Saturday, October 20, 2012

The power of networks-a 19th century tale

A couple of weeks ago I received a rather surprising email request from the Natural History Museum in London. The request was for some data on the correspondence network of Allan Octavian Hume. Many years ago, I had put together all the names of correspondents cited in his (and Marshall's) three volume "Game birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon" along with their locations. Putting this on a map gave a view of how Hume managed to get information from across India without actually having to expend too much of his own personal energies to obtain the data (mainly in the form of specimens). In hindsight, that map was rather poorly prepared. 
Scatter plot and a density plot showing the distribution and numbers of Hume correspondents
The rather exceptional body of work that Hume produced included an enormous collection of (about 82,000) bird specimens and associated information. Around 1884 he donated this entire collection to the British Museum (today the Natural History Museum). This was prompted by the theft of his life-time of notes and manuscripts, an event that led him to give up ornithology. He then diverted his energies towards the Indian National Congress (which too he gave up due to the infighting and lack of enthusiasm among Indians). Anyway, I discovered the raw data used to create the map and found it worth re-examining. So this time round I was able to unify the plots and include labels, but it involved a lot of jugglery with tools that included Excel, R, GIMP and Inkscape. The data that is accessible for a researcher in India is actually extremely limited and someone with access to the actual specimens in the Natural History Museum should be able to do an enormously better job.

The dataset can be downloaded here
Many of Hume's contributors were in the Indian Civil Services or officers in the Army. These were evidently positions in which there was a lot of leisure and travel, allowing them to send specimens and notes to Hume, who then duly compiled them in his own amazing journal - Stray Feathers - 10 volumes of which were produced before he gave up ornithology. An index volume was added by Charles Chubb of the British Museum. All of these volumes are now available online. In an earlier publication I had mentioned that the map suggests why Hume did not bump into either the Eastern Ghats form of Abbott's Babbler or Jerdon's Courser. Even today, central and eastern India are dark regions, where few people observe birds.

These contributors sent information from locations where they were posted at different times in their career while some had their own network of contacts who sent in specimens from elsewhere. Although the vast majority were in the army or civil services, their background appear to have been quite varied and one can only imagine the the kind of correspondence they must have had. Some were sharpshooters or sportsmen, like Duncan Home (DC Home) who died in the 1857 uprising and Colonel McMaster (McMaster also wrote under the pen-name of "Vagrant" for hunting periodicals like The Field).  There were other influences which are not directly evident. Many of them were trained in medicine at Edinburgh University which had its  roots in ideas that emerged from the Scottish Enlightenment. They often shared common teachers, for instance T C Jerdon who followed the fanciful Quinarian system, and Charles Darwin, who was to drive the last nails into the coffin of that system, both studied under a Professor Robert Jameson in Edinburgh, but that is not to say that the Professor's classes were interesting. Darwin actually wrote that "[T]he sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science." Jameson had however been involved with groups such as the Plinian Society and Wernerian Natural History Society, and the interactions among the participants in the lectures of these groups had influences on geology as well zoology in India. Jerdon was senior to Hume in ornithology and they held each other in high esteem.

Apart from these old boys networks, there were also family ties. Robert Wardlaw Ramsay (RGW Ramsay on the map) for instance was a good friend of Hume but his uncle Lord Hay, an ornithological collector of eminence was considered by Hume as a mere "cabinet ornithologist" and the two sparred in their correspondence in the Ibis. Hume's cousin, another Edinburgh physician, was Edward Balfour, the founder of several museums, compiler of the Cyclopedia of India and a pioneer of forest conservation. Balfour founded the Madras museum where he was succeeded by Dr. George Bidie (Dr. G Bidie on the map above was also an Edinburgh physician) as curator (Superintendent was the official term used). Balfour was based in Madras which was also home to other indologists and polymaths like Walter Elliot (after whom we have the Madras treeshrew Anathana ellioti). Elliot's interests in zoology were secondary to his interest in numismatics, epigraphy and language. Elliot was mostly based out of Madras and this was the centre of a scholarly group that published in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science. Elliot's sister-in-law was married to PL Sclater. Sclater was the founder of the ornithological journal The Ibis. Elliot's interest in Indian culture was possibly triggered by an immersive experience, early in his India career, as a prisoner of Kittur Rani Chennamma. Elliot wrote an obituary of Jerdon and his own was written by Hugh Cleghorn (also an Edinburgh physician). Cleghorn can pretty much be considered the founding spirit behind the idea of a forest department in India in which he was followed by Colonel R. H. Beddome (after whom we have Beddome's keelback ) who seems to have given most of his attention to the reptiles and amphibians.
Every journal of the period had to examine if  they could survive and whether
they might be stepping on the toes of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal

Another older scholarly group, The Asiatic Society of Bengal, had its centre in Calcutta. Their early research also revolved around epigraphy and numismatics and their journal was founded by the polymath, James Prinsep. Shortlived though its editor was, it seems that the main interest of the journal depended on its key people and zoology was of low priority until Edward Blyth became one of its underpaid staff. Blyth wrote many bird related papers, so much so that he complained to others about how he was sidelined and "accused of being an ornithologist"! Both Blyth and Hume corresponded with another orientalist in the hills - B H Hodgson in Nepal. A family friend of Hodgson's was Thomas Malthus, the man who also influenced Darwin. Hodgson's life in India was however quite isolated but he seems to have kept up an enormous amount of correspondence and was extremely productive in his writing. He was also a friend of JD Hooker, the botanist, who was in turn a common friend of Darwin. Hodgson too seems to have at least in later life put his zoological pursuit behind his other interests, so much so that he became an expert on the Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy. Hodgson however collected a large number of animal specimens. He also employed native artists to illustrate many of these specimens. About 1700 of these plates were lent to Hume and it would appear that little is known about their fate. Many naturalists in India appear to have employed native artists but most do not give them credit. Jerdon for instance trained artists from Trichy (such as C V Kistnarajoo) but they often remain anonymous in his plates. An interesting exception here is a botanist friend of Cleghorn and Jerdon - Robert Wight (Edinburgh physician again!). Wight found two exceptional artists by the name of Govindoo and Rungiah and they produced illustrations that Wight appreciated so much that he even named an orchid genus after Govindoo - Govindooia (now Tropidia). Wight's botany expanded on the earlier work of William Roxburgh (Edinburgh physician!), a botanist who followed Colonel Robert Kyd at the botanical garden in Calcutta. Roxburgh succeeded Patrick Russell (Edinburgh physician famous for Russell's viper) as "Naturalist" at Madras. There were also some other earlier positions as "Naturalist" such as in the court of the Nawab of Arcot where Roxburgh's friend was Johann Gerhard K├Ânig, a student of Linnaeus. (Heard of curry leaf Murraya koenigii ?)

Botany seems to have found itself a professional role thanks to the economic value of plants. Colonel Kyd (after whose family the locality of Kidderpore in Calcutta derives) for instance was able to sell the idea of botanical gardens to the East India Company without much trouble. Another bunch of professionals who also took an interest in zoology (esp. molluscs) were the geologists. FR Mallet, W Theobald, T Oldham (Irish but studied under that same boring Professor Jameson in Edinburgh - the Oldham on the map however is a Captain Oldham who may have been a relative, Oldham's son was also a geologist) and V Ball (whose father was an astronomer) among others were members of the Geological Survey of India - an organization that seems to have been dominated by Irishmen (H B Medlicott of Gondwanaland fame and his brother, JG Medlicott) although it also took in non-Irish paleontologists like F. Stoliczka. Stoliczka is probably the most famous victim of altitude sickness and on that fatal expedition,  was accompanied by Dr John Scully who appears on the Hume correspondence map. The passing of both Stoliczka and Blyth are recorded in volume 2 of Hume's Stray Feathers. Zoology had a difficult start as a profession and many of the names we have come across so far joined hands to influence the creation of  The Fauna of British India. These included JD Hooker, Darwin, Huxley, J. Lubbock, WH Flower and PL Sclater. The editor they chose was the geologist WT Blanford. Blanford's brother HF Blanford was the founding spirit behind meteorology in India. The Indian Museum which came about from the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal where Blyth worked became the corpus on which the Zoological Survey of India worked. Staff at the Indian Museum included Dr J. Anderson (Again Edinburgh physician!). Later workers here included PL Sclater's son, WL Sclater. Another museum worker was JA Murray at Karachi, who wrote a book, rather rare in its genre, called the Edible and game birds of British India !

Army officers, botanists, geologist and men of medicine might appear to be the primary contributors but that is not the end. W. E. Brooks was a remarkable engineer in the railways and he seems to have had his own interesting circle of friends (including Mr. Hancock) but most importantly he seems to have quietly proceeded on the path of listening to bird song and examining differences between species. Through his method he made great progress in warbler identification as well as in separating members of the crow family. Unfortunately it seems that his pioneering approach was not accepted by Hume who saw skins as being the only reliable artefact. Brooks was so influenced by Hume that he named his youngest son after him. Allan Brooks became one of the great bird artists and an ornithologist in his own right as well and in a little note (Condor 44:157) he writes: "... I am reminded of a similar controversy far back in the last century between my father, the late W. E. Brooks and my paternal sponsor, the late Allan Hume in the pages of the latter’s “Stray Feathers.” The controversy concerned the separation of the Hill Crow, Corvus intermedius, from the Jungle Crow, C. culminatus; my father insisted that their voices were quite distinct but Hume would clinch his argument for their identity with the claim that as the skins could not talk the birds could not be separated. ..."

Other minority professions include the missionaries - one member of which was Rev. SB Fairbank (after whom we have Trochalopteron fairbanki) from the Palni hills. GP Sanderson, the son of a clergy man was later to write a lot on the big game of southern India, so much so that Rudyard Kipling may have used him as a model for his Petersen Sahib. The hills of Kodaikanal, Ootacamund and Simla were of course sanatoria frequented by wealthy colonial officers and they have more than a fair share of correspondents. One interesting member of this group is Miss Cockburn, among the few women who contributed notes to Hume. She was also a bit of an artist and her bird paintings from the Nilgiris were used in a calendar produced by the Natural History Museum. Her father, M D Cockburn, was the district collector of Salem and Catherine falls near Kotagiri is named after her mother. Their family was also involved in introducing coffee and a small number of coffee and tea planters also contributed to ornithology. One of these was Louis Mandelli from Darjeeling. He seems to have been a bit of a bird collector who exchanged specimens with Hume. He is perhaps among the few that held a very negative opinion of Hume who he claimed was stealing credit for discoveries and for being unfair in his specimen exchanges. Very little is known about Mandelli and he appears to have led a troubled life that ended in suicide. Another contributor GA Gammie was in charge of the government run Cinchona plantations at Mangphu. JD Inverarity (Surat), a magistrate and others including Charles Swinhoe were later to found the Bombay Natural History Society. Charles Swinhoe's brother was Robert Swinhoe in Hong Kong, a diplomat. In this diplomat class of contributors we may include R. Schomburgk and OB St. John, their contributions being valuable for their travel to obscure locations. A. H. Hildebrand (Hildebrande on the map) was the first Superintendent of the Shan States and was responsible for the discovery of Impatiens psittacina, which went viral on the Internet in recent times. Others who travelled on work included H H Godwin-Austen (Godwin-Austen on the map and of K2/Mt. Godwin-Austen fame), H J Elwes (who visited Hume in 1880 along with F D Godman of Godman-Salvin fame) and A W Chennell (Chennell on the map) who worked with the (Topographical) Survey of India. Oddly, the teaching establishment is also in a minority - Professor Harold Littledale at Baroda College stands out.

This map might give the wrong impression that India has been well examined for birds. No, this is only about how it was searched for "new" species - new in the sense that they were not known to the European experts - museum curators and collectors. That era is gone, now is the time where continuous monitoring and life-history studies have become the trend across the world, but that means local effort. Local effort needs support and training; which simply cannot happen if the best books are impossibly expensive and data, even that which is held by government bodies, is locked away in museums or secretly stowed away in private collections. The situation is not improved if self-styled experts sit smugly in their offices, jet across the country to make slick movies or write travelogues in glossy magazines either. Even in the 19th century it was recognized that knowledge was lacking in spite of this widespread collection of specimens. Brian Hodgson wrote in 1873:

"I may as well attempt to supply the deficiency for the benefit of local inquirers, who, I suspect, are hardly sufficiently alive to that legerdemain of the closet-naturalist, whereby they are cheated of the whole merit of their labours by him who does no more than annex a few words of doggrel Latin to the numerous facts painfully elaborated by costly and continuous attention. How long assiduous local research is to be deliberately deprived of those aids of library and museum which it ought to be the chief duty of learned Societies at home to furnish, I know not. But the candid will, in the meanwhile, make all allowances for the necessary errors cleaving to attempts at technical Zoology, in the want of such aids. Whilst the face of our land is darkened with skin-hunters, deputed by learned Societies to incumber science with ill-ascertained species, no English zoological association has a single travelling naturalist* in India; nor has one such body yet sought to invigorate local research, numerous as now are the gentlemen in India with opportunities and inclination for observation such us need but the appropriate aid of those bodies to render the investigations of these gentlemen truly efficient towards all the higher ends which the Societies in question are constituted to forward !"

The French, who are far quicker-witted than we Beotian islanders, have had two such agents in India ever since I came to it. But the travelling naturalist is in no condition to compete with the fixed local student, if the latter receive the obvious helps from home. For many years past we have had the great and wealthy Zoological Societies in London, which, however, have not yet found out that the phenomena of animate nature must be observed where they exist !

To this day, there exists no body that seeks to invigorate local research in India! Millions are of course spent on the the state forest departments, the ZSI, BSI and the GSI; government organizations that emerged from the interactions of these networks which have all isolated themselves from mainstream research as well as the public. And so ends this unfinished tale of connections in 19th century ornithology. This year happens to be the centenary of Hume's death and a commemorative event is scheduled in London next week. Perhaps some of my readers will be fortunate to be a part of it.

A growing series of postscripts

16-Aug-2013 Feilden in Burma seems to be Henry Wemyss Feilden (1838-1921) [Ibis obituary 1921]
06-June-2014 The talks from the Hume centenary can be heard at the SLBI website.
29-Jan-2015 R M Adam from Agra was Robert McNeiledge Adam.
31-Jan-2015 - a note on Professor Harold Littledale from the Cornishman 29 May 1930, p.6.:
Death of Dr. Harold Littledale
Dr. Harold Littledal, Emeritus Professor of English Language and Literature at University College, Cardiff died at his residence at Southbourne, Bournemouth on Sunday, May 11th, at the age of 77. He was the father of Mrs Clarence Paull of Roskear, Camborne. He edited various English texts, but his chief claim to remembrance is the influence he exerted on the problem of Indian primary education by the advice and guidance he gave the Gaekwar of Baroda in introducing to India soil the principle of compulsion.
Born to a Dublin solicitor on October 3, 1853, he was educated at Armagh Royal School and Trinity College, Dublin. Here he graduated in arts and was in 1876 senior moderator. in later years Dublin conferred upon him the degree of Litt.D. His best years were spent in Baroda State, where on the educational side he had a large share in bringing in the new progressive order following the deposition of Malaharao Gaekwar and the accession of the present Maharaj Sayaji Rao Gaekwar. He went out in 1879 as Vice-Principal and Professor of History and English Literature at Baroda College and his influence told in making the young ruler so keen in intellectual pursuits and conversation with the college professors. The two men formed a close friendship, and in later years Littledale was appointed Director of Vernacular Instruction in the State. It was while he held this post that the foundations were laid of the compulsory system introduced in Baroda many years before the principle found expression in the Statute book of any province of British India. The idea was derided as wholly inapplicable to Indian conditions; but it is now generally accepted in provincial legislation though its application is much restricted on financial and other grounds. 
Littledale spent much of his leisure in Himalayan travel and the study of the flora and fauna of India making many valuable contributions to the "Journal" of the Bombay Natural History Society. He was a Fellow of the University of Bombay. Retiring from India after 20 years in Baroda he was appointed Professor of English Language and Literature at the University College of South Wales and Monmouth, Cardiff. In addition to his editing of various texts, he wrote occasionally on English literature and natural history. He was also interested in folkore. He was made Emeritus Professor in 1921.

January 2017 - Littledale married Annapurna Turkhud, second daughter of Dr Atmaram Pandurang Turkhud on 11 November 1880 (poor Tagore!). Dr Atmaram Pandurang was one of the Indian founding members of the BNHS! Ana however died young and Littledale married again in 1892 - "A marriage will shortly take place between Mr. Harold Littledale, of Baroda College, India, eldest son of the late Mr. William F. Littledale, of Whaley Abbey, Rathdrum, County Wicklow, and Sybil Frances Hanbury, fourth daughter of Mr. Edgar Hanbury, of Eastrop Grange, Highworth, Wilts" - The Colonies and India, 24 Dec 1892. p.34

In August 2014, I visited the library of the Natural History Museum at London and examined two of the books by M.B.L. Cockburn and it turns out that the images found online do not show the pencil writings on the margin. The critical notes on the accuracy of the illustrations and other statements suggest that the books had gone through the hands of A.O. Hume. It may even have come into the NHM collections via Hume.

October 2016: I visited the grave of Margaret Cockburn in Kotagiri along with Dr Henry Noltie. The graves of all the Cockburn family members are placed together.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Learning from lice

I was recently reading up the life of Reginald Ernest Moreau. A fascinating figure in the history of ornithology who started his life as an accountant who moved to Africa and began to study birds. His ability to pick up languages such as Arabic allowed him to go where other westerners did not dare to. He made many outdoor expeditions around where he worked in Egypt and in the process learnt about the bird life and more importantly bumped into interesting people. On one trip he found a lady picking flowers and found that she also knew quite a bit about the birds. She was soon to become his wife. On another trip in a far away wadi, he met C.B.Williams, "C.B." was a pioneering entomologist who worked in agriculture but took a great interest in quantitative approaches and was an associate of R A Fisher (sometimes known as the father of statistics). He was keenly interested in insect migration and was always looking at ways to collate and find patterns in numbers. He and Moreau made a few trips together around Egypt and Moreau learnt about CB's methods. More importantly when CB was posted in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), he worked out a way for getting himself an accountant that was interested in science - and he got Moreau out of the desert and into the rain-forest. Here Moreau, who notes in an autobiographical note that was published as his obituary, discovered someone who could make up for his poor eyesight and field ability. It was an African assistant named Salimu who further trained some more field assistant and together they began to collect field observations on bird life, particularly their time of breeding, their feeding and other behaviours. They collected quite a pile of data and putting it all together many years later, Moreau pioneered the field of life-history studies in ornithology. His work attracted the attention of David Lack and this led to debates on good-for-the-species ideas of adaptation versus good-for-the-individual concepts. Today that has further been distilled into what we have as the "selfish-gene" concept. It is interesting that one of the lesser-known Indian ornithologists, F. N. Betts was influenced by Moreau. The extent and nature of the influence is as yet unknown.
A meeting in Africa; Moreau (left) and C.B. (right).
Photos from obituaries a, b.

CB who influenced Moreau in the first place was interested in a range of topics, species area curves, diversity-population and other related issues. Like most others who look at such data he began to notice the ubiquity of logarithmic distributions in nature. "The Statistical Outlook in Relation to Ecology" (1954) - an extremely readable transcription of a talk that CB gave and something that every biologist will find of interest.

He makes numerous observations on distributions in nature and how they are often not normal (or Gaussian):
A particularly interesting form of distribution is when all the errors are in one direction. This is found, for example, in the study of phenology when a number of observers are recording the first appearance of a bird in a particular district. It is not possible to see the bird before it arrives, but it is possible to miss seeing it for several days after the arrival. Thus the actual day of arrival of the bird that we are trying to determine is not near the average of the observations but is at, or previous to, the earliest of the records. There is even another complexity in this problem, as a bird such as the cuckoo, which is easily recognized by sound, is less easily overlooked than a bird, such as the swallow, which has to be seen to be recorded.
As another example he takes the distribution of lice on the heads of 461 people. Finding a logarithmic relation he was able to make predictions about how many heads should have just one louse and found it was 107 although the actual value found was 106. He joked that Nature was only one wrong !

He ends the lecture : "Perhaps I may conclude by saying that the application of statistical methods to biological subjects is still in its infancy-and no doubt as many mistakes will be made by this as by any other approach. But let us go ahead, for: 'He who never makes a mistake never makes anything.'"

I was curious about the data set of the lice and examining the original found that this study was possible thanks to 1437 inmates of the Cannanore - Kannur jail. Apparently a method was found to easily separate lice from hair samples and the heads of the 1437 had been carefully tonsured under the supervision of Major P. V. Karamchandani. The hair masses of each prisoner was measured and a number of other data about persons from which it came such as religion and age were collected.
"Lice, damned lice and statistics": table from P. A. Buxton (1940). Studies on populations of headlice
(Pediculus humanus capitis: Anoplura). Parasitology, 32:296-302

"...Mr S. Smith who performed all the routine of weighing, dissolving hair and counting lice, and Miss V. E. Buxton and Miss F. R. Mold who have carried out the tabulating."  
There are perhaps more lessons to be learnt in these, one of these being the amazing amount of inter-disciplinary interaction and indeed a complete disregard for educational backgrounds and a from-scratch approach to research. Perhaps the isolation from mainstream academia in the wilds of Africa did help.