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February in the Historical Sciences

A calendar of anniversaries in the palaetiological sciences of evolutionary biology, systematics, historical linguistics, text transmission, historical geology, paleontology, genealogy, archeology, anthropology, cosmology, historical geography, and related fields, from the Darwin-L Archives on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

February 2

1786: SIR WILLIAM JONES, English jurist and student of Oriental languages, delivers his Third Anniversary Discourse as president of the Asiatick Society of Bengal. It will come to be regarded by future generations of scholars as one of the founding documents of historical linguistics: “The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. There is a similar reason for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.”

February 4

1809: ARTHUR JAMES JOHNES born. He will go on to write Philological Proofs of the Original Unity and Recent Origin of the Human Race, Derived from a Comparison of the Languages of Asia, Europe, Africa, and America; being an inquiry how far the differences in the languages of the globe are referrible to causes now in operation (London: John Russell Smith; second edition, 1846).

February 5

1783: A great earthquake strikes Calabria in southern Italy. The first major upheaval of its kind to be directly investigated by European geologists, this earthquake will serve as one of Charles Lyell’s principal illustrations of the sufficiency of “causes now in operation” to explain geological change in the first volume of his Principles of Geology (1830): “If the city of Oppido, in Calabria, be taken as a centre, and round that centre a circle be described with a radius of twenty-two miles, this space will comprehend the surface of the country which suffered the greatest alteration, and where all the towns and villages were destroyed. But if we describe the circle with a radius of seventy-two miles, this will then comprehend the whole country that had any permanent marks of having been affected by the earthquake. The first shock, of February 5th, 1783, threw down, in two minutes, the greater part of the houses in all the cities, towns, and villages, from the western flanks of the Apennines in Calabria Ultra, to Messina in Sicily, and convulsed the whole surface of the country. Another occurred on the 28th of March, with almost equal violence. The granitic chain which passes through Calabria from north to south, and attains the height of many thousand feet, was shaken but slightly; but it is said that a great part of the shocks which were propagated with a wave-like motion through the recent strata from west to east, became very violent when they reached the point of junction with the granite, as if a reaction was produced where the undulatory movement of the soft strata was suddenly arrested by the more solid rocks. The surface of the country often heaved like the billows of a swelling sea, which produced a swimming in the head like sea-sickness.”

1799: JOHN LINDLEY is born at Catton, near Norwich, England. The son of a nurseryman, Lindley will go on to become one of the most active botanical researchers, editors, artists, and administrators of the nineteenth century. He will specialize in the systematics of orchids, and in 1830 will publish an Introduction to the Natural System of Botany. The characters of plants, he will write, are “the living Hieroglyphics of the Almighty which the skill of man is permitted to interpret. The key to their meaning lies enveloped in the folds of the Natural System.”

February 8

1727: JEAN ANDRÉ DELUC born at Geneva, Switzerland. Deluc will begin his career as a businessman and will travel widely throughout Europe, but a commercial failure in 1773 will induce him to emigrate to England and devote himself to science, his long-time avocation. He will soon become one of the leading scriptural geologists of his day, declaring that in geological strata “it is as easy to read the history of the Sea, as it is to read the history of Man in the archives of any nation,” and he will attempt to demonstrate through his many publications “the conformity of geological monuments with the sublime account of that series of the operations which took place during the Six days, or periods of time, recorded by the inspired penman.”

February 12

1804: IMMANUEL KANT dies at Königsberg, Germany. Before he turned to philosophy, for which he will be best remembered, Kant had been a student of cosmology, and he had published in 1755 Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels, oder Versuch von der Verfassung und dem mechanischen Ursprunge des ganzen Weltgebäudes nach Newtonischen Grundsätzen abgehandelt (Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens: An Essay on the Constitution and Mechanical Origin of the Whole Universe Treated According to Newtonian Principles). In this work, which was little known even in its own day, Kant stretched the traditional cosmic chronology of the early modern period into a temporal expanse of enormous proportion: “There has mayhap flown past a series of millions of years and centuries, before the sphere of the formed nature in which we find ourselves, attained to the perfection which is now embodied in it; and perhaps as long a period will pass before Nature will take another step as far in chaos. But the sphere of developed nature is incessantly engaged in extending itself. Creation is not the work of a moment. When it has once made a beginning with the production of an infinity of substances and matter, it continues in operation through the whole succession of eternity with ever increasing degrees of fruitfulness. Millions and whole myriads of millions of centuries will flow on, during which always new worlds and systems of worlds will be formed after each other in the distant regions away from the center of nature, and will attain to perfection.”

1809: CHARLES DARWIN is born in Shrewsbury. Educated in medicine and divinity at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, Darwin will become one of the greatest theorists in the history of the historical sciences. In the Origin of Species (London, 1859) he will describe the consequences that will result when his evolutionary view of nature becomes widely adopted: “The terms used by naturalists of affinity, relationship, community of type, paternity, morphology, adaptive characters, rudimentary and aborted organs, &c., will cease to be metaphorical, and will have plain signification. When we no longer look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond his comprehension; when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!”

February 17

1794: KAREL BORIWOJ PRESL is born at Prague, Czechoslovakia. Presl’s interest in natural history will develop in his youth, and at the age of eighteen he will publish a study of the cryptogams of Bohemia. He will receive his medical degree in 1818 but will practice only briefly, preferring instead to take a curatorial position at the National Museum in Prague. An opportunity to study a large collection of plants from South America and the Far East will confirm Presl in his interest in ferns, and in 1836 he will publish Tentamen Pteridographiae, one of the most comprehensive studies of pterydophytes to appear during the early 1800s. At his death in 1852, Presl’s collections, containing many specimens of rare ferns, will be bequeathed to Charles University in Prague.

February 19

1792: RODERICK IMPEY MURCHISON is born at Tarradale, Scotland. Following a period of military service as a young man, Murchison will lead a life of leisure until 1824 when he will become interested in geology. His inherited wealth will allow him to devote himself entirely to science during subsequent years, and he will pioneer the use of fossils in the correlation of strata. Travelling extensively through much of Europe, and serving several times as president of the Geological Society of London, Murchison will concentrate his investigations on some of the oldest strata then known, in the hope of geologically locating the origin of life. His great monograph The Silurian System (London, 1839) will set a standard for geological research, but it will eventually lead him into a bitter dispute with Adam Sedgwick over the location of the boundary between the Silurian and Sedgwick’s older Cambrian System. Increasingly inflexible in his views, Murchison will aggressively reject both Agassiz’s glacial theory and Darwin’s theory of descent, and late in life will become a patron of geography, participating in the founding of the Royal Geographical Society and contributing financially to Livingstone’s African expeditions. He will be made a baronet in 1866, and will die in London in 1871.

February 20

1835: “This day has been remarkable in the annals of Valdivia for the most severe earthquake which the oldest inhabitants remember.—Some who were at Valparaiso during the dreadful one of 1822, say this was as powerful.—I can hardly credit this, & must think that in Earthquakes as in gales of wind, the last is always the worst. I was on shore & lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly & lasted two minutes (but appeared much longer). The rocking was most sensible; the undulation appeared both to me & my servant to travel from due East. There was no difficulty in standing upright; but the motion made me giddy.—I can compare it to skating on very thin ice or to the motion of a ship in a little cross ripple. An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid; one second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create. In the forest, a breeze moved the trees, I felt the earth tremble, but saw no consequence from it.—At the town where nearly all the officers were, the scene was more awful; all the houses being built of wood, none actually fell & but few were injured. Every one expected to see the Church a heap of ruins. The houses were shaken violently & creaked much, the nails being partially drawn.—I feel sure it is these accompaniments & the horror pictured in the faces of all the inhabitants, which communicates the dread that every one feels who has thus seen as well as felt an earthquake. In the forest it was a highly interesting but by no means awe-exciting phenomenon.—The effect on the tides was very curious; the great shock took place at the time of low-water; an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed quickly but not in big waves to the high-water mark, & as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the wet sand. She said it flowed like an ordinary tide, only a good deal quicker. This very kind of irregularity in the tide happened two or three years since during an Earthquake at Chiloe & caused a great deal of groundless alarm.—In the course of the evening there were other weaker shocks; all of which seemed to produce the most complicated currents, & some of great strength in the Bay. The generally active Volcano of Villa-Rica, which is the only part of the Cordilleras in sight, appeared quite tranquil.—I am afraid we shall hear of damage done at Concepcion. I forgot to mention that on board the motion was very perceptible; some below cried out that the ship must have tailed on the shore & was touching the bottom.” (Charles Darwin, Beagle Diary, 20 February 1835.)

February 23

1863: CHARLES JOSEPH CHAMBERLAIN is born at Sullivan, Ohio. Chamberlain will study botany and zoology at Oberlin College, and after spending several years as a school teacher and administrator he will enter the University of Chicago, where in 1897 he will receive the first doctorate in botany awarded by that institution. Chamberlain will come to specialize in the study of cycads, and will apply histological and cytological methods in an effort to understand their evolutionary history. His comprehensive work Gymnosperms: Structure and Evolution will appear in 1935, and over the course of his career he will assemble in the botanical garden at Chicago the most comprehensive collection of living cycads in the world.

February 29

1808: HUGH FALCONER is born at Forres, Scotland. Following medical study at Edinburgh, Falconer will take the position of director of the botanical gardens at Saharanpur, India, near the Siwalik Hills. For ten years he will make extensive botanical and paleontological investigations of the Siwalik region, and his fossil discoveries will win for him the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London. In 1842 he will return to England to arrange the Indian fossil collections in the British Museum, but he will again remove to India in 1848 to become professor of botany at the Calcutta Medical College. Falconer’s final years will be spent in London, and he will rise to the position of vice-president of the Royal Society shortly before his death in 1865.


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