the Department of Anatomy at Bristol. She married in 1972 at the then late age of 45 and moved to the University of Exeter. Elizabeth Deuchar died of cancer on 26 January 1979 near Axminster in Devon, aged 52.

The question now is: was she right in challenging Crick? The answer must be no because she seems to have confused movement of substances across cell membranes, where simple diffusion is indeed rare, with movement between cells in the extracellular space or, as shown later, from cell to cell through ‘gap’ junctions. The arguments of whether a simple diffusion gradient, to which cells respond depending on the concentration of a signalling chemical to which they are exposed, is modified by, for example, binding of the substance by cells, continue.

Ruth Bellairs (1926-2021), her former colleague at University College London, who wrote an obituary for the Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology thought highly of her: 

Elizabeth Deuchar published over 60 scientific papers and three books, but her influence on the subject went far beyond that. Apart from the fact that she was an inspiring teacher to several generations of undergraduates and Ph.D. students, she was one of those dedicated scientists who quietly organise meetings and seminars, sit on committees and give their time unselfishly to help others. 

More recently, John Wallingford of the University of Texas at Austin, in his 2022 chapter on the history of Xenopus in research which he kindly sent to me, discussed the spat with Crick and reached the same conclusion as I did. However, he also includes another Deuchar gem:

When a developmental biologist says “in mammals” he probably means “in the mouse”; by “in birds” he almost certainly means “in the chick”. When he generalizes more widely than this about mechanisms of differentiation in “all developing cells” there is a danger that he is referring to work carried out exclusively on Xenopus. 

—Elizabeth Deuchar (1972) 


Elizabeth Marion Deuchar

Bellairs R. 1980. Dr Elizabeth Marion Deuchar (1927–1979). Journal of Embryology and Experimental Morphology. 57,1–2.

Deuchar EM. 1970. Diffusion in embryogenesis. Nature 225, 671. 10.1038/225671b0

Kuhn T, Landge AN, Mörsdorf D, Coßmann J, Gerstenecker J, Čapek D, Müller P, Gebhardt JCM. 2022. Single-molecule tracking of Nodal and Lefty in live zebrafish embryos supports hindered diffusion model. Nat Commun 13, 6101 doi 10.1038/s41467-022-33704-z

Wallingford JB. 2022. A quick history of Xenopus. “The humble batrachian”. In, Xenopus. From Basic Biology to Disease Models in the Genomic Era. edited by Abraham Fainsod and Sally A Moody. p1-12. Boca Baton, Florida and Abingdon, Oxford: CRC Press. doi: 10.1201/9781003050230-2 

Saturday 18 February 2023

An Unusually Large Smooth Newt. Who wrote this letter in 1977?


Dear Sir,

On the 18th October, 1977, I acquired a Common or Smooth newt of exceptional size, it measures 101 millimetres from head to tail, and was found in a suburban area of Southampton.

In the past I have had many newts of such species, but never one so large.

Malcolm Smith gives in his "New Naturalists" book the maximum length for a four year old female smooth newt as being 97 millimetres.

The newt I have came from a small fish pond in a back garden, where there were many such newts, but of smaller size.

The grid reference is Map SU41/51 lat. 142 Long. 444. I would be very grateful if you would tell me if this specimen is the longest reported.

Yours faithfully,

C.G. Packham

The letter appeared in the Newsletter of the British Herpetological Society, December 1977.

C.G. Packham is of course the BBC wildlife presenter, Christopher Gary Packham, then aged 16.

Friday 17 February 2023

Red-billed Leiothrix (aka Pekin Robin) in Hong Kong

AJP found this flock of five birds in the Tai Po Kau reserve in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago. They were on a forest path in the low light of early morning. The bane of all birdwatchers—a dog walker—put them to flight.

Birdwatchers in Hong Kong can never quite decide the origins of some of the birds that can be seen there. Because the Red-billed Leiothrix (Leiothrix lutea) was and is commonly imported to the bird markets and shops, any that were seen anywhere in Hong Kong were considered to be escapees or ‘introduced’. Then, when small flocks were spotted in rural areas, the possibility that some of those seen may have been genuinely wild was admitted. I see the current edition of the Field Guide is back to a captive origin. There is no reason why they should not be present. Hong Kong does seem within the natural range but with the deforestation that occurred for firewood as the human population grew and then, devastatingly, during the Japanese Occupation, it is perhaps not surprising they could find little or no suitable habitat. Since the 1960s, cover with trees and shrubs has increased but it is perhaps not surprising that the old forest reserve (planted, sadly, in parts by foresters with non-native trees) has a healthy population. The Field Guide has it as an uncommon and local resident but if it is that uncommon then we would not have seen it every time we have been to Tai Po Kau.

In the wild, Pekin Robins, sorry Red-billed Leiothrix, occur from the Himalayas to throughout southern China. We have seen them in Bhutan, in Sichuan as well as in Hong Kong.

The name Pekin Robin for this bird was the norm for both birdwatchers throughout the world and aviculturists. OK it is not native to Pekin (Beijing in pinyin) nor is it a robin but there are so many such anomalies in common names for birds that one more would have made no difference.

Stunningly attractive, the Pekin Robin was also the cheapest ‘softbill’ available to birdkeepers in the 20th century. It is not surprising it was traded across the world in such large numbers. ‘Softbills’ do not crack seed and in captivity are fed a ‘soft’ mixture including dried fruit and insects. They can also survive outside in England in a sheltered aviary throughout the winter. Since escapees have established populations in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal as well as in Japan, Hawaii and Réunion, there have been suggestions they could become—or already have become—established in England.

Friday 10 February 2023

Cabot’s Tragopan: a colour plate of a pheasant from 1963

In the days when colour printing was extremely expensive, the Avicultural Society had special appeals for funds to support the appearance in Avicultural Magazine of the occasional colour plate. A well-known bird artist was then commissioned. Although the whole run of the Society’s magazines can be found online, the plates rarely see the light of day. Therefore I decided to show one, now and again, on this site. This is the second in the series.
– – – – – – – – – –


Cabot’s Tragopan (Tragopan caboti) is from the mountains of south-eastern China. It was named in 1857 by John Gould for Samuel Cabot (1815-1885) of Boston, USA, who was a very wealthy ornithologist as well as a physician and surgeon. Cabot had leant Gould his specimen. In the wild, their habitat has become extremely fragmented and the bird is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by IUCN, only one step from ‘Endangered’.

The artist was John Cyril Harrison (1898-1985). For most of his life he lived in Norfolk. He trained at the Slade after the First World War and became well known for his wildlife paintings, especially birds. He was a regular visitor to Scotland, parts of Africa and Iceland. 

The short article accompanying this plate was written by Philip Wayre (1921-2014) who in 1959 had founded the Ornamental Pheasant Trust. He also had a small zoo at Great Witchingham, the Norfolk Wildlife Park. He was involved with a number of charities concerned with wildlife including the Otter Trust and what is now the Philip Wayre Upland Trust. Given Philip Wayre’s activities in Norfolk I think it is no coincidence that the artist was Harrison. Wayre described the breeding of birds he had imported from China in 1960 in his attempt to maintain a captive breeding population in Britain. Inbreeding was—and apparently still is—a major problem with captive populations from a small number of founders.

Avicultural Magazine 69, 1963

Thursday 9 February 2023

Monkeys and Vitamin D: How the word was spread by a medical man to Cheshire in the forerunner to Chester Zoo

My story, Monkeys and Vitamin D. Pioneering science successfully applied to wild animal husbandry in the 1920s and 30s by Miss Hume, Miss Smith and Dr Lucas, from December 2021 was read by Gwyn Griffiths who then got in touch. He has been researching the history of the zoo at Shavington in Cheshire. The Zoo, long closed, is these days only remembered as the forerunner of Chester Zoo and its founder George Mottershead. Confusingly, the zoo at Shavington was called Oakfield Zoological Gardens, the same name as the house and land that Motterhead bought near Chester, twenty-odd miles away. 

One man who was in partnership with Mottershead at Shavington seems to have been written out of the histories. He was Dr William (‘Willie) Larmour English, a general practitioner from Haslington, a couple of miles away.

Gwyn Griffiths has a ledger in which English recorded events at Shavington and at his own house in Haslington. That record was saved by the doctor’s housekeeper whose relation’s daughter used some empty pages for school homework. Gwyn noticed that there are references to Miss Hume (spelt Hulme) and Dr Lucas as well as treatments for sick animals with preparations containing Vitamin D, which had come on to the market in the late 1920s, and the use of ultraviolet lamps. I have read the relevant extracts and it is clear that the good doctor was in touch with and following closely the work of Miss Hume and Miss Smith at the Lister Institute and by extension that at London Zoo by Lucas. In short, he was applying up-to-the-minute research on the effects of Vitamin D and ultraviolet radiation aimed at preventing rickets in the human population to his other great interest in life.

English noted the recovery of some animals given vitamins D and A. For example, ‘Antoinette’ a Common Marmoset: ’18 months rickety, nearly died. Saved by massive doses of radistol + radiostolium. May 31st 1931’.

I found this photograph on a family tree website
Willie (left) and Howard English

Mottershead and English parted company, it is rumoured on bad terms. It would certainly seem from English’s ledger that he was highly critical of Mottershead’s care of the animals at Shavington particularly of those transferred in a healthy condition from English’s house at Haslington to the zoo at Shavington.

The proof of the pudding, or in this case of the value of vitamin supplements and/or ultraviolet lamps, is evident from Dr English’s breeding success: Golden Lion Tamarins (Leontopithecus rosalia) four times in 1931-32 and Douroucoulis (Aotus trivirgatus) in 1933. In a paper to the Zoological Society of London he noted that the animals had been given Vitamin D.

In a previous note here, I pointed out the additional requirements for Vitamin D of New World Monkeys over and above those of other primates. I would guess that Dr English, with his success of breeding these species and in bringing rachitic marmosets back from the brink (his own as well as a pet of a woman in Chesjhire), was using pretty hefty doses of the Vitamin D preparations. Douroucoulis are interesting in that they are nocturnal. It seems likely therefore that even in the wild these creatures of the night must rely on dietary sources of Vitamin D.

Dr Willie English was William Larmour English. He was born on 16 February 1887 in Lurgan, County Armagh, in what is now Northern Ireland, and educated at Campbell College, Belfast. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with the usual medical degrees of that institution, MB, BCh, BAO, in 1911. He was in practice in Lurgan in 1915 but in 1917 joined the Royal Army Medical Corps; he was a commissioned on 19 July 1917, a few days before another medical man with zoological interests, Burgess Barnett. By the middle of August he was serving in East Africa. The 1921 Census shows he was a Resident Medical Officer at the City Hospital in West Derby, Liverpool. In 1923, judging from the reported length of service of his housekeeper, he was in medical practice in Haslington where one of his partners was his younger brother, Howard.

The 1939 Register (an emergency census in preparation for war) shows just two residents at his house in High Street, Haslington, English himself, a single man, and his housekeeper, Ida Ellen Louise Pye, born 11 November 1886. She the housekeeper who saved the ledger of happenings at Shavington and in his own collection.

Willie English died in 1945 aged 58. The Nantwich Chronicle and the Crewe Chronicle of Saturday 22 December gave the story. He was found dead in bed on Tuesday 18 December. Louise Pye who had been his housekeeper for 22 years reported to the inquest held on 20th that he had not seemed well and returned from visiting patients complaining of a pain between his shoulders. On taking him a cup of tea the next morning she found him dead. Examination post mortem showed he had died of natural causes. At his funeral on Friday 21, his services in the village were remembered, with obvious great appreciation and affection, in a packed parish church.

But Willie English had not quite finished. In 1947, the William Larmour English Charity was established. Still extant in 2023 its purpose is: Financial assistance towards the cost of holidays or short breaks, for those deemed to be in need or to be worthy causes by the doctors in the Haslington Surgery or by the Trustees.

Nowhere in the memorials to Willie English were his zoological interests and successes mentioned. He was a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and was I suspect a part the reason for the bit of zoo folklore from the middle decades of the 20th century that can be summed up as, ‘Vets were alright for animals with hooves, not bad for those with paws, but for monkeys you need a medical doctor’. The frightening thing was that my old veterinary colleagues who trained in the first half of the 20th century agreed.

…and I hope Gwyn Griffiths will publish more on his researches into the zoo at Shavington and on the contents of Dr English’s ledger.

English WL. 1934. Notes on the breeding of a Douroucouli (Aotus trivirgatus) in captivity. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1934 (new volume numbering 104), 143-144.

Sunday 5 February 2023

Field Guide to the Birds of Hong Kong and South China: a new edition

I have had time to look at my Christmas present from Hong Kong. It is the new, 9th, edition of Field Guide to the Birds of Hong Kong and South China, compiled and published by the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society, of which we were members in the 1960s.

By covering a huge area of China, from Shanghai in the north to the border with Vietnam and Hainan in the south and from Hunan and Guanxi in the west to Zhejiang and Fujian in the east, the birdwatcher in Hong Kong can find details of most of the birds that might on occasion occur there as a rare vagrant. However, that coverage comes at a cost. There are whole pages of birds that have never been seen nor are likely to be seen in Hong Kong. Perhaps a thinner, lighter version limited to the avian residents, migrants and rare vagrants might be more suitable to fit the pockets of those human Hong Kong residents and visitors who have no intention of going to mainland China. In other words, an edition covering similar ground to the early editions of this book written by Clive Viney and the late Karen Phillipps. The 1st edition was published in 1977 by the Hong Kong Government.

With the superbly-produced new edition of the Field Guide and the Photographic Guide to the Birds of Hong Kong, first published in 2010 also by The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, Hong Kong birders, of which there are increasing numbers—and visitors—are very well served indeed.

I cannot help compare with what we have now with what we had 50-60 years ago. Then, until the second edition appeared in 1967, we had the first edition of Geoffrey Herklots’s Hong Kong Birds. The first edition was published in 1953 from articles in the pre-war Hong Kong Naturalist since Herklots had lost his personal notes during the Japanese Occupation. Colour printing was enormously expensive and the few plates that the publishers (South China Morning Post) could afford had been painted by Commander A.M. Hughes of the Royal Navy who was stationed in Hong Kong in 1929-1931. Herklots’s descriptions of the birds, prepared from skins at the Natural History Museum in London, were extremely good and we managed to identify most of the new birds we had seen while out for a walk.

In turn, Herklots and his birdwatching friends were equally frustrated by the lack of a reference book. He noted that La Touche’s Birds of Eastern China had appeared in parts and had only been completed in 1934. Herklots revolutionised life the the birdwatcher in Hong Kong in the 1950s, followed by Viney and Phillipps in the late 1970s. The Hong Kong Birdwatching Society has carried on that tradition from its foundation in 1957 not only by taking over the preparation and publishing of books but also by producing annual reports and checklists.

Highly recommended but not cheap in U.K. In Hong Kong the book retails for HK$338 (£36). British booksellers (not yet on Amazon) are quoting nearly £50.

Finally, I cannot resist showing the back cover of the new field guide. Black Kites over the harbour and urban areas were the first indication to those arriving by air or sea that they had arrived in Hong Kong, somewhere very different and somewhere very special. The editors could not have made a better choice.

Wednesday 1 February 2023

Blyth’s Hornbill. The only hornbill in and around New Guinea

Blyth’s Hornbill is a common bird in New Guinea. It is the only species of hornbill that occurs there. Its distribution stretches from the islands of Halmahera and Bacan in the west, through the non-mountainous regions of New Guinea to the Solomon islands. This one is a male. In the late afternoon he sat in the top of a tree long enough to be photographed. We had just landed on the island of Waigeo off the north-western tip of New Guinea.

Sometimes known as Papuan Hornbill (which would incorrectly imply a distribution limited to New Giuinea and its immediate offshore islands), this species has the scientific name Rhyticeros plicatus. However, it was, for decades, Aceros plicatus.

Apparently, crinkles on the casque are added at the rate of one per year until there are about six. Then older wrinkles begin to break off. This male has five or six as far as I can see. The female has a black neck; she is walled into the nest by mud as in all hornbills.

The hornbill was named for Edward Blyth (1810 –1873), the impecunious and highly unfortunate curator from 1841 to 1863 of the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta.