Thursday, July 17, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part IV.

IN THE LAST EPISODE...we examined the short but pointed publication war between Townsend and Walton. Now we return to Townsend's "second bitter hatred", that of John Merton Aldrich.

 In 1914, Townsend returned from Peru and became the honorary custodian of muscoid diptera at the U.S. National Museum. He had just received his doctorate from Washington University and was working at the Bureau of Entomology. The plan was to quickly finish his Manual of Myiology, but the first volume wouldn't be published till 1934, long after he had left the U.S. Instead, Townsend was caught up in a conflict with his perceived rival, Aldrich. This can be seen in his publication output, which dropped from over 30 papers on tachinids in 1915-16 to only five in 1917, and never returned to the previous numbers.

Aldrich, also an employee of the Bureau, had recently left his job at the University of Idaho and was working in Indiana. In 1915 he published a summary of his 25 years collecting tachinid flies, which followed closely to Coquillett's 1898 revision. Townsend was not pleased; the paper ignored his many families of "muscoid" flies and condensed them all into a single family, Tachinidae.

It is interesting, though entirely unintentional I'm sure, that Townsend's "On Proper Generic Concepts" follows directly after Aldrich's paper in the same 'Annals' volume. This is yet another attempt to rally for more restricted generic concepts. Here, Townsend begins by separating all the Muscoid taxonomists into two categories, the "specialists" and "generalists". Specialists, such as Rondani, Desvoidy, and the much admired Brauer & Bergenstramm, used restricted generic concepts. Despite the many potential flaws in their work due to ignorance of internal reproductive characters, Townsend finds their work excellent. Conversely, authors such as Macquart, Schiner, van der Wulp, Walker, Bigot, and the ever hated Coquillett are all generalists, who

"attempted to apply the same broad generic concepts to the Muscoidea that they applied to the rest of the Diptera. Without going into lengthy detail, it is enough to state that their mistakes are many and often overshadow the good contained in their results. Their misidentifications of species are extremely numerous. Their wholesale confusion of distinct generic forms was the natural result of no concise generic concepts. Almost throughout, their genera are mixed-genera. They may be said to have practically lacked muscoid generic concepts, for their generic rulings were largely arbitrary and so loose as to admit numberous foreign elements. The true explaination of all this is that they possessed only the most superficial knowledge of their subject."

Townsend goes on to discuss proper generic concepts, those that do not group by "transitional species." "Groups of generic stems [as of tips of a tree] that happen to be connected throughout by transitional species can not be treated as a single genus, on account of their diverse combinations of characters." The branches have not become decimated over time due to their young age, removing the "transitional stocks".

Table from Townsend (1915) showing the pros and cons of restricted and unrestricted generic concepts.

Figure from Townsend (1915) showing two "families" of tachinids with some species used for illustration of convergence and transitional species. Older, decimated stocks would have more easily delineated genera.

The above figures are interesting as evidence that Townsend's basic ideas were not poorly thought out. He was attempting methods to classify a very recent group of insects which had not been decimated (see Wonderful Life (Gould 1989)), and thus there were many apparently intermediate forms between what would otherwise be clearly recognizable genera. The problem isn't Townsend's justifications, it's the extremism of his taxonomic splitting and inflationism.

Though not explicitly named, Townsend probably considered Aldrich as a generalist, making a "great number of egregious blunders."

Between 1915 and 1924 we have little to mark the falling out between Aldrich and Townsend. In the earlier part of this 10 year period, it seems the two were communicating about their work on the genera Imitomyia and Masiphyia, and there is no direct evidence they were arguing behind the scenes. However, in 1918 Aldrich was moved from his post in Indiana to the Smithsonian, where he became the Curator of Diptera. Less than a year later, in March 1919, Townsend left D.C. for Peru and Ecuador, and later Brazil, to Iquaquecetuba, near Sao Paulo. There's some reason to suspect that Townsend left America because of professional conflicts with his "new boss", Aldrich. The "Inside History" makes it seem that he was fearful of Aldrich undoing his organizational work at the museum, as he quickly published notes on the collections soon after leaving.

What Townsend does next is a bit astounding. He published two personal correspondences from Aldrich in his 1925 History. Such a thing seems completely absurd to us now, a total breach of academic conduct and courtesy, yet, it is similar to the methods of Raymond Hoser (our contemporary, who inspired this series).

On May 8th, 1924, Aldrich sent this letter. The context is a paper he just published with colleague Webber on a tachinid species complex. He writes: "You will not like it, because we did not recognize enough genera to suit you. I am responsible for the generic arrangement, which cost me an immense amount of work and study."

Townsend replies: "Your remark is highly significant. Instead of wasting time in an attempt to extend generic limits arbitrarily where they do not naturally fall, it is far wiser to strike a generic arrangement that shall be fairly simple and easy to follow out. Restricted genera, concisely defined, attain the greatest simplicity of treatment possible."

Aldrich responds, on August 2nd:  

"It would be useless to undertake any general discussion of the limits of genera. I have, as I freely admit, much difficulty in determining them. You solve the problem by making a genus for almost every species, but you encounter precisely my difficulty when you start to group these genera into tribes. So you are no better off than I am, and I am trying to classify muscoids as nearly as possible on the same lines as other animals. I never did take any stock in your oft-repeated belief that muscoids require a different taxonomy."

And, of course, hits the nail on the head. These sorts of issues will arise, no matter what rank Townsend decides is appropriate. Better to limit taxonomic inflation than to let the field become grossly distended with monospecific genera. But of course Townsend sees this differently.

"The work of Aldrich is destructive rather than constructive. He is attempting to relegate to the synonymy as many of Townsend's restricted muscoid genera as possible, with the sole aim of vindicating his own original commitment to broad categories. It is a pity that he is so unreceptive to progressive ideas and holds so stubbornly to long-exploded concepts. He refuses absolutely to change his ideas in the light of new facts. It is evident that his work will suffer proportionately in consequence. He has a better eye than Coquillett had for muscoid characters, but he persists in ignoring important characters which Townsend has pointed out, partly from prejudice and partly from the difficulty of interpreting them."

Remember, he's writing in the third person, about a professional colleague, in a professional journal. 

The ego-train continues:

"The numerous dicta put forth by Aldrich would be interesting if true, but the trouble is that no dependence can be placed on them. They are simply the individual prejudiced opinions of a man who is unable to learn because he will not keep a receptive mind."


"Townsend harbors no animosity toward any one, for life is too short to waste in animosities. He writes this himself, standing off as a detached and impartial observer, contemplating his own work as though it belonged to another, and exposing this inside history only in the interests of fair play and a square deal."

You get the idea. He has an ego as tall as the Washington Monument, and a lack of decorum to match.

The drawn out rant finally concludes:

"Such is a brief outline of the work on muscoid taxonomy in North America to date, involving also recent work in South America. Younger students are arising, from whom we may expect much. Let the keep an open mind, for a closed mind is a fatal fault in an investigator. Let them beware of prejudices and commit themselves only to a search for truth. They, will then not be faced by the alternative of retraction, or continuance on a mistaken course."

All of this was published, March 1925, in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society.

In 1926, the Society's publication committee received a letter signed by 23 American entomologists, including John Merton Aldrich. It was published as follows:

"To the Publication Committee, New York Entomological Society.
The undersigned wish to express their great surprise and regret that you should have published in your Journal the article by [Townsend] [...] This article is in substance a bitter and uncalled for attack upon [Aldrich], a man of high standing, who is greatly respected both as a man and an entomologist. Dr. Aldrich's criticisms of Dr. Townsend's work in his studies of the Muscoidea have always been justifiable and were an honest endeavor to reach the truth. No one could do as much on this group as Dr. Aldrich has done and criticize Townsend less. Therefore we earnestly desire that you make it known in the next issue of the Journal that you greatly regret the publication of this article and extend to Dr. Aldrich your sincere apology."

With which the Publication Committee also published a reply: "[The Committee] regrets any hard feeling has been aroused and all of use feel that Townsend went too far. In fact, it seems to us that he spoiled his won case, if he has one, by indulging in personalities."

Townsend, the purported "insider historian", never returned to North America.

Concluded in Part V.

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