Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Sea Urchin Flame Wars of Theodor Mortensen!

Today, as they said on TV, a special "echinological" episode! Something a little offbeat...

I focus on a giant in the historical echinoderm literature-one Professor Ole Theodor Mortensen (1868-1952) who was at the Zoological Museum of Denmark.

Its not an understatement to say that Mortensen was a HUGE name in echinoderm biology. He published on every group and on multiple aspects-classification, larval biology and the list goes on...

Probably his most incredible achievement though was that he wrote this huge series of 15 HUGE books that established THE classification of sea urchins . Go here to read more about them.. 
But, all genius comes with a certain...eccentricity.

Mortensen could be a harsh critic and towards the twilight years he began to rather strongly express his dissatisfaction with the work of his fellow colleagues!

Some of the opinions stated are OUT IN THE OPEN and published in a book that he probably realized would persist for hundreds of years.

I found all of these quotes in just ONE volume (albeit the last one) of Mortensen's famous sea urchin monograph published in 1951... but much of his work spans several decades.

Some Background on Taxonomic Synonymy
To give you readers a bit of background MOST of these discussions are about what's called taxonomic synonymy.  You can read a full account here

Basically, this is when extra names are produced for the same species owing to
1.  Ignorance or mistakes (i.e., new "species"named without checking the literature to verify that the species name did not already exist)
2. Incorrect species assessments (the author may have seen a damaged specimen or simply had a species description that did not account for all the details)

Either way- the oldest name has priority over all the others. Its often the work of a dedicated taxonomists or systematist (such as myself or Theodor Mortensen) to make certain that there are NO "extra" names out there. And of course, that we as scientists, do not produce unecessary names cluttering up the place!

So, yes-a perfect profession for you very order-obsessed types!

The Wit of Theodor Mortensen!

To put you in his mindset (and to be fair to him) remember that he'd been working on these books for DECADES.  And this was after MANY years of having to deal with the various crazy "legalese" of taxonomic synonymy and nomenclature.

He often seemed particularly exasperated (a frustration I know well!) when his colleagues simply did not exercise the care or effort to publish their species names correctly.

I should also mention that for scientists-statements like this are VERY unusual..especially when you put them into, not just a journal, but a book....

Some of the most colorful comments were about his colleague-paleontologist Jules Lambert...

pg. 579-he starts with kind words..
I am exceedingly indebted to that work, as well as to many other works of Thiery and especially Lambert, works so full of learning about the fossil Echinoids. Without, especially the Essai de nomenclature raisonnee it would have been impossible for me to get an anyway adequate knowledge of the immense number of the fossil Echinoids.  
But then cuts loose!
But the way in which, particularly Lambert treats the nomenclature, arbitrarily adopting old, impossible names instead of names otherwise unanimously used in the whole echinological literature and thus changing the old good names and interchanging them-like the names Echinocyamus and Fibularia- or using them in quite a new meaning like e.g., Spatangus or Schizaster, and then impertinently, as a dictator, changing the names of the recent forms, about which he knows next to nothing, can only be characterized as a crime to science. 
Authors on recent Echinoids have in general neglected Lambert's nomenclatural changes, whereas his paleontological colleagues generally followed him through thick and thin. Alone Fourtau (Fortau was another researcher) ventured sometimes to defy the tyranny of Lambert. (!)
On the next page (pg. 580), we are treated to his opinions regarding Hubert Lyman Clark, a widely published  researcher at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology
Image from the Smithsonian Archives.
In this connection it may be mentioned that H. L. Clark sometimes undertook quite absurd changes of names, as e.g., the name Echinocyamus pusillus changed into Echinocyamus minutus on the base of a very dubitable old text....
Mortensen frequently took HL Clark to task...here is a bit from pg. 37-38 (some details omitted for the sake of getting-to-the-point)
Apparently Clark did not take the trouble of reading Leske's description of his Spatangus ovatus...... It is also an offense...... to think that he could draw the very characteristic test of Maretia planulata so badly....on the whole, this Spatangus ovatus, badly figured and described, and without locality deserves only to be left entirely out of consideration as not recognizable. But Clark deserves to be seriously  blamed for having so inconsiderately inroduced such change of a common, otherwise universally used name.
Mortensen (pg. 85) was often sarcastic... (on a rival colleague's observation of behavior in a sea biscuit type irregular urchin)
Another observation by MacBride , Op. cit is that he has seen a young specimen climbing up the vertical walls of an aquarium as do regular sea-urchins; he sees herein proof that it must be a descendant from some Regular Echinoid. Well, yes, of course--What else could be the origin of the Irregular Echinoids!
But probably one of the most interesting "conversations" was Mortensen summarizing his differences  with noted marine biologist Alexander Agassiz.  At first, he is effusive with praise!!
A great step forwards in our knowledge of Echinoids was made by the grand work "Revision of the Echini" by A. Agassiz (1872-74). With immense learning and energy he cleand up the older literature on the recent Echini, examining the specimens in the various collections in the world. This work will remain classical, the foundation of the study of the recent Echini; and most of the photographic illustrations are simply perfect, nothing like it having ever been published. 
But then there is a turn in his opinion...
But much worse I found his second great work, the report on the Challenger Echinoidea (1881)..... going into a critical study of the work I could not help finding it--I cannot help saying it--a bad piece of work, not at all worthy the author of the "Revision of the Echini"...
Strong words! But not without repurcussions..
In my first larger work, the report on the Echinoidea of the Danish Ingolf Expedition I. 1904, I gave--rather unrestrictedly I admit--vent to my criticism especially of the Challenger Echinoidea, which resulted in a furious attack on me in Agassiz's next work, the "Panamic Deep Sea Echini", even accusing me of "gratuitous misrepresentation of facts" (Op. cit. pg. 25)..  I replied to Agassiz's criticism and proved its injustice, particularly the alleged misrepresenation of facts, which was of course, not at all justified, there being no misrepresentation at all....
Amazingly..there is more and much of it is spread throughout Mortensen's work.. His opinions and comments are a fun little "easter egg" that sometimes pop up when going through his monographs and published papers.

So there you have it! The old-fashioned version of Flame wars, easter eggs and the ultimate fan boy commentary.. on sea urchin papers!

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