Monday, August 4, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part V.

IN THE PREVIOUS POST...Townsend's ego-driven quest to propagate genus names ad infinitum leads to a libelous article attacking John Merton Aldrich. The backlash of his former colleagues suggests he had worn out his welcome.

Townsend never returned to North America.

Yet, he continued his research much as he had previously, or potentially more fervently. His output between 1915 and 1925 was smaller than the earlier years, but his publication record from 1926 until 1942 (2 years before his death) nearly matches those high numbers. There was the "Synopse dos generos muscoideos da regiao humida tropical da America" (Synopsis of muscoid genera from the tropical rainforest region of America), published in 1927. The Synopsis contains a 100 page dicotomous key with 605 individual couplets, in Portuguese, and uses a system of abbreviation conceived by Townsend. It was undoubtedly as difficult to use then as it is now. Of course, no Townsend publication would be complete without at least one new genus, so he includes 87 pages of them (with several on each page).

New species description from "Synopse dos Generos" (1927). It is both in Portugese and Townsendian abbreviation. Perhaps it is thankful in this case that Townsend described a new genus for nearly every species, as all of his genera are well described in the Manual of Myiology in English (with comparable abbreviations).

And there was the long awaited Manual of Myiology, published in 12 large volumes between 1934 and 1942. If Townsend could be considered to have a Magnum Opus, this is it. It includes complete keys to families, tribes, and genera of "Oestromuscaria" (muscoid flies), descriptions of all genera, and notes on biology and morphology of the various tribes. Volumes 11-12 contained a strange digression from the earlier sections, including chapters on the Tertiary origin of the Moon from a near Oceanic continent, the origin of humans ("Hands cannot remain idle. Doubtless driftwood clubs and fistsized pebbles were their first implements."), the flight mechanics of a Cnephanamyia bot fly traveling at 400 yards per second, and very, very wrong ideas about gravity.

Cretaceous map of Pangaea (According to Townsend (1942)). Note the clearly marked "Moon" attached to Oceana, which, as Terry Wheeler pointed out, "explains those Australia-Moon sister groups."

This second to last item, bot flies traveling at Mach I, has it's own story in one of the most bizarre papers ever to be published in an entomological journal. Dr. Peter Adler mentions Townsend in his Insect Morphology course, and says only two things about him. One, that he has a very strange species concept, and two, that he clocked a bot fly traveling at 800 miles per hour. Long before I started working on tachinids I was already aware that Townsend was a strange fellow.

Townsend claimed to have observed this physical impossibility in Arizona at 12,000 ft, which he described originally in the April 1926 issue of Scientific Monthly. After recieving several comments, he wrote in response in his paper titled "On the Cphenemyia flight mechanism and the daylight day circuit of the Earth by flight" (1927) that by traveling at this speed (815 miles per hour) one could circuit the earth in less than a day, or see two days traveling east. "It is of extreme interest as affording a mark [466 mph] that should be reached within the next decade; while the more remote future holds the possibility of riding the tail of high noon or speeding on the wings of the morning halfway between the equator and either pole. It can not be denied that the double daylight-day westward circuit will attain great poularity before the single daylight day circuit is realized." 

Since the vibrating wings of a fly are very different than that of a bird or a fixed wing aircraft, he gives the fly flight mechanics its own name, the "Myiopter" groundplan. Townsend proceeds to describe this groundplan in great detail, but not before inserting some off color remarks.

"Regarding the speeds of Cephenemyia, the idea of a fly overtaking a bullet is a painful mental pill to swallow, as a friend has quaintly written me, yet these flies can probably do that to an old-fashioned musket ball. They could probably have kept up with the shells that the German big-bertha shot into Paris during the world war."

This (to use Townsend's own word) quaint idea was thoroughly debunked by Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir in 1938, who brought the speed down to a more believable but still appreciable 25 miles per hour.

In the same year, Townsend published his second paper on synonymy. The first, as you may remember, was published in Science Journal (1911) and was relatively optimistic. The 1927 "What constitutes synonymy?" paper is decidedly bitter and full of schadenfreude. I have transcribed the majority for your enjoyment:

"I have never for a moment considered [these genera] synonymous with Hilarella. Such synonymy is quite ridiculous. As to the rest of the world, no one competent to form an opinion had studied material, hence no opinion existed but rather a complete indifference. Nobody cared a snap whether these genera were synonyms or not. This forcibly illustrates what a power lies concealed in the weapon synonymy. A careful worker may erect valid genera and species. An ignorant or malicious person may publish an article stating that these valid genera and species are synonyms, and henceforth they bear the synonymic stigma. The genera public is not competent to judge of the merits of the case, and besides has troubles of its own. No one cares a snap about the matter unless he is making a special study of the group in question. The original author may publish a refutation of the synonymy. Nobody pays any attention to him, the public not being interested, and his refutation is quickly forgotten. Fifty years later, a competent worker reconizes these genera and species as valid and concludes that they have lain in the synonymy a half century. Is he technically correct in this view?
Synonymy has too long masqueraded as a court of permanent and infallible decisions. There is nothing final about synonymy[...]
The synonymic pronouncements of a single individual carry weight in exact ratio to his ability in the groups concerned. But the general public has no means of judging of his ability. If he sets himself up as a specialist and speaks with confident authority, the public accepts him at his own valuation. He is henceforth at liberty to inflict his personal opinions on a long-suffering public and to manufacture synonymy ad libitum. This is the easiest thing in the world to accomplish as long as the manufacturers escapes detection as a fraud. In fact, it may be termed systematic pastime. He is knocking everything on the head right and left as suits his fancy, while the public looks on unconcerned and practically uninterested. He is destroyed, not building, but no one cares except the original builder who notes the attempt to level to the ground his laboriously erected edifices. Yet they are not really leveled and their status is just as good as before until the synonymy in question is abundantly endorsed [...] This strong weapon synonymy is not to be left at the beck and call of every individual."

Upon hearing the above, my darling partner declared "Dear Sir: No one will ever recognize your true genius, even long after you are dead" and "You mad, Bro?". The imagery of synonymy as a "weapon", of the good taxonomists as the "original builders", of the synonymizers as "knocking everything on the head" and being "destroyed, not building", and that "no one gives a snap" shows Townsend at his low point. This was, after all, just two years past the "Insider History", and before he found a way to publish the Manual of Myiology.

In 1944, only two years after the final volume of the Manual was published, Townsend died in his home at Itaquaquecetuba. The total number of publications over his lifetime is in the hundreds, and the total count of species described is near 1500. He seemed to have burned every bridge with his former colleagues. He outlived his "bitter hatreds". Aldrich died in 1934, the "nation's greatest accumulator of dipterological information" (from Melander 1934). Coquillett had long since passed. The works of both were celebrated. 

The Townsend obituary published in Revista de Entomologia (1943) paints him in a positive light, as a great entomologist, biologist, linguist, author, farmer, hunter of beasts, and a member of numerous scientific societies. Yet, to taxonomists who work with tachinids, he is remembered most for his ego and vandalism.



Christopher Taylor said...

The 1927 "What constitutes synonymy?" paper is decidedly bitter and full of schadenfreude.

And bears an intriguing resemblence to some of the writings of A. A. Girault, though Townsend does sound a bit more lucid than Girault, who was not merely irascible but actually not well.

If Townsend was that much like Girault, you really do have my sympathy, and not just for having to make sense of his taxonomy. I took a brief excursion into Giraultiana because I was intrigued by what I'd heard of his crankitude, but I found that spending much time in his literary company was a draining experience. It is difficult to wade through that much bile and mania without feeling shaken yourself.

Kai said...

Thanks for the comment Christopher! I have read your very fine post on A. A Girault before, and do somewhat see parallels. However, Townsend's bitterness is mostly situational irony; he created the bed of scorn he laid down in. It was his ego that did it, not insanity. In fact, the worst part is, he did all of that and was QUITE sane. Which means it is harder to write off his taxonomy despite the intermittent nuttiness.