Wednesday, 27 November 2019

School Biology

Many arguments can be put forward against the continued existence of Public Schools in the UK, especially their encouragement of a sense of entitlement. Having said that, the facilities that the top schools provide are often excellent and so is the standard of teaching. Many schools also select students for their academic ability and this results in classes where there is a strong sense of curiosity, contributing to a good atmosphere for learning.

I have given talks in Public Schools and among the most memorable was a visit to Winchester College. The Times had taken up an article that I had written about The Great Plagues of Egypt [1,2] and I was asked to give a lecture on the subject. Not only that, I was also entertained to dinner by the scholars (an elite, elite group) and conversation was wide-ranging and interesting. Earlier, I noticed that there was a display outside the lecture theatre and this consisted of a description of the platypus genome that had just been published in the journal Nature and there was also a stuffed platypus and much general information about the animal. All very impressive, given that the paper was so recent and one felt that the students of Biology were lucky to have this stimulating input.

The most impressive example of the good fortune that students in the major Public Schools receive comes from a school that I have not visited, but which has an excellent website. The web page for Biology at Sevenoaks School [3] gives a brief description of teaching in the subject and ends with this quote from Robert Preston:

In Biology, nothing is clear, everything is too complicated, everything is a mess, and just when you think you understand something, you peel off a layer and find deeper complications beneath. Nature is anything but simple.

It comes from Preston’s book The Hot Zone, The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus and his sentiments have a wide application in Biology. In my own research, I rapidly became aware that the more I found out about life in water the less I understood how aquatic ecosystems worked. I gave up practical research, as there were far too many questions and I ceased to have the energy, or ability, to pursue them. That was not depressing, but liberating, as I could then read widely and venture into other fields, while retaining a sense of wonder about Nature, something that all students of Biology develop. For some, this wonder finds an answer in religious beliefs; for others in a deep respect for the world around us and thus a sense that humans are just a small part of something much bigger.

I’m sure that Biology students at Sevenoaks School, in addition to achieving excellent results in examinations (that we all know are important), will leave with a much broader understanding than the content of a syllabus provides. Whether they become lawyers, bankers, politicians, etc., their sense of wonder when thinking about the natural world will be invaluable in the roles they play in planning for the future. Do all schools encourage this approach?


Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Brixham, Turner and Gosse

The great artist J.M.W.Turner travelled widely throughout Great Britain, making sketches as he went. Two pages from his notebook of 1811 show Brixham harbour on the southern coast of Torbay, with its two piers and a number of boats, for this was a busy fishing port (see above). It was a time when the northern shores of Torbay were becoming fashionable, leading to the construction of many villas in Torquay in the middle of the nineteenth century. New residents were reminded of the French Riviera, enjoyed the favourable climate that was thought to be good for the health, and many were fascinated by the Natural History of the shoreline.

Philip Henry Gosse had this to say in 1853 about a visit he made to Brixham (he became a Torquay resident in 1857) [1]:

The little town of Brixham, pretty as it appears when viewed from Torquay, is but a sordid affair when you see it at hand. The lower town particularly is close, mean, and dirty; indeed, truth to tell, I saw refinements in filth here, which I had never the fortune to see paralleled in all my wanderings..

..The scenery on either hand, when once clear of the harbour, is bold and magnificent. The coast is rocky and precipitous, (the town itself appears strangely stuck upon precipices, reaching from top to bottom) and is indented with little coves, the most picturesque imaginable. Berry Head, a noble promontory of compact limestone, rears its lofty head abruptly out of the sea not far from the town, and forms a commanding boundary of the prospect, conspicuous all around..

..I did not obtain much in the way of natural history on the shore, except what I was already familiar with at Petit Tor [his favourite collecting spot north of Torbay]..

..I came home with little desire to see Brixham again.

Not kind words. It was the busy fishing harbour and the surrounding cottages that appalled Gosse and one surmises that he was complaining about the remains of fish and a lack of regard for surroundings that characterised fishing villages of the time. They were not genteel. In addition, decomposition of anything marine produces a very strong smell and that must also have affected his senses

Brixham is very different now. The two piers that Turner drew are still in place (see above), but the outer pier has been extended. Beyond that on the western shore is the modern fish market complex and to the east the breakwater that was begun after Turner’s time and completed in the early 20th Century. Also noticeable is the marina and that has promoted marinafication – an influx of wealth also found in other local ports, such as Salcombe and Dartmouth. Brixham seems “on the up” and I’m sure that Gosse would not find it as unpleasant should he visit today, although he may have something to say about the tourist attractions and tourist shops that also bring money into the town.

As to Natural History, visitors and residents like to see seals and occasional cetaceans, but there is a lack of awareness of most marine life. That is also quite a contrast to earlier times.

[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1853) A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. London, John Van Voorst.

Turner’s sketches are from the website
The aerial view of Brixham is from website

Thursday, 24 October 2019

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a phrase that originated in the mid-Nineteenth Century and we have all been surprised when the content of books bears little relation to the illustrations that appear on their covers. A good example is provided by the illustrations for Father and Son [1], an autobiography by Edmund Gosse that leaves readers with a feeling of empathy for its author, as he faced the challenges of a strict religious upbringing in Torquay in the 1850s and 1860s. Among these readers is Sarah Perry who wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph [2] drawing parallels between Edmund’s experience of the constraints of a religious straitjacket with her own upbringing as a Baptist. She acknowledges the power of his writing in describing his father, the great Natural Historian Philip Henry Gosse, a creationist and member of the Brethren.

Father and Son had a long gestation. Edmund published the first biography of his father in 1890, two years after Henry died, and it is a largely factual account that also includes an appreciation by Eliza Gosse, Henry’s second wife and Edmund’s stepmother. Ann Thwaite remarks [3] that the biography was “extremely well received” and various of Edmund’s friends, such as John Addington Symonds and George Moore, saw another book in the story of Henry and Edmund, to be told from Edmund’s side. That book was Father and Son, and the germ of the idea took years to grow.

Like Ann Thwaite, Sarah Perry recognises that Edmund was not renowned for accuracy and Father and Son, published anonymously, and with the names of some key characters altered, may contain some exaggerated stories. However, it is a powerful work of literature and has done much to colour the reputation of Henry Gosse that we have today. Almost everyone comes to the Gosse family through reading works by Edmund (including Ann Thwaite, who followed up her biography of Edmund with her delightful biography of Henry, Glimpses of the Wonderful [4]). In contrast, I came to Edmund through reading Henry’s books and scientific writings and he was a fascinating and warm man. However, my admiration does not extend to his religious beliefs and this is recounted in Walking with Gosse [5] and numerous posts on this blog [6].

Considering the the way we select books set me thinking about how many people first chose to read Father and Son from the art work on the cover. But how true is the illustration to the content? Let’s look at some of the covers that have adorned Edmund Gosse’s book. The first I show (above) has the famous picture of Henry and Edmund that was used as the frontispiece for the first edition of Father and Son. The photograph was taken in Torquay in 1857; the year when they had moved to St Marychurch after the death of Henry’s first wife Emily. It is touching and clearly meant much to Edmund.

The next cover features the wonderfully sensitive portrait of Edmund by John Singer Sargent (above).

We then go on to see covers from various editions (above) that show the shore where Henry and Edmund collected specimens or the countryside through which they walked. They provide a general background, but they are not recognisable as being from Torbay.

The final series of cover illustrations (above) appear to have been created by artists who had little inkling of the content of the book and some of them are decidedly strange. As stated earlier, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Sarah Perry (2018) Like meeting the gaze of a friend in a room of strangers. The Daily Telegraph 24th November pp. 14-16.

[3] Ann Thwaite (1984) Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. London, Martin Secker and Warburg.

[4] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[5] Roger S Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

[6] (numerous entries).

It should also be stated that various editions of Father and Son have covers based on designs (see below).

I am grateful to Greg Peakin for pointing out the article by Sarah Perry.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

When it rains conkers

In one of the most popular scenes in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice [1], Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) dived into the lake at Pemberley and then encountered Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) while walking back to the house. His swim was an invention, although the meeting at Pemberley does take place in the book, as does the introduction to Mr and Mrs Gardiner (Tim Wylton and Joanna David). In that dialogue, there is further invention when Mr Darcy relates that he used to run from Pemberley into Lambton (more than four miles!) as a boy to collect horse chestnuts from the tree on the green. It did seem an odd thing to do, but maybe there were no suitable horse chestnut trees on the Pemberley estate, despite its many acres of “some of the finest woods in the country” [1]?

The dialogue brought fond memories of playing conkers to all of us who watched the programme: collecting the conkers; making a hole through the “best” ones with a meat skewer; and threading through a piece of strong and knotting its end. Then heading for the playground to try and demolish someone else’s conker by swiping at it with one’s own prized weapon, while avoiding, as much as possible, sore knuckles from an opponent’s misguided shot. During these contests there was much chat of how to prepare the best conkers (with vinegar and baking), although the ones we used were not treated.

I was reminded of those times earlier this week as I walked across Boxmoor in Hertfordshire, that has a splendid avenue of horse chestnut (Aeschylus hippocastanum) trees (see above). It had been raining and there was a moderate breeze, with the result that conkers were falling constantly and I was grateful that my bald head was covered by a cloth cap (although none of them fell on me). There were conkers all over the path and the freshly-fallen ones had that lovely lustre of polished veneers that soon dies on exposure to the air. Each conker is different in shape and patterning and they are beautiful: they provide yet another aspect of the “mellow fruitfulness” of autumn and one which brings, for me, a child-like appreciation of the natural world.

Christian believers might suggest that this is something that God intended at the time of the Creation, but atheists are more likely to point to the evolution of the horse chestnut, that began many millions of years ago, way before the creatures that led to H. sapiens first appeared. Conkers are, of course the means of dispersal of future generations of trees and we probably all remember planting some in pots and watching shoots appear at the surface of the soil.

Earlier this year, an interesting paper on the horse chestnut appeared in the Journal of Ecology [2]. It is a comprehensive account, well worth reading for those who love these trees, and it includes the following information:

Aeschylus hippocastanum is native to the Balkan Peninsula in south-east Europe but has been widely planted in temperate areas from the 17th Century onwards..

..Horse chestnut is best known as a tree planted for ornamentation and shade in parks and streets, particularly by the Victorians, since little else can rival the sight of a horse-chestnut in full flower. Indeed, it was voted the UK’s favourite tree in 2017 in a poll run by the Royal Society of Biology. The British population is an estimated 470,000 trees.

Like many other trees, horse chestnuts are attacked by insects and by disease organisms [2]. Those having the greatest aesthetic impact are larvae of a leaf-mining moth, Cameraria ohridella, that first appeared in the late 1970s in Macedonia. They feed on the tissue inside the leaf and produce unsightly brown blotches that have the effect of colouring the whole tree through the summer months and into autumn. While these attacks reduce the ability of the tree to photosynthesise, and thus produce energy, the trees still produce conkers (if smaller and in lower numbers than in unaffected areas). It would be so sad if future generations were prevented from enjoying the appearance of these wonderful fruits, then gathering them for a game of conkers. Or is that the sentiment of an old man, out of touch with the modern age?

[1] Jane Austen (1813) Pride and Prejudice. London, T.Egerton.

[2] Peter A. Thomas, Omar Alhamd, Grzegorz Iszkulo, Monika Dering and Tarek A. Mukassabi (2019) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Aeschylus hippocastanum. Journal of Ecology 107:992-1030.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Watching starfish move

All of us who enjoy looking in coastal rock pools are pleased when we find a starfish sheltering under a stone, or under fronds of algae. When we pick up our specimen, we see that the undersides of its arms bear many tube feet that are used both in locomotion and also as a means of obtaining food. Their use is explained in the following video clip [1]:

In the Nineteenth Century, our knowledge of starfish locomotion was dependent on written accounts, aided by illustrations, and no-one was better at describing the animals of the shore than Philip Henry Gosse. In Land and Sea, Gosse writes of a visit to Meadfoot Beach in Torquay to explore the rock pools there (see below), a collecting site within easy walking distance of his home [2].

Gosse found a large starfish in the Meadfoot rock pools and moved it to another pool that provided a better chance of detailed study, as the animal was too large to take back to his aquarium. His description in Land and Sea [2] of its locomotion provides an interesting comparison with the video recording above. In reading it, we can admire Henry Gosse’s ability as a writer and it is easy to see how he was such an important figure in the development of the “Marine Biology Craze” of the Victorian era:

I mark it gliding smoothly, and with a moderate rapidity, over the unevenness of the rocky bottom, and notice the mechanism by which its progression is effected, I see at once that I have before me one of the great types of animal locomotion; a series of contrivances, by which a given end, that of voluntary change of place, is accomplished, which are quite sui generis; admirable in their adaptation to the prescribed end, but totally unlike the arrangements by which the same object is attained in higher forms of life..

..Each of the five thick and bluntly-pointed arms, or rays, of this star-like animal is seen to be indented on its underside by a rather wide and deep furrow, which extends from the hollow in the centre, where the mouth is seated, throughout its length, to the point. Along the floor of this groove we should see in the dead and dried animal four rows of minute perforations, running lengthwise. We cannot discern them directly during the living activity of the starfish, because the crowding sucker-feet conceal them. Each of these suckers is a tube of delicate membrane, a continuation of the common skin; and its interior accurately corresponds with one of these perforations in the skeleton..

..If we were to dissect this animal, we should find, on the interior surface of the semi-crustaceous integument of the arm, a little globular bag of similar transparent membrane, on each aperture, which opens into the cavity of the globe, just as on the outer side it opens into the tube. Thus there is a free intercommunication between the globose sac on the inside and the sucker-tube on the outside, through the tiny perforation in the crust. The interior is filled with a clear fluid, scarcely differing in its nature from sea-water. The globular sac within and the tube without are both composed of highly contractile tissue, under the control of the animal will.

Gosse goes on to describe the stepping motion of the tube feet, but does not describe the complete water vascular system, its connection to the surrounding sea water via the madreporite (the porous plate shown in the video), or the nervous system by which the movement of the tube feet is controlled. Being a devout Christian, he does, however, state:

Here we have one of the multitudinous results of the infinite Wisdom and almighty Power combined in creation. The problem is to endow with the faculty of voluntary locomotion a sentient creature which has no internal skeleton, and no limbs. It is solved in many ways in the invertebrate classes, and this is one example.

While writing this, Gosse was aware that there was a growing acceptance of the theory of evolution (Darwin having published On the Origin of Species in 1859), something which he vehemently opposed, as he believed in a literal interpretation of the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis. He looked upon the wonderful complexities of the natural world as the work of an all-powerful God.

I, too, am filled with amazement when looking at specimens of the same animals and plants that Gosse observed and this always presents a challenge. Coming back to the example of locomotion in starfish, I find myself trying to answer questions on how the water vascular system evolved – what were the various stages required and did they occur near-simultaneously, or gradually? Isn't the sense of wonder posed by such questions very similar to that Gosse felt about God's Creation?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co..

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Pufflets, pimplets and muzzlets – Gosse and the common names of sea anemones

Philip Henry Gosse (above), together with his young son Edmund, moved to a new house in St Marychurch, Torquay in 1857. It was a tough year for him, as his wife, Emily, died of breast cancer and Omphalos, his book that attempted to resolve the conflict between Creation and the contemporary view of the geological record, was published to a hostile reception from all quarters. Against this background, Henry busied himself with collecting on the shore and working on describing the British sea anemones and corals. He published what was to become Actinologia Brittanica in 12 parts from 1858 to 1860 and the parts were gathered into a book that was published in 1860 [1,2]. I am fortunate to own a first edition of the book and I have also seen many of the original paintings by Gosse on which its illustrations are based [3].

To many, sea anemones and corals may seem an odd subject for study, yet these primitive animals fascinated many Victorian collectors and they gain their name because of their bright colours and the way they superficially resemble flowers. While those of scientific bent used a Latin binomial classification, others used the common names that are found in the book and which provide a splendid example of the richness of the English language. Gosse himself was aware of the colour provided by these names and, in the Preface of The Romance of Natural History [4], he wrote:  

In my many years’ wanderings through the wide field of natural history, I have always felt towards it something of a poet’s heart, though destitute of a poet’s genius.

That’s not to suggest that Gosse was not a good scientist (he was a Fellow of the Royal Society), but he recognised the value of popularising the subject. Here is a list of the common names of most British sea anemones and corals, as given by Gosse (the definite article has been omitted in each case) [1]:

Plumose anemone *
Daisy anemone *
Scarlet-fringed anemone *
Rosy anemone *
Ornate anemone
Fish-mouth anemone (*)
Orange-disked anemone *
Snowy anemone *
Sandalled anemone
Pallid anemone
Translucent anemone
Eyed anemone
Cave-dwelling anemone *
Snake-locked anemone *
Parasitic anemone *
Gold-spangled anemone
Cloak anemone *
Walled corklet *
Warted corklet
Painted corklet
Opelet *
Beadlet *
Gem pimplet *
Glaucous pimplet
Red-specked pimplet *
Diadem pimplet *
Marigold wartlet
Dahlia wartlet
Scottish pearlet
Scarlet pearlet
Arrow muzzlet *
Waved muzzlet
Trefoil muzzlet
Sand pintlet
Rock pintlet *
Painted pufflet
Crimson pufflet *
Crimson Imperial
Yellow Imperial
Globehorn *
Sandy creeplet
Furrowed creeplet *
Wrinkled creeplet
Devonshire cup-coral *
Moray cup-coral
Shetland cup-coral
Winged cup-coral
Smooth-ribbed wedge-coral
Knotted wedge-coral
Scarlet crisp-coral
Weymouth carpet-coral
Scarlet and gold star-coral

* = collected by Gosse from the shores around Torquay
(*) = sent to Gosse, having been collected by others from the shores around Torquay

Of the 61 types of sea anemone and coral in this list, 22 (36%) were collected by Gosse from the coast around Torquay. Although an excellent area for discovering these fascinating creatures, the high number reflects Gosse’s industry rather than this coast being a mecca for the animals. As an example of his industry, he remarks that the area shown in the image below was an especially good one for sea anemones, if one ventured by small boat to explore the cracks and fissures during low spring tides.

Anyone reading the list, and who wishes to escape the superficiality of the modern world, will be struck by the beauty of the names. My favourites are the red-specked pimplet, the dahlia wartlet, and the crimson pufflet: Gosse’s illustrations of these sea anemones, scanned from my copy of Actinologia Britannica, are shown below (in order).

I’m sure you will have your own favourites and, like Gosse, be stimulated to find examples during visits to the British coast.

[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) Actinologia Britannica: a history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, John Van Voorst.

[2] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A bibliography. Folkestone, Wm. Dawson & Sons Ltd..

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J.Nisbet & Co.

Friday, 30 August 2019

The Corbyn's Head Stack

When growing up in Torbay, I was fascinated by all the creatures that lived in rock pools. In addition to fish – blennies, gobies, butterfish, pipefish – there were many invertebrates. Limpets and barnacles could not easily be removed, as their defence against being swept away by waves, and attack by predators, also deterred human collectors. However, a wide variety of crabs, snails, worms, sea anemones, and many other creatures were collectable and I took some to observe in an aquarium tank. This was the early 1960s and I don’t know whether I would have spent hours on the shore had I been a young teenager today, with a mobile ‘phone, computer games, etc.. I like to think that I would, as I have never grown out of a child-like enthusiasm for “rock-pooling” and am only prevented from this pleasure today by living 100 miles from the sea.

One of the richest collecting spots (see above) was the rocky coast just to the north of a promontory called Corbyn’s Head (or Corbyn Head). At low tide, there are wide stretches of flattish sandstone rock, with many pools that contain easily-lifted boulders and large stones. Perfect for those interested in the creatures of the shore, but I was so fixated on the hunt that I never asked myself where the boulders came from, although I knew that they must be the result of erosion somewhere. I now know that they were likely to come from the promontory and that Corbyn’s Head has changed considerably over the last 200 years. Going much further back, we know that sea level rise after the Ice Age swamped a forest that filled much of what is now Torbay [1] and the rise in water level, together with storms, then eroded the Head.

As recently as 100 years ago, there was a stack off the headland and this was first formed into an arch before the whole collapsed. In the first photographs above, we see the appearance of the stack in 1928 and this can be compared to the contemporary appearance of the headland (above, lower). In an earlier engraving, taken from Gosse’s Land and Sea [2], we see a tall stack that is almost the height of the rest of the promontory and without the hole of the arch. Of course, there may be some artistic licence here, but this image (see below), from the mid-1850s, shows how Corbyn’s Head (referred to by its old name of Corbons Head) must have looked 150 years ago.

Anyone brought up in South Devon will feel an affinity for the red soils of the area and these derive from sandstones that were, in turn, formed by the compression of ancient sands and muds. It is a soft rock and is easily eroded, as I knew well as a child. Our house was faced with sandstone blocks and one of my household jobs was to sweep up the red dust that accumulated on the tiles of our verandah. On a much larger scale, there were also cliff falls; the most recent of which [3] was caused by sandstone rock becoming saturated and then collapsing under its own weight, as cracks widened and the whole became unstable. 

Sandstone may also contain pebbles washed by some ancient dramatic flood and this composite is called breccia. At Corbyn’s Head we have layers of sandstone overlain by breccia and a full description is given in the excellent, well-illustrated review of the local geology by West and Csorvasi [4]. 

I wonder what the coast of South Devon will look like in a few hundred years’ time, when global warming will bring further increases in sea level and when climate change may bring more violent storms? Will generations to come look at images from their holiday at the coast and remember fondly walking by cliffs and headlands that are then very different in appearance?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.