Biography, natural history and early America

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Biography, natural history and early America
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  Essay Review Biography, Natural History and Early America Frederick R. Davis Department of History, 417 Bellamy Building, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-2200, United States When citing this paper, please use the full journal title  Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences  AlexanderWilson:theScotwhofoundedAmericanOrnithology  .Burtt, Edward, Jr. and William E. Davis, Jr.; The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA & London, 2013, pp. xi +444, Price US$35.00 £25.00 hardback, ISBN: 0-674-072553.I thinkit would be fair to say that the star of scientificbiographyhas dropped over the past two decades or so. Many of us discour-age graduate students from tackling a biography of a scientist, atleast as a first project. Whether the limitations of an individual lifeor the constraints of the timeline that begins at birth and ends atdeath, biography poses challenges and risks to emerging scholars.And yet there is a robust readership for biographies of all kindsand particularly studies of scientists. Soaring achievements follow-ing early struggles and the like inspire readers. Note: JanetBrowne’s multi-volume biography of Darwin ( Charles Darwin, ABiography, Vols. 1 and 2 ) and Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’sbiography of J. Robert Oppenheimer (American Prometheus: TheTriumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) are just two of the prominent examples. Just as biography has fallen by the wayside, so too has naturalhistory lost its luster in the biological sciences. Some would arguethat the life of the naturalist was never an easy one and even thebest-known American naturalists with professional status at re-nowned institutions barely eked out a living. From the days of the early republic to the present, naturalists supplemented theirincomes by moonlighting in a variety of ways including sellingillustrations, writing for popular audiences, and selling private col-lections to institutions. Naturalists without professional affiliationshad to rely on varying combinations or all of the above to supportthemselves and their families. The story of Alexander Wilson, thefirst American ornithologist, certainly conforms to the model of early struggles followed by professional and personal successes.Although European naturalists have received a good bit of attention from historians of science, American naturalists of theEarly Republic remain understudied, on the whole. Two exceptionsprove the rule. First, John James Audubon, whose superb ornitho-logical prints grace countless the walls of collections, hotels, andhomes (typically reprints in the case of the latter two), has beenthe subject of several recent biographies including RichardRhodes: John James Audubon: The Making of an American andWilliam Souder’s Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon andthe Making of the Birds of America. The second exception is the re-cent study of natural history during the early years of the AmericaRepublic: A Democracy of Facts: Natural History in the EarlyRepublic by Andrew J. Lewis. Lewis deftly argues that earlyAmerican naturalists struggled for respect and legitimacy. In the1780s, citizens viewed naturalists with suspicion borne of classdistinctions. By the 1830s and 40s, however, naturalists had foundacceptance among the general populace, who had accepted themas knowledgeable people who contributed to society (Lewis,p. 1). These exceptions aside, natural history in early Americaoffers many opportunities for continued analysis. In this context,a new biography of Alexander Wilson constitutes a welcomecontribution.Born in 1766 in Paisley, Scotland, Alexander Wilson first pur-sued weaving as a profession and poetry as a pastime. He foundinspiration in the poetry of fellow Scot, Robert Burns. After anapprenticeship in weaving, Wilson worked with his brother-in-law, but found difficulty making ends meet. Nevertheless, he con-tinued to write poems and practice weaving in Scotland. Theweaver’s guild in Paisley comprised a politically and sociallyengaged group of workers, and in this environment Wilson pub-lished one of his best-known poems, ‘‘The Hollander, or LightWeight,’’ which portrayed grim working conditions and dishonestmill owners. The owner of Wilson’s mill actually sued for libel,but suit never reached court. In 1792, however, another mill ownerreceived a letter demanding pounds to quash the publication of another poem: ‘‘The Shark; or Lang Mills detected.’’ William Sharpcalled for Wilson’s arrest. At his subsequent trial, Wilson admittedthat the letter was written in his handwriting, but he declined tosay who had sent them. Following two more prison terms, Wilsonagreed to burn the offending poems in the Paisley town square.After yet another prison term, the young Scot sought a new lifein America, setting sail in 1796. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.01.0021369-8486/   2014 Published by Elsevier Ltd. E-mail address:  fdavis@fsu.eduStudies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences xxx (2014) xxx–xxx   Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological andBiomedical Sciences journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/shpsc Please cite this article in press as: Davis, F. R. Biography, Natural History and Early America.  Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and BiomedicalSciences  (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.01.002  Even if the story ended there, a weaver-poet with a rebelliousbent pursuing redemption or at least anonymity in America,Wilson’s story would be a compelling one. However, as EdwardBurtt, Jr. and William E. Davis, Jr. have shown in Alexander Wilson:the Scot who founded American Ornithology, the Scottish politicalpoet found a new life in America, and also discovered birds andbird illustration. In so doing, the authors argue, Wilson establishedhimself as the ‘‘Father of American Ornithology.’’ Here, historiansof early American natural history might note that it is John JamesAudubon, not Wilson, whom we typically identify as the father of bird study in America. And yet, Burtt and Davis make a strong casefor Wilson.Wilson settled in Milestown, a small community north of Philadelphia, where he served as a schoolteacher for about fiveyears. Poetry remained important to Wilson and he publishedtributes to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the latterof which would lead to an important friendship. Wilson’s interestin birds and natural history blossomed during this period. After atragic incident, the details of which remain murky, Wilson movedto another school at Gray’s Ferry. There, he met the Bartram familyand developed a close friendship with William, who like his fatherwas one of the leading naturalists in America. The Bartrams havealso recently garnered the attentions of historians and biographersin Thomas P. Slaughter’s The Natures of John and William Bartram, Judith Magee’s The Art and Science of William Bartram, Edward J.Cashin’s William Bartram and the American Revolution on theSouthern Frontier, and a volume of essays, Fields of Vision: Essayson the Travels of William Bartram, edited by Kathryn E. HollandBraund and Charlotte M. Porter.On Bartram’s advice, Wilson began a correspondence with Jefferson,whowasarenownednaturalist,aboveandbeyondhisca-reer in public service. Jefferson’s role in debates surrounding thefauna of the Early American Republic has attracted considerableattention of late. See, for example, Lee Allan Dukatin’s Mr. Jeffersonand the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America. The debatebetween Jefferson and Buffon regarding American degeneracy alsoplaysasignificantroleinscientificdiscussionsofextinction,assug-gested in the sweeping history of extinction: Nature’s Ghosts:Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology by Mark V. Barrow Jr. After hearing that Jefferson plannedto send an expedition to explore the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers,Wilson petitioned to undertake the trip. Jefferson’s failure to replywas mitigated by a new opportunity when the publisher Bradford& Inskeep offered Wilson a position as assistant editor. With arather robust salary of $900 per year, Wilson proposed to write astudy of American birds: American Ornithology.Wilson quickly secured the commitment of his publishinghouse, contingent upon getting 200 subscriptions, which is to saypaid commitments to purchase the first volume (and potentiallysuccessive volumes as well). In this way, publishing houses couldascertain the existence of a market for the book (and the series).Wilson had honed his salesmanship while still a weaver so heproved adept at raising subscriptions. His encounters with variousspecies such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the CarolinaParoquet(Parakeet)that have since passed into extinction providesnumerous anecdotes of early American natural history. Moreover,such accounts as well as those of more common species revealedmany details of the natural history of species still relatively newto science. For example, he commented on the appearance of twosmallhawk species. In retrospect, the ‘‘twospecies’’ were assuredlythe male and female American Kestrel, which exhibit a high degreeof sexual dimorphism (males and females differ considerably interms of plumage and/or size (see below).As he prepared the many illustrations for what would sooncomprise eight volumes (as well as a posthumous ninth volume),Wilson travelled widely in the southern and western states.Throughout his travels, he continued to obtain additional subscrip-tions (eventually more than 450). Moreover, he continued to findand illustrate new species of birds. By the time of his death fromdysentery in 1813, at the relatively young age of 47, Wilson hadcompleted the first eight volumes; the ninth volume would becompleted by his friend and eventual biographer George Ord.At the heart of Wilson’s life’s work, stand dozens of drawingsand engravings of the birds of North America, which was the mostcomprehensive collection of North American ornithology before John James Audubon published The Birds of America. Similarly,the images form the core of Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson.In fact, the illustrations and discussion of them claim 220 pages.The authors (and the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)should be commended for the care and precision with which theyrendered Wilson’s drawings and engravings. Alexander Wilson in-cludes scores of images all meticulously rendered for continuedstudy. Remarkably, the book is reasonably priced. Burtt and Davisreveal the details of the process whereby plates reached final formby including drawings or incomplete plates alongside the pub-lished version. Each plate includes Wilson’s text and a commentaryby Burtt and Davis. Out of many insights to be gleaned from thisformat, it is clear in many cases that Wilson’s drawings were supe-rior to the final engravings. Critical elements such as proportion orplacement of the eye shifted between drawing and engravingsometimes lowering the accuracy or overall quality of the plate.Even once Wilson had honed his drawing skills, he still had todetermine how to engrave the plates for North American Ornithol-ogy. Initially, he considered adding engraving to a growing list of skills, but after an attempt, he decided that the task was better sui-ted to an established engraver, namely, Alexander Lawson. In pro-viding both Wilson’s attempt and Lawson’s final version of thesame plate, Burtt and Davis reveal that Wilson made the right deci-sion. Although Wilson’s colors are more vibrant (possibly as a re-sult of better preservation), Lawson’s engraving provides a moreaccurate indication of the details of the birds.Many of Wilson’s drawings revealed new insights into Ameri-can avifauna. For example, Wilson was the first naturalist to differ-entiate the Orchard Oriole from the Baltimore Oriole. Moreover, byincluding the adult male and the adult as well as the immaturemale as well as eggs, Wilson delineated the variability of this spe-cies. Similarly, the plumage of the American Kestrel (AmericanSparrow Hawk) had initially confused ornithologists includingWilson initially, who designated the larger, browner female as aseparate species. Due to this confusion, Wilson vowed to representboth male and female if he could obtain perfect specimens of both.Many of the final plates include the egg or the hatchling, therebyproviding an indication of the life cycle of the birds.In addition to sketches and final engravings, Burtt and Davis in-clude Wilson’s watercolor washes over pencil as in the case of thecomparison of the Ivory-billed and Pileated Woodpecker. As in somany other examples, Wilson’s watercolor captures the birds asif in life while in the final engraving the same birds take on the as-pect of a cartoon. The story of the Ivorybill’s capture and subse-quent attempted escape reveals how early ornithologists paintedtheir subjects. Burtt and Davis also include several examples of Wilson’s economy as he utilized the same sketch or part of a sketchas the basis for more than one plate as in the case of the Red-winged Blackbird and the Carolina Parakeet. Moreover, when pa-per ran short, Wilson would divide sketches across several smallerpieces of paper as in the case of the Herring Gull spread acrossthree separate sheets of paper.The drawings of certain species and families stand out from therank and file images. The nightjars (Whip-poor-will and CommonNighthawk) seem particularly true to life as do the hawks suchas the Red-tailed Hawk. An enlargement reveals the precision of Wilson’s illustration especially the feet, which have long stymied 2  F.R. Davis/Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences xxx (2014) xxx–xxx   Please cite this article in press as: Davis, F. R. Biography, Natural History and Early America.  Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and BiomedicalSciences  (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.01.002  efforts of bird painters to realistically capture these features. Burttand Davis note that the hawks represented some of Wilson’s bestefforts. Adraft sketchof the Rough-leggedHawk is amongthe mostlife like in Wilson’s opus. A detail reveals the remarkable precisionof this study. Wilson positioned the hawk’s eye perfectly and evenrotated it slightly forward as in living individuals. Many of the finalplates included more thanone species. In the case of the shorebirdsor ducks, the birds form flocks comprising multiple species soWilson may have been representing the birds as he encounteredthem in nature or he was representing several species from thesame family. In other cases, the addition of a smaller bird such asa warbler filled an otherwise blank space.Burtt and Davis conducted extensive research for this volume.At times, it seems as if they located every drawing, fragment, orscrap attributed to Wilson. They made particularly good use of the archives of the Ernst Mayr Library at the Museum of Compar-ative Zoology at Harvard University. The authors argue that Wilsonintroduced many innovations to his illustrations unlike his prede-cessor, Mark Catesby, who tended to distort birds beyond recogni-tion. In contrast, Wilson painted birds in way that rendered themboth scientifically accurate and lifelike. What Catesby lacked inartistic skill, he made up in prose as indicated by an edited essaycollection: Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision.Many elements of Wilson’s paintings are more accurate than hiscontemporaries William Bartram and John Abbot. Notably, Wilsonpositioned the eyes on the face in a way that was accurate. More-over, he placed the eyes in the eye socket thereby avoiding the‘‘pop-eyed stare’’ so common in early naturalists’ paintings of birds. Over time, Wilson struck an appropriate balance betweenthe desire to represent a particular plumage feature and his questto present the birds in realistic postures and proportions.Burtt and Davis devote considerable ink to Wilson’s status as apioneer ornithologist. Although other naturalists described andillustrated the birds of North America before Wilson, none of themutilizedtheLinnaeanclassificationsystemindescribingthebirdsof the region, nor were their illustrations if any of a quality that facil-itatedlateridentification.Incontrast,BurttandDavisargue,Wilsonfocused on a clearly defined geographical area, namely, the UnitedStates as it stood in 1807–1813. Wilson travelled approximately12,000 miles over the course of nineteen months. In the process,he visited fifteen of eighteen states and the four territories. He de-scribed 255 species of birds in the region and left notes on 13remaining species. George Ord completed these descriptions forthe ninth volume of North American Ornithology. Furthermore,BurttandDavisnote,WilsoncontributedtothedebatebetweenJef-ferson and Buffon comparing new world and old world fauna. Itshould come as no surprise that Wilson typically found Americanbirds to be superior to those in Europe. For example, he reportedthat the Northern Mockingbird’s song was superior to that of theEuropean Nightingale, and every other bird as well.Of the 51 North American species that Wilson believed he haddiscovered, the North American Ornithologist’s Union recognizes20, according to Burtt and Davis. Priority in species descriptionsis complicated by a number of factors. Who published the firstcomplete description, including a valid scientific name? Whenwas the first description published? In the case of the House Wren(Troglodytes aedon), it seems that Wilson may have priority overVieillot, but Burtt and Davis note that the AOU did not acknowl-edge the discrepancy until 1998, by which time Vieillot’s namehad been in use for nearly 200 years. More importantly, theauthors conclude, Wilson completed his taxonomic analyseswithout the benefit of financial and intellectual support. Further-more,Wilson’s sole resource wasthe Peale Museum,a pale shadowof the collections held at museum in Berlin, London, Leiden, andParis.In addition to his contributions to avian taxonomy, Wilson alsoadded significantly to other aspects of ornithology including birdbehavior. His notes on the American Redstart reflected on its habitof fly-catching in a zigzag flight from the tops of trees. We have al-ready seen that Wilson distinguished between the Orchard andBaltimore Orioles and sorted through the plumages of the males,females, and juveniles. At times, Wilson resorted to a kind of experimentation to evaluate birds. According to Burtt and Davis,the Bobolink had been split into two species for nearly a century,until Wilson kept a male in captivity and witnessed its gradual lossof breeding plumage until it could not be separated from the RiceBunting. Wilson also dissected several Rice Buntings out of thebreeding season and determined that they were male Bobolinkswith reduced testes. Quantification was yet another innovationon Wilson’s part. Based on his observation of continuous flock of Passenger Pigeons, he calculated the size of flock (at least one milewide and 240 miles long) and conservatively estimated the totalnumber of pigeons to be greater than two billion! Burtt and Davisemphasize the soundness of Wilson’s method to reach this conclu-sion. Wilson also conducted the first breeding bird census and usedthe results to extrapolate an estimate of the total number of birdsentering Pennsylvania from the south: 100 million. From these andother anecdotes, Burtt and Davis conclude that Wilson is ‘‘properlyrecognized as the father of American ornithology.’’ (p. 329)In a final chapter, Burtt and Davis explore the dimension of Wilson’s legacy through examination of the others he influenced.Of these, Wilson’s encounter with John James Audubon standsout. Audubon had not really considered the possibility of devotinghimself to painting birds until he met Wilson, who encouragedAudubon’s artistic endeavors. After Wilson’s death, Audubonmoved to Philadelphia but failed to gain membership in the Acad-emy of Natural Sciences due to the efforts of Ord, who jealouslyshielded Wilson’s legacy in art and ornithology. Moreover, Burttand Davis document what they see as Audubon’s rejection of Wilson’s legacy by reopening the case of the younger artist’splagiarism of several of Wilson’s well-known paintings. To buttressWilson’s case, they examined original paintings of the RuffedGrouse and discovered that Audubon added the date later to anobviously plagiarized painting on paper that was watermarked1810 (five years after Audubon’s date). In the final analysis, accord-ingto Burtt and Davis,Audubon’slegacysuffered fromhis rejectionof Wilson while Ord’s defensiveness tarnished Wilson’s legacy.Inspired by the bicentennial of Wilson’s death, AlexanderWilson sheds considerable light on the life, science, and art of onthe greatest naturalists in America during the years of the earlyrepublic. Richly and copiously illustrated with Wilson’s drawings,watercolors, and engraved plates, Alexander Wilson reveals Wil-son’s prodigious skillsand productivityas an artist and a naturalist.Moreover, this important study enriches the ongoing discussion of the significant role of natural history in the emergence of the newnation. Above all, this richly illustrated volume, along with theother works cited here, suggests that there are many opportunitiesfor continued exploration of the history of natural history in theearly American Republic. References Barrow, M. V. Jr., (2009).  Nature’s ghosts: Confronting extinction from the age of  Jefferson to the age of Ecology . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Bird, K., & Sherwin, M. J. (2006).  American prometheus: The triumph and tragedy of J.Robert Oppenheimer  . New York: Vintage Books.Braund, K. E. H., & Porter, C. M. (2010).  Fields of vision: Essays on the travels of WilliamBartram . Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Browne, E. J. (1996).  Charles Darwin: A biography, Vol. 1: Voyaging  . Princeton:Princeton University Press.Browne, E. J. (2003).  Charles Darwin: A biography, Vol. 2: The power of place .Princeton: Princeton University Press. F.R. Davis/Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences xxx (2014) xxx–xxx  3   Please cite this article in press as: Davis, F. R. Biography, Natural History and Early America.  Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and BiomedicalSciences  (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.01.002  Burtt, E., Jr., & Davis, W. E. Jr., (2013).  Alexander Wilson: The Scot who founded American Ornithology . Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Cashin, E. J. (2000).  William Bartram and the American revolution on the SouthernFrontier  . Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press.Dugatkin, L. A. (2009).  Mr. Jefferson and the giant moose natural history in early America . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Lewis, A. J. (2011).  A democracy of facts: Natural history in the early republic  .Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Magee, J. (2007).  The art and science of William Bartram . University Park, PA:Pennsylvania State University Press.Meyers, A. R. W., Pritchard, M. B., & Catesby, M. (1998).  Empire’s nature: MarkCatesby’s new world vision . Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Instituteof Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press.Rhodes, R. (2004).  John James Audubon: The making of an American . New York: AlfredA. Knopf .Slaughter, T. P. (1996).  The natures of John and William Bartram . New York: Alfred A.Knopf .Souder, W. (2004).  Under a wild sky: John James Audubon and the making of the birdsof America . New York: North Point Press.4  F.R. Davis/Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences xxx (2014) xxx–xxx Please cite this article in press as: Davis, F. R. Biography, Natural History and Early America.  Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and BiomedicalSciences  (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2014.01.002
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