Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton. They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”
When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?
I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.
“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.
The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.
“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.”
In 1893, the Norwegian zoologist Fridtjof Nansen set off to find the North Pole. He would not use pack dogs to cross the Arctic Ice. Instead, he locked his fate into the ice itself. He sailed his ship The Fram directly into the congealing autumn Arctic, until it became locked in the frozen sea. Nansen was convinced that the ice itself would drift up to the pole, taking him and his crew along for the ride.
For two and a half years they drifted with the pack. It gradually became clear to Nansen that The Fram had stopped moving north and was now traveling east instead, back towards Europe. He leaped out of the ship and tried to sled up to the pole, only to discover that the ice he was now traveling on was moving south. Only four degrees away from true north, he decided to retreat. He bolted back for Franz Josef Land.
The Fram meanwhile continued to drift east. After several months, it broke free of the ice, and the crew sailed the ship south to the island of Spitzbergen. There on the bare flats they saw a giant balloon.
Its pilot was a young Swedish engineer named Salamon Andrée. Andrée had decided that ships like the Fram could never reach the Pole, and that flight offered the only hope. He had convinced the king of Sweden and Alfred Nobel to pay for a balloon which he had brought by ship to Spitzbergen. And there he mixed tons of sulfuric acid and zinc to create hydrogen gas, which filled his silk canopy for four days. But gales hit the island before he was ready to launch the balloon, and then the Fram arrived with stories of how Nansen was racing on sleds towards the pole. Andrée let the canopy fall back to the ground.
When he got back to Sweden, Andrée discovered that Nansen had actually failed and had returned to Norway. He began to plot a second attempt. He returned to Spitzbergen in 1897 and this time he succeeded in launching his balloon. For a few days Andrée floated north with his crew of two, bobbing up and down with the sudden changes in temperature and moisture of the Arctic atmosphere. But as he crossed over the edge of the polar ice, the voyage took a turn for the worse. The balloon became burdened with rain and snow, until the guidelines dragged across the ice, until the gondola bounced like a ball on the ground, until the balloon came to a rest.
For a week the crew huddled in cramped fog. Andrée decided to pack sledges with food and a collapsible boat, which they dragged over the drifting ice. Hauling them across sloshing leads, they hoped, like Nansen, that they could find refuge in Franz Josef Land. But the ice wandered in the wrong direction under their feet, and after two months of this polar treadmill they reached a little hump of Arctic rock called White Island. In 1930 whalers came to the island and discovered their decrepit boat, their journals, and Andrée’s corpse still sitting in the snow.
But in 1897, no one knew where Andrée had gone. His fellow Swedish scientists searched for him by ship in the following summers, first travelling around Spitzbergen, and then heading to Greenland. As the pack ice opened, they traveled for eight weeks along its eastern edge in their sail- and steam-powered ship. They mapped the tentacled coast, and in one fjord along an elephant-backed mountain they named Celsius Berg, the explorers found bones.
They weren’t the bones of Andrée and his crew. They were the bones of fish that had been resting in the Greenland rocks for over 350 millions years.
Other fossils of these fish had been found elsewhere in late Devonian rocks, but to those who studied that era, Greenland was a revelation. It was as if a new continent suddenly appeared on the map: other Devonian rocks were hid for the most part under a woody, bushy carpet in places like England and Pennsylvania, while the mountains of Greenland were mercilessly bare. Unfortunately the new fossils were also so remote that only some greater pretext–like the search for a famous explorer–could get the paleontologists to this far corner of the Arctic.
Another rationale came about thirty years later, when Denmark and Norway began competing in the late 1920s for control of Eastern Greenland, and the oil and minerals that it might hold. The Danes brought Swedish scientists with them, and they found bones of more fish, including lobe-fins, as well as a few things they didn’t know what to make of, simply marking them as “scales of a fish-like vertebrate of uncertain affinities.”
These expeditions were a bit less brutal than Andrée’s and Nansen’s trips. The scientists still traveled in wooden steamers with three square-rigged masts, and while they could now bring a hydroplane for their surveys they still wore polar bear suits when they flew. In 1931 an energetic 22-year old geologist named Gunnar Säve-Söderbergh was put in charge of the expeditions. For sixteen hours a day he could climb mountains, throwing rocks into his rucksack and sketching out stratigraphy along the way.
He had a book of numbered tags made for the expeditions, P. for fishes, and A. for amphibians–a supremely confident system, considering that no one had ever found a Devonian amphibian. The fossil record of land vertebrates with legs–known as tetrapods–only went back about 300 million years and stopped cold.
That first summer, Säve-Söderbergh made his way around the northern slope of Celsius Berg and found more fish. In the cones of fallen rocks below the mountain’s eastern plateau, he also found more than a dozen scraps of a flat skull that didn’t look like any species of fish he had seen before. Optimistically, he marked them with A. tags.
Back in Stockholm that fall, Säve-Söderbergh slowly worked the bones free of the hard sandstone, painting them with alchohol and balsam to reveal the sutures between the bones. Looking down on the flat roof of the skull, he could see that some of the bones were patterned like the skulls of a group of fish known as lobe-fins–represented today only by lungfishes and coelacanths. Many naturalists argued that tetrapods had evolved from an lobe-fin ancestor. But Säve-Söderbergh could also see that it had some traits–like a long snout–that had only been found in early tetrapod fossils.
Looking at that skull, Säve-Söderbergh realized that he had found the earliest tetrapod. He named it Ichthyostega–“fish plate”–after the top of the animal’s skull.
The discovery was a great hit in Denmark, not only with the politicians who wanted to tighten their grip on Greenland, but with the public as well. In celebration one newspaper cartoonist drew a trout with dog legs carrying a pipe-smoking caveman, as snakes encircled moutain peaks and elephants flapped their wings overhead.
Säve-Söderbergh spent the following few summers mapping more of the region by foot, boat, and Icelandic horse. Fossils practically fell out of the rocks for him–mostly fish but on rare occasion another piece of Ichthyostega. The strange scales that had been found in 1929 turned out to be Ichthyostega’s ribs, massive and overlapping like Venetian blinds of bone. His assistants, particularly a student from the University of Upssala named Erik Jarvik, found more Ichthyostega skulls. One skull, unearthed in 1934, was so handsome the paleontologists brought it back across the Atlantic resting on a blue velvet pillow.
After five years Säve-Söderbergh was appointed a professor at the University of Uppsala, but in that year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He lingered in bed, managing to write a few papers about some of the fish he had collected, and died in June 1948 at only 40. The summer of Säve-Söderbergh’s death, the expedition to Greenland finally found the legs and shoulders and tail of Ichthyostega. At last it had most of a body.
In the 64 years since Säve-Söderbergh’s death, scientists have discovered many more early tetrapods and their extinct lobe-fin relatives. They’ve found some of these beasts on return trips to Greenland. But they’ve also found other species in places like Pennsylvania, northern Canada, Latvia, and, most recently, Nevada. Together, these fossils now offer an illuminating look at one of the most crucial transitions in the history of life. Without it, we’d still be fish in the sea.
Despite all the new company Ichthyostega has enjoyed lavish attention ever since its discovery, thanks to the quality and quantity of the fossils it left behind. For decades, Erik Jarvik pored over the fossils, and then, after his death, Jennifer Clack of the University of Cambridge and other paleontologists took a look for themselves.
Ichthyostega’s legs, while short and squat, had the elbows, knees, ankles, wrists, and toes that qualified it as a tetrapod. (Strangely, it had seven digits on its feet.) Its spine was sturdy, its hips and shoulders massive, its skull rigid. Yet Ichthyostega’s rigid skull still shared some traits with the flexible skull of lobe fins. It had a distinctive suture in the skull at the same place where a lobe-fin skull has a hinge. Under the tetrapod palimpsest its ancestry could be seen.
Ichthyostega’s tail was a similar mix of tetrapod and fish. Tetrapods have simple tails consisting of a long series of tapering vertebrae encased in flesh (ours has dwindled to a mere sprout, the coccyx). A lobe-fin’s tail, the motor that the animal uses to move through water, is a much more elaborate affair. Each vertebra has two long rods, one on top and one below. Attaching to each of these rods are more slender bones, called radials, and attaching to the radials is a wide fan of fin rays: a completely differerent kind of bone called dermal bone that also makes up scales. This complex anatomy allows a fish to set up waves in its tail either forward or backwards, to let it dart through the water or suddenly brake.
The bottom of Ichthyostega’s tail had a simplified tetrapod form, but the top still retained all the geegaws of a fish. It was, in a sense, still half in the water.
Clack and her colleagues have used the anatomy of Ichthyostega to figure out what it did in life–and, by extension, to get some clues to how the tetrapod body plan evolved. Long before Ichthyostega came on the scene, lobe-fins were already evolving some of the crucial pieces of that body plan–legs and wrists, for example. These ancient relatives lived unquestionably like fish, using gills to breath and depending on water to support much of their weight. It’s clear, in other words, that even though the tetrapod body is very good for getting around on land, it didn’t start evolving on land.
How far had things gotten by the time Ichthyostega showed up 360 million years ago? Clack has found that Ichthyostega’s ear was tuned for hearing underwater. But when she and her colleagues looked at a series of Ichthyostega skeletons, going from young to old, they found a different story. As the animals matured, their shoulders changed shape, providing more space for anchoring arm muscles. It’s possible that they spent a lot of time in the water when they were young and then spent more time on land when they became adults.
In 2005 Clack and her colleagues did a thorough study of Ichthyostega’s trunk–its spine and rib cage. They concluded that the tetrapod was weirdly stiff, unable to bend from side to side. They suggested two possible ways for Ichthyostega to get around on land. It might walk, but without bending its body the way, for examplpe, a salamander does. Or it might mimic an inchworm. It would bend its spine upwards, reach forward with its front legs, and then straighten out, pushing forward with its hind legs.
Today in Nature, Clack offers more clues to this puzzling creature. She collaborated with John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College, an expert on biomechanics, and his postdoctoral researcher Stephanie Pierce. They have brought Ichthyostega back to life through a detailed computer reconstruction.
They started by making high-resolution scans of its fossils, which they then assembled into a virtual skeleton. Hutchinson has, over the past decade, figured out a way to estimate how animals moved based on this kind of reconstruction. By placing virtual muscles on the virtual bones, he can estimate their range of motion. Hutchinson knows his models are reliable, because he can test them on living animals. His estimates for the movements of animals such as otters and alligators are close to how they really move.
Here are a couple videos showing their results. I’ll explain them below.
The whole body:
The hind leg in action:
Simply put, Ichthyostega could not have been very impressive on land. No matter how hard it tried, it could not walk with its back legs. The limbs could move forward and back, but they could not swivel into a position that would allow Ichthyostega to plant its feet on the ground. Its forelimbs were a little more useful. It could bend its elbows. But its shoulders had little range of motion.
Combined with their rigid trunk, these new findings lead Clack and her colleagues to conclude that the best living analogy for Ichthyostega is a mudskipper. Mudskippers are not lobe-fins. Instead, they are ray-finnsed fish, more closely related to goldfish or trout. In an independent transition from the ocean, they evolved the ability to move around on land by crutching along on their front pair of fins. As the delightful video below from David Attenborough shows, mudskippers are quite successful in their peculiar ecological niche, crawling on muddy beaches, sucking up food from the muck, and then swimming through their underwater burrows to care for their young. But they are hardly an inspiring vision of tetrapods emerging on land.
Clack’s new study stands in intriguing contrast to one that I blogged about in December. University of Chicago scientists reported then that lungfish–our closest living aquatic relatives–can walk underwater with their pelvic fins–which correspond to the hind legs of tetrapods. The Chicago team argued that hind-leg-driven walking could have started out long before the tetrapod body evolved. Clack and her colleagues, on the other hand, propose that hind legs came late to the terrestrial party.
But if there’s one thing that the past couple decades of fossil-hunting has made clear is that the origin of tetrapods was not some linear march of progress. Starting about 380 million years ago, some lobe fins independently evolved tetrapod-like traits in a grand, unplanned experiment. Different species ended up with different combinations of those traits, perhaps adapting them to different ways of getting around underwater or on land. Ichthyostega might be a good model for the ancestor of all living tetrapods. Or it may have been a very weird beachcomber with hind legs that were only good as underwater paddles. To find out, scientists need to build more virtual skeletons of early tetrapods. And they need to head out to find more fossils.
Let’s just hope that they don’t have to follow doomed explorers to find them.
For more information about the discovery of tetrapod evolution, see my book At the Water’s Edge, from which parts of this post were adapted.
In tomorrow’s New York Times, I’ve got a long story about a growing sense among scientists that science itself is getting dysfunctional. For them, the clearest sign of this dysfunction is the growing rate of retractions of scientific papers, either due to errors or due to misconduct. But retractions represent just the most obvious symptom of deep institutional problems with how science is done these days–how projects get funded, how scientists find jobs, and how they keep labs up and running.
Along with the main story, I also wrote a sidebar about how hard it is to hear from the scientists who write retracted papers. I also spoke on the latest Timescast video, which I’ve embedded below. I show up with Arturo Casadevall at about 4:30. There are also lots of links in my story to the original papers. And if you don’t already read it, be sure to check out the blog Retraction Watch, which has been digging deep into the retraction story for years now.
On March 20, I delivered a keynote talk at the Joint Genome Institute annual meeting. I talked about my experience of reporting on genomes over the past two decades–from my initial awe at the very first sequenced genomes to weary fatigue as thousands of genomes were published, and to a recognition of what the real news is about genomes today. Here’s the video.
In the late 1800s, prominent astronomers declared that Mars was criss-crossed by canals–evidence, they declared, of an advanced civilization. But in the early 1900s, astronomers gazed through more powerful telescopes and discovered that the canals were mirages.
The astronomer Percival Lowell, who had become the leading champion of the canals, scoffed at the new findings He declared that the criticism came “solely from those who without experience find it hard to believe or from lack of suitable conditions find it impossible to see.”
Although the new evidence led many astronomers to abandon Lowell’s position, he never retracted his claim. It wasn’t until five decades after his death in 1916 that space probes finally went into orbit around Mars and sent back close-up pictures of a canal-free Red Planet.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way science casts aside bad ideas. For most of us, it’s easy to assume that science shakes them off quickly, but the truth is that it can take quite a while for the process to play out. Recently I was invited to contribute a piece to the new “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times, which just debuted this week. I wrote an essay on this phenomenon, which has been dubbed “de-discovery.” I drew on three recent examples of high-profile research that many other scientists have declared to be wrong–arsenic life, clairvoyance, and a link from chronic fatigue syndrome to a virus called XMRV.
To keep my essay from exploding into a novella, I had to limit myself to just these three examples–but I could have picked many others. You just need to check out a blog like Retraction Watch to see how important this part of the scientific process is today. The first draft of my essay actually started out with a fourth example, which I decided to cut it in the end. It’s a peculiar case of a de-discovery of a de-discovery.
In 1981, the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould published an influential book about racism and science, called The Mismeasure of Man. Gould argued that social influences could lead scientists to misinterpret their data to suit their beliefs about European superiority. One of his key examples was the work of a nineteenth century anthropologist named Samuel George Morton.
Morton collected 1,000 human skulls from around the world and measured the size of their brain cavities with seeds or lead shot. Gould re-analyzed Morton’s data and published his results in 1978 in the journal Science. He declared that Morton fudged his measurements to ensure that Caucasians would end up with the biggest brains.
In 2000, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania named Jason Lewis started to measure Morton’s skulls for a research project of his own. He was interested in the ways different human populations adapt to different climates—including changes in the shapes of their skulls. It was then that Lewis learned from his advisors about the controversies swirling around the skulls. (He was born a year after The Mismeasure of Man was published.)
As Lewis carried out his own measurements, he gradually realized that Gould had been wrong. He then set out to systematically investigate the matter—taking three years to measure Morton’s skulls, and then another five years to work through Gould’s claims.
Lewis, who just finished earning his Ph.D at Stanford University, wrote up the results with his colleagues and submitted a paper in 2008 to the journal Current Anthropology, which had published a less detailed critique of Gould’s paper in the 1980s. The journal rejected Lewis’s paper, eventually informing him that it was not important enough.
The researchers had better luck with PLOS Biology, which published their paper earlier this month. Lewis and his colleagues presented evidence that Morton did not bias his findings at all. Instead, the researchers conclude, it was Gould who used shoddy statistics. There are many sound scientific reasons to reject racist views of human biology, they argue, but an unfair trashing of Morton’s research isn’t one of them.
“Our analysis of Gould’s claims reveals that most of Gould’s criticisms are poorly supported or falsified,” they write.
When I was researching my essay, I asked Lewis about what he thought of science’s self-correcting process now that he’s finally done with his exploration of Gould and Morton. He has decidedly mixed feelings.
“We can come back thirty years later and get the story straight,” he told me. “But it takes thirty years.”
As I write in my essay in the Times, there are certainly ways to make dediscovery a smoother, faster process. But in an age of instant viral communication, I think we’re going to remain frustrated by inescapable lags.
[Image: Wikipedia. Thanks to folks on Twitter for pointing me to Martian canals as a textbook case of slow dediscovery]
The Economist reports from this year’s AAAS meeting about a fascinating lecture delivered by the historian of science Lawrence Principe about his quest to figure out the real history of alchemy. Principe has done some impressive work to brush away the Whig history of modern chemistry and understand alchemy on its own terms.
Alchemy is saddled with such a bad reputation that many people don’t appreciate how it played an important role in the birth of modern sciences, such as biochemistry and neurology.
Here’s part of a blog post I wrote in 2006 on this surprising link:
Jan Baptist van Helmont, a sixteenth-century Belgian alchemist, carried out a classic experiment on biological growth. He put a five pound willow sapling in a tube of 200 pounds of earth. For five years he gave the tree nothing but water, and then weighed both tree and earth. The tree had grown to 169 pounds, while the earth had lost a few ounces. “Hence one hundred and sixty-four pounds of wood, bark, and roots have come up from water alone,” he announced. Van Helmont believed that the willow was nothing more than transmuted water, given form by the willow’s inner soul.
I first came to appreciate the importance of alchemy in the rise of biochemistry while working on my book Soul Made Flesh, on the history of neurology. Thomas Willis, the first neurologist, started out as an alchemist, deeply influenced by Van Helmont. He came into contact with Robert Boyle through their shared interest in alchemy. And his first important work was a book that used alchemy to reinterpret physiology. Instead of the four humours, Willis saw body being made up of corpuscles of different sorts, borrowing concepts of Van Helmont and other alchemists. These corpuscles interacted with one another to produce changes, just as ferments made bread rise and grape juice turn to wine.
Willis later did groundbreaking work on the anatomy and function of the brain, which until his time had generally been considered a pretty useless organ. Willis envisioned the brain as an alembic, the distilling container of alchemy, in which some of the corpuscles of the blood were distilled into the animal spirits, which then flowed through the nerves. While some of Willis’s language and concepts are now hopelessly old-fashioned, he set the study of the brain–and thus the soul–on a new foundation.
The intersection of alchemy and biology is just further evidence that science does not advance by simply wiping the slate clean and starting completely from scratch. Some of the most dramatic revolutions were born within systems of thought that today seem hopelessly backwards. I wonder how twenty-ninth cenutry historians will look back at our own revolutions today. Who will be cast aside as the new alchemists?
In honor of the tenth anniversary of the human genome project, here are a couple telling images, courtesy of Mihaela Pertea and Steven L Salzberg.
First: a visual history of the estimates of the number of genes in the human genome.
And second, a warning to anyone who believes in an iron law that the more protein-coding genes in a species, the more sophisticated/complex/cool/human that species is:
I for one welcome our grapey overlords.
[Update: Biochemist Larry Moran takes issue with the very high numbers for early gene number estimates. Steven Salzberg defends the graph. Read it all here!]
While perusing the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Neurosciences, I was surprised to discover a review of my book Soul Made Flesh. It’s been six years since it came out. I guess the stack by their nightstand is pretty tall!
But I certainly don’t mind the wait when it’s a review like this:
This book is a joy to read. Zimmer has crafted a pleasant style, leveraging his talents that were cultivated during his time as a newspaper journalist. The texture of the pages and the typesetting suggest an old-fashioned printing and binding for the book; it’s pleasant to handle and easy reading. Several chapters are adorned with period illustrations by Christopher Wren. For anyone interested in the birth of contemporary medicine, social philosophy, and religion, this is a wonderland of enticing history. In fact, most people interested in this period of history will find the book is an entertaining read; one that is difficult to put down.
Fortunately, the book is also still in print six years later, so you can get yourself a copy if you’re interested. Since the book looks at the birth of neurology 350 years ago, it’s not out of date!