Monday, January 20, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part II.

When we left off in Part I, John Merton Aldrich had just written some mixed comments about Townsend's work before 1905. 

     At this point, it's necessary to skip to an article 20 years later. Literature trains are often hard to follow, especially in the old literature. But we can see the events before 1925 play out through Townsend's eyes, in his inflammatory piece "The Inside History of North American Myiology". Myiology being the term he coins for the study of calypterate, or muscoid, flies. He writes,

"The history of this subject in the United States has unfortunately been characterized by a petty spirit of rivalry and jealousy for the past three decades. This, perhaps the most difficult subject as regards taxonomy, meriting on this very account the most concerted and amicable relations among its students, has met with the exact opposite during its development in North America."
     The entire paper is written in the third person, as if Townsend's history is being recounted by someone else. Another testament to his ego and arrogance.

      Townsend's history begins with a short list of insect taxonomists leading up to 1888, saying that "thus far there was no spirit of rivalry or jealousy on this side of the Atlantic." At that time he was a clerical assistant to C.V Riley in the Bureau of  Entomology, Washington D.C. He was very much interested in beetles and true bugs, but not true flies (Diptera). However, at the insistence of his supervisor, he took up work on the group. Later he was "grateful, for no other possible group of organisms
could have proved so fecund of interest in his [Townsend's] eyes, considered from all points of view." In 1891 he left D.C. for a university job in New Mexico. Evenhuis suggests in his biography that the glowing recommendations Townsend received from Riley may have been an early indication of his difficultness, that "Riley wanted him out of D.C."

     Townsend's first direct criticism is not of Aldrich, but of a contemporary, prolific, and recently deceased taxonomist, Daniel William Coquillett (1856-1911). Townsend writes that Coquillett had an interest in calypterate flies but

"little opportunity to indulge his desire for study of the subject. He chafed under the restriction and developed a bitter hatred of Townsend and his work; a hatred which he nursed diligently until his death, and which prohibited him even from conversing with Townsend except under circumstances of the direst necessity." 

     He claims that Coquillett's hatred was made clear in the 1897 "Revision of the Tachinidae of America North of Mexico", where Coquillett synonymized most of Townsend's genera with earlier names. This "hatred" seems to be a deep reading of Coquillett's unwillingness to correspond with Townsend, as the "Revision" does not have any spiteful comments that I can see. Yet Townsend takes a victorious view of the situation, stating "[Coquillett's] pronouncements, like the whole fabric of his work, are falling apart and away as investigation progresses in the groups he treated." Townsend claims,

"During all of this time and up to the last, Townsend harbored no animosity toward Coquillett and would have been glad at any time to converse with him on muscoid work, but found him so unapproachable that he would not even answer questions couched in the most courteous terms and offered in the most friendly spirit. The animosity of Coquillett brought a handful of animosities in its train."

     The first of these "animosities" is John Merton Aldrich. As noted in Part I, Aldrich's Catalogue has mixed comments about Townsend, both praising him for his species descriptions and chastising him for his strict following of Brauer and Bergenstaumm genera. Townsend condemned Aldrich for strictly following Coquillett's revision, calling it a "fatal mistake", that the "manifold errors" and ridicule towards Townsend were so extreme that "he felt he could not gracefully retract after [Townsend] began to point out in a wholly impartial manner the errors that had been perpetuated in the catalogue." This must have been a private correspondence, as Townsend did not publish his comments at the time.

     In 1908, the dipterist Samuel Wendell Williston published the third edition of his "Manual of North American Diptera". He had contracted Townsend for help with the Tachinidae, as Coquillett was unwilling, who took the opportunity to describe a few new genera, as he was wont to do. The same year, Townsend published "The Taxonomy of the Muscoidean Flies". In this work he quotes Williston on tachinids:

"We yet know very little about individual variation in this family, or the real value of many characters now used. The absence or presence of a bristle may be found to represent a group of species, but we should first learn how constant the character is in species. * * * Seriously, is not the stock of Tachinid genera significantly large for the present? Would it not be better to study species more before making every trivial character the basis for a new genus? --Insect life, vol. v (1892-93), pg. 238-40."

     To that, I say "hear hear!" But to Townsend, it was motivation to have a discussion on "intermediates" and "intergradants" (forms that connect genera and species, respectively). He used the abundance of intermediate forms as justification to devalue the rank of genus, writing,

"The only possibility of successfully systematizing the superfamily [tachinids, under his system], so that its myriads of forms can be designated definitely by name, lies in the recognition of genera founded upon comparatively slight characters -- slight compared with those recognized as the standard in the older and less specialized superfamilies."

     This was not quite the concept of a "natural genus" from his later years, but it does shed light onto his massive output of generic names in tachinid flies, and how he justified it at the time.

     Aldrich was undoubtedly displeased with this continued taxonomic vandalism. His growing opinions of Townsend became quite clear in his 1909 review of Williston's Manual. He writes of Townsend's involvement:

"Dr. Williston, wishing the criticism of a specialist on this difficult group, and being unable to secure the assistance of Mr. Coquillett, asked Mr. C. H. T. Townsend to prepare notes on the figures. This was unfortunate, as Mr. Townsend's ideas of genera are extremely radical; it naturally happened that his notes only serve to confuse the subject. He, however, seized the opportunity to erect a few new genera on the figures, which was the more out of place and uncalled for since he promised fuller descriptions in a forthcoming paper. Would that he had reserved his adumbrations in their entirety!"

     Later, Townsend would consider these "acrid remarks" the "birth of a second bitter hatred" towards himself. The second after Coquillett, soon to be followed by a third.

Continued in Part III.

1 comment:

David Marjanović said...

the dipterist Samuel Wendell Williston

Now that's interesting! Around the same time, there was a vertebrate paleontologist with the exact same name working in the US. Are we looking at a zoologist with extremely diverse interests?