Thursday, 1 June 2017

"The tide is setting in against Darwinism"

The quote in the title of this post comes from All the articles of the Darwin faith (of which 67 are given) published in 1875 by the Reverend F. O. Morris [1 – see above for its dedication]. This was sixteen years after Darwin's On the origin of species and Morris was tenacious in his opposition to all those who supported the idea of the evolution of species from more primitive ancestors. Morris's central argument can be summarised by a quote from his book:

..Mr Darwin [starts] by assuming his principle of evolution as the sole origin of species, and rejecting separate creation as "unscientific". In other words, you must first grant that man is descended from a monkey, and then it is "not difficult to conceive" the intermediate steps; but if you decline to admit this petitio principii, you are wilfully closing your eyes to what Mr Darwin assures you is the fact. Such is the entire circle of this gentleman's logic. The book is full of interesting observations on natural history, exhibiting more or less relevancy to the argument it seeks to sustain; but the induction never advances a step without a confession of logical defectiveness. We are treated to tendencies, and probabilities and conjectures, which derive all their force from a previous assumption of the point to be proved. Take away this, and there is hardly a proposition in the whole work which could pretend to the character of a logical conclusion.

Another key argument against the idea of evolution is given in one of the earlier "articles" as proposed by Morris:

In fine, I believe that although the Mosaic account of the Creation is borne out by the "Testimony of the Rocks" in a most wonderful manner, yet it does not suit the theory I have taken into my head, it cannot possibly be true, and I do not believe a word of it.

There are thus two prongs to Morris's attack: that Darwin based his ideas on an assumption; and that those who "believe" in evolution are opposed to the biblical description of Creation. So, who was Morris and why did he feel the need to publish his attack?
The son of a Royal Navy officer, Morris was brought up in a strict and loving home and "the sterner and determined nature of the father and the exceeding gentleness and tenderness of the mother were united in the son to a remarkable degree" [2]. As a young boy, he had a strong interest in Natural History and this was to stay with him through his time at Oxford (where he read Classics) and after he was ordained in the Church of England. He became famous as the author of a number of books on birds and insects (see some title pages below, top), that were based on his own collections and on detailed observations. Although these works gained him recognition, and a small income, he was fortunate in having the living at Nunburnholme in the Yorkshire Wolds, a small parish that came with a rectory and an income that sustained him and his family for many years (from 1854 -1893) . He is buried next to the church (shown below, bottom). 

Earlier he had been the rector at Nafferton for nine years (16 miles from Nunburnholme [3]), a larger parish providing a smaller living [2,4], and, during his time there, he began to collaborate with the printer Benjamin Fawcett of Driffield, resulting in the History of British Birds and his other popular works of Natural History. These were only one result of his industry, for he wrote many pamphlets, read papers at meetings, and corresponded widely. He enjoyed discussion with friends, especially Richard Wilton, who was the Rector of an adjacent parish, and they spent many hours in conversation on many topics. Among these was the increasing influence of "Darwinism" [2].

Somewhat isolated as a country parson, Morris was highly conservative and could not tolerate change. This orthodoxy, manifest in his views on practices within the Church of England, may be the basis of his disdain for Darwin, who knew that characters like Morris would be waiting after the publication of the Origin. In an essay on Morris, Charles A Kofoid writes [5]:

His antipathy to Darwinism found.. ..persistent expression, and, because of his position as a well-known naturalist and his wide acquaintance in clerical, educational, and military circles, probably had some temporary influence as shown by appreciative letters which he copied in the later editions of his anti-Darwinian pamphlets.. .. His long experience as a naturalist seemed not to have given him any insight into the phenomenon of adaptation, the existence of natural selection, or the meaning of an experiment. His Oxford training in logic did not help him to the significance of an hypothesis nor that in ethics to an appreciation of courtesy in argument.

This is a rather harsh judgement and similar to the contemporary one provide by T. H. Huxley that Holt [3] describes as a "masterpiece of the 'expert patronizing the layman' genre", Huxley suggesting that:

Morris should spend five or six years studying physical and biological science, then should read Origin of Species 'with the same earnest desire to grasp their real meaning, as I doubt not, animated you when you read your Bible'.

Unsurprisingly, Morris stuck to his guns after this attack.

In fairness, it is still difficult to design experiments that might be conducted over the time scales needed to demonstrate evolutionary processes. Of course, we now have the ability to examine the genetic structure of organisms and see computer-constructed lineages that clearly demonstrate the mechanism of evolution. Experiments with micro-organisms can also be conducted over over short time scales, but with many generations and with huge populations. None of this was possible in Morris's time and I wonder what he would feel about evolution, and Darwin's ideas, were he alive today?

There was never a tide against the ideas contained in On the origin of species, as Morris had predicted. Indeed, Darwin's book is regarded as a hugely influential masterpiece, even by the opponents of its ideas on evolution, while Morris's contribution to the debate on evolution has been forgotten by most.

[1] F. O. Morris (1875) All the articles of the Darwin faith. London, Moffatt, Paige, and Co.

[2] M. C. F. Morris (1897) Francis Orpen Morris: A memoir. London, John C. Nimmo.

[3] Ann Holt (1994) Francis Orpen Morris, 1810-1893. The Expository Times 106: 75-77.

[4] J. F. M. Clark (2004-16) Morris, Francis Orpen (1810-1893), Church of England clergyman and naturalist. Oxford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[5] Charles A. Kofoid (1938) Francis Orpen Morris: ornithologist and anti-Darwinist. The Auk 55: 496-500.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A common name quiz

In my last blog post, I championed the use of common names of organisms, some of which are vividly descriptive [1]. For fun, I've compiled a list of common names of marine organisms that illustrate their beauty and would love to know your favourites (I've limited the list to organisms of marine coasts to reduce the huge number of potential examples).

To make the post into a quiz, the group to which each organism belongs is given at the end (in the order of the list of common names) and the illustration above gives a clue to four of them. All are in English, but those who speak other languages may like to compile their own list of favourites.

Here's the list:

Brown-lined paper bubble
Burnt hotdog 
Crimson pufflet   
Dead man's bootlaces
Flamingo tongue 
Hairy mushroom   
Immaculate damsel 
Landlady's wig 
Lond-spined sea scorpion 
Magnificent foxface  
Pepper dulse 
Prickly redfish 
Red rags 
Red-specked pimplet  
Sea gherkin  
Sea hedgehog  
Sea lemon   
Sea potato  
Spiny mudlark 
Trefoil muzzlet 
Warted corklet 
White-lipped castor bean 
Yellow Fiji leather 

sea cucumber
sea anemone
brown seaweed
brown seaweed
red seaweed
red seaweed
sea cucumber
red seaweed
sea anemone
sea cucumber
brown seaweed
sea slug
sea urchin
sea urchin
sea anemone
sea anemone

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Latin binomials and the beauty of common names

I first became fascinated by larval blackflies as an undergraduate: there was something about their structure, means of attachment to substrata in fast-flowing streams and rivers, and their ability to feed on particles carried by the current. I went on to study the distribution of larvae in moorland streams for my PhD under the inspiring supervision of Dr Lewis Davies at Durham and this led to my independent investigations on larval feeding. I then became interested in the biology of larvae inhabiting lake outlets after meeting Staffan Ulfstrand and the Rheo-Group at the University of Lund in Sweden. We carried out field work in Swedish Lapland and could only provide speculative answers as to why some species are found in huge numbers where rivers drain from lakes.

Blackflies is one common name in English for these insects and they are not to be confused with aphids that inhabit legumes, although they share the same name. You will note that I have also used one word, whereas in North America these insects are called Black Flies - or Buffalo Gnats, a reference to the hunched appearance of the thorax (see above). Having complete metamorphosis, the adults look very different to the larvae and also to the pupae, but the term black fly or blackfly applies to all three stages.

To overcome confusions in the use of common names, both within and between languages, Linnaeus proposed the universal adoption of the Latin binomial system of nomenclature, as in Homo sapiens, for example. This allows accurate identification that is worldwide and international bodies administer the rules of nomenclature [1,2] and act as final arbiters should there be disputes. Even after Latin binomial names become established, they can be changed. After my Swedish adventure, I began studying lake outlets in England, where one species of blackfly, named Simulium argyreatum (it doesn't have a common name to my knowledge), is found in such huge densities that larval masses look like the thick pile of carpets. A few years after I started looking at the biology of this fascinating animal, its name was changed to Simulium noelleri. This was after a careful examination of species described by an entomologist named Meigen, and following the rules of nomenclature [3] (if you would like to read more about nomenclature of these insects, or any other aspect of their biology, you should read Roger Crosskey's brilliant book The Natural History of Blackflies, see below).

The revision meant that my publications contain papers that use two different species names, yet they are the same species, and I became so identified with the larvae of S. noelleri (ex. S. argyreatum) that a cartoon was drawn of me as a larva of this species, complete with head fans and mouthparts instead of hair (see below). Those who chuckle at the humour are probably unaware of the name change.

The disadvantage of common names, compared to Latin binomials, is that there is no overall authority to oversee their use and there are a large number of names in many languages. However, they are more easily remembered. Thus, anglers identify blue-winged olives, but not Serratella ignita, and the common name applied to the adults is also applied to larvae, even though they are yet to have wings. Many who take part in the excellent programme of Riverfly monitoring [4], used to assess the condition of rivers in the UK, use common names rather than the Latin binomial, especially as not all Riverflies are identified to this taxonomic level.

Common names are not only easier to remember; they are also descriptive. For example, the fungus Amanita phalloides is better known as the Death Cap and Amanita  vivosa as the Detroying Angel – both are highly poisonous to humans. Many other species of organisms have been given splendid, almost poetic, names:    

Hare's ear (fungus)
Dryad's saddle (fungus)
Death's head hawk moth (moth)
Dusky brocade (moth)
Sooty gossamer-wing (butterfly)
California dog-face (butterfly)
Jack-go-to-bed-at noon (wild flower)
Smooth hawk's beard (wild flower)
Pied wagtail (bird)
Chestnut-headed flufftail (bird)

This is but a small selection from thousands of names that certainly stick in the memory of English speakers, but they mean little to those who use different languages and that's the problem that is solved by Latin binomials. There is richness in the common names though, even those that are very local, and they lend themselves to what Gosse described as the Romance of Natural History. I'm pleased that we continue to use them.

[3] Heide Zwick and R. W. Crosskey (1980) The taxonomy and nomenclature of the blackflies (Diptera: Simuliidae) described by J. W. Meigen. Aquatic Insects 2: 225-247.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Angels, Billy Graham and me

Like many teenagers, I went through phases of questioning my religious beliefs. Brought up as Christian, I attended the local Baptist Church with the rest of my extended family, but left when I found myself doubting some of the things that I heard and some of the behaviour that I saw. After leaving the congregation of the Baptist Church, I attended a Crusaders group and occasional meetings organised in a local theatre that were modelled on the large-scale rallies held by Billy Graham and other famous evangelists. These meetings encouraged me in my developing agnosticism, as the atmosphere was oppressively emotional and the message was all about being saved from something dreadful.

Having left Christian religious beliefs, I became opposed to those who wanted to talk to me about such matters. On one occasion, when I was away at University, a member of the Christian Union knocked on my door. I welcomed him into my room and was happy to chat about things in general, but not when he started to proselytise. That was a challenge that I couldn't resist, so I fired back with an attack on everything that he was saying to me. It is something that I now feel rather bad about but, at the time, I was pleased to be told that I was the nearest that my visitor had come to the Devil. His reaction reminded me of the warnings I had heard in the preaching of the evangelists.

Recently, I read Billy Graham's book about angels [1] and took a special interest as I have written about angels with bird wings [2,3], so familiar to us in paintings and sculptures. There is no evidence in The Holy Bible to support these images and Billy Graham confirms this (see below, upper); yet his book has a bird-winged angel on the cover (see below, lower). 

The book is an interesting read as it gives an insight into what angels mean to an evangelical Christian like Billy Graham. Here is a very small selection of quotes:

..angels are created spirit beings who can become visible when necessary. They can appear and disappear. They think, feel, will and display emotions.. ..the Bible teaches about them as oracles of God, who give divine or authoritative decisions and bring messages from God to men. To fulfill this function angels have not infrequently assumed visible human form..

..We must be aware that angels keep in close and vital contact with all that is happening on the earth. Their knowledge of earthly matters exceeds that of men. We must attest to their invisible presence and unceasing labors. Let us believe that they are here among us. They may not laugh or cry with us, but we do know they delight with us over every victory in our evangelistic endeavors.

The Bible seems to indicate that angels do not age, and never says that one was sick.. ..The holy angels will never die. some cases in the Old Testament God Himself appeared in human form as an angel.

The Bible.. ..teaches that angels are sexless.

The number of angels remains constant. For the obedient angels do not die. The fallen angels will suffer the final judgement at the time God finishes dealing with them. While we cannot be certain, some scholars estimate that as many as one third of the angels cast their lot with Satan when he mysteriously rebelled against his Creator.

Nothing in Scripture says that angels must eat to stay alive. But the Bible says that on certain occasions angels in human form did indeed eat.

While it is partly speculative, I believe that angels have the capacity to employ heavenly celestial music.. .. I think before we can understand the music of heaven we will have to go beyond our earthly concept of music. I think most earthly music will seem to us to have been in the "minor key" in comparison to what we are going to hear in heaven.

You must read the whole book to gain more information and also to experience the tone that is used. It is similar to the emotive language of a Billy Graham rally and, as we see from the quotation above, is "partly speculative". One of the most important statements in the book is this:

Satan often works by interjecting a question to raise doubts. It is deadly to doubt God's Word!

I take this to mean that we shouldn't question and that is difficult for me as my training as a scientist has questioning at its heart. In reading Billy Graham's book, I was reminded repeatedly about his constant concern about Satan's influence in the World and of our need to be saved. It took me back to my experience as an undergraduate student. 

By the way, I don't believe that angels exist. That does not mean that I disrespect those that do believe in angels; rather I regard it as being a matter of personal choice. Sorry, Billy.

[1] Billy Graham (1975) Angels: God's Secret Agents. London, Hodder & Stoughton.