Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mammoths in the news

In South Carolina, eight year old Olivia McConnell noticed that her state has a state grass doesn't have a state fossil. She set out to fix that. She wrote a letter to her state legislators, Rep. Robert Ridgeway and Sen. Kevin Johnson, laying out her reasons why the state need an official fossil and proposed the mammoth for the job. They were impressed and sponsored a bill for her.

The articles I've checked on all flip back and forth between Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth and so does the bill. They are two different species. Columbian would be the correct one for South Carolina. Olivia probably knows the difference. She did her homework on this, but I can't find the text of her letter. One of the reasons she gave for choosing the mammoth was that it has an important tie to South Carolina. The first known mention mammoth remains in the Americas appeared in 1743 in Mark Catesby's in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands he wrote "At a place in Carolina called Stono, was dug out of the Earth three or four Teeth of a large Animal, which, by the concurring Opinion of all the Negroes, native Africans, that saw them, were the Grinders of an Elephant...." Catesby probably heard about the teeth when he traveled in the southern states in 1725.

Olivia's bill should have sailed through both houses and been signed into law in no time. Rep. Ridgeway's version sailed through committee, was put to a vote and passed 94-3. Those three should be ashamed of themselves. Then the bill ran aground in the senate. Far right Sen. Kevin Bryant decided it needed to to be amended with an unconstitutional injection of religion. He wanted to add some verses from Genesis so every one would know just who created mammoths and fossils. Bryant's amendment was ruled out of order because it introduced a new subject. Bryant tried to shorten his amendment, but still wants to keep religion in the bill. Thus, it remains in limbo. In his defense, Bryant whines, "I think it's a good idea to designate the mammoth as the state fossil, I don't have a problem with that. I just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils." Bryant has one ally in the state senate, Sen. Mike Fair, who has placed an objection on the bill. Fair, like Bryant is a creationist and climate change denier.

And so, it remains unclear if South Carolina will get a state fossil. Three other states have mammoths as their state fossils (and one has the mastodon), but duplication has never been a problem for state symbols (state flowers, for example). Changing the species won't help. Bryant and Fair will want to attach religion to any fossil. Most stories on this predictably end with the gag that perhaps Bryant and Fair should be the state fossils. The story shouldn't be about their obstructionism. It should be about Olivia McConnell, a smart, observant girl. I hope those two old poops don't discourage her. We need more girls like Olivia.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hobby Lobby and privacy

 Over the last few days, while looking at some of the pre-trial commentary on the Hobby Lobby vs. Obamacare suit, something that's been nagging at me finally jelled into a coherent thought. The primary arguments will be over whether the government is violating the religious freedom of the owners of Hobby Lobby by requiring the insurance they contribute to for their employees to cover birth control. I think the feminist issues have been covered well by my side and both sides have covered the religious freedom angles. My epiphany was over the privacy angle, which actually grows out of the liberal argument about whose religious freedom is being infringed upon by whom. All of these issues are inextricably intertwined. It's the job of the Supremes to untangle them and decide which thread is the Constitutional issue they want to opine on.

How does privacy fit into this? I'm fairly sure privacy is not even a choice among the bases the Supremes will use to make their decision. Robert Bork, who was Reagan's first choice for Scalia's seat argued that there is no right to privacy and, as far as I know, neither side in this case is making an argument that it is relevant. But it is. Be patient with me.

The Green family, who own the Hobby Lobby chain, claim they don't want to control the sex lives of their (female) employees, they just don't want to be forced to pay for aspects of those sex lives that they don't approve of. Ty disapprove of birth control, which they (very incorrectly) equate to abortion. By their logic, they don't want to pay for scarlet women to kill babies. That's not the issue. The issue is the privacy of their employees. Not anyone's religion. Privacy.

Compensation for a job can include a lot of things, pay for work, paid time off, bonuses, stock options, and insurance. These things the employer gives to the employee in exchange for work of some sort. In most jobs, this means the employer has a great deal of control over what the employee can or cannot do during what are considered working hours. Periodically, in the past, employers have tried to control their employees during their off-work hours. Schools, both private and public, have been well known for imposing morality codes on teachers that apply to every hour of every day. Over the last decade or so, many secular employers have tried to exert control over their employees off-the-clock vices. They have tried to control their employees smoking and drinking, even when these haven't affected their job performance, in the name of keeping insurance costs down. Other employers drug test for pot use, even when this hasn't affected job performance, and a cost to the company, just in the name of the employer's pecksniffery. The liberal, libertarian, and even, occasionally, conservative counter-arguments to these efforts has been that whatever the employee does off-the-clock is none of their employer's damn business. Different parts of the spectrum can have different rationales for objecting or supporting some of these employer demands. From the perspective of privacy, none of it is justifiable. Which brings us back to Hobby Lobby.

Insurance is part of the total compensation package that an employer gives to an employee. If a female employee wants to use their insurance to cover birth control, the Greens say they are being made to subsidize something they disapprove of. But what if the employee chooses to use part of her pay for birth control? How is that different? Pay and insurance are both part of the total compensation package. If the employer has the right to tell an employee how to use their insurance, why don't they have the right to tell them how to spend the monetary part of their compensation package? Why not tell them which cable channels they can subscribe to? Why not tell them to eat more vegetables, like Michelle Obama isn't?

The Greens want to intrude into the most basic economic transactions of their employees. In its most extreme, how is this degree of control different that the company store or the plantation. Conservatives love the plantation analogy; how can they defend this one?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Vilui rhinoceros

Peter Simon Pallas arrived in Irkutsk an hour before midnight on March 14, 1772. He was accompanied by a painter and three naturalists. The horses, he writes, we tired. It was a week before the equinox but the rivers were still frozen and there was plenty of snow on the ground in that part of the world. This was a feature, not a bug, as far as travel in Siberia was concerned. When the temperatures rose, the whole country would become one endless, roadless, mosquito-filled bog. Since the beginning of the Russian state, the fastest way to travel its vast expanses had been by sleigh in the winter. He could have used those frozen rivers and snowy ground to continue deeper into Siberia but Irkutsk was his goal. He wrote that he knew the city held curiosities he had to see and stories he had to hear about the unknown land across Lake Baikal. Irkutsk did not disappoint. The governor had a rhinoceros to show him.

Pallas had arrived in Russian four years earlier at the invitation of Catherine the Great. He had been offered a teaching position at the Academy University, but that title was more a description of his pay grade and social status than a job description. He immediately set to work preparing for a five year expedition into the eastern provinces of Catherine's empire. Before leaving, he took time to look through the Academy's collections where he discovered a rhino skull that had been discovered near the Amur River on the Chinese-Siberian border. Numerous bones of rhinos along with hippos, elephants, and other tropical animals had been found in his native Germany and other parts of Europe. He wrote a paper describing this skull, tying it to the problem of the Siberian mammoth. Like most thinkers of his time, he was inclined to explain their presence in the north as a result of the Biblical flood washing the bones of tropical animals north. Pallas did not follow the usual method of scientific explorers, which was to collect samples and take notes and then analyze and write about them on their return. He sent several scientific papers back to the Academy and two volumes of a travel narrative while still on the road.

When Governor de Brill told him that he had preserved parts of an unknown large animal, Pallas' first thought was probably of a mammoth. Westerners knew of tales of bloody preserved mammoth carcasses as long as they had known about the mammoth. Earlier in the century there had even been a report by a reputable European. In addition, Pallas had seen dozens, possibly hundreds, of mammoth bones since leaving St. Petersburg. In his Travels, he wrote that there was hardly a river east of the Don that did not produce a few. He must have been both surprised and delighted when de Brill produced the head and feet of a rhino. During his four years on the road, Pallas had begun to doubt the wisdom of his having come to Russia. Captain Cook was the superstar of exploratory science. It seemed to Pallas that the South Seas was the real frontier. In Siberia, he lamented, one could go a hundred miles without discovering anything. A preserved rhino was something to get excited about.

Pallas was exceptionally lucky that almost everyone involved in bringing the mammoth to his attention had understood its importance. The rhino had been discovered by a group of Yakut (Sakha) hunters in December on the banks of the Vilui River, a tributary that fell into the Lena well above the Arctic Circle. The rhino was nearly complete when they found it, but enough of it was in a bad state of decay that decided to cut the feet and head from the carcass and leave the rest behind. In any case, even if they had wanted bring the whole body, breaking it loose from the frozen ground would have been almost impossible during the winter. The hunters took these parts to Ivan Argunov, the district magistrate who took a notarized statement detailing the location and position of the carcass and sent the parts and statement to the regional capital on Yakutsk in January. The authorities there kept one foot and sent the rest on to Irkutsk, where it arrived in late February, just three weeks before Pallas' arrival.

The head and feet were in excellent condition. Almost all of the skin was present and covered with hair. The delicate structure of the eyelids remained. Muscles and fat were preserved under the skin. Though the horns were missing, from the spots where they had been attached, he could tell it had been a two horned rhino. Of immediate concern was making sure it remained preserved in the best condition possible. It had already begun to give off a stench that he compared to "an ancient latrine." He chose to dry it in an oven. The melting fat falling in the fire caused the oven to get much hotter than he wanted and one of the feet was burned beyond any hope of saving. Naturally, the loss was blamed on an inattentive servant although I feel confident in say that no one in Irkutsk had any experience in drying rhinoceros parts so we should cut him some slack. Pallas took careful measurements of the head and feet and wrote a detailed article (in Latin) for the Academy. He would have liked to have spent more time studying it, but the Siberian Spring was coming and he wanted to get across Lake Baikal before the ice broke. 

The Vilui rhinoceros as it appeared with Pallas' description (source)

Pallas' paper was published in the Academy yearbook for 1772 and eagerly read by scholars all over Europe. When he returned in 1774 he was covered in honors and eagerly sought out by other scientists. Moving to Russia turned not to have been a bad choice after all. he stayed in Russia for the rest of his working life. His rhino did not disappear into the Academy collections never to be seen again. During the Nineteenth Century, other scientists continued to study it. Its blood was examined, the remains of its last meal were picked out of its teeth, and, in 1849, Johann Friedrich von Brandt, the head of the zoology division at the Academy wrote a book length anatomical study of the remains. As an introduction to his study, Brandt went over the documents relating to the discovery.

In his rush to leave Irkutsk, Pallas regretted not having had time to make drawings of the remains. The Academy made up for this lack by having an artist prepare a detailed set of drawings of the head in profile and the remaining foot from the front and side. When Brandt made his study, he had an artist make new drawings, though not as detailed, of the head from all angles. By Brandt's time, enough other remains, especially horns had been made that they were beginning to be able reconstruct the Siberian rhino and see how different it was from living rhinos. One detail that particularly stood out was how unusual the horns were. Instead of being essentially conical, like those of living rhinos, The horns they were finding in Siberia were flat as a knife blade and ridiculously long, sometimes three or even four feet. Brandt had his artist match the skull up with one of the horns in their collection to give readers an idea of the horn's magnitude.

The Vilui rhinoceros as it appeared with Brandt's description. Because color printing was still rare, the illustration was most likely had colored. In either case, the use of color demonstrates the importance the Academy placed on the study. (source)

Like many extinct animals, the name of Siberian rhino has gone through many permutations over the years, from Rhinocerotis antiquitatis to Gryphus antiquitatus to Rhinocerotis tichorhini to its current name Coelodonta antiquitatis. It's commonly called the woolly rhino and is one of the best known ice age animals after the mammoth and sabre toothed tiger. Pallas never did have his name attached to it. It's curious that he didn't give it a name. At the time, he was working on his own naming system to fix the weaknesses that he saw in the Linnaean system. As it was, the naming credit has gone to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who, coincidentally, also named the mammoth. Pallas needn't feel slighted; he named and has had named after him a number of other species.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Monsieur Paquet's giant bone

Business must have been going well in 1779 for Monsieur Paquet, a Paris wine merchant. At least, that's what we can infer from his decision to expand his cellars that year. After removing part of the wall, He began digging into the yellow soil of mixed sand and clay. Two feet in, he discovered something very large and hard that was not a rock. At first, he thought he had run into a tree trunk, but, after clearing away more soil, he discovered that it was the biggest bone he, or anyone he knew, had ever seen. Paquet vanished from history soon after that, but the created a mini controversy and the last hurrah of the idea that mammoths were not elephantine in nature.

Paquet knew he had something valuable. He spent eight days trying to excavate it, but, with the soft walls collapsing, he finally had to give up. Using a sledge hammer and iron wedges, he broke off what he could see of the bone and built a wall over the rest. Even without the part still buried and other pieces chipped off, the bone weighted over 200 pounds. Several doctors came to view his bone and all agreed that it was one half of a giant pelvis. However, one learned visitor disagreed.

The exception was Robert de Paul de Lamanon, a promising new light on the French intellectual scene. As young men, Robert and his older brother, Pierre-Auguste, developed a habit of walking, rather than riding, wherever they went. This gave them the opportunity to examine all aspects of the countryside from agriculture to the living conditions of the peasantry to the geological structure of the land. After his father died, Robert dropped out of the seminary—as a student of Locke, Hobbs, and Rousseau he had no interest in religion—and set out with his brother to study the mountains of Switzerland. He estimated that they walked 1800 miles through the Alps that year. Based on his close-up observations of mountain valleys and the gravel deposits below the mountains, he developed a theory that the primary force shaping the earth was water—not the waters of the Biblical deluge, but rivers and periodic eruptions from enormous primal lakes in the mountains. This was the Lamanon who arrived in Paris and heard about Paquet's giant bone.

After rather roughly wresting it from the ground, Paquet kept the bone in the hopes of selling it for the sizable amount of 800 livres (at the time, Lamanon was living on a budget of 600 livres per year from his father's estate). Despite his high hopes for selling the bone, Paquet was willing to let Lamanon spend several days examining it. Lamanon hired an artist named Martin to help him and the two used their time to take measurements, make drawings, and even construct clay models of the bone. Based on his examination, Lamanon argued that it couldn't possibly be a pelvis. He pointed out that several structures were missing, most importantly, the acetabulum, the socket that meets the ball at the top of the femur to form the hip joint. To his eye, it looked like the lower part of a skull. Building on that observation, he stated that the bone bore no resemblance to the skull of an elephant or hippo or any other known terrestrial animal, which was true enough. Therefore, he concluded, it must have belonged to a whale. He admitted that the only whale skull he had seen was the damaged skull of a young whale left behind by a showman as he skipped town ahead of his creditors.

Monsieur Martin's drawing of the bone (source)

It was no coincidence that Lamanon specifically called out elephants and hippos for comparison. Besides being the largest of terrestrial animals, they had both been suggested as identities for other giant bones found around the Northern Hemisphere. In Asia and Europe, the bones were called mammoth and assigned to elephants. In the Ohio country of North America, mastodon bones, then as yet unnamed, showed features common to both elephants and hippos. Lamanon used his analysis of Paquet's bone to question those identifications. The mere resemblance of certain bones, he wrote, specifically referring to tusks and teeth, does not necessarily mean they come from the same animal. The teeth of a horse resemble those of donkey and the teeth of a cat those of a dog. Mammoth teeth resemble those of an elephant, but those of the mastodon do not. Couldn't this mean that mammoth, mastodon, and elephant are three completely different animals, or that mammoth and mastodon finds were not the remains of single animals but the co-mingled bones of several different animals, some elephant-like and some not? This was the position of the great Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton regarding the unknown animal of the Ohio. As for the Siberian mammoth, he pointed out that, even though the offer of a substantial reward for a complete skeleton had been in effect since the time of Peter the Great, no one had yet been able to produce one.

That Paquet's bone might have come from a whale was the starting point in the argument Lamanon wanted to make. His next point was the idea that other large bones were not necessarily those of known terrestrial animals. Having set his argument up, Lamanon moved on to his objective: using Paquet's bone to support his geological theories. The primal lakes that Lamanon envisioned shaping the geology of the north were really inland seas and their draining was a series of explosive, catastrophic events. He argued that whale bones in places like the Paris basin didn't come up from the ocean; they came down from the mountains. Mixed bones, such as those that Daubenton believed the Ohio animal to be made of, Lamanon saw as evidence of the violence of the lakes' draining. Even if the bones included those of elephants or hippos, these were animals living downstream, swept up, and deposited far north of their native habitats.

Most naturalists believed that the mammoth was an elephant and the mastodon was something similar, but there was still enough room for doubt that Lamanon's argument that they were not wasn't scandalous. What did scandalize some was the fact that he directly challenged Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte du Buffon and intendant of the royal museum (Jardin du Roi). Buffon was without question the most influential man in French science. Buffon's theory of the earth was that it had started out as a molten sphere and cooled first at the poles and that the habitable part of the world had expanded from there. He further claimed that only hot climates were hospitable for large animals. By this, he explained giant bones, such as the mammoth's, were relics of a time when the climate of the North was tropical. His theory of the relationship between temperature and size so annoyed Thomas Jefferson that he dedicated a large part of a chapter of his Notes on the State of Virginia to refuting it. Lamanon refuted Buffon by pointing out that there were plenty of large animals in the North such as moose, but especially fish and whales.

A childhood friend of his later wrote that "a thousand voices were against him, he was assailed on all sides, the newspapers rang with accusations of arrogance, audacity, boldness, ignorance itself.” One such outrages person was one Baudon, who published a nitpicking response to Lamanon five months after his paper came out. Boudon upbraided Lamanon for having the temerity to contradict his betters. He followed this by assuring his readers that his only motive was his love of truth and not currying favor for his forthcoming book. August was embarrassed enough by his brother that he wrote a letter of apology to Buffon on his behalf.

Neither Buffon himself nor his protege Daubenton seemed particularly offended. Buffon was happy to take advantage of Lamanon's geological observations in his later works. Daubenton's curiosity was sufficiently aroused to make a trip to Paquet's wine cellar to examine the bone and convince the merchant to dig out the rest of the bone. Daubenton was the perfect man to settle what kind of bone it was. Forty years earlier, he had been chosen by Buffon to catalog the zoological collections at the Jardin du Roi. In that capacity, he had handled and measured the bones of hundreds of animals, both living and fossil. Later he had helped Buffon write his encyclopedic Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière by contributing anatomical essays on 182 species of quadrupeds. He was easily the most knowledgeable comparative anatomist in Europe. Daubenton took one of Lamanon's clay models and compared it to the bones in the royal collection. The closest match he found confirmed what Lamanon's observations. In a short paper read before the Academy, he set out his reasons for believing the bone was part of the sphenoid process, a lower part of the skull, of an especially large whale.

Daubenton was accompanied on his visit to Paquet's by the chemist Berniard. Lamanon asked Berniard if it was possible to determine, by chemical analysis, whether a bone came from a land animal or from a sea animal. Berniard admitted he didn't know. Since none of the three of them had heard of such an experiment. They secured a piece of Paquet's bone and Daubenton brought from the royal collections pieces of whale, elk, porpoise, and human bones; a walrus tusk; an elephant's molar; and one of the teeth of the unknown animal of the Ohio. As to the primary question, Berniard determined that there was no significant difference between the bones of land and sea mammals. For his readers he also pointed out that there was not enough difference between the human bones and the other animals to claim a special place for humans in creation. At least, not based on biology.

This was the final scientific word on Paquet's bone, but it was not the final word on Lamanon's paper. A year after the first appearance of his paper, Journal de physique, de chimie, d'histoire naturelle et des arts published a short paper by P. de la Coudreniere that challenged both Buffon's and Lamanon's theories of the earth and used mammoths as his main evidence. Coudreniere made a reasonable argument against each theory. Of Buffon's cooling theory he points out that because the earth is a flattened sphere, the poles are closer to the internal fires within than are the tropics and, by his calculation, should be the last to cool, meaning something else must determine the temperature gradient. Of Lamanon's lakes theory, he points out that the largest salt lake on earth, the Caspian Sea, doesn't host anything larger than beluga sturgeon and small seals. It certainly doesn't contain whales. So far, so good. Then he goes off the rails.

Coudreniere next turns his attention to the mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, which he assumes to be local breeds of the same beast. What does the animal look like? What does it eat? Where is its food found? It can only be, he informs us, a bear, specifically the giant bear of Greenland. How that answers the latter two questions, he doesn't explain. There is no known animal more voracious than polar bears, he tells us, but there might be an even bigger bear never seen by Europeans, known only to the Eskimos. Quoting an anonymous history of Greenland, he describes a black bear, reputed to be thirty-six feet high, though, he admits, the size was probably exaggerated. The reason the mammoth/bear is rarely seen in Eurasia and North America is that Greenland is its primary range and it only migrates into the other continents during times of famine. That Greenland was attached to the other continents by an unmapped polar land was a fairly common belief at the time. That elephant sized bears roamed that land was a less common belief.

Lamanon wrote very little about Paquet's bone after his article was published. After Baudon's piece was published he sent a short letter to the editor saying he never had the pleasure of meeting Baudon, but wished to assure him that he had no animosity toward Buffon or any other great men. He worked behind the scenes with Daubenton and Berniard but soon moved on to other projects. He never responded to Coudrenier's giant bear thesis. In 1785 he sailed on the la Pérouse scientific expedition to the South Pacific—the French equivalent of Captain Cook. He was killed in Samoa in December 1787.

Robert de Paul de Lamanon (source)

Paquet's bone did not achieve the fame of some other bones, but its impact on science was not totally insignificant. Berniard's comparative chemical analysis of bones would be cited several times over the following decades. The bone became an important piece of evidence for scientists deciphering the geology of the Paris basin. Freshwater shells and the strata of gypsum that underlie the city all point to an age when the basin was covered by water. Georges Cuvier, who occupied a position of authority in the first third of the Nineteenth Century equivalent to that of Buffon in the last half of the Eighteenth, frequently cited the works of Lamanon in establishing that fact. Cuvier also sought out the bone and was able to add to our knowledge of it. Lamanon and Daubenton were able to identify the bone as having come from a whale, but they could only speculate about the species. The collections at the Jardin du Roi were sadly deficient in whale bones. Daubenton used a small sperm whale, which is a toothed whale, for comparison and documented enough points of similarity to be confident that it was a whale, but could go no further than that. By the time that Cuvier approached the problem, that deficiency in the collection had been alleviated—partly through new donations and partly through directed looting by the revolutionary armies. Cuvier was able to narrow the species down further to a type of baleen whale. He thought that it most resembled a Greenland whale.

Though Lamanon's name was remembered and Paquet's bone was remembered, Paquet's name was not. He became merely "a wine merchant" in the literature. In 1785 he was finally able to sell the bone. In the six years since he had dug it out of his cellar wall, it had attracted attention, but no buyers. He was forced to lower his asking price. He was probably relieved when a Dutch collector offered him ten Louis d'or. Though less than a third of his original asking price, it was a sizable chunk of money and probably something of a record for a damaged partial bone. The buyer was Martinus van Marum, an agent for Teyler's Museum in Amsterdam. The museum was a rare public collection that was the brainchild of the late Pieter Teyler, a rich banker who left his entire fortune and personal collections to a foundation dedicated to bettering the arts and sciences. Marum, no doubt, grabbed the bone for the museum's grand opening that year.

Over the years, others have had a chance to examine the bone. It is indeed the sphenoid process of a Greenland whale or, as we would call it today, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). The taxonomy of the right whale went through several permutations in the Nineteenth Century being lumped together with other baleen whales at times and split into multiple species at others. For a time, Paquet's bone was seen as the type specimen of a species Balaena lamanoni. Paquet had been forgotten by then. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Lamanon would no longer have his own whale.

The bone today (source)

The final word on the bone is a bit anticlimactic. The website of Teyler's Museum, tells us that the bone was neither a fossil—which was known when it was found—nor even very old. Though the bone was an important piece of evidence in convincing scientists of Cuvier's generation that Paris had once been deep underwater, it might be that it wasn't there at the time. Researchers at Teyler's think that it might have been nothing more than a waste product of the women’s undergarment industry. Fragments of whales' ribs have been found in the same district that are known to have come from the manufacture of hoop skirts and corsets. This has not caused Teyler's to remove the bone from their collections. Whatever its age, it's a piece of history. It remains on public display in the same room as Homo diluvii testis, one of the most famous fossils in the history of paleontology and one of the Beringer lying stones and equally famous counterfeit. That's pretty good company.

If I ever get to Amsterdam, I'll definitely visit Paquet's bone.

NOTE: One of the annoyances of working with Seventeenth Century journals, especially French journals, is the convention of rarely using first names. Some modern countries, such as Russia, have a convention using initials rather than first names, but Seventeenth Century French journals rarely give even those. Everyone is "M" (Monsieur). This makes finding biographical details a bit of a challenge. Buffon and Daubenton are influential enough that I wouldn’'t have had to go further than Amazon to find out who they were if I didn't already know. Lamanon is the only person in this post whose full name was given on his paper, and he was important enough that I could have picked up the few details I needed from Wiki. I'm not surprised at the lack of information about Paquet. It wouldn't have been unusual for the time if Lamanon had referred to him as "a wine merchant" and left it at that. This leaves Baudon, Berniard, and Coudrenier. I can find nothing else by or about Baudon. It looks like he never found a publisher for his book. Berniard, as I mentioned, was quoted into the next century, not just on bones but on other studies as well. Yet, no one in that century seems to have known what is name was. I was tempted to identify him with Pierre Berniard, another chemist who, however, I found out was in Poland at the time. Finally, I found a library entry for one of his articles that gave him the first initial "L". Maybe they were related. That leaves P. de la Coudreniere. I have two candidates: Henri Peyroux de la Coudreniere and his brother Pierre. Henri was a land speculator who left a small mark in history by encouraging Acadian refugees to settle in Louisiana. Pierre stayed out of his brother's schemes and stayed home to take care of their elderly mother. Henri would be the more fun of the two to work into the story, but I have no good reason to believe it was either one. Although it's unlikely in that century, I can't exclude the possibility that one of Baudon, Berniard, or Coudrenier might have been a woman.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mini-Snopes: yet another congressional pay edition

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about this one. It's back. If you see it, help kill it.

Let's be clear. Neither members of Congress, nor the President, nor the Vice President get their pay for life. That is bullshit. Think about it for a minute. Do you really think some one-term, House member is going to get his pay for life after only "working" for two years? Even if you're going to be extra cynical and say "they would if they could," the correct answer is, they couldn't and they never will.

Members of Congress get a civil service pension just like the person delivering your mail, processing Social Security checks, or sending you your tax return. It's a formula based on the number of years they worked for the government times their highest pay grade times a fractional multiplier. The total cannot equal their final pay, even if they were boyhood friends with Jefferson Davis, like Strom Thurmond was. Ever since they began to pay for Social Security and Medicare in 1984, members of Congress been part of the civil service pension program.

I'm all for economic populism, but let's focus on the right things. How much pay Congress makes is not important. How much pay you make is. How much Social Security and Medicare your parents, grandparents, or you collect is. How much food, rent, and medical support other vulnerable Americans get is. These are the issues and people that are important. You should care more about what they aren't getting than you should about what a few hundred congress members get. If you've fallen into the the trap of hating the poor, then do it for the veterans. Many of them are poor, old, hungry, and sick. Everyone loves the veterans, in theory. It's too bad they don't care as much for the civilians that the veterans were protecting.

There are good reasons to cast a jaundiced eye on the benefits package congress gets. A lying internet meme is not one of them.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Why I can't stand brown movie makers*

Long before we became human, our ancestors began rushing around the world, inserting ourselves into new environments and appropriating what was useful. When other people were already there, we learned what they had to teach us and they learned what we had to teach them. Our cultures merged and diverged, fused and fizzed, and a million years later we're still at it. Not everyone is happy with that.

This week, Salon published a piece by Randa Jarrar entitled "Why I can't stand white belly dancers." It is an article that I find, frankly, offensive. Although the article is part of a series by feminists of color and enlists the language of feminism and post-colonial theory, it is little more than a xenophobic rant about the other invaiding what the author perceives as an exclusive cultural sphere of her people. Jarrar's hostility is based on some understandably negative experiences. She grew up in the Middle East and the dance style called raqs sharqi** has specific personal associations for her that she feels are defiled by American belly dance. "Belly dance," for her, means the cabaret style (which she calls "Arab drag"***) usually seen on TV and in American Middle Eastern**** restaurants. But, after my moment of empathy for her unhappiness, what I heard was an echo of "I (or someone I know) was mugged by a Black person, therefore my hostility isn't prejudice; it's logical and valid."

Before I go much further into my personal perspective, let me quote better writers who have already said some of what I want to say in much more widely viewed media than my little blog. After all, I wouldn't want to be accused of appropriating their thoughts.

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a commentary that builds on one by Eugene Voloch in The Washington Post*****. Volokh's title was so good that I couldn't help but appropriate it for my own use: "What would Salon think of an article called, 'Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven'?" Volokh gets right to the point of criticizing Jarrar's core snobbery while Friedersdorf puts into the wider perspective that overlaps with what I wanted to say.

Volokh starts with a quote from Jarrar:
Women I have confronted about this have said, "But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on." These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I'm sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It's not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you're not appropriating someone else's.
Volokh responds:
Appropriation — the horror! People treating artistic genres as if they were great ideas that are part of the common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group. What atrocity will the culturally insensitive appropriators think of next? East Asian cellists? Swedish chess players?
But, wait: Maybe — and I know this is a radical thought — artists, whether high or low, should be able to work in whatever artistic fields they want to work in. Maybe they should even be able to work in those fields regardless of their skin color or the place from which their ancestors came.
Maybe telling people that they can't work in some field because they have the wrong color or ancestry would be ... rats, I don't know what to call it. If only there were an adjective that could be used to mean "telling people that they mustn't do something, because of their race or ethnic origin."
Friedersdorf takes it from there******:
"We are human beings," [Jarrar's] jeremiad concludes. "This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn't profit from her performance doesn't mean she's not appropriating a culture. And ... the question is this: Why does a white woman's sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women's backs?"
Friedersdorf responds:
After all that, one might be tempted to read up on belly dancing's history, to discover Dr. Ruth Webb*******, an expert in performance during antiquity, and to quote her saying, "with regional variations, something like Raqs Sharqi seems to have been known throughout the Mediterranean and certainly flourished in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century."
Back to me. I've spent some time with the American belly dancing community********. I know something about the history of American belly dancing that I think builds on Dr. Webb's pre-Arab history. Jarrar mentions the "white appropriation of Eastern dance" in the 1890s. It might surprise her to discover that most American belly dancers are aware of that history in far greater detail than she knows. They know about Little Egypt (Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and how this started the American style that came to be called "belly dancing," a phrase that dates back to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. They might also know that she was a Greek from Syria. They certainly know that her style, which they "cabaret", is no more authentically Arabian than fortune cookies are authentically Chinese*********.

"Why does a white woman's sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women's backs?" Leaving aside the historical question of whether raqs sharqi is exclusively Arab, or Eastern Mediterranean, or, perhaps, includes Persian elements**********, why does celebrating another culture by creating a fusion mean it was built on that culture's "back"? Returning to my original point, human cultures meet, mix, and separate. Often when they do, one culture is politically, numerically, or militarily more powerful than the other. When this happens, the usual result is that the dominant culture appropriates what is useful from the weaker culture and demands assimilation in all other respects. Sometimes, the dominant culture only assimilates enough of the dominated culture to parody it. Jarrar uses the term "brownface" to claim that this is all that American belly dance is; she shows only resentment for any other definition. But did any white minstrelsy group ever say blackface gave them "a better sense of community" or allowed them to "gain a deeper sense" of their brotherhood with other white men***********?

My clever (now ex-) wife took up American belly dancing a dozen or so years ago. Since then I've learned a lot more about that culture than Jarrar seems to know. While she studied belly dancing, Clever Wife and I socialized quite a bit with the Seattle belly dancing community. I tried drumming for a while and discovered that I suck at it, though I have kept my drums since our divorce. From her first class, I learned that cabaret, with its chiffon harem pants, coin bras, and hip shimmies, is only one among several styles performed in the states these days. Though it had once was only form known in North America, those days have been over for decades. Among the dancers, some time after the seventies, there developed a strong thirst for authentic folk styles. Score one for old hippies (Jarrar also seems to hate us). Maybe "River Dance" was responsible for the folk movement; maybe the increasing number of Arab-Americans before 9/11 was. I don't know. The result has been a less sexist costume style that they call "tribal" and the proliferation of more and more fusions.

Jarrar describes American cabaret style as being all about the "male gaze." For those not familiar with the term, it's critical term that describes a wide spectrum of patriarchal cultural norms and specific male behavior. If you are not familiar with the term, I recommend you look into it. It is a critical concept that should change how you look at gender relations. If you go back to Jarrar's conclusion, you'll see she denounces those white women who claim some kind of empowerment specifically as performing for "the female gaze." Public performance of cabaret style dancing might be about appealing to the male gaze but that is very small part of the belly dancing community. Nor is it about something that could be called the "female gaze." To my experience, the main point of the belly dancing community has nothing to do with the audience; it's all about the things that Jarrar finds so sneerworthy--community, sisterhood, celebrating sexuality. Just because Euro-American women looked to another culture to find a medium to express these does not mean they are looting these cultures. The vast majority of belly dancing events are by women and for women. At the smaller events I attended, I was often the only male there. At the the Mediterranean Fantasy Festival, an annual outdoor event in Seattle, most males present were either attached to women involved or passersby who just happened to hear the music.

As I mentioned, Clever then-Wife (CW) joined the belly dancing community around the turn of the century. They became a large part of our social life soon after. After attending Med-Fest for a few years to show support for her friends, we became vendors. CW makes wonderfully scented soaps and other products************. This was our biggest outdoor event to sell them. As vendors, we were there for every minute of the festival. I looked forward to it all year. I'm a middle aged, heteronormative male, but, beyond my testosterone driven enjoyment, I was genuinely inspired by the crowd. I love how the attendees love each other. I often joked that the festival would make a great setting for a mystery, but that Hollywood would reduce the entire setting to a hot, young, blonde, white woman, in a cabaret costume, standing on a table doing a hip shimmy as fast as she can while a white, young, largely male crowd cheers her on*************. I suppose that's what Jarrar thinks happens there. She's wrong. The crowd at the festival is mostly female. The dancers are all ages, colors, and sizes and dance to a wide spectrum of styles from cabaret, to authentic regional folk, to traditional Indian, hip-hop, salsa and anything else you can imagine. Everyone loves the pros, but the real crowd pleasers are the toddlers who bounce up and down to the music, the septuagenarians who still have it and know it, and the shy girls who have finally gained the courage to show their bodies in public. The old cabaret belly dancers might despair over dilution of the style with modern tunes and dance styles, but the most popular performers are a troupe of African-American dancers who perform to classic R&B and dance off the stage to the theme from "I Dream of Genie" and a guy in a bowler who combines Middle Eastern styles with Western techno-pop.

Jarrar is not just a xenophobic doorkeeper of her perception of her ancestors' culture, she's a clueless interpreter of American culture. The American belly dancing community is not a group of middle-class, white women unaware of their privilege. The community includes women of all races and most classes. The Middle Eastern women in the community are not Toms (or Tomasinas) as Jarrar implies; they are interpreters of multiple Old World cultures who share their cultural past with their cultural future. The black, brown, and beige************** recipients of their largesse are not imperial plunderers; they're lucky beneficiaries. The dancers, musicians, costumers, and importers who make up the community are just doing what humans do. We get together, we share, we borrow, we mix things up, and we invent. Sometimes we do it to music.

* For the humor deprived, let me assure you that I'm being sarcastic. Some of my favorite movie makers are brown. That was also sarcasm.
** She capitalizes "Raqs Sharqi" but writes "belly dance" in lower case. I'll leave the cultural and psychological implications of that to you.
*** Is this sort of feminist homophobia common or have I missed something in recent cultural criticism?
**** Considering the post-colonial strain of her critique, her use of the Euro-centric term "Middle East" shows an ironic lack of self-awareness.
***** As I wrote that sentence, I realized I'm a white man expanding on a white man's expansion of a white man's commentary on a woman of color's critique of a detail of white, patriarchal culture. This is certainly uncomfortable. If Jarrar wants to respond to me (a very big "if"), I suggest that as a starting point.
****** Well, just before there, if you're not reading their critiques. But, you should read both.
******* No, I'm not going to look up Dr. Webb. This is just a blog post after all.
******** "Some of my best friends... ." Just finish reading it.
********* They're not. They might have been invented in Japan, but the type Americans know showed up in San Francisco at about the same time Little Egypt showed up in Chicago.
********** Okay. I don't know if there is a Persian element in raqs sharqi or belly dancing or not, but why do so many Westerners lump Persians and Arabs together?
*********** Spoiler. No.
************ Yes, we're divorced, but her stuff is so good that I'll never use any one else's as long as she is in business. Go to her site. Buy something. Do it now.
************* I have a specific dancer in mind. She fills all of the Hollywood stereotypes, but she really is the best at that style.
************** A reference to Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, one of the greatest cross-cultural interpreters of the American experience.