Friday, 1 April 2016

Matthewisms dismantled

Mike Sutton is a reader in criminology at Nottingham Trent University who has used google, in order to track down the provenience of certain quotes that are often misattributed. He now thinks he has sufficient evidence to conclude that both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace plagiarized Patrick Matthew (1831. On Naval Timber and Arboriculture) and stole Matthew's idea of evolution through natural selection from it.

One part of his exercise in logomachy (Sutton 2014, chapter 4) was to find phrases in Matthew (1831) that were apparently never used before. Concluding that Matthew was first to coin and use these phrases (called Matthewisms), authors who used the same phrase afterwards were taken to have them from Matthew (1831). These authors were called first to be second.

The following authors were all taken to probably have the phrases in question from Matthew (1831), the implication being that they all read Matthew's book and, if they don't cite Matthew, betray this by the use of the phrases in question. The list below is list 2 from Sutton (2014, chapter 4) with comments added, were Sutton's premise is evidentially false.
  • 1832 — Mudie: "rectangular branching"
  • 1833 — Ellerby: "plants so far asunder"
T.S. Ellerby's Memorial of Felix Neff, the alpine pastor, is a biography based on a French account (Notice sur Felix Neff: pasteur dans les Hautes-Alpes), which has not yet been digitalized. There is, hence a chance that "plants so far asunder" is merely Ellerby's translation of a French equivalent. Secondly, the passage, where the phrase occurs is an anecdote about Felix Neff trying to teach the ignorant inhabitants of the valley of Fressiniere at Ban de la Roche, how to plant potatoes properly. They jeopardized their yield by planting them too close to each other and just under the surface. When the peasants refused to accept Neff's advice, Neff traversed the whole valley during several days, took the tools from the peasants' hands and planted the seed potatoes properly. However, "when they saw him depositing their plants so far asunder,and five or six times deeper than they deemed requisite," they dug the potatoes up again, as soon as Neff was out of sight, and planted them according to their own prejudice (p. 198-200).

Matthew (1831, p. 154), on the other hand wrote about the self thinning that occurs among tree seedlings in natural clearances in forests. Whether Ellerby got the inspiration for using the phrase "plants so far asunder" form a private reading of Matthew (1831), is a moot question. Nobody reading Ellerby's account of an anecdote about a pastor failing to teach his peasants proper potato cultivation, could therefrom have gotten wind of Matthew's book.
  • 1835 — Main: "luxuriant growing trees"
  • 1834 — Conrad: "admixture of species"
"Mêlange d'especes" was a very common phrase in French science and it is very old. It can be found, for example, in M. Bertrand's Eléments d'Agriculture, from 1775, or in the Encyclpédie Oeconomique ou Systême Général d'Oeconomie Rustique from 1770.
  • 1834 — Roget: "living aggregates"
Matthew (1831) was not the first to use that phrase, though the original use was, again, in French. Cuvier wrote about the "agrégat vivant" in 1829 (see here).
  • 1834 — Low: "long continued selection"
  • 1836 — Rafinesque: "evinced in the genus"
Rafinesques (Flora Telluriana, p. 95) wrote:

"To unite in the single Genus, Carex, plants with 2 or 3 stigmas or styles is still worse; and not to perceive that such a Genus of 300 Species is a fine Nat. family with many Genera distinguished by this and the seminal covering, proves that the absurd linnean principles evinced in the Genus Lichen now a Class! prevail as yet among us. Whoever preserves Carex entire ought to keep Lichen and Agaricus entire, and make a single Genus of Ombellifera."

Compare this with Matthew (1831, p. 107f):

"May we, then, wonder that our plantations are occupied by a sickly short-lived puny race, incapable of supporting existence in situations where their own kind had formerly flourished—particularly evinced in the genus Pinus, more particularly in the species Scots fir; so much inferior to those of Nature's own rearing, where only the stronger, more hardy, soil-suited varieties can struggle forward to maturity and reproduction?"

Why should Rafinesque take his phrase, used to rant against the Linnean system, from Matthew using the same phrase, in order to say something about the degeneration of cultivated plants. Even if he read the phrase in Matthew (1831) and it stuck to his sub-conscience, and it later re-emerged when writing, what's the point of such psychologizing? A phrase that is picked up somewhere and regurgitated in a different context. What can it signify? The phrase transports nothing. That, however, is exactly Sutton's logomachy that he claims that the phrase is the concept (e.g., here and here).

The slightly longer phrase: "proves that the absurd linnean principles evinced in the Genus Lichen now a Class! prevail as yet among us," however, is a very different concept from: "our plantations are occupied by a sickly short-lived puny race, incapable of supporting existence in situations where their own kind had formerly flourished—particularly evinced in the genus Pinus."
  • 1837 —Wilson: "threatened ascendency"
Here, the reference that is given by Sutton as Wilson (1837. "The Elections." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 42. pp. 238-247) already tells that this is not about natural history/evolution. And it is not:

"But in a country like Great Britain—where, with the universal diffusion of freedom, there is a deep and wide-spread interest throughout all ranks and classes in the stability of its institutions—the fear of change, when once it becomes prevalent, must have effects as wide and general as they are pernicious. Men of property cannot view without the greatest alarm the growing power and threatened ascendency of those fluctuating masses, who acting so often on the principle that they have nothing to lose and little to fear, would have every temptation to exert their legislative influence, as a means of plundering the wealthy. Men of high-minded and liberal spirits, cannot, without indignation, look forward to the subversion of all that is chivalrous and polished and cultivated in society— and the substitution of mean, coarse, and selfish vulgarities, that would undo the civilisation of centuries, and strip political and private intercourse of all its humanities, and half of its virtues. Men who love genuine and equal freedom, cannot sit still when those safeguards are sought to he removed, which, by controlling all, give liberty to all, and without which the caprices and violences of democracy would bear unresisted dominion, and the shifting mob-majority of the day would receive unbounded license for endless tyranny, and reciprocal retaliation." (p. 244)

So this was a rant about the political situation of the day. Compare this with Matthew's threatened ascendacy of races (or species) meaning a threat of extinction:

"Among the millions of specific varieties of living things which occupy the humid portion of the surface of our planet, as far back as can be traced, there does not appear, with the exception of man, to have been any particular engrossing race, but a pretty fair balance of powers of occupancy,—or rather, most wonderful variation of circumstance parallel to the nature of every species, as if circumstance and species had grown up together. There are indeed several races which have threatened ascendency in some particular regions, but it is man alone from whom any general imminent danger to the existence of his brethren is to be dreaded." (Matthew 1831, p. 387)

Matthew is not, here, talking politics, although he does elsewhere in his book. The above passage is not about election, revolution, equal rights of democracy or anything that Wilson is on about.
  • 1837 — Anonymous[31]: "nature's own rearing" [Endnote [31]: Spectator Journal.
This is from page 946 of The Spectator (No. 484, for the week ending Saturday, October 7, 1837). Sutton, again, fails to even look at the headline, which would take some scrolling because it is one page 945. In fact, the headline says 'The Theatres.' That is, the context of this phrase is a critique of the play Winter's Tale given at Covent Garden: 

"It is this false system that makes mere puppets of so many actors; in particular, it has spoiled two clever young ladies of the Covent Garden company, Miss Helen Faucit, and Miss Taylor. Miss Taylor's Perdita was not the simple shepherdess, but a court lady assuming the character: instead of a flower of Nature's own rearing, we were presented with an artificial imitation—and not a very good one either."

Are we to believe that the author of this critique must have taken the phrase of "nature's own rearing" from a book on naval timber or that a reader of this critique somehow got wind of Matthew's book from this critique? 
  • 1837 — Dovaston: "sport in infinite varieties"
  • 1838 — Anonymous translator: "portion of the surface of our planet"
As already shown, under the fourth and fifth point (Conrad 1834 and Roget 1834), missing the original of a translation can be fatal for an ostensible Matthewism. Hence, it verges on empty-headedness to give the author as "Anonymous translator" without trying to find out what that original actually was. 

Sutton's gives this reference in the list at the end of the book: Anonymous 1838. "Economical uses of the willow." The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Firstly, this article is not in the 1838 volume of the Penny Magazine, but in the volume of 1842. This does not get clear, however, unless one scrolls through the whole thing that google has put online. The 1838 volume ends at page 508 and the 1842 volume commences with page 1. The article in question starts at page 434 and end at page 436, but it is better read following this link, because the scans are better than in the link given above and no volumes are concatenated.

Secondly, this article is not a translation. thirdly, the anonymous author of this article does cite and quote Matthew (1831) directly, but only on a practical use of willows. Fourthly, the phrase "portion of the surface of our planet" can nowhere be found in this article. Here's the quote of Matthew:

"Mr. Mathew [sic], in his 'Treatise on Naval Timber,' states, in reference to these properties of red-wood willow:—"Formerly, before the introduction of iron-hoops for cart-wheels, the external rim, or felloe, was made of willow; and when new, the cart or wain was drawn along a road covered with hard small gravel (and in preference, gravel somewhat angular); by which means the felloe shod itself with stone, and thus became capable of enduring the friction of the road for a long time, the toughness and elasticity of the willow retaining the gravel till the stone was worn away." (p. 435).

Hence, this is a case of shoddy referencing combined with misquotation and irrelevance to the topic.
  • 1840 — Buel: "infirm progeny"
Where Matthew (1831, p. 108) warned that nurserymen should be as careful in the (artificial) selection of tree seeds as the animal breeders were in selecting from their livestock, Buel, in a footnote, warns against crossing pumpkin with squash, which he regarded as first cousins. Hence "infirm progeny" would here be a case of imbreeding depression, whereas Matthew deplored poor selection regimes among nurserymen leading to infrim progeny.
  • 1840 — Swackhamer: "beat off intruders"
The United States Magazine and Democratic Reviwe, vol. 7 (1840) printed "The Game of Twenty Questions. From the unpublished manuscript of a foreign minister." Why they did so, is anybody's guess. The unnamed foreign minister recounts how they dined at Mr. Planta's place—many important people—how all those lords and chancellors engaged in small talk, and how some Mr. Canning proposed that they should play the game of "Twenty Questions." As the foreign minister was an American and did not know this British parlor game, he felt a need to record it, rules and all (see here). The foreign minister then goes on to detail a round of the game with all the questions being asked and answers being given. The thing that was thought up by the foreign minister, and had to be guessed by Mr. Canning, was the wand of the Lord High Steward.When Canning asked, whether the thing to be guessed was ever used, however, our foreign minister had to confer with lord Grainville. The latter remembered that: "the Lor High Steward carried his staff to beat off intruders from his majesty's treasury!"

Matthew (1831, p. 303), however, discussed the influence of the soil on seeds, especially in the winter or wet season. He thought that many trees could, once established on certain soils, easily beat off intruders, but they are limited because their seeds will not survive these seasons in these soils.

What polite words can anybody find for someone suggesting that the American foreing minister, recounting a silly parour game, must have taken his phrase from Matthew?  
  • 1841 — Johnson: "adapted to prosper"
  • 1841 — Hill: "deeper richer soil"
  • 1842 — Selby: "greater power of occupancy"
Selby (1842. A history of British forest-trees) cites Matthew (1831) on about 25 pages, but only one of these citations is not about technical matters such as timber quality for human purposes, pruning, trenching, planting, treating seeds etc. This citation is at page 391 and it actually rejects Matthew's idea about greater power of occupancy:

"The soil upon which most if the Abietae prevail, is usually of a dry and cool quality; thus, the débris of granitic and other primitive rocks, and barren sandy districts, are very commonly occupied by Pine and fir forests, sometimes of enormous extent; the thick and close manner in which they grow, and the dense shade they produce, effectually preventing the vegetation of other species. Matthew, however, in his able treatise on naval timber seems to think that its indigenous location in such districts arises not so much from preference of soils of the nature above-mentioned, as from its having more power of occupancy in such soils than any other plant of the country; and this opinion he endeavours to support by stating that the Pinus sylvestris, planted in a good or rich soil, attains larger dimensions and its best timber properties, and that it is only driven from this superior soil by the greater power of occupancy, planted in a good or rich soil, attains larger dimensions and its best timber properties, and that it is only driven from this superior soil by the greater power of occupancy possessed by the oak and other deciduous trees, an opinion in which we cannot altogether acquiesce, as we see no reason why the fir, if it grows with such additional vigour in a richer soil, as Mr. Matthew asserts, should, at the same time, be unable to maintain a contest with the oak or other tree." (Selby 1842, p. 391)

Obviously, Selby did not understand the relativity of growth in a richer or poorer soil. That is if the pine does grow better in rich than in poor soil, but the oak grows still much better than the pine there, then the oak will oust the pine from the rich soil. If on the other hand, pine grows worse in poor than in rich soil, but still better than other trees, it will exclude the other trees from poor soil. In modern parlance, soil quality would be called a dimension of the ecological niche (/niːʃ/).

While it is obvious for us to see, in retrospective, that this insight about ecology (competitive exclusion) has been inspired by MAtthew's thinking interms of natural selection abd competition between trees, his contemporaries did not have our retrospective vantage. Selby obviously failed to get Matthew's idea, here. If this proves anything, then that Selby did not receive (read or understand) Matthew's exposition of the idea of natural selection in the appendix. It surely shows that Selby read Matthew (1831) as a work on technicl matters of tree planting, training etc., because 24 of 25 pages that cite Matthew, do so on technical matters.
  • 1844 — Low: "overpowering the less"
  • 1846 — Emmons: "habits of varieties"
  • 1846 — Alabama Supreme Court: "Infirmity of their condition"
This is from the Reports of Cases at Law and in Equity, argued and determined in the Supreme Court of Alabama:

"Campbell, contra, contended, that the case was not varied since it was last here—the bills stood alone; no evidence of delivery to the plaintiff—no evidence of consideration, to relieve them from the infirmity of their condition. He cited 6 Wend. 644; 13 Mass. 158."

Whatever this means, it is about the poor condition of the case of a defendant in a lawsuit and does not have the slightest thing to do with Matthew (1831, p. 387) arguing about the degeneration of domesticated animals or cultivated plants being unable to survive without the help of humans, beacause of the infirmity of their condition:

"As far back as history reaches, man had already had considerable influence, and had made encroachments upon his fellow denizens, probably occasioning the destruction of many species, and the production and continuation of a number of varieties or even species, which he found more suited to supply his wants, but which, from the infirmity of their condition— not having undergone selection by the law of nature, of which we have spoken, cannot maintain their ground without his culture and protection." 

Whatever slack you may have cut Sutton so far, as readerr of criminology should have done better than that on his own turf.  
  • 1848 — Charnock: "stiffest and most obdurate"
  • 1849 — Emmons: "deteriorated by culture"
I'll concede this one. Emmons has  previously (see Emmons 1846, above) clearly shown that he read Matthew by saying somethigna bout fruit trees and  potatoes. Why shoudl he not leter remeber a Matthewism in recording that the Virginai White May Wheat may have deteriorated by culture, although Matthew used that phrase in a different context.
  • 1852 — Wilkin: "figure is best accommodated"
"Figure is best accommodated" occurred in a book called "Sir Browne's work: including his life and correspondence" edited by Simon Wilkin and published in (1835). Sutton simply overlooked that this phrase is not by Wilkin (1835) but by Browne (1658). Wilkin just assembled the works of Browne, edited and republished them. This Wilkin-Browne case was first published in a brilliant rebuttal of Sutton's book by Grzegorz Malec (see here).
  • 1853 — Andrews: "impressions and habits acquired"
This is from the Reflections on the Operation of the Presten System of Education. Being a school teacher, myself, this is reducing me to tears. It basically says that, no matter what, a bad pupil will become a bad adult: "Impressions and habits acquired in youth are proverbially lasting." Again, it has nothign to do with Matthew (12831), and it should also bother a criminologist, who pretends to be concenrned about things criminal.
  • 1854 — Mure: "dogmatical classification"
The title, A Critical History of the Language and Literatur of Ancient Greece, vol. 3, already gives it away. Here, Mure is duking out a historiographical fight with Mr. Grote concerning the question whether a strict distinction can be drawn ("dogmatical classification"), between historical records of ancient Greece that belong to the fabulous and others that belong to realistic writings.

"I further maintain therefore, that any such tripartite classification as that of Mr. Grote— who first condemns in the mass the whole Greek tradition prior to the exact year of the Dorian conquest as pure fiction, because he has no means of demonstrating it to be true; who next suddenly admits Greek tradition from the Dorian conquest down to 776 to be Mythology founded on a broad basis of fact, although he has no means of demonstrating the existence of that fact; and who thirdly, admits Greek tradition from 776 downwards to be “true or objective history,” although there are no contemporary historians for about two centuries afterwards;—any such dogmatical classification must be a fallacy." (p. 530)

Compare this with Matthew (1831, p. 381) airing doubts about the systematics/taxonomy of his time:

"Throughout this volume, we have felt considerable inconvenience, from the adopted dogmatical classification of plants, and have all along been floundering between species and variety, which certainly under culture soften into each other." 

No reason to suppose that Mure must have taken the phrase from Matthew, but if he did, this will for ever remain a speculation that cannot be proven and would, even in that case, be completely irrelevant.
  • 1855 — Fishbourne: "power to permeate"
Fishbourne was an admiral of a ship and he later wrote a book on his experiences in the far east and China. In this context, he wrote about the various human races and wondered why the Miou-tze, "a race of independent mounaineers," would stay isolated "in the midst of a people who seem to have had more than ordinary power to permeate and pervade other races; shewing them to possess an indestructibility of race like the Jew. If interpreted biologically, this would be rampant racism on Fishbourne's part. Fishbourne, however, continues to argue that the reason for their isolation is religious (cultural). He thought they kept and worshipped rudiments of Christian scripture and practice and were therefore open to be (re-)converted.

"The ignorant always invent something strange but ridiculous, to account for what they do not understand; [...] Of their real position and character we have much to learn, and it may be of the most interesting, not to say important kind, for it may be that, like the Jews at Kae-fung-foo, they have a copy of the Old Testament scriptures, but have lost the knowledge of the character in which it is written; [...] and as a consequence, the people have only a general knowledge of their contents ; so that only such meagre portions of the truth as may have been embalmed in their customs and traditions is current amongst them, revolting them from idolatry like the Jew, and predisposing them so towards Christianity, that when it was presented to them they met it with acceptance." 

That is, Fishbourne explains the failure to permeate the Miou-tze of the ruling Chinese race, which otherwise shows a great power to permeate other races, as a cultural/religious thing. Again, this has no connection whatever with Matthew (1831, p. 335) writing of the power of the roots of some tree species to permeate the stiffest and most obdurate soils.
  • 1855 — Laycock: "mental or instinctive powers"
  • 1856 — Gazlay: "adaptation to condition"
  • 1858 — Powell: "restricted adaptation"
This is The British and Foreign Evangelical Review was, as its name suggests, a periodical publishing review articles on theological publications. The article inquestion is not by Baden Powell, as Sutton suggests in his reference list, but insead by an apparently anonymous author, who reviewed Powell's book Christianity without Judaism. The third essay of Powell's book was on dispensationalist theology, a view that biblical history is best understood as a series of separate time periods (dispensations). Each dispensation is said to represent a different way in which God deals with man. In reviewing this part of Powell's book, the anonymous author writes:

"He [Powell] begins by referring to the apostolic declaration in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chap. i. 1.) as presenting to us a brief but comprehensive view of the "nature, character, and connection of the successive Divine dispensations,” and as confirming, according to our author, the restricted adaptation of all the older dispensations to the mere condition of the parties respectively addressed. “The view presented to us is that of successive revelations, systems, covenants, laws, given to
different individuals, families, or nations, containing gradual,
progressive, and partial developments of spiritual truth, and intimations of the Divine will for their guidance, accompanied with peculiar positive institutions, adapted to the ideas of the age and the condition of the parties to whom they were vouchsafed.” (p. 501f)

That is, Powell and his reviewer were writing about the ways in which god adapted his rules and revelations to the different ilks of humans he sees himself confronted with. It would be utterly absurd to regard this as a case of evolution (of divine dispensations) through selective pressures exerty by humans. No connection to MAtthew (1831) whatever.the utmost, to suppose thisfrom
  • 1858 — Floy: "law manifest in nature"
This is from a sermon by Dr. Hallock recounted in The National Magazine: devoted to Literature, Art, and Religion, vol. 13, p. 183, (vol 12 ends with page 572 and vol. 13 is concatenated). The editor Floy summarizes Hallock's divinations (beware, lots of spiritualist BS): 

"The Road to Spiritualism, in four lectures delivered in the New York Lyceum, by Dr. Hallock, author of "The Child and the Man." [...] Dr Hallock, the high-priest of nature says: "Bring before the man who holds this key these empire-splitting and world-convulsing questions which have vexed it so long, and mark what he will do with them. Ask him: Ought I to starve my body to a skeleton, or mutilate any part of it, for the glory of God and the good of my soul? Should I be a Shaker, or a Mormon, in my relation to woman? He asks you, Are these practices physiologically and socially right? You answer, No. Then they are theologically wrong, and no authority can save them from ultimate disgrace. Physiological, theological, and every other law manifest in nature, must accord, if from no other necessity, then from this, that they have a common end, which is, the development of man."

That is, Hallock simply thought that both the polygamy of the Mormons and the celibacy of the Shakers were unnatural—against the law of physiology, theology and every other law manifest in nature.

This is an embarrassing context for Sutton, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Matthew's law of degeneration: "There is a law manifest in nature, that when the use of any thing is past, its existence is no longer kept up" (Matthew 1831, p. 367). Why should the fact that Floy (1858), in parroting Hallock's gibberish, happened to use the same phrase as Matthew did before, signify that Floy must have read Matthew (1831)?
  • 1858 — Leidy: "impressions in insects"
This is from the Summary of the Transactions of The Philadelphia Biological Society: reported by Henry Hartshorne, M.D., Recording Secretary." As it is published in the Journal of the Lousiana State Medical Society (1858, Vol. 15, p. 673-679), these two societies seem to have had reporting secretaries traveling to and fro. That is, the transaction may have taken place in Philadelphia and only been reported (by Hartshorne, not Leidy) in the Journal of the Lousiana State Med. Society. [Ht to Julian Derry for help getting the full record.]

At Feb. 15th., Dr. T. G. Richardson read an elaborate paper by Dr. George Patic, of Galt, Canada West, upon the Functions of the Spinal Cord, as illustrated by experiments on cold-blooded animals;* endeavouring to show occasion for some modification of the theory of reflex action of Marshall Hall, and for the opinion that perception is one of the attributes of the spinal cord, and especially of the medulla oblongata." (p. 676)

This already sets the stage as a discussion about the question, whether the spinal cord and especially the brain stem are mere autopilots or whether some kind of perception or consciousness can be attributed to them. The Marshall Hall mentioned is associated with the theory of the reflex arc that proposed an automatic reflex involving the spinal marrow only. Hence the contex of the deliberations of the society, here, is neurobiology. (The reference given for the asterisk says: "* See N. Amer. Medico-Chirurg. Review, May, 1858." This was a common practive, to first read a paper, then publish it, so that the members of the society would know in advance, in which issue it would end up and could cite it in advance, ht to Julian Derry.) Anyway, Dr. Leidy was not convinced and argued for the autopilot. This has been reported thus:

"Dr. Leidy remarked that the experiments narrated in the paper did not appear to him entirely conclusive, as the movements described might be automatic. [...] He believed that the conveyance of impressions, in insects, for instance, to the chain of ventral ganglion, should be expected, without supposing perception to produce the apparently voluntary movements."

Leidy even recounts an experiment of his, in which he kept a pigeon alive after removing the cerebrum (that's the big part of the brain with which we consciously think) and how the pigeon would, for warmth, walk into a fire and how he needed to repeatedly pick it out of the ash-pan, or else it would have grilled itself. Thereafter, a lively debate commenced—all neurophysiology.

Compare this with Matthew (1831, p 385f) struggling to unite his idea of natural selection (circumstance-adaptive law as he called it) with the Lamarckian idea of volition and sensation having an effect on evolution:

"This circumstance-adaptive law, operating upon the slight but continued natural disposition to sport in the progeny (seedling variety), does not preclude the supposed influence which volition or sensation may have over the configuration of the body. [...opaque passage omitted...]"

He then seems to say that instinctive behaviour is more likely to be found in insects with shorter life-cycles than in animals with longer ones. For some reason he then calls this lack of continuity of individuals greater continuity of existence and concludes:

"This greater continuity of existence, or rather continuity of perceptions and impressions, in insects, is highly probable [...opaque passage omitted...]."

The whole passage is very opaque and difficult to understand. Mike Weale, for example, thinks Matthew is hinting at racial memory (he does talk about human races in one of the passages I omitted) and swarm intelligence.

In conclusion, this is a case of shoddy referencing on Sutton's part, because the author reporting the Transactions is not Leidy, as he makes his readers believe, but Hartshorne. Leidy may never have used the phrase "impressions, in insects." Moreover, the contexts are neurobiology vs. a trial at uniting Lamarckism with natural selection (circumstance-adaptive law) that is really opaque (may include stuff about swarm intelligence or racial memory).

The question is: Why should the fact that Hartshorne, in reporting the deliberations of the members of his medical society during a session on neurophysiology, used the phrase "impressions, in insects," signify that he has read Matthew (1831) having previously used the same phrase in a different context? While both contexts are science, and this case is not as devastating as the Floy–spiritualism case or the anonymous[31]–theatre-critique case, Sutton's credibility is all gone, as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Genuinely new ideas in ecology and evolution

Dynamic Ecology had a guest post about novelty recently and the comments air the opinion that there's truly nothing new under the sun. For some reason my comments no longer get through there, so here are some examples of ideas that were genuinely new when first published:

1. Autumn lef colours are warning signals to herbivorous insects. (Hamilton and Brown 2001.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

An ancient lore and a modern error transmogrified into the spinach-iron myth

[Click here to get all posts in this series.]
[31.032016: updated on lore dating back to the 16th century.]

The old narrative:
A misplaced decimal point caused the false reputation of spinach for being the vegetable that was richest in iron. Though still highly popular, this narrative is most likely wrong (see here). The decimal error probably never occurred in that stupidly simple way. Ignoring wrinkles in the narrative, such as that spinach is still rather rich in iron but that it cannot be assimilated well for other reasons, the new narrative can be stated most simply as follows.

The new narrative:
The decimal error is a myth, it never occurred. The false reputation of spinach was due to unreliable methods or poor experimentation. That is, errors were inherent in experimental methods, not data handling (see here).

The complex history
The narrative coming closest to the true history of this issue is probably this: An old lore about the goodness of spinach dates from times long before any of the research implicated in the myth about the decimal point error. And this folklore tenaciously maintains itself, despite repeated refutations by researchers.

In parallel to this tenacious folklore, there's a narrative about research being error prone but also self-correcting. For example, Bunge (1892) did not correct the iron contents of ash analyses for oxygen gained during combustion (see here), but he nevertheless concluded that spinach (and strawberries for that matter) do not have the high values given by Wolff (1871). That is, he drew a basically correct conclusion despite erroneous data treatment. Again, Haensel's (1909) iron contents were an order of magnitude too high for all the vegetables he analysed, but the relation between the data showed that spinach was not exceptional in comparison with the other vegetables. Haensel drew a correct conclusion based on poor data (see here). And so on in the 1930s etc.

Most of this research was not centrally or exclusively concerned with the iron content or spinach. The ash analyses of Wolff, for example, were basic/applied research in biochemistry, while Bunge was interested in finding out how baby mammals got over the suckling period depending on milk that is devoid of iron. The answer to this research question is, they get born with a store of iron that carries them through till weaning.

The myth about spinach's iron richness has been refuted along the way in the late 1800s, the early 1900s, and the 1930s, long before the legend about the misplaced decimal error has ever been aired. But the lore did not go away. Finally, Arnold Bender threw up his hands in despair and suggested that the belief may even be due to a misplaced decimal point. Now we have two legends, the iron richness and the decimal error. Both seem to be highly resilient.

The ancient lore
Once upon a time, when the Linnean system of identifying species was not even standard, Johann Ernst Zeiher (1756, vol. 2, pp. 374-375) wrote about the medical uses of spinach.

The title of the book already indicates that Zeiher translated a work from French into German, but I found no indication of the original. "Vollständiger Unterricht von Küchengewächsen: oder ausführliche Beschreibung aller Küchengewächse [...] Ferner, ihrer Nutzbarkeit für das menschliche Leben, und ihrer Tugenden, zur Erhaltung der Gesundheit, [...] u.s.w. [...] aus dem Französischen übersetzt von D. Johann Ernst Zeiher, ernenneten Professor bey der Kaiserl. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu St. Petersburg [...]". Some online search, however, shows that it must be a translation of: M. de Combles (1752) L'école du jardin potagere, [...] Paris: Chez Boudet ou Le Prieur.

For the French original see: de Combles (1752, vol. 2, pp. 24-25), for a German translation see:  Zeiher (1756, p. 374f). My own translation of it into English follows:
"The qualities of spinach in the medical arts are, to open the body/belly [whatever that means], to relieve the cough and the acerbity/acuteness of the chest: the water distilled from its leaves also has the power to attenuate the heat of the gut/bowel [sic, he uses it in singular], and the burning of a stomach irritated by an inflamed bile. One also uses the leafs for decoctions and emollient compresses. The short-winded [literal translation: tight chested] get great relief therefrom, and sometimes they were completely cured through repeated use of spinach boiled with veal: and this was the only remedy used by Mr. [Guy-Crescent] Fagon, first personal physician of Ludwig XIV, who was heavily burdened by this disease. When applied externally to the belly and the liver, it takes their inflammation and pain away. According to the opinion of a recent writer, the overuse of this plant leads to melancholy bloods: from my point of view, Mr Fagon's experience alone suffices to overthrow this opinion." 
The 18th century seems to have known a lot of lore about the medical powers of spinach, even connected to the Sun King. However, Combles (1752) also accounted for the health effects of shalotte coming before spinach and tarragon coming after. He probably discussed the health effects of each plant he treated.

Robert Hooper (1811. "Quincy's Lexicon Medicum. A new medical dictionary") corroborates that Combles' account of health effects of spinach was widespread:
"This plant Spinacea oleracea of Linnaeus is sometimes directed for medical purposes in the cure of phthisical complaints; made into a poultice, by boiling the leaves and adding some oil, it forms an excellent emollient. As an article of food it may be considered as similar to cabbage and other oleraceous plants." (Hooper 1811, p. 759
Phthisis is a dated term for suffering from consumption (tuberculosis) or other emaciating diseases. 12 years later, Achille Richard (1823, "Botanique médicale ou histoire naturelle et médicale [...]", p. 171) wrote:
"L'épinard est cultivé dans tous les jardins.Il fleurit en mai et juin. Il est peu usité comme médicament, si ce n'est à L'extérieur; on L'emploie en cataplames, et il est très émollient. Mais, comme aliment, son usage est trés-repandu. Il parait être légèrement laxatif; il est peu nourrissant et presque insipide." (For a German translation see p. 266 here)
"Spinach is grown in any garden. It blooms in May and June. It is rarely used as a drug, and if so then only externally; it is used in poultices, and it is very emollient. But as food its use is widespread. It appears to be slightly laxative; it is not nourishing and almost tasteless." (My translation)
The trend, however, seems to downgrade the medical utility of spinach from the account of Combles (1752), giving it as the only remedy for Luis XIV, to Hooper (before 1822), saying it was sometimes used, and Richard (1823), stating it was little used and if so, then only externally.

These accounts are from a time before Robert Koch described the pathogen causing tuberculosis in 1882. Phthisis and Combles' account on cough and short-windedness reminds me of the much later research of Kobert (1914) on the health effects of saponins in spinach against tuberculosis and other lung diseases (see here). That is, early research applying "modern" methods of science (e.g., chemical analyses) naturally derived its hypotheses from earlier experiences described by physicians. One such research endeavour formulated hypotheses associating spinach components (saponins) with effects against tuberculosis.

But how did the ancient lore transmogrify into a myth about the iron richness of spinach? One symptom of tuberculosis is anaemia, a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin. Tuberculosis, however, is not the only possible cause of anaemia. Another cause is iron deficiency. Hence, other researchers could have taken the same lore documented by Combles (1752) and derived another hypothesis from it associating spinach with iron richness.

An early documentation of this spinach-iron connection can be found in a German encyclopaedia published by F. A. Brockhaus in 1852 (see P.P.S. to this blog entry). As Brockhaus only collected then-current knowledge, the idea must be older still.

The modern error
Throughout this series of reconstructing the data handling of the primary research literature, I maintained that the relevant research was full of data handling errors, but none of these errors was as simple as misplacing a decimal separator (see here).

Surprisingly, I now stand corrected on this claim. A simple decimal-point error did occur in an article published in—wait for it—Science 90, no. 2347, pp. 596-597 (1939). But the research reported there was about the iron content of dried peas and beans instead of spinach.* So how can it be the mythical error recurring in the urban legend about spinach & iron?

[* The full reference is: Aschman, Leah, Mary Speirs & Dorothy Maddox (1939) The availability of iron in dried peas and beans. Science 90, 596-597.]

Let's first take a look at the error itself. Aschman et al. (1939) report the results of an experiment that was pretty similar to the much older experiments by Bunge (1892), for example. They rendered baby rats anaemic by feeding them on milk only (mammalian milk is poor in iron). Then they fed the anaemic rats dried peas and beans, did the proper controls and measured the recovery of the rats. Along the way, they also measured the iron content of the dried products and gave the values as follows:

Anybody with a sharp eye will spot the decimal-point error in the value given for butter beans at the end. And that is what the staff of the Nutrient Section of the Bureau of Home Economics did, when they published abstracts in the Journal of Home Economics 32, no. 7, p. 481:
As you can see, however, this correction of a decimal point error concerning the iron content of butter beans follows directly on an abstract concerning the contents of oxalic acid in vegetables including spinach. Now, one big topic in the debate about the usefulness or uselessness of spinach as a dietary source of iron was oxalic acid, because it binds the iron and thus inhibits the absorption of it by the consumer.

This is probably the ultimate source of the urban legend that spinach got its false reputation for iron-richness through a misplaced decimal point. This particular source of a decimal point error could even explain why Bender (1977. The Spectator. 18 July, p. 18), the researcher who first started to spread that urban legend about spinach, iron and decimal points, associated the real but innocuous decimal point error of Aschman et al. (1939) with the name Schupan [sic] in his memory. Werner Schuphan has indeed published on the content of oxalic acid in spinach (see here).

Friday, 28 August 2015

The very first source for the legend of spinach's iron richness

For an introduction to the whole problem of the spinach-iron myth and its many ramifications read the last 7 posts of this blog (chronology: oldest post deals with oldest literature) and follow the links given in them. Beware, this myth is a mess concocted in over 160 years. What has never been discovered is the first source for spreading the opinion, during the second half of the 19th century, that spinach was a good source for dietary iron.

As you can see from my comments under this earlier blog entry, the data of Thomas Richardson (1848. Beiträge zur chemischen Kenntnis der Vegetabilien. Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie LXVII Bd. 3.)* may well be this first source that has caused this widespread opinion. Soon after 1848 Educational publications from shortly after 1848 spread the belief that spinach was rich in iron and good for anemic people. For example, an encyclopaedia published by Brockhaus (1852. Die Gegenwart. Eine encyklopädische Darstellung der neuesten Zeitgeschichte für alle Stände. Siebenter Band. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus) stated at page 172: "Weiße Rüben enthalten nur eine geringe Menge von Eisen, Spinat dagegen viel." [White turnips contain only a little iron, spinach however a lot.] One year later, Aaron Bernstein published a popularisation of scientific findings in a work called "Aus dem Reiche der Naturwissenschaft: ein Buch für Jedermann aus dem Volke" (Berlin: Franz Duncker, 1853). At pages 157-158, Bernstein praised spinach as an iron rich and organic alternative to medicine for pale children. The patriarchic Hermann Klencke (1867. Chemisches Koch- und Wirtschaftsbuch oder die Naturwissenschaft im weiblichen Berufe. Leipzig: Eduard Kummer. p. 49) lists spinach among the food that is good for the breath and hematosis.

*[this publication hangs in a digital limbo, because it has been attached to the end of the preceding article by C. List (1848. Ueber das sogenannte Terpentinölhydrat. Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie 67(3): 362-376.]

Richardson gave the values of various chemical compounds of various vegetables as percent values in relation to the raw ash and as percent values in relation to the pure ash (raw ash minus carbonic acid, charcoal and sand). The iron content, in particular, was given as the percent values of "Phosphorsaures Eisenoxyd," which literally translates as phosphor-acidic iron oxide but chemically means iron(III) phosphate (FePO4). Richardson's data sheet also provides the percent values of the ashes in relation to the fresh matter.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is false to calculate the portion of, say, the iron compound in the fresh matter by simply multiplying the portion of the iron compound in relation to the ash with the portion of ash in relation to the fresh matter. This leads to false values, because the ashes gain mass during combustion. Gaseous oxygen binds to the burning matter, and some products of combustion end up gaseous themselves (e.g. carbon dioxide), while others end up as solid ash (e.g. magnesium oxide). That is, the ashes gain matter through combustion that is not part of the fresh matter.

It is not anachronistic to call the above mentioned calculation a mistake in relation to Richardson's time, because Phlogiston theory had been questioned in the second half of the 18th century already, and experiments had  shown that metals gain mass during combustion. Hence Richardson's contemporaries and followers should have known that simply multiplying the portion of iron compound in ash times the portion of ash in fresh matter would yield false values for the portion of iron compound in the fresh matter.

Nevertheless, Bunge (1892) failed to correct the ash values accordingly in manipulating data from Wolff (1871) as shown here. Therefore, it seems likely that others have also simply multiplied the percent values of Richardson's data and drawn false conclusions. Or, anyway, it is interesting to reconstruct what conclusions might have been drawn from such a data manipulation.

As you can see from the table below, spinach comes out second after radish herbage. Assuming that the herbage of radish was usually not eaten, however, spinach would be the edible item with the highest iron content in Richardson's data set. Hence Richardson (1848) may well be the first source from which the widespread opinion sprang that spinach was a good source for dietary iron in turn.

Item portion of iron phosphate in raw ash times portion of ash in fresh matter portion of iron phosphate in pure ash times portion of ash in fresh mater
Ananas, ganze Frucht   

ditto Schopf   

Spargel                               1,25E-04 1,60E-05
Lauch, Zwiebel                        5,52E-04 6,11E-04
ditto Stengel                         6,76E-04 8,91E-04
Feige, ganze Frucht   

Walnuts, Kern   

ditto Schale

Gurke                                 1,19E-04 1,30E-04
Brocoli (Kohl), Herz                  2,02E-04 2,14E-04
ditto Blätter                        9,86E-04 1,06E-03
Blumenkohl, Herz                      2,80E-04 2,61E-04
Rettig, Wurzel                       1,20E-03 1,41E-03
ditto Kraut                          3,20E-03 4,54E-03
Kastanie, ganze Frucht                1,77E-04 1,93E-04
Erdbeere, ganze Frucht                3,69E-04 4,56E-04
Orange ditto   

Rhabarber, Stengel                    1,66E-04 1,91E-04
ditto Blätter                         2,62E-04 2,87E-04
Spinat                               1,28E-03 1,76E-03
(Kidney Beans) Bohnen                 3,09E-04 3,56E-04
Erbsen, Hülsen                        6,90E-05 8,00E-05
Pflaumen (greengages), ganze Frucht   1,80E-04 2,42E-04
Orleans-Pflaumen, Haut der Frucht     5,39E-04 6,63E-04
Orleans-Pflaumen, Fleisch derselben   9,50E-05 1,49E-04
Orleans-Pflaumen, Kern                5,76E-04 6,28E-04
ditto Samenschale                     9,40E-05 1,05E-04
Kirschen, ganze Frucht                1,47E-04 1,61E-04
ditto Stiel derselben                 4,74E-04 5,57E-04
Birne, ganze Frucht                   6,60E-05 8,00E-05
Apfel, ditto                          5,90E-05 7,20E-05
Artischoke                            4,86E-04 5,55E-04
Lattich                               Spur Spur
Endivie                               6,72E-04 8,71E-04
Stachelbeere                          2,94E-04 3,37E-04
Sellerie                              2,56E-04 2,85E-04
Möhre                                 2,46E-04 2,39E-04
Pastinak                              4,63E-04 5,53E-04
Values in scientific notation: 1,76E-03 means 1.76*10-3 or 0.00176. This portion would be equal to 176 milligram in 100 gram fresh matter.

P.S: The Genealogical World of Phylogenetic Networks has a new post with a phylonetwork illustrating the whole dataset of Richardson (1848).

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Sources of the spinach-iron myth: Schup(h)an's true name

[Click here to get all posts in this series.]

The old narrative:
A misplaced decimal point caused the false reputation of spinach for being the vegetable that was richest in iron. Though still highly popular, this narrative is most likely wrong (see here). The decimal error probably never occurred in that stupidly simple way. Ignoring wrinkles in the narrative, such as that spinach is still rather rich in iron but that it cannot be assimilated well for other reasons, the new narrative can be stated most simply as follows.

The new narrative:
The decimal error is a myth, it never occurred. The false reputation of spinach was due to unreliable methods or poor experimentation. That is, errors were inherent in experiments not data treatments (see here). 

The complex history
Still, not everything about the spinach-iron legend is clear yet. In particular, nobody has yet thoroughly reconstructed where the original data came from, how they have been treated (mathematically) by the various researchers who wanted to reach comparability with their own data, and whether any mistakes were made in these data treatments. At the end of this series of reconstructing data handling, you will see that the whole research endeavour was full of data handling errors, though none as simple as a misplaced decimal point.

Bender's false lead
One of the unsolved riddles in the thicket of myths around spinach is the source of the decimal-point-error myth. While the urban legend is very widespread, the source of this legend remains elusive. A.E. Bender has said as much in his inaugural lecture in 1972 (see here). He later released the decimal-point-error legend upon a wider public through a letter to The Spectator.
"Sir: In a recent article (18 June) spinach is given undeserved nutritional eminence, although, since the facts have never been widely publicised, the author can be excused.
     For a hundred years or more spinach has been (and clearly still is) renowned for its high content of iron compared with that of other vegetables, but to the joy of those who dislike the stuff this is quite untrue. In 1870 Dr E. von Wolff published the analyses of a number of foods, including spinach which was shown to be exceptionally rich in iron. The figures were repeated in succeeding generations of textbooks—after all one does not always verify the findings of others including the 'Handbook of Food Sciences' (Handbuch der Ernährungslehre) by von Noorden and Saloman in 1920.
      In 1937 Professor Schupan eventually repeated the analysis of spinach and found that it contained no more iron than did any other leafy vegetable, only one-tenth of the amount previously reported. The fame of spinach appears to have been based on a misplaced decimal point."
     Professor Arnold Bender, The Spectator (18 July 1977, p. 18)

Who was Schupan?
However, neither the decimal-point error could ever be verified (see here) nor some researcher with the name Schupan be found, who published on spinach and iron during that time.

I was able to trace "Werner Schuphan" instead (mind the h after the p). While he did publish on all sorts of vegetables including spinach, the following publication from 1940 shows that he can hardly have debunked the myth of spinach's exceptional iron richness in 1937: 
"Spinat zeichnet sich – wie wir sehenbesonders durch hohe Gehalte an Carotin, Chlorophyll, Eisen und Reineiweiß und Vitamin C aus." [Schuphan, W. 1940. Über den Einfluss der Chlorid- und Sulfatdüngung auf Ertrag, Marktgängigkeit und biologischen Wert verschiedener Gemüse unter Berücksichtigung edaphischer und klimatischer Faktoren. Bodenkunde und Pflanzenernährung 19(5-6): 265-315]
"Spinach distinguishes itself – as we see – especially through high contents of carotin, chlorophyll, iron and pure protein and vitamin c." [my translation]
As the above quote reiterates the idea that spinach is richer in iron than other vegetables, it is unlikely that he had some years before claimed the opposite.

Schuphan 1937
One article published by Schuphan in 1937 [Untersuchungen über wichtige Qualitätsfehler des Knollenseleries bei gleichzeitiger Berücksichtigung der Veränderung wertgebender Stoffgruppen durch die Düngung. Bodenkunde und Pflanzenernährung 2, issue 5-6, pp. 255-304] dealt with quality issues in celeriac including the so-called Eisenfleckigkeit (iron blotchiness) of tubers. He therein debunked the belief that celery tubers turn brown at the cut surface, because of the oxidation of iron and claims that the colouring is due to resins and essential oils instead.

Another article from Schuphan in 1937 [Der gegenwärtige Qualitätsbegriff bei Gemüsen und die Notwendigkeit seiner Erweiterung auf chemisch erfaßbare Wertmerkmale. Der Forschungsdienst 3: 290-303] discussed the general discrepancy between criteria for the marketability of vegetables (e.g., size, form, colour, solidity) and nutrient quality (e.g., contents in essential oils, proteins, sugar, vitamin c). Most of his examples are taken from his own and others' research on celery. He mentions aside, the effect of P-manure on contents of vitamin c, phosphoric acid and lezithin in spinach, but iron is no issue at all.

That is, Bender's citation of a publication by Schupan in 1937 is probably wrong.

Schuphan and spinach
However, Schuphan is an interesting figure in the spinach legend for other reasons. Firstly, several of his publications suggest that spinach is rich in provitamin A, which makes him a potential source for Popeye's eating spinach for vitamin A (see here). Secondly, he published a study intended to show that the content of oxalic acid in spinach is unproblematic in 1958 (Schuphan and Weinmann: "Der Oxalsäuregehalt des Spinats." Qualitas Plantarum 5(1): 1-22). Thirdly, in 1965 he discovered that high incidences of methemoglobinaemia in babies around Hamburg, Kiel and Berlin was probably due to over-manuring spinach with nitrogen-fertilizer. A subsequent accumulation of nitrite from nitrate due either to false storage, processing or re-heating the prepared food lead to the poisoning, he suggested.*

These publications can at least suggest how the name Schup(h)an, research on spinach compounds, and the debunking of a legend about iron (though in celery) got associated in the mind of Arnold E. Bender.

* Now, I remember vividly how my parents and grandparents would always claim that the spinach mush must be eaten all up, for it cannot be re-heated. Parents always find creative was to turn scientific findings into the claim that the spinach must be eaten, it seems.