Wilkins tagged me. It’s all his fault.
This is supposed to be a historical meme…why bother me with this? I think it’s because philosophers have a professional obligation to annoy people with weird questions, and Wilkins takes personal pleasure in poking me now and then, the brute. Here’s what I’m supposed to do.
- Link to the person who tagged you.
- List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
- Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
- Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.
Favorite historical figure?? I don’t suppose I can name the progenote or urbilaterian, but because this was started by some historian somewhere, I have to restrict myself to some boring recent human being; and like Wilkins, I should avoid the obvious choices, although in his case Frederick II Hohenstaufen was a cool dude.
I guess I’ll name another cool dude…
Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer, Edler von Huthorn (1792-1876).
He was an Estonian — and seriously, the Baltic states don’t get enough credit as a major seat of European civilization, one that has been walked over far too many times. Let’s all hear it for Estonia and the scientific tradition therein!
As you might guess from the name, he was also a Prussian nobleman, a genuine, certified knight. Hereditary titles don’t mean squat as far as the value of his work goes, but still, there’s a cachet to being a member of the old European nobility, especially the cranky, distinguished branch rather than one of the numerous fluffy superficial branches of hereditary twithood.
He volunteered for the Napoleonic Wars, another distinction not often bandied about in the pantheon of scientists. Better yet, he was on the right side, opposing Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Best of all, he didn’t fight — he served as a doctor. You’ve got to respect that.
He was a developmental biologist who discovered the blastula stage, the notochord, the mammalian ovum, and with others, defined the germ layer theory of development, which explained the configuration of the blastula and gastrula as layers of cells in sheets. This is all stuff that is so basic and so central to our knowledge of embryology that we simply take it for granted nowadays.
He wasn’t just an embryologist, but also a taxonomist, entomologist, ichthyologist, anthropologist, geologist, ecologist (before the word was coined), geographer, and arctic explorer. Those were the days, when good scientists were expected to know something about just about everything.
He was an opinionated curmudgeon who didn’t hesitate to argue with the scientific establishment of his day. He disagreed strongly with the Naturphilosophen who argued for a systematic hierarchy in the taxonomy of life with an attendant echo of that pattern in developmental recapitulation. He proposed his four laws of development to explain development as a divergence into diverse forms, rather than an adherence to a historical pattern. Here they are:
- General characters appear earlier in development than specialized characters.
- Less general character appear later (and build on) the general framework of earlier stages.
- The embryo of any organism, rather than passing through the stages of other forms, tends to progressively differentiate itself from them.
- The embryo of one animal form never resembles the adult of another, but only its embryo.
Good rules, and still valid.
Late in life, he argued equally strongly against Charles Darwin’s theory, even while accepting the evidence Darwin discussed. His last book, Studien auf dem Gebiete der Naturwissenschaften, contained a critique of evolutionary theory that said that “for a true understanding of nature, we cannot dispense with a governing intelligence,” and he also compared life to a machine which builds itself, and a chemical laboratory that assembles its own reagents — that’s right, he was a creationist, and one of the Intelligent Design variety. Except, of course, that he relied on the competent interpretation of the actual evidence of his day, rather than the New Creationist strategy of promulgating ignorance. His thinking was guided in part by his belief in an archetype for each species, an ideal pattern from which only limited deviation could occur.
Despite his bona fides as a respected opponent of evolution, modern creationists ignore him for the most part. Why? I think because he also said this, upon examining some unlabeled embryo specimens:
I am quite unable to say to what class they belong. They may be lizards, or small birds, or very young mammalia, so complete is the similarity in the mode of formation of the head and trunk in these animals. The extremities are still absent, but even if they had existed in the earliest stage of the development we should learn nothing, because all arise from the same fundamental form.
The similarity of early embryos is something the creationists want to deny, so the fact that an unimpeachable anti-evolutionist was the first to describe the similarities in detail must make them rather uncomfortable. They try to pin the observation on Haeckel, instead, and call it a “forgery.”
By the way, the other current creationist copout, that various embryos do differ substantially at the very earliest stages, doesn’t apply either. Karl Ernst von Baer discovered the blastula stage, and also described the earliest embryonic membranes. He was well aware of the early differences.
The extant photos of the fellow reveal a singularly homely man who looks either dour or a bit snooty. By all accounts, however, he was witty and pleasant in social situations despite the strong opinions he expressed in print, with a good sense of humor. He married when he was 28 to Auguste von Medem, had 6 children, and was an all-around good human being.
I’ve admired von Baer for a long time; one of the most pleasant afternoons I’ve ever had was an opportunity to spend a day with the embryologist and historian of science, Jane Oppenheimer, and in addition to getting her perspective on how Philadelphia had changed since the 1920s, we talked a great deal about one of her favorite people, Karl Ernst von Baer. She deepened my interest, and I tend to find an excuse to bring up von Baer in most of my classes.
By the way, I’ve never found a consistent report of his birthday — the dates wobble from 17 February to 29 February. He’d be 216 years old sometime around now, so pick a date and raise a glass to the old man…or we could just declare two weeks of celebration to make sure we hit the right day. Prost!
Now I have to name seven people? OK, let’s pick some who might have an informed opinion about some interesting aspects of history: Amardeep, New Kid, Ed, Ancarett, Tristero, Sharon, and the Little Professor. Anyone else can go for it, too!