Thursday, April 19, 2012

Daniel Lewis's "The Feathery Tribe"

Daniel Lewis is the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology and the Chief Curator of Manuscripts at The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds, and reported the following:
My book The Feathery Tribe examines the collisions between two contentious and passionate groups: scientists and amateurs studying birds in the late nineteenth century, and reporting on it through their writings in very different ways to very different audiences. My page 99 [below left, click to enlarge] describes the struggles between two factions that published birdy magazines: the Auk, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) and the Ornithologist and Oologist, issued by a citizen named Joseph M. Wade. The founders of the AOU and Wade couldn’t have been more different, in both their language and their intent, although they were both writing about the same feathery creatures.

The Auk was much concerned with the scientific names of things, and AOU founding member and office Elliott Coues would propose in 1884 a new system of names for names. “The word onym [the tenable technical name of a species or other group in zoology] supplies the desiderata of brevity in writing, euphony in speaking, plastic aptitude for combinations, and exactitude of signification,” he wrote about one of his proposed terms. Wade’s O & O, by contrast, was about different things. That same year he would issue a piece by the title “Gastro-oology,” which detailed the virtues of eating the insides of eggs collected. (“Barbarous, you say,” asked Wade rhetorically. “Well, try a little savagery yourself.”) The two groups had dramatically different goals and readers.

A number of members of the “feathery tribe” worked to sort out these issues of nomenclature, and many of them collided with Wade’s more populist approach. Wade himself took issue with the Auk’s attitude about names and descriptions of birds, and with what many of its readers considered to be an overly scientific tack, not accessible to the masses of bird-lovers. If the AOU was the relatively dry, scientific side of birds in the public’s eye, Wade’s magazine was grist for the fantasies for thousands of Americans, who had a fascination with their own private collections, as well as those using birds and their feathers for clothing, room decorations, and other aesthetic uses. Wade’s primary goal was to promote birds to as wide an audience as possible: “My Idea has always been to popularize ornithology and avoid the Dry Sciences as much as possible,” he wrote to AOU member Ernest Ingersoll. “It can be made palatable to the Million[s]—at least I am not yet satisfied otherwise.”

For their part, the AOU officers found Wade to be insolent in the extreme – and perhaps none more than the arrogant and brilliant Coues. Upon getting wind of a rumor that Wade was planning to criticize the AOU in print in 1884, the earthy Coues hissed to a colleague, “Do you really mean to say that that vulgar crank is going to attack the A.O.U. in his contemptible little sheet? Is he a fool? Has he declined his election [as an associate member of the AOU, just on the verge of being founded]? I hope he is ass enough to accept it, and then abuse the Union! It would be just like him! He may do so, as the parting whiff from the moribund sheet, and a sweet smell too. Didn’t I foresee a scent in that quarter?”

But the technical use of language carried the day for scientists. One word or phrase, no matter how technical, can be pregnant with meaning that would otherwise require many words to describe. It is useful because it is simultaneously compact and descriptively rich. Relatively obscure words and phrases in science, medicine and technology conveyed (and still convey) a great deal of meaning. In the words of rhetorician John Battaglio, “these forms of words became a powerful means to condense information, convert events into objects, and minimize negotiation of ideas, thereby giving scientific writing a privileged position.” Science is not literature, as Ridgway himself once noted, and a Rosa banksiae lutea by any other name would not smell nearly as sweet.
Learn more about The Feathery Tribe at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue