Friday, 29 November 2013

The pain of uncompromising religious beliefs

Strongly-held religious beliefs are supportive for individuals but can have distressing consequences within families, especially when differences of view drive wedges between parents and children. A very public airing of such a difference was made by Edmund Gosse in Father and Son,1 initially published anonymously, nineteen years after the death of his father.

                                                         Edmund Gosse

                                                     Philip Henry Gosse

Philip Henry Gosse was a Natural Historian with a marvellous talent for communication in books, illustrations, lectures and field courses. Always a Christian, Henry became a member of the Brethren and he was convinced of the imminence of the Second Coming.  With this came belief in the literal truth of The Bible and complete acceptance that the whole Book was the Word of God, something which came up many times in his writing and in his contacts with people. Even though he was by nature a shy man, Henry would waste little time in engaging those he met in conversation about his Christian beliefs, although he also maintained scientific contacts and correspondence without introducing this subject.

Edmund was Henry’s only child and his mother died when the boy was only 7 years old, an event that drew father and son closely together. They moved to Torquay and Henry spent much time collecting marine life (with Edmund in support), observing organisms using his aquarium tanks and microscope, writing, painting and illustrating, and becoming the leader of his own group of local Brethren. He was quite immovable in his faith and it is difficult to see where any change might come, as he was effectively isolated, although he did follow world affairs and maintained his contacts with friends and colleagues. As the Second Coming could happen at any moment, it was important that Edmund should also be “saved” and he was; this joyful event was marked by his adult baptism at the age of ten. Everything was now complete and ready.

As Edmund grew up, he began to question the strict limits of Henry’s religious views and, when Edmund moved to London as a seventeen-year old, the separation of the two men inevitably resulted in Edmund developing his own path in life. It was to result in disappointment for Henry, and Edmund’s visits to Torquay were marked by the anguish caused by the differences between the two men. One visit caused Henry to write Edmund a letter that he kept and from which he quoted in Father and Son. Here is a part:

Nothing seemed left to which I could appeal. We had, I found, no common ground. The Holy Scriptures had no longer any authority: you had taught yourself to evade their inspiration. Any particular Oracle of God which pressed you, you could easily explain away; even the very character of God you weighed in your balance of fallen reason, and fashioned it accordingly. You were thus sailing down the rapid tide of time towards Eternity, without a single authoritative guide (having cast your chart overboard), except what you might fashion and forge on your own anvil, – except what you might guess, in fact.

Do not think I am speaking in passion, and using unwarrantable strength of words. If the written Word is not absolutely authoritative, what do we know of God? What more then can we infer, that is, guess, – as the thoughtful heathens guessed, – Plato, Socrates, Cicero, – from dim and mute surrounding phenomena? What do we know of Eternity? Of our relations to God? Especially of the relations of a sinner to God? What of reconciliation? What of the capital question – How can a God of perfect spotless rectitude deal with me, a corrupt sinner, who have trampled on those of His laws which were even written on my conscience?...

This dreadful conduct of yours I had intended, after much prayer, to pass by in entire silence; but your apparently sincere inquiries after the cause of my sorrow have led me to go to the root of the matter, and I could not stop short of the development contained in this letter. It is with pain, not in anger, that I send it; hoping that you may be induced to review the whole course, of which this is only a stage, before God. If this grace were granted to you, oh! how joyfully should I bury all the past, and again have sweet and tender fellowship with my beloved Son, as of old.

Just as the letter was awful for Edmund, so, too, it was for Henry. The sadness of the position is plain to see and Edmund’s last word on the topic in Father and Son has done much to gain Henry Gosse the reputation of a religious bigot, although Edmund certainly also recognises his father’s extraordinary talents and his warmth and kindness during their times together in Torquay.

The unfortunate truth is that the evangelical Christianity of Henry Gosse was exclusive and he could not accept that there could be any other acceptable views. He had also grown into a position where there was no possibility that any outside influences could cause him to change. It is all such a pity because he was a wonderful man in so many ways and one cannot doubt his honesty and sincerity. Could he have taken on board just a little of Edmund’s point of view, without compromising his faith or his principles, if less imprisoned by his isolation?

Having written about both men, and felt rather close to Henry as a result, 2 I found their conflict made me sad. Unfortunately, the religious antagonism shown by Henry and Edmund is far from unique and it is not just a matter between individuals. As we know well, strongly-held and immovable religious views create modern-day conflicts beyond those of families.

1 Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son. London, William Heinemann.

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

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A famous “ride” - Charles Waterton and the Cayman

In his biography of the Nineteenth Century Natural Historian Frank Buckland, 1 George C Bompas mentions a letter that Frank wrote to the Temple Bar Magazine about a coachman he remembered well:


I had great respect for this coachman, as he once brought my father a semi-dead crocodile, in the coach boot, from Southampton. My father turned the dead crocodile into the pond in the middle of the quadrangle at Christ Church, to revive him; but he refused to be revived, so I rode about upon him, Waterton fashion, and somehow I always associated the Southampton coachman with a crocodile.


Frank’s father was the famous Dr William Buckland, then Canon of Christ Church Oxford and later to be Dean of Westminster, and himself a Natural Historian and Geologist, in addition to being a cleric and a socialite. The Waterton referred to in the quote was Charles Waterton, the Squire of Walton Hall, and his riding on the back of a caiman was a well-known piece of derring-do of the times, commented on by a society which loved such tales.


Charles Waterton was a free spirit, known for his books describing Wanderings (travels) in Demerara (Guyana) and elsewhere. Waterton was a close observer of Natural History and he was also a taxidermist of note, catching and preparing specimens that were then brought back to his collection in Yorkshire. It was on the Third Wandering that he rode on the back of a caiman (Cayman of Waterton) that had been captured using four barbed hooks that were bound together and baited. Having captured the caiman, it now had to be brought ashore and without any injury to its skin, as it was to be added to the collection. This is what Charles wrote about the capture:


…The people [in the hunting party] pulled the Cayman to the surface; he plunged furiously as soon as he arrived in these upper regions, and immediately went below again on their slackening the rope. I saw enough not to fall in love at first sight. I now told them we would run all risks and have him on land immediately. They pulled again, and out he came… …This was an interesting moment. I kept my position firmly, with my eye fixed steadfast on him.

By the time the Cayman was within two yards of me I saw he was in a state of fear and perturbation. I instantly dropped the mast [Charles had taken the mast from his canoe and intended to thrust it into the throat of the caiman, if needed], sprung up and jumped on his back, turning half round as I vaulted, so that I gained my seat with my face in a right position. I immediately seized his fore legs, and, by main force, twisted them on his back; thus they served me for a bridle.

He now seemed to have recovered from his surprise, and probably fancying himself in hostile company he began to plunge furiously, and lashed the sand with his long and powerful tail. I was out of reach of the strokes of it by being near his head. He continued to plunge and strike and made my seat very uncomfortable. It must have been a fine sight for an unoccupied spectator.

The people roared out in triumph, and were so vociferous, that it was some time before they heard me tell them to pull me and my beast of burden farther inland. I was apprehensive the rope might break, and then there would have been every chance of going down to the regions under water with the Cayman...

...The people now dragged us above forty yards on the sand: it was the first and last time I was ever on a Cayman's back. Should it be asked, how I managed to keep my seat, I would answer, - I hunted some years with Lord Darlington's fox hounds.

After repeated attempts to regain his liberty, the Cayman gave in, and became tranquil through exhaustion. I now managed to tie up his jaws, and firmly secured his fore-feet in the position I had held them. We had now another severe struggle for superiority, but he was soon overcome, and again remained quiet. While some of the people were pressing upon his head and shoulders, I threw myself on his tail, and by keeping it down to the sand, prevented him from kicking up another dust. He was finally conveyed to the canoe, and then to the place where we had suspended our hammocks. There I cut his throat; and after breakfast was over commenced the dissection.

Charles must have enjoyed recounting the story to anyone he met and, no doubt, did so with relish. It was certainly a well-known event of the times, as we saw in the quote from Frank Buckland, yet the caiman was not huge and it was being pulled by a rope attached to the barbed hooks in its throat, so there was less danger from being bitten than might otherwise have been the case. Sitting astride the caiman and lifting the forelegs backwards and upwards was an eminently sensible way for a brave man to avoid both the jaws and the lashing tail of the beast, until the animal could be subdued and killed. The preserved caiman in question is in the Wakefield Museum 2 and it certainly looks little damaged when one gazes down at it, so Charles was successful in achieving his objective. The capture was celebrated in a painting by Captain Edwin Jones, 3 an old friend of Charles (and who had joined him in climbing to the top of the Cross on St Peter’s in Rome, but that’s a story for another blog post). The painting is clearly a piece of fun, decorated as it is with all manner of tropical birds, but it became a popular image of Charles Waterton.

One of Charles’ most notable detractors, James Simson, wrote this comment in his hostile biography, 4 that contained attacks on almost every aspect of the Squire’s life: Demerara... ...he is held in pleasant remembrance, for the friendly feeling which he always expressed for the Colony; but a laugh is generally raised when allusion is made to some of the statements in his Wanderings; that of “riding the cayman” causing the loudest one.

It may be true that Charles’ enthusiasm sometimes caused him to elaborate some passages in the Wanderings but, although celebrated as a good story, I have already advocated that sitting on the back of the caiman, while lifting the forelegs from the ground, was a sensible tactic if the animal was to be captured alive and undamaged. However, Simson won’t let go of his attack and mentions a conversation that Waterton had with someone he met:

This gentleman must have been of little intelligence, or had very superficially read the Wanderings; or had had his opinions much influenced by Waterton’s territorial and social standing, and the notoriety which he had acquired by his pursuits in natural history. And the circumstances are very apt to affect the ideas of people in regard to Waterton at the present day; although no one, certainly no Yorkshire man, should have a difficulty in deciding the question, that a person could not ride far or fast, or “ride” at all, on any quadruped (a kangaroo, perhaps, excepted) on its two hind feet, whatever was done with the fore ones.

So the attack is based largely on a misconception of what happened when the caiman was brought ashore and, certainly, on the way in which these animals move on land. Simson finishes his attack with this:

There is little to be drawn from the works of Waterton calculated to inspire confidence. His having been brought up so completely under the influence of the Jesuits was a drawback in the estimation even of a large part of his co-religionists. The affected style of much of the Wanderings, embracing page after page of apostrophizing... ...and his “thouing” and “theeing” the reader so frequently, were unbecoming a man of forty-three years of age, and nearly six feet in height, who had travelled and seen so much as he had... ...and ringing the change on kind reader, kind-hearted reader, benevolent reader, kind and gentle reader, etc., were in such contrast with his style, after publication, towards those who differed from him, that his action might be compared to that of one of his favourites, lifting its feet, and purring, and rubbing itself against its friends, and instantly presenting an aspect of “fearful asperity” to its enemies.

Strong feelings indeed. I agree with Simson on the importance of Charles’ Jesuit schooling at Stonyhurst College, but feel that this set him free, as his Catholic faith, and the values of the Jesuits, were fundamental to him and provided him with inner strength. I also agree that Charles had prolonged feuds, some of which he started and which he was happy to prolong, often with a sense of mischief. He also had long-term, close and loyal friendships.


Charles Waterton was considered worthy of a chapter of his own in Edith Sitwell’s The English Eccentrics, 5 yet he was a man about whom The Illustrated London News of 24th August 1844,  6 in a review of the Second Volume of Essays in Natural History, wrote: “In closing this brief sketch of Mr Waterton, we must not omit to mention that he is the first bird-stuffer in the world, and one of the most kind-hearted landlords, and a zealous and conscientious Catholic. A highly recommendatory feature of his writings is that they uniformly enjoin tender treatment of animals, and a generous sympathy with their persecutions.” That is Charles Waterton in a nutshell (although the secret of his taxidermy is that it avoided the need for stuffing....), but the picture accompanying the article is less good in representing Charles’ typical clothing, which was rather less formal:





1 George C Bompas (1886) Life of Frank Buckland. London, Smith, Elder & Co.

3 There is some confusion in the literature over whether Captain Jones was called Edwin or Edward.

4 James Simson (1880) Charles Waterton; Naturalist. New York, James Miller.

5 Edith Sitwell (1933) English Eccentrics. London, Faber and Faber.

6 The Illustrated London News 24th August 1844

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Caddis flies, earrings and evolution

During my career, I attended many conferences on Aquatic Biology and they always attracted exhibitors demonstrating nets, electronic measuring equipment, collections of the latest books, etc.. Occasionally, there would be something different and, at one conference, I came across a stand where jewellery was for sale. At first, it was not easy to see the connection to life in water, until it was explained that the various earrings and pendants were made from cases that had been produced by caddis fly larvae. Partly because of the novelty, and partly because they were attractive, I bought a pair of earrings that had cases made from fragments of jasper and my wife was pleased with them, and intrigued by the story of their manufacture.

Subsequently, I found that this type of jewellery is available from several sources and, in addition to the use of fragments of natural stone, caddis fly larvae are allowed to build cases with precious stones, pearls and even gold fragments.

Many, but not all, caddis fly larvae build cases, and the materials that they use vary from species to species. Some build cases of vegetation and some of stones of a range of sizes, the common feature being that all the separate pieces of material are cemented together with silk produced by the insects from modified salivary glands, which exit near the mouth. The silk is not only strong but highly adsorptive, and its “stickiness” is not affected by it being produced under water. It was silk that bound the stones of jasper in my wife’s earrings and, having produced a case, it was an easy matter for the jewellers to remove the larva, pick up the cases, dry them and then cover them with lacquer to ensure that they would not fall apart for years. The larva could then start the process all over again, just as it would do in natural conditions if, for some reason, it was separated from its case.

Caddis larvae use cases for protection, camouflage and ballast, but some forms do not make cases, using silk to provide an enclosure to which stones may be attached, or to make feeding nets. These vary from wide aperture nets, useful for capturing materials from a fast current, through to large sac-like nets in which the larva lives while grazing over the material that has accumulated. Some caddis larvae are free-living predators and they have neither cases nor silk nets. Other caddis larvae build cases entirely from layers of silk. Whatever the adaptations shown by the larvae, it is important to remember that the larval stage is but one part of their life cycle. Having completed five larval stages, moulting between each to achieve larger size, the final stage larva spins a cocoon in which to pupate. This cocoon is frequently covered with stones or other materials and is cemented to the substratum using silk. A complete transformation of the insect now occurs, with the adult biting its way from the cocoon and emerging from the water to fly away and complete the life cycle by mating and laying eggs back into the water.

For those who believe in the literal accounts of Creation in Holy Books, the biology of these insects is easy to explain - a deity designed each species, its life cycle and its choice of whether to build a case, or not. Furthermore, the materials that each species used in case construction, and its preferred habitat, were all designed and the insects put in place some time in the first days of life on Earth. All very straightforward, but I am not a Creationist and therefore face some challenging questions - questions that I cannot answer readily (or at all):

1. Why the complex life cycle, with aquatic larval and pupal stages and terrestrial adults?

2. Why the use of silk?

3. Why the choice of different case materials, or the building of nets?

Here are some thoughts on each of these questions:

Why the complex life cycle, with aquatic larval and pupal stages and terrestrial adults?

Primitive insects have larval stages that become progressively larger and it is from the last larval stage that the flying adult emerges. Evidence of this form of metamorphosis is seen by observation of dragonfly larvae, where the growing wing buds are seen throughout larval life, and especially in the last stage. Caddis larvae do not need to grow wing buds, or other adult features, as the re-organisation of body form is completed within the pupal skin. In both types of development, all mechanisms are under genetic control, so the evolution of the genetic template is the basis of everything. We can only speculate on how pupation developed, but it must have resulted from mutations that, taken together, allowed the dramatic transformation from larva to adult. How did it happen; and did it occur gradually, or in an explosion of change? I don’t know.

We know that aquatic insects were originally terrestrial in all their life stages and that they had originally evolved from an ancestral form that was marine. Interestingly, there is evidence that the invasion of fresh waters by different groups of aquatic insects has occurred at different points in geological time, 1 from ca. 200,000,000 years ago through to more recent times (perhaps just tens of millions of years ago). Interestingly, while there are many types of aquatic insects in streams, rivers, ponds and lakes, they are rare in marine habitats.

Why the use of silk?

The ancestors of caddis flies, and some other insects, evolved the secretion of silk from the salivary glands, the original secretions being use in feeding. Silk consist of a complex of materials, including very strong protein filaments and, once evolved, the insects had an excellent mechanism for joining components of cases or for making tent-like refuges. As silk is equally effective under water, this feature was of advantage when the invasion of flowing and still fresh waters occurred.

Why the choice of different case materials, or the building of nets?

Having invaded water, ancestral caddis flies would need to acquire food. The production of silk nets allowed the capture of particles from flowing water but the water could also cause the displacement of larvae. This may be the origin of stone cases as ballast, as well as for protection. If larvae were protected from being swept away, and avoided predation by having cases that were made of the materials that surrounded them, they would have had an increased chance of survival. Thus, the genetic basis of the case-building habit will have been passed to future generations. Different types of cases show adaptation to different habitats and ponds with abundant vegetation will provide different selection pressures than streams or lake shores with stony substrata. As the caddis larvae spread throughout fresh waters, the formation of different species resulted from the selection of characteristics that promoted separation of ancestral breeding stocks and thus a diminished chance of inter-breeding, something which also occurred with the geographical separation of adults, together with changes in their breeding behaviour and apparatus. This process of speciation explains the many different forms that we see today.

It is difficult to comprehend the time periods over which evolution has occurred. However, thinking about the possible evolution of caddis flies is, to use a modern term, awesome and, for me, much more compelling than ideas based on Creation and a Designer. However, if it’s information you want on the various events during evolution.......

1 Timothy M Bradley et al. (2009) Episodes in insect evolution. Integrative and Comparative Biology 49: 590-606.

Sources of illustrations: