Of Cultural Nationalism, Hamlet and the Cloaca Universalis
No one likes to get ripped off. Whether it’s a song, a joke, a recipe—or, as in the story we are about to recount, original scientific data and interpretation: no one likes it. All the more so if it potentially costs you money. A colleague once pointed out that, in the academic arena, pay seldom matches that of former school mates who went on to generally more lucrative pursuits in law, say, or medicine or business. All we scientists and our fellow “hewers of wood and drawers of water” in academia (to quote that same colleague) have is the satisfaction and reputation among our colleagues that we have done good, intellectually valuable—and, to a degree at least, original— work. And though we regularly publish our work, in so doing we want and expect our names to be “forever” associated with our work. (“Forever,” when it comes to having a Museum Hall, or a Hospital Wing, named after you turns out to be ca. 75 years in modern New York City).
In other words, we expect to be properly cited.
So, if money is your goal, becoming a paleontologist is not your best bet. Still, we all have to make a living.
Truthfully though, the real rewards lie in the thrill of the hunt and the discovery and collection of fossils.
It is way cool to find a piece of once-living history, especially when it sheds further light on the evolution of life and the factors that shaped it. Fossils are their own reward, to those who cherish them.
Unlike genetic information, which is transmitted primarily vertically from organisms to their descendants (except in microbes which can at times transmit genetic information horizontally - between evolutionarily distinct microbes that just happen to be living together), cultural information is transmitted both vertically and horizontally. News, both Fake and Real (our preferred form) travels ever-and-ever faster, and theft of ideas is rampant in all walks of life. Patent law was invented to slow, if not completely stymy, stealing ideas in the marketplace—though the barriers presented by patents themselves often lead to still further inventive creativity, which is a good thing. Cultural evolution is more complex than biological evolution. Often faster too, at least when we compare the visible adaptive changes to the things that people make to the way people themselves are biologically configured.
But theft of idea is indeed thievery, no doubt about it. Intellectual property rights are currently a major concern on the global economic stage. ‘Twas ever thus, as our story of the “Hamlet Affair” makes abundantly clear.
Our story unfolds in 1841. Our protagonist is James Hall (1811-1898; born in Massachusetts two years after Charles Darwin was born in England), the first Paleontologist of the State of New York.
Yes! States had “State Paleontologists” back then, and in many instances still do. Reason: exploration of the natural resources of the territory, above and below ground, especially if not solely for potential economic benefits. It’s good to know something about where you live.
James Hall was one of the first and finest of what has long since developed into a world-class (world-leading, actually) American tradition in the geosciences—including what we now call paleobiology. Or geobiology, or biogeology. Whatever: Fossils are the stony remains of once living organisms, fraught with both biological and geological meaning. Paleontology rules!
Hall worked on the great Geology of New York (1836-1841), a geological survey of four separate geographic regions (“districts”). The work was authorized by the State legislature under a still larger and more ambitious undertaking entitled Natural History of New York. The geologists were charged with mapping the rock outcrops in New York, and determining the sequence of sedimentary layered rocks in the state. Hall was in charge of the Fourth District in western New York. Turns out New York has a spectacular sequence of Lower and Middle Paleozoic rocks (Cambrian-Devonian), much of them jammed with fossils.
Hall published his findings in 1843. He was appointed State Paleontologist in 1841, and went on to publish 13 volumes of the Paleontology of the State of New York. (To learn more about James Hall click here.) Nearest and dearest to our particular hearts is the famous volume on Devonian trilobites and other arthropods published with his assistant, John M. Clarke, in 1888.
It was these Paleozoic rocks and fossils that aroused the greatest interest, both at home and abroad.
For our Introduction to this tale, we can do no better than turn to John M. Clarke (1857-1925).
Clarke was Hall’s successor as New York State Paleontologist—and his biographer (in 1924).
Note, why was Clarke holding the bell, and what was he thinking? Perhaps Clarke was thinking of this classic song by Anita Ward?
According to the National Academy of Sciences, apparently not. Instead they tell us that this was a bell rung not by the pulsing tones of ‘70’s era New York City disco, but instead by a “galvanic current sent through a mile of copper wire” that Clarke managed to procure for the New York State Museum’s collections.
In any event, back to Clarke’s biography of Hall. Note, in its day, the biography was highly acclaimed and the august geologist Thomas Chamberlain remarked that he doubted whether there was “any other text that carries the reader so close home to the inner history of our own and allied sciences in this country during the early and middle stages of the last century. No student of geological and paleontological progress should miss the opportunity to read this thesaurus of information on a most vital stage of early American science.” (Quoted from the Journal of Geology, 1922, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/622865 )
Indeed, one of us (NE) recognized the significance of this document as part of a broader debate on culture and nations. When Clarke got to what was later called the “Hamlet Affair,” he began with these forceful words on the early days of our nation and its nascent developing efforts in science:
“The volcanic outburst of reports from the Geological Surveys throughout the States from 1835 to 1845, years when the sovereign competency of the States was unchallenged and national consciousness was not fully awake, aroused wide interest in Western Europe. We must stop to remind ourselves that geology was still a very young science just emerging from a nebula of hypotheses and contentious guess-work into an orderly and rapidly increasing array of concrete cause and effect. Its novelty, the tremendous sweep of its propositions and the romance of its buried treasures gave all its adventures wide popular appeal. The English and French geologists were making rational progress in laying the foundations of historical geology and with Italy and Switzerland were finding out the principles of dynamic geology.
The new-found developments from the western world were therefore of exciting interest, and as soon as the reports of the New York men were spread abroad there began an invasion of the country by European geologists who would compare the old world with the new and help to set the whole terraqueous globe in order……”
In other words, in the early 1840s, the United States was at peace and scientific developments were burgeoning in this independent country. Some scientific discovery was supported at the individual state level, and on the geological front knowledge was already pouring in in the form of huge monographs: New York led the way, with reports on all four of its designated geographic divisions completed by 1845. In contrast, the United States Geological Survey was not formed until 1879.
Yet the justifiable pride in the high quality work of the early American geologists engaged in sentient exploration was not limited to just geology, or indeed confined to any particular state. Americans were well engaged by the 1840s in founding ever more institutions of higher learning, soon to be followed by all the other institutional symbols of Euro-inspired higher culture: Parks and gardens, zoos, museums of art and science, halls for concerts and operas. The Academy of Natural Sciences, for example, was founded in 1812 in Philadelphia. Natural history museums are our personal favorites of all such cultural institutions.
We in fact enjoy natural history museums all over the world.
And yes, science can be a culturally nationalistic phenomenon. Sometimes this can spur positive developments, like the circumglobal proliferation of natural history museums. Other times it can have negative connotations. For instance, there can be haughty or dismissive attitudes, or actions, displayed by scientists from one country towards/against those from another; or, when it comes to the field of natural history, scientists can pillage the natural history treasures of another country for personal, professional or financial gain. These positive and negative aspects center around the collection of and access to data. But cultural nationalism in science can even extend to the currency of ideas and hypotheses. It is to one such instance that we now turn our attention: an episode in the history of science where British scientists tried to tell the geologic story of the United States and American scientists metaphorically fought back to try to exert some degree of ownership. Although nowhere near as portentous as the dramatic “shot heard round the world” fired in Lexington, Massachusetts
in 1775 that set the American Revolution ablaze, it did represent a formal scientific stepping out party, with American geology and paleontology emerging from the penumbra cast by European science in general, and British science in particular. Now the United States would become an engine of geologic and paleontologic insight on the world stage.
Natural history museums are, of course, educational in nature. It is a well known fact that ever since the American Museum of Natural History in New York City was founded in 1869
that it became a mecca for kids who were destined to become medical doctors or scientists.
But all natural history museums, as already remarked in our earlier blogs, are dedicated as well to amassing large behind-the-scenes collections of specimens, and to paying a highly trained scientific staff to curate and to perform original research on them. So, probably even before, but surely not long after, our inception as an independent nation-state, Americans were taking great pride in the educational and other cultural achievements and institutions throughout the land.
So pride, both individual and national, was on the line when the foreign invasion of eager European scientists began their travels to the newly-minted USA. They were awaited on our shores with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety. Eagerness to show off our marvelous rock sequences and fossils, as well as our own home-grown geological and paleontological human prowess. Anxiety as the Europeans were the unquestioned heavyweights, while our home-grown scientists, our best and brightest, were as newly-minted as a group as their own nation. And among the Europeans, of course, the Brits loomed the largest—as our former nation-state colonizers from whom we had not all that long ago wrested our freedom. Britain, with its much longer and distinguished history of doing science. Britain, whose geologists were known world-wide.
And foremost amongst these famous British geologists is the antagonist of our piece: Charles Lyell, who made his first of four visits to our shores in 1841.
Lyell was, and remains, best known for his three-volume Principles of Geology (1830-33). He was a prolific writer, regularly continuing to revise his Principles,
and his later (1838) Elements of Geology, as well as numerous papers and other books in his long career. By the time he arrived in America he was 43 years old, and long-since world famous. He was an inspiration and later a close friend to Charles Darwin, who was 12 years Lyell’s junior. Lyell was one of the small circle of colleagues and relatives to whom Darwin revealed his ideas on evolution in 1844. Lyell was very sharp, knew the literature—but, it seems, too prone to bow to the prevailing political winds. In our opinion he damn well knew that the evidence for evolution was compelling even before Darwin showed him it was so. But Lyell did not accept evolution publicly until after Darwin published his Origin of Species to instant acclaim in 1859. Faint of heart, we thinks.
The old boys were not as prone to citing their sources in the first half of the 19th century as we are encouraged to be today. They usually did mention their predecessors, but let’s face it—who was there, really, to cite before them when the game of science was so utterly new? Lyell is best known for his championship of uniformitarianism—the principle that the “present is the key to the past,” meaning that we can explain geological history with references to the processes we can observe going on above, on and beneath the earth’s surface today (aka “actualism”). As Steve Gould pointed out in one of his earliest papers in the 1960s, http://www.ajsonline.org/content/263/3/223.short actualism is commingled to varying degrees with the notion that things usually happen slowly and gradually, and that the earth is in something of a steady-state, with little or no directionality to it as the eons of time roll slowly by. In the sense of slow steady gradual change, uniformitarianism stands in contrast to catastrophism—in paleontological circles, at least, associated with the great French geologist/paleontologist Georges Cuvier
and his “revolutions on the surface of the globe.” Cuvier saw ancient life as a succession of more or less stable biotas, periodically eradicated by catastrophically destructive events, to be replaced by successor biotas by processes he declined to explore—at least on paper. The justly renowned vertebrate paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson once somewhat sarcastically characterized his American Museum of Natural History colleague Norman D. Newell (see our blog “Paleo Personas” for more on Newell) as a “neocatastrophist” when Newell renewed the Cuvierian theme of “crises in the history of life.”
The notion of uniformitarianism that came down to us is thus something of a mish-mosh. It is still always attributed to Lyell, who indeed developed and popularized it. But he got it from the great Scottish thinker and geologist James Hutton from the previous generation of British scientists. According to Robert Silliman (1995) Lyell’s failure to acknowledge Hutton’s earlier work adequately caused widespread displeasure among other geologists.
Lyell was trained in the law, and was an intellectual dilettante, with no formal standing in academic circles. Darwin eagerly awaited the arrival of Lyell’s Volume 2 of his Principles of Geology when his travels aboard HMS Beagle
brought him to Montevideo, Uruguay. Some have observed that Volume 2 of the Principles reads like a legal brief. It is essentially a summation and refutation of Lamarck’s theory of evolution. It is undeniably brilliant—as it is an accurate characterization of Lamarck’s views. There seems to be no outright chicanery in Lyell’s writings, but his views manifestly failed to convince the young Darwin. Darwin was already thinking of transmutation based on the fossils he had collected at Bahia Blanca, Argentina in September-November, 1832—i.e. just prior to going to Montevideo. And, of course, as the Beagle journey wore on, Darwin became more and more convinced of the simple, ineluctable fact of evolution. For our money, we think Lyell’s big contribution in Vol. 2 of the Principles was—rather surprisingly—a convincing grasp of fields we today call ecology and biogeography.
Lyell was also the first to subdivide what was then called the Tertiary Period into four epochs: Eocene, Miocene, Lower Pliocene, and Upper Pliocene. He did so using a the percentage of clam and snail species found in sedimentary units that are still alive today.
Lyell does acknowledge the data of the French paleontologist Gérard Deshayes, but he did not mention that Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1801 had concluded that only ca. 3% of the mollusks found in the sedimentary rocks around Paris are still alive today—rocks that fall into Lyell’s Eocene Epoch. Nor did he mention that Giambattista Brocchi in 1814 concluded that nearly 50% of the molluscan species preserved in the sediments of the sub-Appennine Hills of Italy are still with us today. These would lie in Lyell’s Lower Pliocene. In other words, the idea of calculating the percentage of fossil species that are still alive today and using that as a guide to determining the age of a fossil deposit came from work by important scientists conducted a generation before Lyell published his Principles. Further, the works by Lamarck and Brocchi where they described these patterns were definitely known to Lyell. We call b.s.
Charges of plagiarism were to dog Lyell throughout his career, at home in Britain as well as abroad. Perhaps the worst occurred in the 1860s, and concerned his Antiquity of Man, Lyell’s belated embrace of evolution. But by the 1840s, Lyell’s reputation as a thief of the data and ideas of others was already well established. According to Silliman (1995, p. 555), Hall was told by a British geologist that Lyell “has the same reputation here as he does abroad, and his cognomen is Cloaca Universalis.”
The Universal Sewer, indeed. It is rather disconcerting that someone today often celebrated as the “Father of Geology” was in his own time recognized as a blatant plagiarist (and called a Universal Sewer: for goodness sakes, he was not even just any old sewer but a universal one … ). Why is someone like Lyell still celebrated today? For instance, Charles Lyell is typically lauded in just about every college geology class? It is probably partly due to cultural biases which mythologize certain figures, especially ones that happened to be very rich, and very British, white men. Of course we’re not criticizing all British white men, or anyone else other than Charles Lyell. We love many things British, including the BBC TV series “Fawlty Towers”:
And indeed, British white men were calling Lyell a Cloaca Universalis. It’s not like we’re even saying Lyell was a bad guy who came up with some great ideas. Because he didn’t even come up with the ideas in the first place, he stole them from someone else. So why is Lyell lionized? Maybe it was because certain historians of science would rather laud a Cloaca Universalis than scientists that were French or Italian and not British (i.e., he might have been a Universal Sewer but he was our Universal Sewer). So, isn’t it time that we stopped foisting a seemingly mythical heroic figure like Charles Lyell on the public, especially when that public includes college students in science classes?
Well, back to James Hall. A meeting with Hall was the first important destination for Lyell after he had arrived in the US. Together they traveled to Niagara to see the Falls,
to gather data on the rate of erosional retreat of the face of the Falls (Lyell would assume it was always slow and gradual and never allow for occasional catastrophic collapses!) —and to examine the sequence of the Silurian rocks exposed there. Hall knew these rocks well and shared everything he knew about the rocks and fossils of western New York—showing them off with pride.
Lyell financed his trip largely by singing for his supper: he lectured all over the place, starting with delivering the Lowell Lectures in Boston—which basically paid for his trip. But he kept on lecturing up, down and around the eastern seaboard. At first, Hall and other American geologists freely shared their data. Hall helped Lyell’s lecturing gigs with visual aids, concerned that he had, among other things, lent Lyell a geological map Hall had compiled and drafted, but had not as yet published. Then there was the rumor (Silliman, 1995, p. 548; Clarke, 1924 p. 121) that Lyell had made an agreement with Wiley and Putnam in New York to publish a new edition of Elements with “notes and additions” on American geology. Hall worried that it would be viewed as the authoritative source on North American geology. Lyell did indeed publish such a tome in 1845, but in London—a two-volume set entitled “Travels in America, with Geological Observations on the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia.” Observations in this title is of course a weasel word, suggesting to the unwary that the “observations” were all Lyell’s.
But perhaps the last straw (again according to Silliman, 1995, p. 548-549) was a review of “Lyell’s works” published in the New York Tribune on March 22, 1842 while Lyell was in town to deliver yet more lectures. The reviewer wrote that “We may anticipate the most valuable results from his personal geological exploration of our own country—the prominent points of which he is now spreading before our public in connection with his valuable series of Lectures on Geology.”
That did it for Hall, and he fired off a letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser that Silliman says was published on March 26 on p. 2. Interestingly, and confusingly, John M. Clarke says in his biography of Hall (1924, p. 122) that it was in the Boston Mercantile Journal. In any case, sources agree that the anti-Lyellian protest letter that Hall wrote and submitted was signed simply “Hamlet.”
Why “Hamlet”? No published source known to us explains why. But NE’s literary wife Michelle Eldredge has posed a most satisfactory explanation: in the play Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet) had been killed by his younger brother Claudius, who thereby ascends to the throne. Young Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, winds up with Claudius—and thus remains Queen. This vile usurpation remains unrevealed, generally unacknowledged and most certainly unavenged. Hamlet the younger contrives to stage a play-within-the-play that reveals the truth to all. The whole thing blows up and everybody dies (Curtain). The truth of the ursurpation shall be revealed!
We have not found a complete reprinting of Hall’s “Hamlet” letter. Silliman (1995, p. 550) does give us a sampling though, from which we extract only the following:
We American’s was robbed! ‘Nuff said: No one died when Hall’s letter was published—though for a time there was a lot of ill will. The influential Yale geologist Benjamin Silliman (who has a college at Yale named after him)
(possibly an ancestor of the Robert Silliman whose 1995 paper we have been citing; to learn more about Benjamin Silliman click here) was caught in the political middle between Hall and his many sympathizers among the ranks of young America’s most prominent geologists—and those who would preserve decorum at all costs, and rushed to the defense of Lyell. Hall himself went through the usual spectrum of doubts and regrets, on the one hand, and periods of self-justification. According to R. Silliman (1995), Hall proposed a book on the geology of North America—a project which never came to fruition.
Lyell, on the other hand, who initially suffered consternation when informed of the “Hamlet” letter, seemed mostly concerned with his continuing access to the guidance and information still to be provided by his American hosts, as he had extended his planned stay for another year. Time, as usual, healed the wounds and the matter was largely forgotten. Both Hall and Lyell continued to do their work to their ever-increasing fame and, one presumes, personal satisfaction. It is interesting, though, that Lyell’s rate of scientific publication fell drastically after his 1845 Travels in America—with perhaps only the 1863 Antiquity of Man of any “novel” consequence thereafter. Recall that Lyell apparently caught holy hell for alleged plagiarism when that particular book appeared.
Hall was a thinking empiricist—meaning he stuck to his rocks and fossils, but also occasionally proposed original theoretical explanations for geological phenomena. Foremost was his explanation of the subsidence of basins in which, through time, layers of sediments, charged with the remains of dead organisms, accumulate. In 1859, he coined the word “geosyncline” for such basins—a word very much still in use (for instance, see Kenneth Hsü’s 2004 book “The Physics of Sedimentology”).
Alas, however, we have not been able as of yet to find out what Hall thought about Darwin’s ideas on evolution—first published the very same year that he coined the word “geosyncline.”
In contrast, Lyell was a keen analyst, synthesizer and popularizer. In John Clarke’s biography of Hall, he remarks of Lyell (Clarke, 1924, p. 108, fn. 2): “While Lyell was not regarded by his contemporaries as a particularly keen observer in the field, he was by common consent the leader in co-ordinating and philosophic thought.”
More recently, in his book The New Catastrophism (1993), British geologist Derek Ager remarks that the difference between the gradualist, uniformitarian Lyell and the catastrophist Cuvier was that Cuvier actually looked at the rocks. Quite a heady (and, one thinks, insightful) remark to come from a British geologist!
Hall expressed some doubt over whether the cultural “imperialism” (he actually used that word) he saw coming from the invading mostly-British Europeans was just by some particular individuals, or instead that the piratical behavior he worried about and then experienced was the expression of more commonly held, national sentiments. The answer, to Hall and all others then and now, is, of course, that it was, and remains, both. As both Clarke (1924) and Silliman (1995) make clear, Lyell was not alone in his behavior. But he was the most significant and egregious of the bunch.
But before we leave we must return to Hall, for this is not hagiography and we in no way wish to replace a British “heroic scientist” with an American one. His are not the shoes that will forever be too big for future generations to fill.
The man who was so incensed by Lyell’s plagiarism was also legendary for having had his own employees work long hours collecting fossils and then writing about them in works that Hall subsequently would place his, and only his, name on. In fact, it was a testament to John M Clarke’s skill and talent that James Hall actually “stooped” to allow him to be included as second author on their aforementioned 1888 work that Clarke likely almost entirely wrote; note that this book was published very late in Hall’s career, even imperious jerks run out of steam eventually (perhaps there is hope for our country yet). Yet Clarke was seemingly grateful enough for this “favor” that he went on to pen his highly complimentary biography of Hall. Maybe Hall felt it was okay to screw people over as long as they were Americans? More likely he was just a hypocrite and felt this was one of the perquisites of being “the boss.” For that, Dante would consign him to the 8th Circle of Hell.
We just consign him to being our erstwhile protagonist and another at least somewhat reprehensible member of the human race; yet his memory is enshrined in the annals of the history of science. It’s really hard to know sometimes why certain scientists get remembered and others don’t. Maybe it’s the mutton chops? Maybe it’s their genius? Maybe it’s their predilection for stepping on, and stealing from, others? History is a mystery, and “in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life” - Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.
This blog was written by Niles Eldredge and Bruce S. Lieberman. The current manager of the website is named below.