Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Francis Willughby enlightens us about birds

This post should have two beginnings.  Here's the first.  I think the one basic thing a university should do for each student, regardless of his or her chosen program, is to teach them to think about how they think.  Particularly now, when social media has become a conduit for misinformation--often vicious misinformation--we all need to query how we know what we know:  whether this fact conforms to that truth; whether this tweet simply confirms we we have always believed about immigration, race, hatred, inequality, or whether it offers some new insight that challenges our beliefs.  Because I have always believed this, I often began my classes with a small history the enlightenment project, which began, some believe, with Descartes' pronouncement "I think; therefore I am," or with the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.  Perhaps the easiest way to think about this shift is to think about the replacement of lore with experiment.  Living in a world that God had graced with meaning, we thought we could safely assume that occasionally He sent us helpful messages in the structure of the world around us.  A plant whose leaves look like lungs was thus named lungwort and was thought to be  helpful when a patient was having difficulties with his lungs.  But with the Enlightenment project, which challenged the authority of both church and aristocracy, the individual becomes the source of truths.  That individual is challenged to ascertain, through experiment or close observation, the truths she stood behind.  And the individual is given this authority through belief in liberty and through the separation of church and state.  It's hard for me to say which came first, liberty or experiment, but one can see that they need to exist in tandem for the individual's observations to be freely undertaken and given credence.  Almost three centuries later, these notions remain rather abstract for students.

So let me begin again.  I have been working on some poems about the natural world, poems that seek to do two things.  One is to assume that the natural world has its own culture.  I'm trying, then, to encourage the reader to see nature differently--not less than our "civilized" world with its free markets and its technology, but parallel to it in ways that we all benefit from.  The second is to make these poems as crystalline and transparent as I could--simple, almost, though not simplistic.  This project was not, however, going to make a whole book, so when I serendipitously ran across Andrea Wulf's biography of the great nineteenth-century naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, I fell down a rabbit hole.  What if I were to balance my idiosyncratic observations about nature's culture with poems about the work of naturalists--running from Linnaeus and Gilbert White to Catherine Parr Traill and Rachel Carson?  Characteristically, I began reading in a landscape I knew, devouring Thoreau's Walden and his volumes upon volumes of journals, or with Whitman's thousands of pages of Specimen Days.  How was I possibly going to find the moment, the detail, the point of illumination that opened Thoreau's or Whitman's ideas up to the reader, teasing them in the way some orchids tease in their pollinator?  It turns out that I have found one of these for Whitman--his assertion that he can hear spring.  And as Thoreau's journals turn from a kind of philosophical meditation on the natural world to rigorous walks to discover what nature is doing today, the question "how long?" rings again and again, as he wonders how long this shrub or this flower has been blooming.

But it was a review of Tim Birkhead's The Wonderful Mr Willughby:  The First True Ornithologist that took me right back to the front lines of the Enlightenment and helped me start my reading in a sensible place, though it is clear to me that I have a lot of wonderful, hopeful reading to do.  What can be more hopeful than scientists' efforts to understand the natural world, which seems in many ways shaped for human thriving yet beyond our understanding?  If you don't mind, I'll take you on my journey, and as I write about these scientists I can come closer to the moment in each of their lives that will open into a poem. 

As a young Cambridge-educated man of some means, Francis Willughby and his closest friend and tutor, John Ray, undertook (along with Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon) a different kind of Grand Tour of the continent in 1663.  Their stops included botanical gardens, apothecaries' shops--full of cabinets of curiosities, medical and otherwise.  In Venice, they frequently visited the market where birds were sold and returned again and again to the fish market.  And here is where we see the difference Mr Willughby made.

"The key to the new science was the organisation of knowledge," Birkhead tells us.  "Although the scientific revolution sought to overturn much of Aristotle's thinking, it was, at the same time, based on two fundamental Aristotelian assumptions.  First, that there was order in nature."   I'm inclined here to say--again--that everything is political.  Willughby and Ray, along with other Britons, had seen the British Civil War as chaotic. Birkhead writes of the connection between science and politics, "Order was uppermost in many people's minds.  The Civil War had created monumental and awful disorder, so consciously or unconsciously the quest for order was paramount and classification and quantification became the foundation of the new science" (46).  Many seventeenth-century scientists believed that their task was to uncover or reveal God's order, which was manifest in the natural world.  The Enlightenment thus fostered much "citizen science."  But what to do with Francis Willughby's discovery of a buzzard  unlike any seen before in England--besides name it "Willughby's Buzzard"?  Under the protection of Charles II, the Royal Society was created and dedicated to the discovery, organization, and dissemination of knowledge.  As well, Patricia Fara argues in her provocatively title Sex, Botany, and Empire, the second task of the Royal Society was to spread the idea of empirical thinking throughout Britain.  Unfortunately, there was a dark side to this massive effort to create fuller knowledge of the natural world:  we can't ignore the fact that many of the journeys taken to gain knowledge of, say, Tahiti or Australia, were also meant to enlarge the British Empire.   

But what we don't quite understand, outside of a biography like this one, is the set of challenges that created barriers to apperceiving such an order.  First:  names.  Most birds had names that were largely local, so Willughby and Ray were going to need to create the name.  Second:  sex.  Quite often, as Willughby and Ray proceeded, they found that a new species theorized by an amateur ornithologist was really just the female of another species.

The second Aristotelian principle is the idea that an organism had an "'essence' -- what made it it" (45). And discovering what made a creature itself was going to involve shooting a lot of birds and dissecting them.  What Willughby and Ray contributed to the knowledge of birds was careful observation.  Before a dissection, Willughby patiently described myriad details of a bird's appearance, right down to the colour of eyelids or whether they had hairy toes, the number of feathers on a wing or a tail.  Dissection would tell them whether they had a male or female, of course.  But they also observed, for example, the length of the digestive tract, finding similarities between birds otherwise not recognized.  

Willughby returned to England, settled down, eventually married, though only four years before his premature death.  At that time, he left John Ray to complete the Ornithology and two other books on fish and insects.  The Ornithology was very successful, largely because of Willughby's careful and precise descriptions and because of the engravings that helped a birdwatcher identify a bird--though being black and white and being copied from paintings, they were not as useful as they might have been.  But "Ray's Ornithology," as it came to be called, published in Latin in 1676 (making it accessible to scientists who did not speak English) and in English in 1678, contributed much to the knowledge of birds and set a new standard for scientific writing.  This was not only due to the careful observation and precise descriptions that Willughby provided. When other writers of the time needed to flesh out areas beyond their own expertise, they often simply plagiarized from other books on birds, keeping errors and mistakes in circulation. More than one mythological birds endured because writers plagiarized from one another.

Birkhead talks exuberantly about coming on the Willughby family archive and finding a cabinet of curiosities that still held eggs labelled in Willughby's hand.  But there is an enormous gap in the archive insofar as it contains little of Willughby's own writing--the diary he kept while on his tour of the continent, for example.  His voice only lives in a handful of questions he left behind him.  He wanted to know about the smallest distinct features of birds, like the tomial tooth--a "hook on each side of the upper mandible"  or the varied colour of irises of birds like the petrel and the albatross.  Willughby and Ray's attention to such details and their ability to see a pattern in them led them to a classification system that Birkhead calls "ingenious and effective"--far better than anything Linnaeus proposed.  Though they did not ask why birds had a tomial tooth or a long digestive tract.  that would come later. 

Willughby also wanted to know about why some birds lay more hens than cocks--which only reveals his inability to distinguish between nature--which dictates that there are about as many hens as cocks--and culture, which eliminates too many cocks in a henhouse.  He wanted to know why some cocks had large testes, and intuited what we now know:  that in birds who are inclined to be promiscuous, the cock needs to produce more sperm.  He wanted to know "What birds hide themselves or change places, whether in winter or summer" (201)  There were all kinds of theories about what birds did to remain alive during the winter, including Linneaus's silly theory that swallows spent the winter hunkered down in mud.  Questions about the migrations of birds remained an issue in 1789 when Gilbert White published his wonderful book--never out of print--The Natural History of Selborne.  It would be several hundred years more before we learned that black-capped chickadees and hummingsbirds drop their internal temperatures on winter nights so they have sufficient fat to keep them alive (200).  In scientists' struggle to understand how birds adapt to harsh environments, whether they migrate or enter torpor or mini-hibernations, we come across a kind of problem that the Enlightenment struggled to solve:  how do you understand what isn't there, what you can't see?

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