Thursday, September 9, 2021

Wringing hands over lost opportunities (since 1966)

 A 1966 letter from Salim Ali to Erwin Stresemann reminded me of a question posed to me on the development of ringing in India. India is famed for its License Raj or governmental control over any activity that offers opportunities to display power.* One of the things about power, is that those who overcome it or get empowered display a form of Stockholm Syndrome in which they not only praise the system but choose to inflict the same kinds of power down the hierarchy. In the UK, there is a Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which grants power to the BTO to permit and designate qualified ringers who then can capture, handle, and ring birds. This devolution of power from the government to a volunteer organization allows for scaling up study across geography. The US has a refined bureacracy that deals with ringing permits - from what I have been given to understand, that refinement was largely led by researchers pushing the government to make appropriate amendments so as to expand the base of volunteers. The documentation itself demonstrates clarity on the implementation of the regulations. Now for a fun assignment on the Internet - try finding the appropriate documentation for India to become a bird ringer. A few Indian scientists manage, through personal influence, to obtain the necessary permits to carry out ringing but it is merely for their own specific short-term research - leading to personal degrees or publications to advance careers. That is not to say that science as a career is a problem but that certain forms of research need to be done without an immediate aim - something like the work done (formerly, as much is now automated) by meteorological station recorders on a daily basis. Now compare this with how large numbers of people elsewhere are introduced to the bird in the hand, to learn morphometrics, understand moult, develop their own field guides with details on age, while also discovering new information first hand. Scientists in India can claim to have little time in fixing systemic issues but that is exactly how they positively contribute to backwardness in Indian ornithology (or indeed to a number of other societal issues). True "citizen science" can begin only when we can talk about the devolution of power.

*: I imagine that Monty Python with their Ministry of Silly Walks contributed to fixing the problem in the UK.


An aerogramme from Ali to Stresemann.
Permission to reproduce kindly provided by the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Annandale's Zoology

Many of India's leading zoologists died well before they reached the age of fifty. Nelson Annandale was one of them. Annandale trained in anthropology, and in a way was responsible in getting Mahalanobis develop multivariate statistical approaches with a problem involving classifying skulls based on measurements. Annandale also gave a rather interesting talk on the Ethics of Zoology. It is so hard to come by that very few people have read it. As the founder of the Zoological Survey of India, Annandale's note is definitely an important one for anyone interested in the history of Indian zoology. Given the difficulty in locating it, I have decided to post it here verbatim (it can also be found here).

Citation: Annandale,  N. 1922. Ethics  of Zoology.  Calcutta  Review (March):423-438.

Ethics of Zoology.

by Nelson Annandale

Address delivered to the Zoological Section of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Indian Science Congress at Madras: February 1922.

In his introduction to the eighty-third section of the Ain-i-Akbari Shaik Abulfazal wrote of Akbar:

"His Majesty has taught men something new and practical and has made an excellent rule, which protects the animal, guards the stores, teaches equity, revel as the excellent, and stimulates the lazy man" (Blochmann's Ain-i-Akbari, Vol. I. p. 217)

Let us constitute ourselves humble followers of Akbar and strive to find a rule that will at once protect this animal, guard the stores of zoological learning, maintain equity between zoologists and stimulate the excellent, if not the lazy, man to sound zoological research.

Sir William Jones in his inaugural discourse to the Asiatick Society, delivered in Calcutta in 1781, omitted zoology from the proposed agenda of the Society. Nine years later, in his tenth address, he explained the reason. “Could the figure, instincts, and qualities of birds, beasts, insects, reptiles, and fishes,” he said, “ be ascertained, either on the plan of Buffon, or on that of Linnaeus, without giving pain to the objects of our examination, few studies would afford us more solid instruction or more exquisite delight.”

He went on to state that he could not conceive of the feelings of a naturalist who could occasion the misery of an innocent bird, “or, deprive even a butterfly of its natural enjoyment, because it has the misfortune to be rare or beautiful.” He then gave the following translation of a couplet of Firdausi :—

"Ah I spare yon emmet, rich in hoarded grain;
 He lives with pleasure, and he dies with pain."
 [emmet is a Germanic origin word for ant]

Elementary as was Sir William Jones’s concept of zoology, his opinion as a scholar and a poet cannot be dismissed lightly. There is. as the French say. nothing that kills like ridicule, but ridicule kills only when its object is really ridiculous. To laugh at what is true and solid is to exhibit lack of sympathy and sense.

There seems to me, however, to be some confusion of thought in Sir William Jones's statement, which I have not quoted in full, and, moreover, he has ignored the fundamental difference in the point of view of a man whose attitude towards animals is entirely religious as a believer in the transmigration of souls and the accumulation of merit, and that of one whose dislike of cruelty is ethical and aesthetic. Firdausi’s couplet expresses the views of the latter, the edicts of Asoka those of the former, for the edicts are directed not against cruelty to animals but against the destruction of life.
 No decent zoologist is cruel to animals. Indeed among civilized men there is something antagonistic to human sanity in deliberate cruelty; it is essentially morbid and unnatural. But there is another kind of cruelty, due mainly to lack of imagination and carelessness. It is difficult in watching a carter twisting the tail of his ox to believe that his motive is entirely free from vicious pleasure, but that it is mainly due to a lack of the intellectual ability to picture to himself the feelings of the ox we may concede. Curiously enough this minor type of cruelty is often prevalent among those to whom the religious motive is all-important.
 It is a custom in Japan to throw the laboratories of the Imperial Universities open to the public once a year, and to provide a popular exhibition of scientific apparatus and preparations. In 1915 I happened to be in a Japanese university town in which an exhibition of the kind was in progress. The main exhibit in the physiological laboratory was a living rabbit firmly tied down and out open in such a way as to illustrate the beating of the heart. Even supposing that the rabbit was completely anesthetized, the exhibit was a disgusting one from a Western point of view, and would probably have caused a riot in London, even before the police intervened; but in Japan, women and children examined it with perfect equanimity, and my friends of the University staff could not see anything wrong. And yet these very professors and lecturers were in the habit every year of holding a solemn service of expiation in one of the great Buddhist monasteries of the city for the souls of the animals which had been dissected in their laboratories.
It is an interesting speculation whether the Japanese crowd would hare viewed the vivisected rabbit with the same equanimity if it had chanced to be one of the animals of which the representation in painting is permitted by the narrow canons of Japanese art. I must confess that my own objections to the exhibition were just as much aesthetic as moral.
The study of zoology in India has not, as a matter of practice, been much affected by the edicts of Asoka, and the remarks of Sir William Jones on the supposed; cruelty involved in zoology had no more than a temporary effect on the history of the Asiatic Society. Indeed, it seemed at times as if the stone the builder had rejected had become the headstone of the corner, for in the days of Blyth and again in those of Alcock, zoological papers were amongst the most important published in the Society’s Journal. Nevertheless, it is as well that in our zoological work we should keep in mind both Firdausi and Piyadasi.
I need not waste your time on the crank who loves her dog and hates mankind.

Scientific work is plain-sailing as long as a man can do it alone. It is when he has to consider others that the strain and difficulty begin. There is one point, small in itself but still important, in which I notice that my younger colleagues experience peculiar difficulty, namely, in acknowledging the help they have received from their seniors. The matter is not so simple as it seems. Two pitfalls must be avoided, that of flattery on the one hand and that of plagiarism on the other. For Indians there is the added difficulty of a foreign language. There is nothing more difficult than to pay a graceful compliment in a language not one's own. Delicacy of feeling, moreover, is often necessary to distinguish between a common courtesy and subtle flattery. The best way out of the difficulty is to say frankly what help has been received and to express gratitude in as few words as possible.

The question of plagiarism is even more difficult in scientific research than in literature. If Shakespeare, as some of my younger colleagues would argue, was justified in appropriating a commonplace plot and transmuting it into a work of genius, we also are justified in using the ideas of others as our own. Unfortunately few of us are Shakespeares, or Darwins. Darwin was one of the must modest of men, and always scrupulous in acknowledging assistance of any kind, even, or perhaps especially, from those whose lights were much less than his own. In acknowledging help, whether from the written or the spoken word, we cannot do better than accept the introductory part of the Origin of Species as our guide.

But this does not dispose of the more general question of plagiarism. How much may be legitimately appropriated, or may anything be appropriated at all ? In the Roman Church St. Alphonso of Liguori, the one modern Doctor of the Church, is accepted as the final referee on ethical questions. He was bold enough to draw up a tariff of mortal sin in theft. He ruled that in certain circumstances a respectable man who stole a shilling from a working man, or fourteen shillings from a crowned bead, did not commit a mortal sin ; but that to steal even a few far things from a beggar was always a mortal sin. In scientific ethics we have no such authority as St. Alphonso; but the rule that nothing whatever should be taken from any living person without due acknowledgment is a good one. We must steal not at all, either from king or beggar. There are, however, in science as in literature many ideas and phrases so universally understood and accepted that to trace them to a personal origin is not only unnecessary but also a little ridiculous. Even such ideas and phrases, if attributed to an author, should be attributed correctly. For example, the saying that the practical man practises the follies of his ancestors is often attributed to Huxley, but really came in the first instance from Disraeli, in whose Coningsby it is placed, with many other self-evident sentiments, in the mouth of the wise Jew Sidonia.

The mention of Huxley leads me to a point almost universally ignored at the present day in the ethics of zoology— the importance of literary style in the presentation of scientific facts and ideas. If anything is worth saying it is worth saying well. You have all heard of Buffon, who used to put on his court dress and his sword whenever he sat down to write. Such external ceremony is perhaps contrary to the spirit of this age and, therefore, may appear to some of us to have been mere affection on Buffon's part; which it certainly was not. Scientific facts, however, are worthy of respect, and should be treated with due decorum. Style has been defined as saying things in an appropriate manner. It is not appropriate to couch a plain statement of facts in highly figurative or elaborate language. Plain facts must be stated plainly. Our aim in zoological literature must be chaste simplicity, but journalese is not simple, nor is it chaste. Superfluous words, words used to startle or confound without thought of their precise meaning, in short all idle words, merely recall the saying that language was given to man to conceal his thought. If, however, you adopt the telegraphic style in description—and nowadays economy in print is always desirable for financial reasons—do so only in mere diagnosis, and in diagnosis be adequate, and be consistent. It is neither economical nor grammatical to write in describing an insect :
"body black ; the legs are brown"

I would advise every zoologist to study Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures on The Art of Writing English. He will find some hard sayings. With many others, I have found the statement that a case can only mean a box not a little disconcerting, but the fact that such statements make us feel uncomfortable proves that they contain an element of truth.

Apart from literary style in the writing of zoological papers, the question of the mechanical preparation of the manuscript for the press is one of ethical significance. As editor of the Records and Memoirs of the Indian Museum I often receive manuscripts that need many hours' careful and troublesome work before they can be sent to the printer. But for the fact that Dr. Kemp is kind enough to relieve me of much of this drudgery, I would scarcely hesitate to refuse even to consider a great part of the matter submitted for publication. Carelessness or ignorance as to punctuation and the use of capitals is rife, and few authors take any trouble in indicating the use of italics or other special type. It is surprising how few zoologists know even such elementary rules as that of the proper use of brackets with the name of the authors of species. These names should never be enclosed in brackets, unless the name of the genus of the species has been changed since the latter was first described. These may seem trivial points, but their neglect indicates not only carelessness, but selfishness and lack of understanding.

Zoology has become so complicated that few of us nowadays are more than “Scarabees.” This is an immoral state, not only because no man in these strenuous times has the right to narrow his interests to a single family of beetles, but also because the whole of biology is at present encumbered with unco-ordinated details that clog the machinery of progress instead of acting as motive power.

In zoology, however, as in all branches of knowledge, it is worse than being narrow-minded to assume an interest if we have it not. One of the, most unpleasant persons I ever met was a young student who emerged from a very dirty house in Iceland and remarked : "Good-morning! Do you think Lord Verulam wrote the plays of Shakespeare?" He took no more interest in the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy than I did in Icelandic politics, but wished to. impress the foreigner. You may apply this parable to zoology as you like.

In recent years zoological controversy, like most other branches of criticism, has grown more refined, but we are still far from that urbane irony which an American critic' regards as one of the highest manifestations of the literary spirit in modern England, Courtesy is apt to degenerate into irresponsible and often irrelevant insinuations, such as, in Europe, slackness in war, or, in this country, ।an anti-Indian-spirit. In some branches of zoology, notably in pure taxonomy, opinions are so varied that no general Consensus seems possible. I have observed a tendency,among young zoologists in India to treat conclusions, based presumably on ascertained facts, somewhat lightly, in order to avoid controversy—as in the case of a young man who brought to a friend of mine a paper in which far-reaching conclusions were derived from somewhat meagre research. My friend pointed out that the evidence hardly justified the conclusions.
“Oh,” said the author, but I can change the conclusions ! ”
On the other hand, it is quite unnecessary to call a man a liar because you disagree with him on some controversial point, or even on some matter of observation. All men cannot think, or even see, alike, and because a man is senior, or belongs to a different race, he is not necessarily wrong.

If the majority of zoologists were endowed, with a sense of humour (which, after all, as Thackeray has pointed out, is essentially the same thing as a sense of proportion) much controversy would be avoided altogether, the real point at issue not being any point of fact or even of interpretation but merely so me personal fad, jealousy or spite. I was once buying some sleeping-mats in the Malay State of Kelantan. The man who had brought them for sale stated that it had taken him two months to make them. I turned to another Malay who was standing by -an uneducated man, but endowed with the ready wit and delicacy of feeling so characteristic of the Malay race—and enquired if this could be true. "Doubtless, Tuan," was the reply, "but perhaps he only worked one day in each month." The retort was a retort courteous ; no offence was caused and the bargain was concluded in a manner satisfactory to all concerned.

The true test in all controversy is the inner feelings of the disputants. So long as a man respects his opponent, and feels no bitterness towards him, controversy is a good thing; but in scientific controversy there must be no reservations, no quibbling. We must play with all our cards on the table. A plan I have adopted in the Records of The Indian Museum seems to me a good one. Some years ago I published a paper in the Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in which I pointed out that there was considerable diversity in the frogs usually grouped under the name Rana tigrina. I, therefore, suggested that several distinct species should be recognised. Dr. G. A. Boulenger , then in charge of the Reptiles and Batrachia in the British Museum and still recognised as the leading herpetologist in Europe, did not agree with me. He paid me the great compliment of sending me a paper for publication in the Records of the Indian Museum, refuting my claim for the specific recognition of the different forms of Rana tigrina, which he regarded as merely races or varieties.

In certain points Dr. Boulenger was evidently right and I wrong. So I wrote a second note expressing my views as modified by Dr. Boulenger's argument. Of this I sent the manuscript to him; and he replied in a third note. The three notes were then published together as a kind of dialogue, so that all the facts and arguments of the case were submitted to the zoological world together, without the slightest bitterness, loss of mutual respect, or ill-feeling on the part of either the senior or the junior author. Far otherwise was it with the famous controversy on the proper generic name of the bed-bug that raged round the world some years ago, from Hawaii to Belgium and from England to Canada.

In setting forth this ideal of urbane controversy I do not mean to say that there are not oases in which the experienced zoologist does well to be angry. Dishonest or grossly careless work, work done merely for the sake of effect or to satisfy the investigator’s personal ambition or further his official promotion, must always meet with unqualified condemnation, in which there is no room for mutual respect.

In the official document whereby the Zoological Survey of India was constituted in 1916 our relations with the technical departments are laid down as being those of ”cooperation without subordination.” The thanks of all Indian zoologists are due to the man who discovered this formula. I do not know his name. The formula implies not only the recognition of pure zoology on the part of the Government of India, but also its independence of direct economic aims. I have nothing to say against applied science, provided that it be science at all, but the term is often “applied” to something akin to the Holy Roman Empire, which has been described as neither holy, Roman, nor an empire.

Even in the purely physical branches, in which the mathematical demonstration of facts is possible, "practical results ” often rest on a very small basis of research. The whole affair is in fact an inverted pyramid, liable to topple over at any moment and overwhelm its supporters. As soon as the question of life enters into applied science the matter becomes vastly more complex, and just as the life of the animal is more complex than that of the plant, so is applied zoology more difficult than applied botany. Some day we may know something about life, and understand how a plant or an animal lives, how and why it reacts to its environment. At present we know practically nothing. The great triumphs of applied biology are empirical, such as the discovery of the value of Cinchona bark ages before the malaria parasite was known. And yet they are triumphs of pure research, for research is only experiment and its interpretation. The practical knowledge of the primitive fisherman or agriculturist is based unconsciously on the experience of a thousand years. At present all we can do in a laboratory or a museum is to speed up experience, to attempt to learn in a few months or years what the peasant has taken centuries to learn, and has sometimes learned wrong in the end.

Applied zoology should be, and perhaps some day may become, the great philanthropic agent of the world. At present, it is often a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a devil masquerading as an angel of light. No government or commercial body can resist the temptation of demanding results, and in India we hear of even professors expecting from their students a research a month. Such demands often meet with a ready response, especially from the young and ignorant. This can only result in a furtive and subtle dishonesty fatal to all true progress. I am firmly convinced that applied zoology is at present, with our inadequate apparatus of research, largely a chimera, indiscriminate faith in which is akin to that in the stories told in the Physiologus and its successors, the medieval bestiaries of Western Europe, about such animals as the elephant and the leopard. These stories were not written in the interests of material truth, but with a strictly moral or religious aim. They completely ignored facts, but yet were based on existing things. It was not until considerable numbers of Europeans went into the countries in which the libelled animals led their own unmoral lives that the true facts became apparent, and I do not think that either the morals of Europe or the interests of zoology suffered in the revelation.

In his History of English Literature from the Beginning to the Norman Conquest Stopford Brooke translates an account of the leopard from an early poem on the Panther, the Whale and the Partidge. The panther lives, we learn, “ In the far lands in deep hollows......... , glittering in a many coloured coat like Joseph’s, a friend to all, save to that envenomed scat her, the Dragon.” After feeding (on what we are not told), he sleeps for three nights. When he awakes, “a lofty, sweet, ringing sound comes from his mouth, and with the song a most delightful steam of sweet-smelling breath, more grateful than all the blooms of herbs and blossoms of the trees.” This mystic aroma is compared by the early English poet to the hope of divine salvation.   

However fair the flowers of applied zoology may ‘seem, the ripened fruits are often Dead Sea apples, disappointing as the breath of the leopard, not to mention his unfriendly disposition, must have been to the first lettered Englishman who stumbled upon him in the jungle and awoke him from his slumbers.
Virgil in his Georgics wrote what was accepted for centuries by the learned as a manual of practical agriculture poetically expressed. Among other processes he described the manufacture of a swarm of bees from the carcase of a heifer. Imagine the poet reclining in his cool verandah with a manuscript of Hesiod half-unrolled on his lap, and pausing in his dictation to gaze over the countryside and muse for a moment on his own love for the simple farmer’s life. Fortunately for his reputation as a practical agriculturist his (or rather Hesiod’s) process for the abiogenetic production of honey-bees, which involved the slaughter of a prime heifer, was as unsound economically as it was biologically impossible. No one tried the experiment, and so the process was accepted from generation to generation as practical. In fact, the lighthearted, and doubtless illiterate, Samson, who slew a lion on his way to visit his lady-love and afterwards found a comb of wild honey in the skeleton, and made a riddle of it to puzzle the Philistines, was much the more practical man of the two. In modern times the man who introduced mongooses into the West Indies, rabbits into Australia or sparrows into North America, doubtless thought that he had accomplished a great work of applied biology—at first.

In discussions on the value of zoological work there is nothing that makes me more indignant than the saying that this or that piece of Indian research is good work—for India. This usually means that it is of inferior quality, but must not be judged too hardly because it has been done either by an Indian or by an Englishman working amidst Indian difficulties. We Indian zoologists, to judge by the work of our predecessors—Hodgson, Blyth, Stoliczka, Blanford, Alcock and many others—have no reason to claim indulgence. There can be nothing more fatal to Indian science than to aim at a low ideal, and no greater insult can be paid to any branch of scientific effort than to judge it from a racial or a geographical standpoint. Zoology is often regarded in India as the Cinderella of the sciences, and it is, therefore, necessary on occasion for zoologists to mingle the meekness of the dove with the subtlety of the serpent. Some years ago, in my zeal to bring about a certain unity of purpose in the administration of the Indian Museum, I incurred the accusation of latent kaiserism from one of my colleagues. I replied that it seemed to me improbable that the youngest and poorest of the scientific departments under the Government of India would arise from the mud like Pharaoh’s lean kine and swallow its more prosperous brethren. However effective such replies may be for the moment, the necessity for them does not tend to edification. One branch of science may be poorer in loaves and fishes than another, but all are equal.

Zoology is so closely connected with other branches of biology, and so dependent- in the last resort on geology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, that in my own work I find it frequently necessary to apply to members of other departments for special information. My experience has been that such information is always given in a most ungrudging and generous spirit when applied for personally, but that any official move towards closer co-operation is met with suspicion. I am heterodox enough to believe that the first duty of every scientific department, whether official or otherwise, should be to assist all scientific men in their work, and especially in their research ; but to the gods, alas, it has seemed otherwise. The gods of Olympus led a free and joyous life, feasting on nectar and ambrosia : in files and official etiquette the gods of the Himalaya have found more congenial fare. A witty Chairman of the Trustees of the Indian Museum, in which four Imperial survey departments are concerned, once remarked that the chief difficulty in its administration was that the parts were so much greater than the whole. Hypertrophy of the departmental consciousness is a disease to which we heads of scientific departments are by no means immune; a disease, moreover, which the Board of Scientific Advice, despite its zeal in preventing “the overlapping of functions” has failed to cure. In placing zoology on a sound basis in India, individual effort alone is of any avail, but the effort though individual must be unselfish, it must not be inspired by any kind of bitterness or self-seeking. We must realize with a sigh that the intelligence of a committee is often much lower than that of its least intelligent member.

Even a committee, however, is preferable to individual patronage. I am of the opinion that private donations to science often do more harm than good, not only because of the conditions that usually hedge them round but also because they weaken individual effort in research. Unlike Art, Science abhors patronage and flourishes in hardship and opposition. We are told that in ancient Greece Alexander the Great was the patron of Aristotle, and yet that scientific thought was absolutely free. By the time of Alexander, however, the intellectual light of Greece was fading out, and democracy, the most official form of Government known to mankind, had already found, its supreme victim in Socrates, the philosopher whose test for all things was truth.

At all periods and in all countries of the modern world— whether it be in the dealings of Pope Urban with Galileo or in those of the British Government with scientific men in the early part of the War—ignorant members of the official hierarchy—and even a high official of the most excellent administration may be very ignorant of science—have attempted to treat science much as St. Columba treated the practical experience of St. Oran. The story is told in full in a comparatively late Irish life of Columba and is barely hinted at in more authentic documents. It seems to me, however, to bear in its primitive simplicity the impress of truth. No mere hagiologist would ever have invented such a story. Here is the story. An important religious work was to be under taken on the island of Iona and it had been decided that one man must die for the community and become its guardian spirit. St. Columba called for volunteers and St. Oran, who is said to have been his brother, offered himself. St. Oran was accordingly buried alive. After three days St. Columba caused the grave to be opened. St. Oran, was not dead, but thought he was. He opened his eyes and said, “ There is no mystery in death and Hell is not like what it was said to be." St. Columba, doubtless thinking that his brother was possessed of a devil, cried out in alarm, “ Earth, earth on the eyes of Oran, lest he blab more ! ” And so it was done. “ Earth on the eyes of Oran ” has become a proverb in Gaelic.

I had recently in London an opportunity of discussing the position of zoology in this country with one of the greatest of living zoologists. He maintained that zoology should not be encouraged in India until India was in a position to do independent work. By independent work he meant research independent of official control. Apart from all personal considerations, I was unable to agree with him, for I see no way of fostering zoological research at present in India hut through the agency of Government. It is quite true that no branch of science can be said to be on a sound basis unless it is independent, and that the flame of research must burn feebly so long as it is not fed by the spirit of individuality. Moreover, the age has not yet come in which the true value of the independence of science will be appreciated by the powers that be. Science and officialdom are as antagonistic as the mongoose and the snake, but officialdom in its dangerous form is a matter of the spirit rather than of material conditions. To confound government with officialdom is a mistake. No government that consisted merely of officialdom could exist for a month, I prefer to regard red-tape as the excreta of government. It is unfair to judge any organism by its excreta, nor is it fair to confound the Imperial policy with the tactics of some harassed secretary afflicted with a dysentery of notes and minutes and trembling at the name of the Finance Department. Zoology throughout the world owes a great debt to the Government of India as the only government that has founded a zoological survey on a basis of pure research. At the present time zoological posts sanctioned in previous years are kept vacant in Great Britain in the interests of so-called economy, while in India the Government is at any rate attempting to place zoological research on a sound financial basis. The constitution of the Indian Museum is now, especially in the matter of zoology, much more liberal than that of the British Museum from which it was originally copied. We have, therefore, in India justification for the hope of a brighter age; With faith in our calling and hope in its future we zoologists are in a very strong position.

In the whole course of human history there is nothing that has caused more waste of genius, the rarest and most precious of human possessions, than the opposition of officialdom to the progress of knowledge; but even in our struggle with the spirit of officialdom we must preserve two essential qualities, reason and good humour—which does not exclude a sympathetic understanding of shortcomings, both our own and those of others. The lack of reason in scientific men has done almost as much harm as the ignorance and stupidity of officials. Charity is not only a virtue but also a very powerful weapon in the cause of science, which is the cause of truth. The Scot’s half-reverential pity for the Devil (the great Adversary, but for all that the "puir De'il"), has done good work for morality and efficiency. The fever of fanaticism is all-powerful in initiative, hot in the end produces without-fail an antitoxin of officialdom. Science can afford to be magnanimous, and the petty politics of the passing hour need not concern us. Truth is great and will prevail. Whatever may he our political views, whatever our race, or creed, or caste, Pope’s words stand true in science:—

“ For Forms of Government, let fools contest;
What’er is best administered is best :
For Modes of Faith let. graceless zealots light.;
His can’t lie wrong whose life is in the right :
In Faith and Hope the World will disagree,
But all Mankind's concern is Charity.”

N. Annandale

Postscript: As someone who thinks organizations like the ZSI have long outlived their usefulness to Indian citizens (at least in the form in which it exists), it is also worth reading some of the people who fought for its retention after Independence. Among them was H. Munro Fox - who makes the following claims (all arguably not true now) "In Indian universities zoology has not been so much developed as some of the other sciences. ... In addition there are in India very few field naturalists. ..." [in Fox, H. M. (1947). The Zoological Survey of India. Nature, 159(4052):865–866.

If we look upon collections like the ZSI as a form of librarianship in maintaining a library of life - then we see that it is wrongly staffed. It needs people with the right skills to maintain artefacts (do they really only have to be dead specimens?), index them, and help provide access to the people who need it - on demand. As a slightly different form of librarianship, that of life, perhaps needs effort into keeping living copies - and so needs to be associated with stewardship of the land. As long as the ZSI keeps recruiting just zoologists (isolated from students and university environments), it will continue to rot from colonial thinking processes.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Long before Salim Ali - an Indian bird collector 1906-9

Hidden away in the annals of systematic ornithology is the name of P. N. Krishnasamy Naidoo, Merchant on Victoria Street, Mahe, Seychelles around 1907 and living on Rue La Fague, St. Andre, Reunion in 1908. From the Indian diaspora, literate in French, Naidoo probably moved from Mauritius but little is known about his life. It appears that he began to collect bird specimens on the Indian Ocean islands for Lord Walter Rothschild and his assistant Ernst Hartert. Almost nothing is known about him beyond the few letters he wrote that are preserved in the Natural History Museum at London and the bird specimens he collected which are now in the American Museum of Natural History.

Naidoo collected nearly 450 skins of birds all of which are now at the American Museum of Natural History, part of their acquisition from Lord Rothschild, who was forced to make a distress sale of his collections to silence an unknown woman blackmailer. Suprisingly all the Naidoo birds landed in the American part while the letters of Naidoo are at the Natural History Museum in London. Some of the beautifully handwritten letters in French sent by Naidoo to Rothschild and Hartert tell of large payments being made for the bird specimens that he collected. For some of the island parakeets, Rothschild offered 30 pounds per specimen. [Kemp (2017) on Rothschild in the New Scientist calls him a useless banker who spent a mountain of cash to buy nature]

As always, every finding raises more questions, how did Naidoo get to be trained in skinning birds and preparing specimens? What was his own knowledge of the birds of the Indian Ocean Islands? 

A collection of the specimens that Naidoo collected along with the species, dates and locations can be found from the American Museum of Natural History website. Examination of some of his letters at the NHM London archives has not revealed much on his life. 

A chapter remains to be written on this interesting marginal character in ornithological history.


Thanks are due to a number of people for helping unearth the precious little that we know about Naidoo - Robert Prys-Jones, Alison Harding, Kathryn Rooke, (NHM-London); Pat Matyot (who suggested that Naidoo may have come from a family of indentured labourers that left Mattur in Tamil Nadu to settle in Mauritius with some becoming successful entrepreneurs - like Govindasamy Krishnasamy Thambi Naidoo who financially supported Mahatma Gandhi); and Malavika Vyawahare (via Abhay Thakur, IFS).

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

An inedible tale


Many years ago, I had access to a copy of this peculiarly titled book on the birds of India. It had some beautiful lithographs, possibly hand coloured, and evidently faded into strange and muddy shades of brown. Fortunately, today, there is a nice scan of the book available online via the Biodiversity Heritage Library and safely deposited on the Internet Archive. Some of us had created an entry at Wikipedia for its author J.A. Murray - and around 2006 it had been expanded as James Augustus Murray and at that time the library of the Natural History Museum in London had conflated the two in their catalogue index too. Fortunately it was easy to see that there was no connection to the lexicographer Sir James Augustus Murray and the errors have since been fixed but painfully little was known about James Alexander Murray!

The Asiatic Society of Mumbai has done an excellent job of digitizing its collections and making them available at a very reasonable subscription price. The search engine and the OCR also work rather well and after running some searches on GranthSanjeevani I stumbled on the rather sordid tale of our Murray. It turns out that he founded a Victoria Natural History Institute which aimed to make natural history specimens available for sale and he was rapidly trying to expand this organization across India. Rather too rapidly and ambitiously it would appear. He had people across the country paying him to become heads of branches and then went into severe debt. This finally led to his being charged with cheating and some of the court hearings appear in the newspaper reports of the time. They reveal that Murray was once a librarian at the Kurrachee Municipal Library from where he was discharged dishonourably after it was discovered that he was trying to sell off duplicates of old books. Moving back to Mumbai where he was born, possibly of mixed British Indian parentage (described as "Eurasian"), he tried to set up an organization to make use of his taxidermic skills and knowledge of natural history. A report from the Bangalore Museum notes with hope that they might obtain new exhibits through the newly opened branches of the Victoria Natural History Institute in Mysore and Bangalore. Phipson of the BNHS, it would appear, had been kind enough to lend money to Murray and perhaps even provided housing to him until he failed to pay his rents. Phipson was called to court as a witness. The court with L.H. Bayley presiding finally sentenced Murray to five years of rigorous imprisonment whereupon he appears to have been broken and the man was lost forever to history.


The Bombay Gazette, 17 April 1893 p. 4 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Birds and Indian agriculture - turf wars

Alongside the activism against the plume trade in Victorian England, there was a widespread interest in understanding the "value" of birds to Indian agriculture possibly since many birds were trapped for the trade coinciding with famines in India. It was also a period when the British Empire intensified agricultural research efforts. Recall that professional agricultural entomology in India was influenced by Eleanor Ormerod who suggested that if she could do as much as she did voluntarily for English agriculture, a lot could be done with a paid position in India! Ormerod, oddly enough, was engaged in a campaign to eradicate the sparrow in England when other upper class ladies were clamouring for the protection of birds. While Reverend F.O. Morris and some other male conservationists wrote letters noting  her deviation from expected feminine conduct and requested her to show "compassion ... and fulfil her duty as a woman", there were farmers who agreed with her and argued on Christian foundations that although sparrows "...  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." [Bradshaw, 2014; Holmes, 2016] As early as 1892, the idea that some careful examination was needed was mooted and the phrase "economic ornithology" was introduced by Earl Cathcart

It is unclear how the bird-agriculture question spilled over into India but an early attempt to look at Indian birds from an agricultural perspective was by Charles William Mason, an entomologist. In 1907, Mason offered tubes and instructions for collectors of birds to provide him with the contents of the gut and gizzards of birds that had been shot. The idea at the time was that based on the diet, birds could be classified into three neat classes as being beneficial, injurious, or neutral to agriculture. Very little is known of the life of Mason, he joined the research institute at Pusa as a supernumerary entomologist working under Harold Maxwell Lefroy and left India in 1910 to study at Wye, and the US before moving to work in Nyasaland where he died of black-water fever (malaria) on 28 November 1917 at Namiwawa. Mason's intensive work on the examination of the contents of the guts of 1325 birds shot mainly around Pusa in Bihar may perhaps be among the few of its kind. Mason did not publish much before leaving India. Lefroy himself left India in 1911 but the interest in birds continued with his successor T.B. Fletcher who encouraged the a planter and naturalist Charles Inglis to conduct studies in relation to agriculture. The two wrote a series of illustrated articles on birds in the Agricultural Journal of India but it appears that the professional entomologists (note that Fletcher himself would easily qualify as an amateur by modern standards) were unimpressed. A reprint of the series was made as Birds of an Indian Garden (1924). 

Inglis later spent his energies editing the Journal of the Darjeeling Natural History Society and managing the society's museum in Darjeeling. His journal includes interesting discussions between Inglis and S C Law. Law was an avid aviculturist who obtained birds from the wild. Inglis met Law and his trappers in Darjeeling with a number of sunbirds and in a subsequent note Law documented their sad fate resulting from their aggressive behaviour. At the 1923 meeting organized by Fletcher he notes "the amateur entomologists, whom we are always glad to see and to help as far as possible, are also represented by Major Kingston and Mr. Inglis." 

Present at the same meeting was a professionally employed south Indian entomologist from Coimbatore, P. Susainathan. Susainathan had written an interesting note on the birds of the Coimbatore region from a standpoint of economic ornithology called "Bird Friends and Foes" (1921). Susainathan later worked in Iraq and at some point decided he was better off catching insects for taxonomic specialists and began perhaps a career unique in India, at least for an Indian (there were professional collectors like William Doherty who made much larger collections, pers. comm. Michael Geiser, NHM London). He advertised in various entomological magazines and offered to send specimens from India within the group that they were interested in. The Wikipedia biography covers the key bits on him and his family members who continued in the collection enterprise. There are nearly forty insect species with names like nathani or susainathani, nathanae, and nathanorum (of Mr Nathan, of Mrs Nathan, of the Nathans). Susainathan's book has a description of the sparrow which includes the term "aerial rat" which recalls Ormerod's usage of "avian rat".

The Nathan family in the 1970s - photo from Karl Werner (1956-2007)
P. Susainathan is second from right in the back row.
Scan courtesy of Juergen Wiesner

It is worth recording that professional entomologists appear to have guarded the field of economic entomology as far as its applications to agriculture went. When Salim Ali made an application to the ICAR to study birds (see linked document in the National Archives of India),  Baini Prashad of the ZSI was largely supportive, but the proposal was essentially nixed by the Imperial Entomologist at that point of time (viz. Hem Singh Pruthi, although the letter seems to have been forwarded to the government by F.J.F. Shaw). Pruthi's comments are worth noting for the tone of protection of the professional turf (apart from some casual sexism):

The most suitable man for undertaking the study of Insectivorous birds is one who is primarily a good entomologist and possesses some knowledge of birds in addition. He should be familiar with the habits of the Insect fauna of the area and be able to identify himself the stomach contents of the birds immediately after their death. The chief man should hare a taxidermist to assist him in the preservation of the birds, which can be got named by specialists afterwards.
There has been a great deal of writing on the professionalization of science and most of what is written in traditional (or should it be professional?) history of science departments would appear to show professionalization as a positive and progressive step and few studies if ever look at the negatives  such as how profession-defenders define the boundaries of subjects, block so-called outsiders, and thereby prevent possible enrichment and growth.

Further reading