Thursday, March 14, 2019

A buggy history

—I suppose you are an entomologist?—I said with a note of interrogation.
—Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name! A society may call itself an Entomological Society, but the man who arrogates such a broad title as that to himself, in the present state of science, is a pretender, sir, a dilettante, an impostor! No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp.
The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872) by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. 

A collection of biographies
with surprising gaps (ex. A.D. Imms)
The history of Indian interest in insects has been approached by many writers and there are several bits and pieces available in journals and various insights distributed across books. There are numerous ways of looking at how people viewed insects over time. One of these is a collection of biographies, some of which are uncited verbatim accounts from obituaries (and not even within quotation marks). This collation by B.R. Subba Rao who also provides a few historical threads to tie together the biographies. Keeping Indian expectations in view, both Subba Rao and the agricultural entomologist M.A. Husain play to the crowd in their early histories. Husain wrote in pre-Independence times where there was a need for Indians to assert themselves before their colonial masters. They begin with mentions of insects in ancient Indian texts and as can be expected there are mentions of honey, shellac, bees, ants, and a few nuisance insects. Husain takes the fact that the term Satpada षट्पद or six-legs existed in the 1st century Amarakosa to make the claim that Indians were far ahead of time because Latreille's Hexapoda, the supposed analogy, was proposed only in 1825. Such one-up-manship (or quests for past superiority in the face of current backwardness?) misses the fact that science is not just about terms but  also about structures and one can only assume that these authors failed to find the development of such structures in the ancient texts that they examined. Cedric Dover, with his part-Indian and British ancestry, interestingly, notes the Sanskrit literature but notes that he is not competent enough to examine the subject carefully. The identification of species in old texts also leave one wondering about the accuracy of translations. For instance K.N. Dave translates a verse from the Atharva-veda and suggests an early date for knowledge on shellac. This interpretation looks dubious and sure enough, Dave has been critiqued by an entomologist, Mahdihassan. One organism in ancient texts as the indragopa (Indra's cowherd) which supposedly appears after the rains. Some Sanskrit scholars have, remarkably enough, identified it, with a confidence that no coccidologist ever had, as the cochineal insect (the species Dactylopius coccus is South American!), while others identify it as a lac insect, a firefly(!) or as Trombidium (red velvet mites) - the last for matching blood red colour mentioned in a text attributed to Susrutha. To be fair, ambiguities in translation are not limited to those dealing with Indian writing. Dikairon (Δικαιρον), supposedly a highly-valued and potent poison from India was mentioned in the work Indika by Ctesias 398 - 397 BC. One writer said it was the droppings of a bird. Valentine Ball thought it was derived from a scarab beetle. Jeffrey Lockwood claimed that it came from the rove beetles Paederus sp. And finally a Spanish scholar states that all this was a gross misunderstanding and that Dikairon was not a poison, and - believe it or not - was a masticated mix of betel leaves, arecanut, and lime! 
One gets a far more reliable idea of ancient knowledge and traditions from practitioners, forest dwellers, the traditional honey-harvesting tribes, and similar people that have been gathering materials such as shellac and beeswax. Unfortunately, many of these traditions and their practitioners are threatened by modern laws, economics, and cultural prejudice. These practitioners are being driven out of the forests where they live, and their knowledge was hardly ever captured in writing. The writers of the ancient Sanskrit texts were probably associated with temple-towns and other semi-urban clusters and it seems like the knowledge of forest dwellers was never considered merit-worthy by the book writing class of that period.

A more meaningful overview of entomology may be gained by reading and synthesizing a large number of historical bits, and there are a growing number of such pieces. A 1973 book published by the Annual Reviews Inc. should be of some interest. I have appended a selection of sources that are useful in piecing together a historic view of entomology in India. It helps however to have a broad skeleton on which to attach these bits and minutiae. Here, there are truly verbose and terminology-filled systems developed by historians of science (for example, see ANT). I prefer an approach that is free of a jargon overload or the need to cite French intellectuals. The growth of entomology can be examined along three lines - cataloguing - the collection of artefacts and the assignment of names, communication and vocabulary-building - social actions involving the formation of groups of interested people who work together building common structure with the aid of fixing records in journals often managed beyond individual lifetimes by scholarly societies, and pattern-finding a stage when hypotheses are made, and predictions tested. I like to think that anyone learning entomology also goes through these activities, often in this sequence. Professionalization makes it easier for people to get to the later stages. This process is aided by having comprehensive texts, keys, identification guides and manuals, systems of collections and curators. The skills involved in the production - ways to prepare specimens, observe, illustrate, or describe are often not captured by the books themselves and that is where institutions play (or ought to play) an important role.


The cataloguing phase of knowledge gathering, especially of the (larger and more conspicuous) insect species of India grew rapidly thanks to the craze for natural history cabinets of the wealthy (made socially meritorious by the idea that appreciating the works of the Creator was as good as attending church)  in Britain and Europe and their ability to tap into networks of collectors working within the colonial enterprise. The cataloguing phase can be divided into the non-scientific cabinet-of-curiosity style especially followed before Darwin and the more scientific forms. The idea that insects could be preserved by drying and kept for reference by pinning, [See Barnard 2018] the system of binomial names, the idea of designating type specimens that could be inspected by anyone describing new species, the system of priority in assigning names were some of the innovations and cultural rules created to aid cataloguing. These rules were enforced by scholarly societies, their members (which would later lead to such things as codes of nomenclature suggested by rule makers like Strickland, now dealt with by committees that oversee the  ICZN Code) and their journals. It would be wrong to assume that the cataloguing phase is purely historic and no longer needed. It is a phase that is constantly involved in the creation of new knowledge. Labels, catalogues, and referencing whether in science or librarianship are essential for all subsequent work to be discovered and are essential to science based on building on the work of others, climbing the shoulders of giants to see further. Cataloguing was probably what the physicists derided as "stamp-collecting".

Communication and vocabulary building

The other phase involves social activities, the creation of specialist language, groups, and "culture". The methods and tools adopted by specialists also helps in producing associations and the identification of boundaries that could spawn new associations. The formation of groups of people based on interests is something that ethnographers and sociologists have examined in the context of science. Textbooks, taxonomic monographs, and major syntheses also help in building community - they make it possible for new entrants to rapidly move on to joining the earlier formed groups of experts. Whereas some of the early learned societies were spawned by people with wealth and leisure, some of the later societies have had other economic forces in their support.

Like species, interest groups too specialize and split to cover more specific niches, such as those that deal with applied areas such as agriculture, medicine, veterinary science and forensics. There can also be interest in behaviour, and evolution which, though having applications, are often do not find economic support.

Pattern finding
Eleanor Ormerod, an unexpected influence
in the rise of economic entomology in India

The pattern finding phase when reached allows a field to become professional - with paid services offered by practitioners. It is the phase in which science flexes its muscle, specialists gain social status, and are able to make livelihoods out of their interest. Lefroy (1904) cites economic entomology in India as beginning with E.C. Cotes [Cotes' career in entomology was cut short by his marriage to the famous Canadian journalist Sara Duncan in 1889 and he shifted to writing] in the Indian Museum in 1888. But he surprisingly does not mention any earlier attempts, and one finds that Edward Balfour, that encyclopaedic-surgeon of Madras collated a list of insect pests in 1887 and drew inspiration from Eleanor Ormerod who hints at the idea of getting government support, noting that it would cost very little given that she herself worked with no remuneration to provide a service for agriculture in England. Her letters were also forwarded to the Secretary of State for India and it is quite possible that Cotes' appointment was a direct result.

As can be imagined, economics, society, and the way science is supported - royal patronage, family, state, "free markets", crowd-sourcing, or mixes of these - impact the way an individual or a field progresses. Entomology was among the first fields of zoology that managed to gain economic value with the possibility of paid employment. David Lack, who later became an influential ornithologist, was wisely guided by his father to pursue entomology as it was the only field of zoology with jobs. Lack however found his apprenticeship (in Germany, 1929!) involving pinning specimens "extremely boring".

Indian reflections on the history of entomology

Kunhikannan died at the rather young age of 47
A rather interesting analysis of Indian science is made by the first native Indian entomologist, with the official title of "entomologist" in the state of Mysore - K. Kunhikannan. Kunhikannan was deputed to pursue a Ph.D. at Stanford (for some unknown reason two pre-Independence Indian entomologists trained in Stanford rather than England - see postscript) through his superior Leslie Coleman. At Stanford, Kunhikannan gave a talk on Science in India. He noted in that 1923 talk :
In the field of natural sciences the Hindus did not make any progress. The classifications of animals and plants are very crude. It seems to me possible that this singular lack of interest in this branch of knowledge was due to the love of animal life. It is difficult for Westerners to realise how deep it is among Indians. The observant traveller will come across people trailing sugar as they walk along streets so that ants may have a supply, and there are priests in certain sects who veil that face while reading sacred books that they may avoid drawing in with their breath and killing any small unwary insects. [Note: Salim Ali expressed a similar view ]
He then examines science sponsored by state institutions, by universities and then by individuals. About the last he writes:
Though I deal with it last it is the first in importance. Under it has to be included all the work done by individuals who are not in Government employment or who being government servants devote their leisure hours to science. A number of missionaries come under this category. They have done considerable work mainly in the natural sciences. There are also medical men who devote their leisure hours to science. The discovery of the transmission of malaria was made not during the course of Government work. These men have not received much encouragement for research or reward for research, but they deserve the highest praise., European officials in other walks of life have made signal contributions to science. The fascinating volumes of E. H. Aitken and Douglas Dewar are the result of observations made in the field of natural history in the course of official duties. Men like these have formed themselves into an association, and a journal is published by the Bombay Natural History Association[sic], in which valuable observations are recorded from time to time. That publication has been running for over a quarter of a century, and its volumes are a mine of interesting information with regard to the natural history of India.
This then is a brief survey of the work done in India. As you will see it is very little, regard being had to the extent of the country and the size of her population. I have tried to explain why Indians' contribution is as yet so little, how education has been defective and how opportunities have been few. Men do not go after scientific research when reward is so little and facilities so few. But there are those who will say that science must be pursued for its own sake. That view is narrow and does not take into account the origin and course of scientific research. Men began to pursue science for the sake of material progress. The Arab alchemists started chemistry in the hope of discovering a method of making gold. So it has been all along and even now in the 20th century the cry is often heard that scientific research is pursued with too little regard for its immediate usefulness to man. The passion for science for its own sake has developed largely as a result of the enormous growth of each of the sciences beyond the grasp of individual minds so that a division between pure and applied science has become necessary. The charge therefore that Indians have failed to pursue science for its own sake is not justified. Science flourishes where the application of its results makes possible the advancement of the individual and the community as a whole. It requires a leisured class free from anxieties of obtaining livelihood or capable of appreciating the value of scientific work. Such a class does not exist in India. The leisured classes in India are not yet educated sufficiently to honour scientific men.
It is interesting that leisure is noted as important for scientific advance. Edward Balfour, also commented that Indians were "too close to subsistence to reflect accurately on their environment!"  (apparently in The Vydian and the Hakim, what do they know of medicine? (1875) which unfortunately is not available online)

Kunhikannan may be among the few Indian scientists who dabbled in cultural history, and political theorizing. He wrote two rather interesting books The West (1927) and A Civilization at Bay (1931, posthumously published) which defended Indian cultural norms while also suggesting areas for reform. While reading these works one has to remind oneself that he was working under Europeans and may not have been able to discuss such topics with many Indians. An anonymous writer who penned a  prefatory memoir of his life in his posthumously published book notes that he was reserved and had only a small number of people to talk to outside of his professional work. Kunhikannan came from the Thiyya community which initially preferred English rule to that of natives but changed their mind in later times. Kunhikannan's beliefs also appear to follow the same trend.

Entomologists meeting at Pusa in 1919
Third row: C.C. Ghosh (assistant entomologist), Ram Saran ("field man"), Gupta, P.V. Isaac, Y. Ramachandra Rao, Afzal Husain, Ojha, A. Haq
Second row: M. Zaharuddin, C.S. Misra, D. Naoroji, Harchand Singh, G.R. Dutt (Personal Assistant to the Imperial Entomologist), E.S. David (Entomological Assistant, United Provinces), K. Kunhi Kannan, Ramrao S. Kasergode (Assistant Professor of Entomology, Poona), J.L.Khare (lecturer in entomology, Nagpur), T.N. Jhaveri (assistant entomologist, Bombay), V.G.Deshpande, R. Madhavan Pillai (Entomological Assistant, Travancore), Patel, Ahmad Mujtaba (head fieldman), P.C. Sen
First row: Capt. Froilano de Mello, W Robertson-Brown (agricultural officer, NWFP), S. Higginbotham, C.M. Inglis, C.F.C. Beeson, Dr Lewis Henry Gough (entomologist in Egypt), Bainbrigge Fletcher, Bentley, Senior-White, T.V. Rama Krishna Ayyar, C.M. Hutchinson, Andrews, H.L.Dutt

Entomologists meeting at Pusa in 1923
Fifth row (standing) Mukerjee, G.D.Ojha, Bashir, Torabaz Khan, D.P. Singh
Fourth row (standing) M.O.T. Iyengar (a malariologist), R.N. Singh, S. Sultan Ahmad, G.D. Misra, Sharma, Ahmad Mujtaba, Mohammad Shaffi
Third row (standing) Rao Sahib Y Rama Chandra Rao, D Naoroji, G.R.Dutt, Rai Bahadur C.S. Misra, SCJ Bennett (bacteriologist, Muktesar), P.V. Isaac, T.M. Timoney, Harchand Singh, S.K.Sen
Second row (seated) Mr M. Afzal Husain, Major RWG Hingston, Dr C F C Beeson, T. Bainbrigge Fletcher, P.B. Richards, J.T. Edwards, Major J.A. Sinton
First row (seated) Rai Sahib PN Das, B B Bose, Ram Saran, R.V. Pillai, M.B. Menon, V.R. Phadke (veterinary college, Bombay)

Note: As usual, these notes are spin-offs from researching and writing Wikipedia entries. It is remarkable that even some people in high offices, such as P.V. Isaac, the last Imperial Entomologist, and grandfather of noted writer Arundhati Roy, are largely unknown (except as the near-fictional Pappachi in Roy's God of Small Things)

Further reading
An index to entomologists who worked in India or described a significant number of species from India - with links to Wikipedia (where possible - the gap in coverage of entomologists in general is large)
(woefully incomplete - feel free to let me know of additional candidates)

Carl Linnaeus - Johan Christian Fabricius - Edward Donovan - John Gerard Koenig - John Obadiah Westwood - Frederick William Hope - George Alexander James Rothney - Thomas de Grey Walsingham - Henry John Elwes - Victor Motschulsky - Charles Swinhoe - John William Yerbury - Edward Yerbury Watson - Peter Cameron - Charles George Nurse - H.C. Tytler - Arthur Henry Eyre Mosse - W.H. Evans - Frederic Moore - John Henry Leech - Charles Augustus de Niceville - Thomas Nelson Annandale - R.C. WroughtonT.R.D. Bell - Francis Buchanan-Hamilton - James Wood-Mason - Frederic Charles Fraser  - R.W. Hingston - Auguste Forel - James Davidson - E.H. AitkenO.C. Ollenbach - Frank Hannyngton - Martin Ephraim Mosley - Hamilton J. Druce  - Thomas Vincent Campbell - Gilbert Edward James Nixon - Malcolm Cameron - G.F. Hampson - Martin Jacoby - W.F. Kirby - W.L. DistantC.T. Bingham - G.J. Arrow - Claude Morley - Malcolm Burr - Samarendra Maulik - Guy Marshall
 - C. Brooke Worth - Kumar Krishna - M.O.T. Iyengar - K. Kunhikannan - Cedric Dover

PS: Thanks to Prof C.A. Viraktamath, I became aware of a new book-  Gunathilagaraj, K.; Chitra, N.; Kuttalam, S.; Ramaraju, K. (2018). Dr. T.V. Ramakrishna Ayyar: The Entomologist. Coimbatore: Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. - this suggests that TVRA went to Stanford at the suggestion of Kunhikannan.

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