Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Some American links to Indian ornithology

One of the joys of being in India is the complete lack of access to a good library, and that makes one keep a list of books to find so that you know how to make the best of limited time when one get an opportunity to visit a well-stocked library. It took me nearly ten years before I finally managed to browse through Max Nicholson's Art of Birdwatching (1931) on a brief visit to the library of the Zoological Society of London. I had been looking for the context in which he had talked about how a so-called "open mind" was absolutely useless for scientific enquiry [a belief that starkly contradicts the argumentative Indian].
"One cannot observe without a theory, and what seems the simplest of ornithological tasks - to go out of doors and look out for something worth recording - is in reality one of the hardest… It is a mistake to imagine that complete impartiality and freedom from preconceived ideas is the qualification for the perfect observer. The cow has a remarkably open mind, yet it has never been found to reach a high degree of civilisation."

Nicholson also inspired another writer across the Atlantic. This was Joseph Hickey, a student of literature who moved to ornithology. I had heard of his work through a rather tenuous series of connections.

From The Auk
One of the leading lights of bird study and popularization in India, Dr Joseph George, a major influence on the Bangalore bird-enthusiasts circle, had undertaken several of his earliest and pioneering studies on bird populations in Dehra Dun. In 1948, a Mrs M.D. Wright conducted a census of birds in Dehra Dun and wrote out her observations in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. One of her inspirations was the book by Joseph Hickey, A Guide to Birdwatching (1943). It is unclear if Dr George actually took part in her census but she influenced his own studies in Dehra Dun (since he cites her work) and they doubtless met and I strongly believe that Dr George actually read this book too given his own censuses of birds in Dehra Dun. It was not until a few weeks ago that I got my hands on Hickey's book thanks to the Internet Archive and their emergency pandemic-response library which allows in-copyright books to be borrowed and read online. Now Hickey was influenced by many giants including Ernst Mayr and Aldo Leopold. He recounted among his ornithological mantras, the one from Ernst Mayr about having a long term line of enquiry while watching birds - in Mayr's words "everybody's got to have a problem". On the first person Hickey met on the field watching birds, he writes:
The pleasures of meeting a kindred spirit are much more subjective but they are nonetheless real and they often ripen into lifelong friendships. In grade school it never occurred to my chums or to me that bird books were written for anyone other than boys, and that grown men and women liked to watch flickers and killdeers just the way we did. Our beloved scoutmaster, the Reverend Basil Hall, had given some of us a helping hand, but bird study still seemed like a boys' game. It was an almost stupefying shock when Richard A. Herbert and I, aged 14, quite by accident found an elegantly dressed gentleman watching a chickadee one February day in New York City's Bronx Park. Charles Johnston, who looked not unlike Charles Evans Hughes to us, had been a distinguished member of the British Civil Service in India. He was kindly and apparently ready to answer questions. He answered them for two full hours, probably with no little amusement. The decades between us seemed to vanish and from that point on, our bird study took on dignity and purpose. He helped us many times more in the years that followed.
I tell this story to illustrate how an interest in ornithology can span any barrier, and how people of widely diverse cultures can rapidly find a common bond of understanding. There are several ways to get in touch with other bird students. One is to attend meetings.

Now an Indian Civil Servant interested in birds had to be examined and I searched the internet for Charles Johnston and found one that was interested in theosophy (but the Wikipedia entry then had no mention of any interest in natural history). I found also that a Johnston had been active in New York birding circles but was not sure if the two were the same until I found an entry on the Theosophy Wiki. The other major Theosophist (at least briefly) and ornithologist was Hume and I had to check for encounters between the two. It seems that the two could not have been in great contact. Johnston was married the niece of Madame Blavatsky (with whom Hume had fallen out) and entered the Indian Civil Service only in 1888, well after Hume's exit from government service. Johnston worked only for two years before suffering from malaria led to his resignation and he moved to the United States in 1896 after treatment in Austria. His close friends in New York included fellow theosophists W. Q. Judge and Clement Acton Griscom, Jr. (1868-1918) who was the father of the ornithologist Ludlow Griscom. It would appear (esp. from the absence of any mention in the Bombay Natural History Society journal) that Johnston began his serious bird studies only in the United States and may well have been an important influence in Griscom's life. Allan Cruickshank's Birds around New York city (1942) includes many notes by Johnston, who is described as an "experienced and meticulous observer" (p. 289).

Recommended reading
  • Hickey, Joseph (1975). A guide to bird watching. New York:Dover. [This Internet Archive copy (which can be borrowed) is signed by Hickey. This book was his master's work, under the supervision of Aldo Leopold!]
Postscript
Dr Joseph George  (1st October 1921 – 9th July 2012) was educated at St Joseph's College, Trichy and at St. John's College, Agra, He researched polymer chemistry under Herman Francis Marks  at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Research Institute between 1946 and 1948, returning to the Forest Research Institute at Dehra Dun. He worked for a while at the CBRI, Roorkee and at IPIRI, Bangalore.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Science in disasters and disasters in science

Locusts are powerful agents in history, and just like malaria and other diseases (especially those that affected empire) they helped fund a lot of biological research, both in India and elsewhere. Unlike India, with a short institutional memory, aided by governments that simply cannot maintain archives (or even actively erases inconvenient material), the Chinese rulers maintained meticulous records of locust (Locusta migratoria) damage that go back about 1900 years. As India slowly dismantles long-term government organizations to be replaced by supposedly more profitable contract-only private entities it is worth looking at some pioneers in locust research and what was achieved.

Locust reporting in China (A geographical), B (annual trend), C (decadal trend) over 2000 years
Among the interesting findings was a strong 30-year cycle, as also 10-year cycles - recalling
the era of sunspottery and perhaps an overemphasis on what are now called BEL cycles.

The golden years of locust research were in the two decades following 1945 thanks to an exiled upper-class Russian, Sir Boris Uvarov. Nadia Waloff, herself a Russian emigre, writes in her biography of Uvarov (perhaps they were distantly related) that in the 20 years before his death there were nearly 7000 research papers (that is nearly 1 article a day!) published on locusts, largely from the London based Anti-Locust Research Centre (ALRC). The ALRC itself had been founded by Uvarov, who migrated shortly after the 1917 revolution to England.

Uvarov's Russian passport
From Fedotova, Anastasia; Kouprianov, Alexei (2016). Archival research reveals the true date of birth of the father of locust phase theory, Sir Boris Uvarov, FRS. Euroasian Entomological Journal. 15(4):321–327.
The Russian class struggle of 1917 led to scientists (who were mostly from the upper classes) being either made ineligible for continued work at universities or worse. "White Russians" who conspicuously supported the Tsars or, in the later period, opposed leaders like Stalin routinely ended up in the Gulags, often vanishing without a trace. A few escaped to other parts and found work, Uvarov being among the lucky ones. He became interested in natural history at a very young age thanks to a present from his father of a Russian translation of the German 6 tome  work Tierleben by Alfred Brehm. He then studied entomology, preferring interactive learning at the informal Russian Entomological Society, to the formal courses offered by Mikhail Rimsky-Korsakov (the entomologist son of the famous Russian composer, of flight of the bumble-bee fame). Uvarov's exit to England was possible because of chance encounters with wartime English entomologists, but he had also established a name already in Russia. Prior to his research, it was thought that the migratory locusts were a distinct species but he identified ecological conditions that altered a sedentary grasshopper that looks quite different, and found in smaller numbers to produce young with altered form that became gregarious and migratory. This has been called the Phase Theory (and of course theory does not mean hypothesis) and in a very far-sighted approach he and his team would later work out causes and mechanisms ranging from the spectrum of the ultimate to the proximate - looking at ecology, endocrine function, sensory functions etc. and how reduced "social distance" converted a sedentary high-fecundity breeder to a long-winged less-fecund migratory form. Waloff herself examined the polymorphism of winged- and wingless-ness in various groups of insects and compared them with ideas on ecological stability (and perhaps they were precursors to ideas on r-K selection). They also boldly experimented with new techniques such as using radioactive isotopes to study dispersion (albeit in bugs).

The ALRC had recognized the locust problem as being something that needed collaboration across artificial borders like nations (in other words, not atmanirbharata). Several Indian researchers also took part in this international network of locust research. These included H S Pruthi (who established the institutional framework for collaboration after Indian Independence), Afzal Hussain (now considered the father of entomology in Pakistan)  and Y Ramachandra Rao (who retired to live in Bangalore). With the end of the Second World War and colonialism, research shifted from colonial sponsors to the United Nations, an attempt at a democratic trans-national institution.

From Haskell, P.T. (1970). The future of locust and grasshopper control. Outlook on Agriculture 6(4):166-174.
The range of influence of Schistocerca gregaria

Now, it is hard to imagine what might have happened to Uvarov if he had stayed on in Russia. The future for people who understood Darwinian evolution and were capable of synthesizing it with ideas from genetics was positively bleak. Russian science went from this class struggle which evicted traditional intellectual actors from the leisure class (often assisted by royal patronage) [with access to books, intellectual circles (often with entry bars), space to hold material, and ability to buy tools] to a more accessible system with tax-payer funded universities, supported by libraries, museums, journals run by democratized organizations, and other infrastructure. The transition was truly ugly and sad. On its way it had to encounter demagogues like Trofim Lysenko who drew an easy to understand (simple but wrong) connection between the idea of genes determining organism outcomes, to eugenics, and to fascism - and that simple communication to the powers-that-be led to the killing of many scientists, and the removal of many into the margins. Lysenko's appeals were what ordinary people wanted to hear, he came from a working class upbringing unlike the supposed snobs he was up against and, in his breeding experiments with wheat, or in his tree-planting methodologies (to combat a famine that was thought to be climate-induced) he made use of ideas that organisms could change their characteristics when faced with challenges, the idea that outcomes were not limited by genes - ideas which had a social appeal that fitted with egalitarianism.
A S Serebrovsky (c. 1925) who worked on chicken
breeding, conservation, genetics, and evolution -
a little-known figure in science.

It would be wasteful to write more here about the political history of Soviet science as there are numerous works on the topic. It is worth noting however that Russian scientists, contrary to Mayr's version of biological history, had indeed synthesized ideas on evolution with ideas from genetics. Unfortunately there seems to be little written about it in English, but it includes scientists like Nikolai Koltsov (who was probably poisoned), and many of his students including A S Serebrovsky (who is credited with coining the word gene pool, producing an early evolutionary synthesis, and thinking up the sterile male technique of pest management - fortunately he was spared his life - Mayr credits Dobzhansky (escaped to the West) among others in the synthesis but many of his ideas may well have come from Serebrovsky), Efroimson, Simon Levit (killed), Izrail Agol (killed), Nikolai Vavilov (killed) ... the list goes on.

India is now in a very interesting phase where ordinary plants, cow dung, and urine, with miraculous properties are touted as cures for coronaviruses. We will soon see similar claims to rid us of locusts. These are claims that appeal to those without resources. These claims are made by many including politicians and while they receive sniggers from the English speakers across social media, it is hard not to sense that this is a reaction against the snobbery of the English speaking and scientific upper classes. There is an opportunity for progressive thought and action in this disaster but it is not going to be an easy one, most certainly not if gross inequalities cannot be seen and tackled.

Further reading

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Ornithologists in cartoons

From: The Graphic. 25 April 1874.
It is said that the modern version of badminton evolved from a game played in Poona (some sources name the game itself as Poona). When I saw this picture from 1874 about five years ago, I gave little thought to it. Revisiting it after five years after some research on one of A.O. Hume's ornithological collaborators, I have a strong hunch that one of the people depicted in the picture is recognizable although it is not going to be easy to confirm this.

I recently created a Wikipedia entry for a British administrator who worked in the Bombay Presidency, G.W. Vidal, when I came across a genealogy website (whose maintainer unfortunately was uncontactable by email) with notes on his life that included a photograph in profile and a cartoon. The photograph was apparently taken by Vidal himself, a keen amateur photographer apart from being a snake and bird enthusiast. Like naturalists of that epoch, many of his specimens were shot, skinned or pickled and sent off to museums or specialists. He was an active collaborator of Hume and contributed a long note in Stray Feathers on the birds of Ratnagiri District, where he was a senior ICS official. He continued to contribute notes after the ornithological exit of Hume, to the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. This gives further support for an idea I have suggested before that a key stimulus for the formation of the BNHS was the end of Stray Feathers. Vidal's mother has the claim for being the first women novelist of Australia. Interestingly one of his daughters married Major R.M. Betham, another keen amateur ornithologist born in Dapoli, who is well-known in Bangalore birding circles for being the first to note Lesser Floricans in the region. Now Vidal was involved in popularizing badminton in India, apparently creating some of the rules that allowed matches to be played. The man at the left in the sketch in the 1874 edition of The Graphic looks quite like Vidal, but who knows! What do you think?

PS: Vidal sent bird specimens to Hume, and at least two subspecies have been named from his specimens after him - Perdicula asiatica vidali and Todiramphus chloris vidali.

For more information on Vidal, do take a look at the Wikipedia entry. More information from readers is welcome as usual.