Sunday, 23 March 2008

I Write like Mullets; or, this Post is not about Fish ... ... but it could've been.* (Consider your blessings counted.) This post is about 19th Century hubris. The following was written about somebody: He was a tolerably good observer and compiler, and surpassed ordinary men, perhaps, in ability to embody in words the results of his observations of various disconnected facts. Name! That! Tolerably-Good-Observer! *I also could've written about Darwin's cheeky marginalia, of which I've enjoyed quite more than I can bear today. That post would have been about fishes, and would've included this excerpt from G.R. Waterhouse's 9 August 1843 letter to Darwin: But as the term "natural" certainly has a very vague meaning when thus used, I have no objection to apply the word "useful" instead—But as the word natural for a kind of classification I merely follow others—it is no doubt presumptuous. Darwin's response? However different another sex or larva is we call it one species, when we know descent.—When we do not hesitate to call Amphioxus Fish.— Young Charles is perturbed. (In my first draft he was "upset," then I remembered he was English.) Amphioxus is not a fish. Don't believe me? Ask my pretentious dissertation: To Paulina’s question—"Is it a fish?"—[T.H.] Huxley would answer that as "it conforms to the Vertebrate type ... I can see no reason for removing it from the class Pisces." But conformation to the vertebrate type is different from being, in an ontological sense, a vertebrate, as Huxley everywhere admits in his proposal. He enumerates the structures in the amphioxus homologous, not identical, to those in vertebrates. His identification here is typical: "that part of the cerebro-spinal axis of Amphioxus which lies in front of the seventh myotome answers to the preauditory part of the brain in the higher Vertebrata, and the corresponding part of the head to the trabecular region of the skull in them." The presence of these homologues in the amphioxus is certainly significant—it demonstrates that the animal is related to the progenitor of what Ernst Haeckel [elsewhere] called "the whole stem"—but it does not warrant its inclusion in the stem itself, and as Wharton knew, there is a fundamental problem with any classificatory system which would include the amphioxus among the class Pisces. All this almost-but-not-quite-a-fish-talk titillates, doesn't it? It doesn't? I expect you'll complain about the post-to-footnote ratio too now. As much as I'd like to put the bulk of my prose in the body of what I write, I can't help but live in the footnotes. My body graphs uniformly fail to inspire, but that's only because I write like mullets: business up front, party in the rear! (Make of that what you will.) (Only not too much. This is a family blog.)

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