BBC Radio 4 – Squirrels & Knotweed

Last week I was delighted to share some of my knowledge of exotic and invasive species on national radio, thanks to an invitation by Kat (@harpistkat) and Helen Arney (@helenarney) to appear on their series “Did the Victorians Ruin the World?”

In the episode I talk about the introduction of the grey squirrel to Victorian Britain and how negative attitudes towards native red squirrels rapidly changed thanks to the new arrivals. I also discuss the introduction of Japanese knotweed, which was once advertised as an ornamental and desirable addition to every garden.

You can listen to the episode at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08kttk5

 

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Attitudes Towards the House Sparrow in Victorian Britain

On Wednesday evening the Leeds Animal Studies Network (https://leedsanimalstudiesnetwork.wordpress.com/) met for the latest installment of its seminar series. For those of us intrigued by animal history, the Network’s seminars have offered some great topics: from beagle colonies to the role of elephants in the timber industry of colonial Burma.

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Male and female house sparrows. From Thomas G. Gentry, The House Sparrow at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia, 1878). Available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

But the latest seminar featured my own (freshly published!) research on the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in 19thc Britain. During this time, sparrows were generally perceived as “pests” or “vermin” which consumed farmer’s crops and damaged orchards. This attitude was summed up by the complaints of a farmer named Charles Newman, who wrote to his local newspaper in 1861 to protest against bird conservation. Newman, a self-proclaimed “practical farmer,” had little patience for those who wished to preserve sparrows:

“No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

Newman was by no means alone in his hatred of sparrows, or as he termed them, “flying mice.” Arable farmers and horticulturalists regularly trapped, poisoned or shot sparrows on their land. Yet others thought that sparrows were not destructive, but useful. In 1862 the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales  stated that insectivorous birds like sparrows consumed as much animal [insect] as vegetable matter, acting as ‘‘faithful protectors’’ of ‘‘cultivation in general.” Some naturalists feared that destroying sparrows would upset the delicate balance of nature. As early as 1841, a letter to The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture told the tale of a horticulturalist who had exterminated sparrows in his fruit orchard, only to suffer ‘‘myriads of caterpillars, green and black-marked ugly things,’’ which stripped whole bushes of their leaves.

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The English sparrow in the USA. From William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds Vol.1 (London, 1843): 474-478. 

The idea of using sparrows as a form of biological control against harmful insects was enacted across the globe. Sparrows were introduced to both Australia and the United States by acclimatisation societies during the 1860s. Yet attitudes towards the sparrow in both countries quickly turned sour. In 1878 an article in The Derby Mercury charted the rapid reversal of Australian opinion:

“For ten or fifteen years, perhaps, the Australian gardeners and farmers and the sparrows got on exceedingly well together. The busy little birds faithfully performed all that was expected of them, and the land was well nigh rid of grub and caterpillar. Presently, however, there gradually arose a feeling of uneasiness as to the increase and multiplication of the imported blessing.”

In the face of such failures, the acclimatisation movement declined. Natural history also suffered a decline during the latter half of the 19thc (https://holmesmatthew.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/the-decline-of-natural-history-rise-of-biology-in-19thc-britain/). Economic ornithology, described as ‘‘the study of the inter-relation of birds and agriculture’’ by the President of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1892, took over the issue of whether sparrows were harmful or beneficial for agriculture. British economic ornithologists followed the lead of their American counterparts by condemning sparrows for consuming cereal crops. Following the outbreak of the First World War, sparrows were therefore persecuted on a systematic basis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the sparrow in 19thc Britain, or how matters of social and scientific consequence were decided during this time, my paper “The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900” has just been published by the Journal of the History of Biology. It is Open Access and you can read or download it from the journal’s website at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10739-016-9455-6. Or you can read it and my other publications on my Academia page: http://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes.

A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 

 

Graduate Workshop in the History of Biology: University of Leeds

I’ve spent the past few weeks organising a graduate workshop for students from Leeds and Manchester, which took place at the Centre for HPS (@hpsleeds) on Tuesday 07th June. Although I spent much of the workshop behind the scenes (preparing tea and coffee!), from what I saw graduate students from both universities were pursuing some intriguing research questions in the history of biology, biomedicine and the human sciences…

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In my own panel, we had Clare O’Reilly exploring the correspondence between Charles Darwin and an Aberdeenshire farmer on crop hybridisation. Mathew Andrews (@UlceraVerminosa) investigated the history of maggots for wound treatment: including its modern revival with the use of “bio-bags.” I delivered a (work-in-progress!) account of why us Britons have been so hostile to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Other conferences and thesis writing have kept me busy (and absent from this blog for too long). I haven’t managed to write posts about some of my more recent talks, but you can find their abstracts on my academia page (https://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes):

  • “Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections.” Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London, 27th April 2016.
  • “Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science.” British Society for Literature and Science, University of Birmingham, 8th April 2016.

Next week I’ll be attending the Three Societies conference in Edmonton, Canada – which I will blog about! You can follow events there on Twitter using the hashtag #3soc2016

Herbarium, Ethics & Eels: BSHS Postgraduate Conference, University of Cambridge

A new year: another British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) postgraduate conference! The BSHS provides a friendly and relaxed venue for postgraduate researchers to present their findings. Hosted this year by Cambridge HPS, a number of biologically-themed papers and events were in evidence. It began with an outing to the Cambridge University herbarium (http://cambridgeherbarium.org/).

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Plant specimen collected by Darwin from Rio de Janeiro. Full details of Darwin’s collection can be found (with images) at the herbarium website: http://cambridgeherbarium.org/collections/darwin-specimens/darwins-plants-at-cambridge/

Now housed in the Sainsbury laboratory, the hebarium contains specimens of great historical significance, some dating from the early-eighteenth century. The herbarium holds Charles Darwin’s plant specimens from the voyage of the Beagle, which were passed onto his friend and mentor John Henslow. Darwin’s specimens are an impressive sight, possible the result of criticism from Henslow, who asked Darwin to label his specimens correctly and refrain from sending him “scraps”. Other items of interest in the collection include plants gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace in South-East Asia (http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2014/09/16/rsnr.2014.0035.short?rss=1).

Drawer of bird skins
Edmund Selous (1857-1934) refused to kill birds for the purposes of collection: a practice which the norm at the time. https://www.rammuseum.org.uk/collections/zoology/flights-of-fancy

Back at the conference, students from the University of Leeds participated in a “Evolutionary theories” panel. Clare O’Reilly introduced attendees to concepts of hybrid plants in late nineteenth-century Britain, while Emily Herring delved into the strange world of the neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to be the chair of the panel on zoology. Here, Mathew Andrews of the University of Manchester presented his research on Edmund Selous (1857-1934), whose scientific work on ornithology was shaped by his ethical objections to killing birds for use as specimens or for museum display. Federica Turriziani Colonna (Center for Biology and Society, ASU) then examined the work of a young Sigmund Freud on eels at the Trieste Zoological Station in 1876.

Although the BSHS annual conference will not be taking place this year, American, Canadian and British societies for the history of science will be gathering for the “Three Societies” meeting in Edmonton, Alberta from 22-25 June. Hopefully this meeting will prove to be just informative about science and the natural world!

Book Review: Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914

Mosquito Empires examines the dynamics of empire in the ‘Greater Caribbean’ – the Caribbean Islands and the coastal regions of North, Central and South America – bringing disease and ecology into traditional political and social history. John Robert McNeill argues that ecological change led to the proliferation of mosquito vectors which shaped subsequent wars, empires and revolutions (p.3). Mosquito Empires is divided into four main parts, structured around chronological case studies. McNeill first establishes the lethality of malaria and yellow fever through accounts of conquest and colonisation by Atlantic powers prior to the proliferation of mosquito vectors. This is followed by multiple examples of the deadly effect of disease on Western arrivals, including the disastrous malaria epidemics suffered by the 1655 English assault on Jamaica, establishing the rise of a new ‘ecological-military order’ (p.101). The second section studies British attempts to conquer Spanish possessions in the Caribbean (1690-1780) and the defeat of General Cornwallis’s forces during the American War of Independence, all of which suffered in varying degrees from malaria and yellow fever. In its third part, the book discusses the role of disease in the success of Caribbean revolutions in St. Domingue, New Granada and Cuba, from 1790-1898. Finally, the book concludes with the eventual overthrow of the ‘Mosquito Empire’ as means of controlling yellow fever and malaria emerged via the experience of the United States in Cuba and Panama (p.313).

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John Trumbull’s ‘Surrender of Lord Cornwallis’ 1820. Cornwallis’s forces suffered from heavily from malaria at Yorktown http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/historic-rotunda-paintings/surrender-lord-cornwallis

In the historiographical context, Mosquito Empires draws upon a tradition of incorporating disease into wider historical contexts. A well-known example is the works of Alfred Crosby, which places microbes alongside soldiers in the battle for the Americas. McNeill’s work similarly identifies the role of disease in the formation of empires. In the Greater Caribbean, ecological changes produced by the transition to plantation economies allowed mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever to flourish, wreaking havoc among non-resistant populations, particularly European expeditions and colonialists (p.4). Mosquito Empires supports the idea of Western expansion as a two-way process, facilitating the movement of disease while creating new environments for disease vectors. The example given of U.S. triumph in Cuba and Panama appears to confirm disease control as a tool of empire, allowing conquest in regions previously closed off by the disease barrier. McNeill – to his credit – also covers clashes between Western empires in disease ridden zones, encompassing differential immunity among colonists and the manipulation of disease environments as a strategic defense (pp.141-142).

The_Panama_Canal_--_The_Great_Culebra_Cut
McNeill contrasts the heavy toll suffered by French workers on the Panama Canal in the 1880s with American efforts following anti-mosquito campaigns from 1904-1914 (pp.310-312). “The Panama Canal — The Great Culebra Cut” by Charles Graham (1852-1911), artist – Reproduced from an original illustration drawn from photographs and published in Harper’s Weekly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Panama_Canal#/media/File:The_Panama_Canal_–_The_Great_Culebra_Cut.jpg

Occasionally overarching statements and interpretations weaken the author’s arguments. The link between man-made ecological change and the establishment of the ‘mosquito empire’ lacks firm evidence, respective diagnosis is problematic and questions over human agency and environmental determinism are left unresolved. The importance of human agency is ambiguous, the book being ‘not quite an essay in mosquito determinism’ (p.6). Certain claims made in the book surrounding the heritability of disease immunity (p.46), would benefit from the inclusion of arguments in K.F Kiple’s The Caribbean Slave (1984), which goes unmentioned despite its presence in the bibliography. Yet the book produces a sound main thesis, drawing heavily upon contemporary sources, while telling a forgotten story through a combination of environmental, political, military and medical history.

McNeill, John Robert, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 

Book Review: Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest

So little ground has shifted in the genetically modified food debate that a twelve-year old volume remains pertinent today. Food, Inc. examines a series of controversies surrounding transgenic foods in ten chapters. The book begins with a whirlwind tour of agricultural genetics, from Gregor Mendel’s garden to the biotech revolution in agriculture since the 1980s. Following chapters are based around specific points of health, environmental and commercial contention, from the erosion of genetic diversity to bio-piracy and patenting. Journalist Peter Pringle – author of Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1998) – attempts to occupy what remains of ‘the middle ground’ amidst what he perceives to be a divisive plethora of special interest groups.

GoldenRice
‘Golden Rice grains are easily recognisable by their yellow to orange colour. The stronger the colour the more β-carotene [provitamin A]’: http://www.goldenrice.org/
Pringle begins with one of the ‘most vigorously investigated botanical mysteries’: asexuality or apomixis (p. 11). Understanding apomixis could result in fixed traits in crops, unchanging throughout the generations. Yet if the secret of apomixis is patented, the dominance of industrial capital over farming will advance still further. A central dilemma in Food, Inc., this is further explored in chapter two. Here the development of vitamin-A rich Golden Rice in 1999 provides a case in point; as a supposedly humanitarian effort to counter global malnutrition degenerated into a row on the funding of science and private ownership of biotech techniques and products. By contrast, chapter four covers the 1994 outcry over the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Flavr Savr tomato. To Pringle this episode is indicative of the poor conduct of the Reagan administration, food regulatory bodies and the ambiguous criteria of ‘substantial equivalence’ used to judge the safety of transgenic crops (p.65).

Yet anti-biotech forces do not emerge intact from the book. The British scientist and activist Mae-Wan Ho, is virulently refuted over her arguments on the instability of transgenic organisms containing mosaic viruses (p.98). Pringle divides the anti-biotech community into three categories: rejectionists, reformers and organic advocates. With the exception of reformers, these activists are portrayed as having played a significant role in creating public confusion on the safety of genetically modified foods. Other factors in the latter’s rejection of transgenic crops include an irresponsible media and Monsanto’s public relations disaster in Britain.

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A monarch butterfly: http://blog.hmns.org/tag/monarch-butterflies/. Food, Inc, discusses a 1999 controversy on the impact of Bt corn pollen on potted common milkweed plants, which host the butterflies.

Historian of science James Secord has argued that simplistic notions of scientific genius are often present in scientific journalism. Food, Inc. acknowledges a range of opposition to genetically modified food, from ‘anarchists and ideological scientists’ to trade unions and religious groups (p.118). Yet Pringle has little to contribute on the development of these movements. Instead the biographies of individual (often colourful) campaigners are covered. In a reflection of Secord’s criticism of scientific journalism, Pringle may have put too much focus on anti-heroic geniuses as driving opposition to the science of genetic modification. Food, Inc. readily equates a high media profile with practical influence over the anti-biotech movement.

For an introduction to current themes in agriculture and biotechnology, Food, Inc. is a useful resource. Yet room for expansion on several of its themes remain; the emergence and character of environmental protest being one area. Another would be critiques of a now-established (US-based) narrative of commodification of the natural world by an industrial elite. One topic of interest to historians of science mentioned in the book is the life and work of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov. This noteworthy story is covered in a 2008 work by Pringle, which this blog will review at a later date. Food, Inc. ultimately comes down in favour of genetic modification, albeit with misgivings. The book’s arguments should therefore be considered by all those interested in the biotech debate.

Pringle, Peter, Food, Inc: Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.