Thursday, May 22, 2014

CHT Townsend, Vandal of the Calypterates. Part III.

When we left off, in 1908, Aldrich's review of Williston's Manual of North American Diptera marked the "second bitter hatred" against Townsend. We leave Aldrich for a time and focus now on the events marking the "third bitter hatred" of William R. Walton.

That same year, Townsend began his work on the reproductive system of tachinid flies. This would lead to his doctorate in 1914 at George Washington University. A preliminary summary of this research was published in 1911. At the same time, he was taking collecting trips to Peru, and becoming increasingly disturbed by a large number of his names being relegated to synonymy. This resulted in the paper "On Muscoid and Especially Tachinid Synonymy" (June 1911).

This particular paper is not recounted in Townsend's 1925 history, but it is interesting for reasons beyond the content and timing. One, it is the first of two papers he published on the topic of synonymy, the other in 1927. And second, the journal is Science, which shows you how much that journal has changed over the past century, and how far taxonomy has fallen. At that time taxonomy was still considered a worthy and important pursuit by the majority of scientists, and a worker as prolific as Townsend was a superstar.

Aside from the mixed criticism of Aldrich and Coquillett, and praise for Brauer and Bergenstaumm, there are some opinions that seem ironic in the context of his own work. He calls for the careful examination of types, and wishes for it to lead onto synonymy. He writes,

"The statement that I am going to make now will probably astonish some people, but I can truthfully say that I would be greatly pleased to see half the generic and specific names that have been proposed in the Muscoidea safely relegated to the synonymy where they could rest undisturbed and buried forever, with no hope of a resurrection, a goodly sprinkling of my own among the number; but such a considerable reduction of names is hardly possible of realization. Looking toward a consummation of final synonymy, however, I shall hope to accomplish in the next few years some portion of the work necessary to this end, during the course of which I here pledge my word that those generic and specific names of my own making will receive the same impartial treatment at my hands as all others. My one wish in this matter is to secure certainty before putting a name into the synonymy. The making of incorrect synonymy is a much more serious taxonomic offense than proposing further names for forms already named. In the latter case the forms can always be definitely referred to by means of the names that have been bestowed upon them, but in the former case serious confusion is certain to ensue."

Indeed, it is astonishing. Without context, the writer would seem to be inclined towards synonymy and stability of nomenclature, but as Townsend's history and future shows, he is anything but.

1911 also marks the death of Daniel W. Coquillett, the man who, if you recall, was the "first bitter hatred against Townsend". Freed of Coquillett's reaction, Townsend published his "Readjustment of muscoid names" (1912), in which he claims that "dipterological nomenclature is getting a severe shaking up, and the Muscoidea comes in for their share." It was a victory dance of sorts.

Unfortunately, and possibly unbeknownst to Townsend, William R. Walton had become friends with Coquillett shortly before his death. He became, as Townsend put it in his history, Coquillett's "staunch defender".

At the November 7th meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington, Walton presented a paper "The variation of structural characters used in the classification of some muscoidean flies" (published in the Proceedings (1913)). He argued against the use of "characteristic bristles" as the main source of generic differences within calypterate fly classification, which Townsend and others had used to great effect. These include the number of hairs in lines on the thorax and the abdomen, and the apparent hairiness of the eyes. While some of these hair-based characters are conserved across lineages, others vary within species or even populations. Numbers and size of hairs can also be linked with the amount of food a larva receives during it's development, or the sex of the individual. Thus, Walton gives 4 recommendations:

"a. The erection of a genus on a single example of either is folly and should not be permitted.
b. The proposal of a new species on a single specimen or series representing only one sex is inadvisable.
c. The creation of either a genus or species on solely chaetotactic characters without a careful study of ample material is unwise.
d. The variants of a species should be conserved under species name until good and sufficient evidence is adduced prove they are otherwise. The splitting of species in the genus Lucilia as practiced by Mr. Townsend is a negative example what is here meant."

These are actually very good recommendations, still so 100 years later but especially so in the early 20th century. It was common back then to describe new species (or genera!) based on a single specimen, or on a series of one sex. For example, the male of Eucelatoria gladiatrix was originally described as Proroglutea pilligera; the female was named Xiphomyia gladiatrix. Both were from single specimens (and both by Townsend). Careful taxonomy is what Walton is asking for, and Townsend was considered to be a prime offender. He closes,

"It seems possible that the studies of the internal anatomy of these flies upon which Mr. CHT Townsend is at present working may eventually prove useful as an index to group relations. But the mass of undigested facts, near facts, and conjecture with which he is at present deluging the devoted heads of his confreres will require an immense amount of elucidation, rearrangement, and generous elimination before becoming available for use. To conclude, there is great need of careful rearings of species belonging to homogeneous groups, from known parents, for the purpose of studying variation of structure, color, and size within the species and, failing which our knowledge of the true relations of the Muscoidean flies will never extend much beyond its present meager limits."

 Townsend was quick to respond, and fired off three papers on taxonomic theory before the end of 1913. The first of these, "Criticism and Muscoid taxonomy", is a direct rebuttal to Walton's paper. Townsend appreciated Walton's dissection of variable characters, but disagreed with Walton's recommendations, especially the first. Walton is declared "a champion of Mr. Coquillett's work on muscoid flies", and that "time will fully demonstrate whatever merit that work may possess, and no one's commendation can increase its merit one whit." "Beginners" and "new students" are clearly not suited to make these judgements, and should wait until they have enough experience before they do. Townsend, in his own opinion, is the expert. Any may come and join him, there is more than enough work to be done; "no one need harbor petty jealousy of another's work." Townsend concludes, 

"It is unwise and unseemly for a beginner in a difficult subject to ridicule good work done by his predecessors. Caustic comment has no legitimate place in taxonomic literature, and solves no problems. In the minds of all right-thinking persons such comment serves no other purpose than to reflect on the commentator. I bespeak a spirit of cordial cooperation on the part of my confreres. Such spirit will be both highly appreciated and warmly reciprocated."

That is, as long as his "confreres" fall in line with his cherished taxonomic opinions. All are welcome, but know I am the ultimate authority. This line was laid out in his next paper, "A new application of taxonomic principles", which is a rambling and convoluted account of his "typic-atypic" system. I honestly can't make any sense of it, except that it seems like he is proposing a taxonomic unit between genus and subtribe. Perhaps this is an early formulation of his "natural genus" concept (see Part I for a full explanation).

The final 1913 paper, "Notes on Exoristidae" is full of the same haughty language, same mixed criticism and judgement upon other workers seen in the above 1911 paper. He praises Walton for his attention to detail and illustrations, and equally condemns Coquillett, calling the former works "constructive" and the latter works "destructive". Townsend writes,

"What is needed in the Muscoidea and especially in the Exoristidae [i.e., the subfamily Exoristinae of Tachinidae] and more nearly allied families, is an intensive study of the numerous forms thoroughly and conscientiously carried through, without bias and with that keen adjustment of character values and natural appreciation of phylogenetic relations which stamp the master zo├Âlogist. Each one of us must strive as best he can to attain this result."

Among the "destructive" poseurs and the "creative" "master zo├Âlogists", it is clear from Townsend's writing where he thought himself to stand.

In 1914, Walton published a scathing rebuttal to the "Notes on Exoristidae" and Townsend's opinions of Coquillett in general. He titled it "On the Work of the Late Daniel W. Coquillett and Others", but it's clear from the first sentence that the whole and entire target is Townsend. What follows is a catalog of errors, from outright mistakes in descriptions of type specimens (legs cannot be both "not yellow" and "wholly yellow"), to imagined microscopic characters and overlooked obvious characters, to the large number of Townsend names that had been rightfully sunk into oblivion.  It also contains more than a few beautiful burns, including my favorite:

"It would seem that the possession of "that keen judgement of character values and natural appreciation of phylogenetic relations," cannot preserve even a "master zoologist" from palpable error when he does take sufficient care to see what is visible."


The whole work is delightful and worth a read (free at the JSTOR link above), especially the final words:

"But I conceive these criticisms would much better be said now, while the subject of them is present to explain this position, than in some distant future, when time shall have sealed his lips and stayed his busy pen forever. His fine command of English and evident scholarship will then avail him nothing, if some surviving, or perhaps yet unborn student rise up and brand his work destructive."

Thank you, Mr. Walton, for predicting that piece of irony. We are doing just that. Indeed, my current research hinges upon fixing at least part of Townsend's destructive mess.

As far as I am aware, no more shots were fired between Townsend and Walton in public.  The 1925 history reports, "Here was born a third hatred of Townsend which became very bitter until it was fortunately dispelled a few years later." He does not record anything more.

Meanwhile, the conflict between Townsend and his US National Museum supervisor John Merton Aldrich was intensifying.

Continued in Part IV.