Tuesday, 22 November 2016

"The human side of science"

In Glaucus, his book about the sea shore, Charles Kingsley writes [1]:

 ..few or no writers on Natural History, save Mr. Gosse, Mr. G. H. Lewes, and poor Mr. E. Forbes [who had died in 1854, at the age of 39], have had the power of bringing out the human side of science, and giving to seemingly dry disquisitions and animals of the lowest type, by little touches of pathos and humour, that living and personal interest to bestow which is generally the special function of the poet..

Certainly, both Gosse and Lewes were respected for their detailed, objective observations that we still value today, but, as Kingsley and many others discovered, they were also able to convey their enthusiasm for what they saw. However, they were not always in agreement. While recognising the importance of Gosse in popularising Natural History, Lewes challenged him over an observation on the defence mechanism of some sea anemones, to which Gosse responded (without mention of Lewes' criticism).

The events were these.

George Henry Lewes (above, upper) is less well known than his partner George Eliot (Marian Evans), justly famous as one of the finest novelists in the English language. She was encouraged in her writing by Lewes who was a polymath and, before Marian's success, was himself recognised as a scholar and biographer. Although fascinated by Natural History and Marine Biology, he was accused by T. H. Huxley of being a "book scientist" [2] and this spurred Lewes, accompanied by Marian, to collect, and observe, sea-shore life at Ilfracombe, Tenby, The Scilly Isles and Jersey. He wrote up his findings in Blackwood's Magazine in 1856 and 1857 and these accounts were then re-written, with additions, in his book Sea-side Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, The Scilly Isles, & Jersey, also published by Blackwood [3]. The choice of the first locations must have been influenced by Philip Henry Gosse (above, lower) who gave detailed descriptions of both Ilfracombe and Tenby in two of his earlier books [4,5].

Lewes makes reference to the work of Gosse throughout Sea-side Studies and acknowledges the usefulness of his scientific works and the importance of his more general, descriptive books in Marine Biology and microscopy [3]. However, Lewes takes Gosse to task on one point: the role of acontia. These are threads found in some sea anemones and they can be projected through the mouth and from pores in the body (see images below - courtesy of www.aphotomarine.com). This is what Lewes wrote [3]:

Mr Gosse proposes to establish a new genus, named Sagartia.. ..including in it all those Anemones which.. ..possess an abundance of peculiar white filaments, visible to the naked eye, which are protruded from the pores of the body and the mouth, when the animal is roughly handled. These filaments are seen, on examination to be chiefly composed of "urticating [stinging] cells."..
..[Gosse] relates that he once saw a small fish in the convulsions of agony, with one of these filaments in its mouth; it shortly expired. It is a matter of surprise and regret that Mr Gosse, having once made such an observation, did not feel the imperative necessity of repeating and varying it, so as to be sure that death was not a mere coincidence. If the filament had the power which this single observation fairly seemed to suggest, nothing could be easier than to establish the fact by experiment. But, I repeat, no one has seen the necessity for the verification of an hypothesis so plausible; and Mr Gosse, like all his predecessors, was content with recording his observation, as if it carried the point. Not being so content, I tested it thus: After irritating a Dianthus till it sent out a great many filaments, I dropped a very tiny Annelid among them, and entangled it completely in their meshes. Yet lo! these filaments, which are said to possess so powerful a faculty of urtication that even vertebrate animals are killed by them, had no other effect upon a soft Annelid than that of detaining it in their meshes, from which it shortly freed itself and wriggled away unhurt.

Lewes was right to criticise if a general conclusion was being made from a single observation, although his manner of expression is a little blunt. Gosse must have read this and he describes his own experiments on acontia in Actinologia Britannica [6]:

With a razor I took shavings of the cuticle, from the callous part of my own foot, as from the ball of the toe, and from the heel.. ..I then irritated a S. parasitica till it ejected an acontium and taking up with pliers [a] shaving of the cuticle, allowed it to touch the acontium, which instantly adhered across its surface. I now drew away the cuticle gently, so as not to rupture the acontium, and examining it.. ..immediately saw dense groups of cnidæ [stinging threads], standing endwise on the surface,.. ..all discharged and inserted into the substance..

..As to the injection of a poison, it is indubitable that pain, and in some cases death, ensues even to vertebrate animals from momentary contact with the capsuliferous organs of the ZOOPHYTA.

Gosse then refers to the observation criticised by Lewes:

I have elsewhere recorded [in The Aquarium [7]] an instance, in which a little fish, swimming about in health and vigour, died in a few minutes with great agony, through the momentary contact of its lip with one of the emitted acontia of Sagartia parasitica. It is worthy of observation, that, in this case, the fish carried away a portion of the acontium sticking to its lip; the force with which it adhered being so great, that the integrity of the tissues yielded first.

..in the experiments which I have detailed above, we have seen that this adhesion is effected by a multitude of [stinging threads], whose barbs resist withdrawal. So.. ..we can with certainty associate the sudden and violent death of the little fish with the intromission of barbed [stinging threads].

There it rests. What both Lewes and Gosse describe is a fascinating defence mechanism rather than a means of obtaining food. It is something that makes one wonder and to ask "How did that evolve?". Gosse, however, would explain it as an example of God's extraordinary Creation. In contrast, Lewes was an agnostic, so the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 will have set his mind on trying to answer the impossible, yet fascinating, questions that we face today. There were many similarities between Lewes and Gosse, but clearly some important differences, and I'm not sure that they would have enjoyed each other's company, especially after the tone of Lewes' criticism. Perhaps I'm wrong?

[1] Charles Kingsley (1855) Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore. London, Macmillan and Co.

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

[3] George Henry Lewes (1858) Sea-side Studies at Ilfracombe, Tenby, The Scilly Isles & Jersey. Edinburgh, William Blackwood and Sons.

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1853) A Naturalist's Rambles on the Devonshire Coast. London, John van Voorst.

[5] Philip Henry Gosse (1856) Tenby: a sea-side holiday. London, John van Voorst.

[6] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) Actinologia Britannica. A history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, John van Voorst.

[7] Philip Henry Gosse (1854) The Aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea. London, John van Voorst.

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