Browsing through the Philosophical Transactions on species and generation

One of the major events in the history of science was the foundation of a number of published communications, so that the results of observation and research could be relatively quickly shared amongst scholars, and one of the first of these was the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, which institution was founded in part by my illustrious namesake, Bp John Wilkins.

Although the actual publications are online only in JStor, to which a subscription is required, the Philosophical Transactions were republished by the Royal Society in the early 1800s, and they are online via the inestimable Internet Archive. So, at the prompting of a correspondent, Jeb McLeish, I have been downloading and reading some of the very early pieces on species. Remember, the term species was not specially defined for biology (or, as then called, natural history, which also included geology) until 1686 by John Ray, so it is interesting to find that it was widely used in a loose sense when describing living kinds of insects, shellfish, fishes and so on. It was also used widely for its traditional meaning of a visual appearance, as in optical experiments.

But Jeb pointed me at a discussion by a friend of John Ray's, Tancred Robinson, on the myth of geese and other birds arising from spontaneous generation, like the Barnacle Goose myth I discussed before. Robinson wrote:

[under the fold]

There are so many mistakes among naturalists and some learned men, concerning the bird at Paris called Macreuse, and in other parts of France, Macroul, or Diable de Mer, that it may be no improper subject of inquiry. The French eat it on fish days, and all Lent, accounting it a sort of fish, or a sea animal with cold blood, or else a bernacle generated either out of rotten wood floating on the sea, or out of certain fruits falling into the water, and there transformed into a bird; or else from a kind of sea-shells, adhering to old planks and ship-bottoms, called Conchae Anatiferae; whereas the bernacle, as also the macreuse itself, is oviparous, and of the goose kind; and the shells themselves contain a testaceous animal of their own species, as the oyster, cockle, and muscle do. Gesner was led into the first error by Gyraldus, Boethius, and Turner; Sir Robert Moray fell into the third and last mistake; Sir Robert Sybbald and M. Graindorge have indeed confuted these equivocal generations of the bernacle and macreuse; yet they both make them to be the same bird; whereas they are of different tribes, the bernacle of the goose, and the macreuse of the duck kind. That the bernacle and macreuse are both oviparous is beyond all doubt, the anatomy of their parts serving for generation, their laying eggs, and sometimes breeding among us, are all evident proofs thereof. M. Cattier, in his Traite de la Macreuse, affirms that the French macreuse is the greater coot of Bellonius; and Mr. Willughby, Ornitholog. p. 320, seems to be of the same opinon. Some learned men take it for the puffin of the Scillies and Isle of Man; others for a sort of colymbus or mergus, ducker or diver. But the French macreuse is of the duck kind, and is the scoter, or anas nigra minor described by Mr. Ray in Mr. Willughby's Ornitholog. p. 336. [On the French Macreuse and the Scotch Bernacle; with a Continuation of the Account of Boyling and other Fountains. By Dr. Tancred Robinson, F.R.S. Philosophical Transactions N°; 172, p. 1036.]

For Warner Brothers fans, anas nigra minor is the Latin for "little black duck".

What is at issue here is the long-standing claim by Catholics that certain birds were actually fish, enabling them to be eaten on Fridays and during Lent because they weren't "meat". The "Scotch Bernacle" is the Barnacle Goose, which was thought to be spontaneously generated (the contemporary term used here is "equivocal generation") from rotting wood or fruits. Older forms of the Barnacle myth have the goose falling from the tree either on land, where it dries up and dies, or on water, where it swims away. The "conchae anatiferae" mentioned by Robinson are the "shells of the duckling".

What happens here, that happened also with Albert the Great's debunking of the myth in the 13th century, is the use of experiment and observation. John Ray, Robinson, Francis Willughby and others actually dissect the animals and find that the reproductive machinery are the same as birds that reproduce in the ordinary manner (that is, they are oviparous, or egg-laying). Moreover, they are distinct birds. We see here the beginnings of taxonomy in the modern sense, of identifying distinct species and not merely using ordinary lay categories of "kinds". Disambiguating lay or vernacular terms is the beginning of taxonomy. It's still some 60 years before Linnaeus, but the groundwork is set up at this time. Ray even managed to note both that sharks and rays were cartilaginous and that cetaceans were effectively "quadrupeds" without hair or limbs, again based on their mode of reproduction. The term "mammal" was not in play yet, but Ray managed to show that whales and dolphins were mammals.

The increasing rejection of spontaneous generation as an ordinary reproductive mode of some species begins at this time too. Francisco Redi's book arguing against it had been just published, in 1668, and was anonymously and favourably reviewed in the Transactions. Ray even says,

Whether there be any spontaneous or anomalous generation of animals, as has been the constant opinion of naturalists heretofore, I think there is good reason to question. It seems to me at present most probable, that there is no such thing ; but that even all insects are the natural issue of parents of the same species with themselves. F. Redi has gone a good way in proving this, having cleared the point concerning generation ex materia putrida. [No. 74, 2219]

There is a noticeable shift from ordinary folk biology concerned with appearances to scientific biology concerned with mechanisms of reproduction at this time. Although it took another 150 years to finally kill off the doctrine of equivocal generation (see my review here), the notion of natural, or living, species arises in concert with the concern with generation, which is to say, reproduction.

In my forthcoming book I baptise a notion I call the Generative Conception of Species, which is, I think, the common concept regarding living kinds that rules from Aristotle to the revival of Mendelian genetics. The essentialist myth, however, would have us believe that naturalists were ruled by the vernacular phenomenal idea, and that each species had a definitional essence. There is, to my eyes, no evidence for this whatsoever. Generation plus resemblance was what counted until the notion that there were heritable factors arose, at which point biologists started to look for the "genetic essence" of species, beginning with Johannsen.

No evidence that these 17th century observers were ruled by any essentialistic notions is to be found, so far. Ray, Redi, Malpighi, Bauhin, Gesner, etc., all observed well enough to identify different kinds that were natural, which reproduced. They then went looking for the generative apparatus that made things resemble their parents, and generative organs and modes (like oviparity or viviparity) were crucial in making this out.

As a side issue, however, note that the folk taxonomy employed by the Catholic doctrine of fish not being meat, or any animal that lives in the sea being a fish (including a whale) remained in ordinary discourse and law until quite late. In Moby Dick, whales are regarded as fish, and the law of New York applied fish taxes to whale products until a famous case in 1819, which was covered by Graham Burnett's book Trying Leviathan last year. There is a large disparity between the concepts of folk biology and law, and that of science, which plays out most urgently in the creationist campaigns.

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Very interesting. It's hard to comprehend that such issues were serious subjects of discussion at such a late date.

I suppose that three centuries hence* similar opinions will be formed about us.

* obviously, I'm an optimist :)

By John Morales (not verified) on 30 Aug 2008 #permalink

Have you read Walton's "The Compleat Angler"? It gives, I think, a good picture of the pragmatic thinking of people of the time who just wanted to catch fish. He mentions that pike come from eggs and maybe from swamp slime as well. I've collected small fingerling pike in a swamp with a lot of brown iron bacterial slime and bits of dead grass. The idea that pike are spontaneously generated from swamp slime is not unreasonable.

It strkes me that spontaneous generation had to be put to rest before we could really think of species in an evolutionary or geneological way.

In Venezuela, Chiguire, or Capybara, big water rodents, are harvested for sale as "fish" during Lent.

By Jim Thomrson (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Tancred Robinsons approach stands in stark contrast to Sir Robert Murray who's "A Relation Concerning Barnacles" was published by the Royal Society in 1677-78.

What Sir Robert viewed through his "diminshing glass" was very diffrent to the creature Tancred Robinson saw.

Belief is perhaps the key factor affecting Murrays vision.

The barnacle was one of gods most wonderful creatures and it's three fold creation demonstrated the creative nature of god; it's a monster in the strict latin sense of the word.

Hector Beoce who saw the sea as the crucial factor in the birds reproduction states of the ocean that it "is the caus and production of mony wonderful thingis"

By Jeb mcleish (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

The essentialist myth, however, would have us believe that naturalists were ruled by the vernacular phenomenal idea, and that each species had a definitional essence. There is, to my eyes, no evidence for this whatsoever. Generation plus resemblance was what counted until the notion that there were heritable factors arose, at which point biologists started to look for the "genetic essence" of species, beginning with Johannsen.

I don't understand the point you're trying to make here. And I don't see anything in the quote you posted which refutes what you call the "essentialist myth". Aristotle spoke of generation and resemblance, too, but he also was working under the doctrine of essential "substances" (ousia). Since when are generation/resemblance and essence mutually exclusive? How exactly does showing they were relying on generation/resemblance imply they didn't accept the notion of "ousia"?

I must confess as I have no backgound in science or philosophy I got lost on this point as well.

Looking at this from a folklore perspective and relating it to a range of creatures that appear to bear a very close relationship; the notion of an essential substance seems to be related to this creature certainly as a form of traditional knowledge.

But there is agreement and disagreement throughout the history of this complex being.

It reflects a number of diffrent things, science, theology and traditional forms of thought all meet in the body of this little creature in Robinson's day.

By jeb McLeish (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink