Readers’ wildlife photos and stories: Toxic nectar!

May 16, 2022 • 8:00 am

Today we have another entomological tale from reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior. The prose is his and the photos are credited (click to enlarge photos):

Toxic Nectar

In 401 BC, an army of Greek mercenaries led by Commander Xenophon crossed Anatolia (modern day Turkey) to seize the throne of Persia. Xenophon kept a diary of the expedition, entitled Anabasis, or ‘The March of the Ten Thousand’, which today is a classic of ancient Greek literature. Among many battles and other adventures, the commander described one curious episode. His troops came across a supply of honey, and some of the men went for it with gusto. In no time they regretted it: the soldiers could not stand up, and were assailed by bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea. ‘So they lay, hundreds of them, as if there had been a great defeat, a prey to the cruellest despondency. But the next day, none had died; and almost at the same hour of the day at which they had eaten they recovered their senses, and on the third or fourth day got on their legs again like convalescents after a severe course of medical treatment.’ (Anabasis, Book IV).

Fig. 1. ‘The march of the Ten Thousand’ by Bernard Granville Baker, 1901.

The Romans had their own taste of Anatolian honey, this time with grimmer consequences. In 97 BC, General Pompey the Great led an army across Turkey in pursuit of king Mithridates of Pontus, an old enemy of Rome. The local people, known as the Heptacomitae, withdrew. But they left a gift for Pompey’s men, possibly on Mithridates’ orders. The geographer and historian Strabo tells us what happened: ‘The Heptacomitae cut down three maniples [around 1,500 soldiers] of Pompey’s army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.’

Fig. 2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great. The Roman general didn’t expect honey used against his troops © Michël Manseur, Wikimedia Commons.

Strabo’s ‘crazing honey’ that incapacitated those Greek and Roman troops is known today as ‘mad honey’. It comes from nectar produced by the common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum), which is endemic and abundant in northern Turkey, the Black Sea region. This plant is full of grayanotoxins, a group of toxic substances that protect it against herbivores, but also accumulate in the nectar.

Fig. 3. The common rhododendron, a source of mad honey © Rasbak, Wikipedia.

The bees that produce mad honey, the Caucasian (Apis mellifera caucasia) and Anatolian (Apis mellifera anatoliaca) honey bee subspecies, seem to be resistant to grayanotoxins. But other subspecies are not: they die, or become paralysed, sluggish or erratic after consuming R. ponticum nectar – although they learn to avoid rhododendron flowers. For reasons not yet known, common rhododendron growing outside its native range has lower levels of grayanotoxins, so mad honey is not a problem.

Fig. 4. Northern Turkey, home of mad honey © Modern Farmer.

Rhododendron honey is eaten in tiny amounts by local people for its perceived medicinal, hallucinogenic or aphrodisiac properties. But an adventurous gourmet taking even a spoonful of the stuff risks being struck by a long list of unpleasant and dangerous clinical symptoms. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people in Turkey – some of them tourists – to end up in the hospital after experimenting with mad honey.

So if you find yourself in Anatolia for your holidays, don’t be too bold in exploring exotic local products. You may share the fate of Pompey’s soldiers.

Fig. 5. Turkish mad honey, known locally as deli bal or tutan bal ©

A plant that secretes toxic nectar may seem to be engaged in self-harm, as this sugar-rich substance is the main incentive for pollinators to pay a visit to its flowers. But hundreds of plant species produce nectar laced with secondary compounds such as alkaloids, terpenes and phenolics, which are often noxious or unpalatable. So there must a reason for this apparent paradox. Toxicity may be a way of excluding inefficient pollinators, reserving the metabolically expensive nectar for a few specialists that are immune to secondary compounds. Many of these chemicals defend plants against pathogens and herbivores, so a few dead pollinators may be acceptable collateral damage.

Toxic honey may be a side effect of nectar with protective properties, but the broad-leaved helleborine orchid () intoxicates flower visitors for its own benefit.

Fig. 6. A broad-leaved helleborine flower © Björn S., Wikipedia.

This orchid is found throughout much of Europe and Asia in all sorts of habitats. It was introduced to America, where it is viewed as an invasive species in some states. Despite packing a reasonable supply of nectar, the broad-leaved helleborine is often ignored by insects, a fact noted by Charles Darwin. The orchid’s small, inconspicuous, greenish/purplish flowers are not exactly good marketing for attracting bees and other pollinators. But one group of insects are keen visitors: social wasps such as the European (Vespula germanica) and the common wasp (V. vulgaris).

Adult wasps feed mostly on carbohydrates, which they get from nectar – or from your sugary drink, if you give them a chance. But the nectar of broad-leaved helleborines is special: it’s laced with chemicals with narcotic properties. It also contains ethanol and other alcohols, possibly as the result of fermentation by yeasts and bacteria. This chemical cocktail is toxic or repellent to many visitors, but not to wasps: they lap it up. Unavoidably, a concoction of opioid and morphine derivatives plus alcohol, even in minute amounts, has consequences for its consumers. Wasps become intoxicated and sluggish after a few sips, which suits the orchid very well. They spend more time on the flower, staggering about and thus increasing their chances of ending up with a pollinium (a sticky mass of pollen grains) glued to their heads. Watch tipsy wasps at work. Nobody knows if the wasps are hungover afterwards.

Fig. 7. A wasp with pollinia attached to its face © Saarland, Wikipedia.

Orchids are highly diverse: with approximately 25,000 described species, they make up about 10% of all flowering plants. About one third of orchids do not offer food rewards – nectar or pollen – to visitors. Instead, they have evolved all sorts of tricks to attract insects. Some flowers have the shape, colours or scents of food-rewarding plants; they may bait male insects by resembling their female counterparts, or by releasing pheromone mimics.

It’s no wonder orchids were the subject of Darwin’s second book, published in 1862 (On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and On the Good Effects of Intercrossing). Darwin worked with orchids to test some evolutionary ideas such as coevolution. He could never have imagined that his studies would inspire H.G. Wells (1866-1946) to write the tale of a Mr Winter-Wedderburn, who buys a strange orchid and tells his housekeeper: ‘There are such queer things about orchids. Darwin studied their fertilisation, and showed that the whole structure of an ordinary orchid flower was contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen from plant to plant’. But science turns to horror when the orchid flowers: it produces a scent that makes Winter-Wedderburn pass out. The orchid wraps its roots around his neck to suck his blood, but luckily the housekeeper is on hand to rescue the unfortunate gardener from the vampire plant. Wells’ story was translated into several languages and inspired numerous imitators into a new genre of science/horror fiction that is still around today: the man-killing plants. if you are old enough, you may remember the hungry orchid from Little Shop of Horrors.

Fig. 8. Herbert George Wells: ‘The flowering of the strange orchid’, The Pall Mall Budget, 1894.

The reception of Wells’ story reflects our fascination with Nature and its mysterious ways. Certainly much more remains to be discovered about plants and their pollinators, so many a fantastic tale can yet be written.

A repost of a post by Matthew: Belgian resistance fighters try to free a trainload of Jews headed to Auschwitz

April 19, 2022 • 11:30 am

Exactly two years ago today, Matthew, who’s studied European resistance to the Nazis and written books about it, wrote on this site about a daring and largely successful attempt of three members of the Belgian Resistance to free a trainload of Jews being taken to Auschwitz. It’s a great story about a horror that has so few upsides, and I’m going to link to it again today. Simply click on the title below to go to Matthew’s 2020 post.

Bravery in the midst of horror: the attack on Convoy 20 to Auschwitz

Matthew Cobb

77 years ago, on the evening of 19-20th April 1943, an audacious operation to save Jews being deported to Nazi Germany took place in Belgium. This was the only known organized attempt in the whole of Occupied Europe to stop the deportation of Jews. What follows is an extract from my book The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis (2010). These passages are based on Marion Schreiber’s excellent 2000 work, translated in 2004 as The Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz.

Readers’ wildlife photos

April 14, 2022 • 8:30 am

Reader Athayde Tonhasca Junior submitted an unusual but absorbing contribution about bees, incorporating biology, history, and art. His captions are indented, and don’t forget to click on the photos to enlarge them.

The Western or European honey bee* (Apis mellifera), as well as other bees from the genus Apis, secrete liquid wax through specialised glands located in their abdominal segments. Once exposed to the air, the wax hardens into flakes and falls off. Worker bees chew and mould the wax into honeycomb, the architecturally complex array of cells that store honey and pollen, and house the brood (eggs, larvae and pupae).

Fig. 1. Wax coming out of glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen © Helga Heilmann/Barrett 2015, Encaustics.

Beeswax is a natural plastic and lubricant, used since prehistory for polishing, waterproofing, metal casting and embalming. Beeswax candles were a convenient alternative to smoky, messy and stinky torches, oil-fuelled lamps and tallow candles. The popularity of beeswax candles rose with the spread of Christianity then fell after the Reformation, when candlelight lost its importance in liturgical practices. But beeswax is still a profitable commodity for candle manufacture, for the preservation of fresh fruit, and in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

The softness and pliability of beeswax presented the ancients with a candle moment (a lightbulb moment was way in the future): a thin layer of wax on a flat piece of wood, stone or metal could be written on with a sharpened stick. The tablet prototype was born.

The Greeks and Romans improved the concept by using a wooden frame shaped like a shallow tray, which was filled with a layer of beeswax. Frames were fastened together with wires or twine, so that tablets could be opened and shut like a book; the edges prevented the waxy surfaces from rubbing against each other. A stylus made from iron, bronze or bone was used to scratch words in the wax.

Fig. 2. Reproductions of a Roman wax tablet and a stylus © Peter van der Sluijs, Wikimedia Commons.

Tablets were portable and reusable writing surfaces; the beeswax could be warmed and the surface smoothed over. The stylus was flattened at one end so it could be used to scrape off any unwanted writing. For the Romans, a tabula rasa (scraped tablet) meant to start over, just as, centuries later, the slate and chalk used by school pupils was the origin of the term ‘a clean slate’. A good writer was said to have ‘a good stylus’. With time, ‘a stylus’ came to mean a distinctive characteristic of any kind, so giving rise to ‘style.’

Figs. 3a & 3b. A Greek man (~500 BC) and a Roman woman (~50 AC) with their wax tablets and styluses © Pottery Fan (a) and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Wikimedia Commons.

Papyrus and vellum, the sturdy writing media of the day, were expensive and therefore out of reach of most people. Wax tablets were the affordable alternative, thus used widely for ephemeral communications such as letters, drafts, drawings and accounting ledgers. But permanent records such as wills and contracts were registered in wax as well. The earliest written documents recorded in Britain, dating from 50 to 80 AD, are Roman wooden tablets retrieved between 2010 and 2013 from a construction site in London (the Bloomberg Tablets).

Fig. 4. A Bloomberg tablet. Writings on wax left scratches on the wooden surface that can be seen from photographs taken with different angles of light, thus casting shadows upon the tablet surface © Museum of London Archaeology.

Until the Middle Ages, virtually everyone who learned to write did so on a wax tablet. Livy, Ovid, Cicero, Martial and other classical authors mentioned tabulae ceratae (wax tablets) in their texts, so it is likely that much of their thinking was first drafted in beeswax. These writings were then copied over and over onto parchment and later on paper, so they survived over the centuries to inspire, by their own account, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and Bernard Shaw.

So, if next summer you find yourself sitting in a garden with a book in your hands while listening to the bees buzzing around you, spare a moment to contemplate the possible connections between them and your book. You will have another reason to cherish the honey bee.

But Apis mellifera was not the only insect to have made a considerable contribution to the culture and literacy of the Western world.

No doubt you’ve seen plants with abnormal growths that resemble tumours or warts in animals. These are galls, which are caused by agents such as viruses, nematodes, mites and insects. When a plant is invaded by a gall-forming organism, it produces hormones that make the cells in the affected area enlarge and multiply quickly, creating bizarre deformations in an array of colours, shapes and sizes. Some plants are severely weakened by galls (the French wine industry was devastated by the grape gall in the 1860s), but many show no ill effects.

Fig 5. Common spangle galls on a leaf of common oak (Quercus robur) © Roger Griffith, Wikimedia Commons.

Gall wasps (Family Cynipidae) are the main gall-forming organisms in oaks (Quercus spp.) These wasps are small and difficult to spot, since they spend most of their life inside the galls. So it is not surprising that we know little about their biology and ecology; for many species, there are no records of males. Worldwide, about 1,000 species of cynipid wasps have been identified, predominantly in the Northern hemisphere.

When a female gall wasp such as Andricus kollari lays her eggs in the developing buds of an oak tree, chemicals released by her cause the formation of galls that look like marbles hanging from twigs – hence they are known as oak marble galls.

Fig. 6. The oak marble gall wasp, Andricus kollari © Graham Calow, NatureSpot.

Fig. 7. Oak marble galls © Rasbak, Wikimedia Commons.

Galls act as ‘resource sinks’, drawing chemical compounds from other parts of the plant. In the case of oaks, galls concentrate high levels of tannic acid, a substance used throughout the world to produce traditional medicines, hair dyes and tanning agents. Since time immemorial, tannic acid from crushed oak galls has been mixed with water, iron sulphate and gum arabic to produce a bluish-black liquid that adheres well to different surfaces. This concoction, known as iron-gall ink, was the main medium for writing and drawing in the Western world from the 5th to the early 20th century.

Fig. 8. Iron-gall ink © Deborah Miller, The Huntington.

Medieval monks used iron-gall ink to copy manuscripts surviving from antiquity; many of the historical documents in libraries and archives around the world were produced with iron-gall ink, including letters, maps, book-keeping records, ships’ logs, the Domesday Book, Shakespeare’s will, the confession of Guy Fawkes, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, scores of J.S. Bach, early drafts of the American Constitution, and manuscripts of Victor Hugo.

Fig. 9. Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait on iron-gall ink. Turin, Royal Library.

Fig. 10. The Magna Carta, written in iron-gall ink on parchment. The British Library.

After about 1,400 years as the main tool for the production of information, iron-gall ink was replaced in the mid-1800s by India ink, which was cheaper, easier to make and yielded a stronger black colour. The phasing out of iron-gall ink was long overdue because this instrument of creation also destroys: the ink’s iron-tannin mixture is corrosive, so with time paper becomes discoloured and brittle; documents start showing cracks and holes, eventually crumbling away. Conservation teams and curators around the world have their work cut out for them trying to restore and protect the heritage created with the help of some unassuming wasps.


*Honey bee or honeybee? Bumble bee or bumblebee?

Both are accepted forms, but some dictionaries recommend spelling ‘honeybee’, ‘housefly’ and ‘bedbug’ as one word, a style followed by The New York Times and The Guardian. But many entomologists – and The Entomological Society of America – follow the ‘Snodgrass Rule’:

‘Regardless of dictionaries, we have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says: If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together. Thus we have such names as house fly, blow fly, and robber fly contrasted with dragonfly, caddicefly, and butterfly, because the latter are not flies, just as an aphislion is not a lion and a silverfish is not a fish. The honey bee is an insect and is preeminently a bee; “honeybee” is equivalent to “Johnsmith.”’   —Robert E. Snodgrass, Anatomy of the Honey Bee, 1956.

There are many kinds of bees: sweat bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, and bumble bees among them.  The ‘bee’ part of the word is a reflection of the insect’s identity, and so it stands on its own.

A bed bug and a stink bug are real bugs (insects from the order Hemiptera), whereas a ladybug is not (it’s a beetle). And for many entomologists, the ‘yellow jacket’ used as a synonym for wasp in some dictionaries should be reserved for a jacket that’s yellow; the insect is a ‘yellowjacket’.

Examining one bit of Maori “knowledge”: Did the Maori or other Polynesians discover Antarctica?

January 12, 2022 • 12:20 pm

UPDATE: Apparently the Guardian fell for this too (click on screenshot):

This one’s really bad because the paper fell for the whole story: hook, line, and sinker. Not a word of criticism do they utter, nor is there any attempt to seek out scientist-critics of this unbelievable myth.


I’m not sure whether the New Zealand Herald, where the article below was published, is a woke newspaper, but after reading the article (click on screenshot), a colleague said “It looks as if it’s both woke and asleep.” Indeed! Look at the article’s audacious title, first asserting that the Polynesians were the real discoverers of Antarctica (the first confirmed sighting of the continent was actually in January, 1820, by a Russian expedition), but also that the Polynesian discovery preceded the “western” one by over a thousand years! Further, this is apparently “not news to the Māori.”

My point in investigating this claim is because it may well be an example of mātauranga Māori, or Māori “ways of knowing” that are on their way to being taught in New Zealand (NZ) as “coequal to modern science” in secondary school and university science classes. I’ve already discussed this at length (see the several posts here), and won’t reiterate my opposition to the “coequal” proposal save to say these two things:

a. Some bits of mātauranga Māori do constitute “knowledge” and could conceivably become parts of science class, though clearly not dominating parts. Examples include how to capture animals and how to navigate the South Pacific.

b. The system of mātauranga Māori (henceforth “MM”) as a whole, however, is a mixture of legend, mythology, word of mouth, superstition (including full-blown creationism), morality, and philosophy, as well as some examples of knowledge, that would, if taught as co-equal with the “way of knowing” of modern science, destroy science education in New Zealand. Imagine a student learning both mātauranga Māori creationism and biological evolution in the very same class, and told “okay, now sort it out for yourself” (no assertion of hegemony allowed!).  But since the NZ government and many schools and universities see this as acceptable, those adherents to the “coequal” system are sacrificing the education of their populace in the cause of Wokeism. Of course Kiwis should all be acquainted with the history of the Māori, their beliefs, and their oppression, but an indigenous knowledge system based largely on non-empirical criteria should not be taught as “science”.

Well, below is a piece of MM that, it seems to me, is likely to be taught in science and history classes as “truth”. However, it’s almost certainly untrue. Click the screenshot below to read it, though is larded with Māori words that make it harder to read. See whether you find the claims credible. The article is based on an original paper published by Anderson et al. in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, last year, and I’m not able to obtain from my library. However, I’ve put the reference at the bottom of this post.

The claims:

study by New Zealand researchers found that Polynesians may have been the first to discover the Earth’s southernmost continent, Antarctica, dating back to the seventh century.

But it comes as no shock to some iwi as this had always been known, but methods of recounting indigenous history do not receive the same recognition as western or academic literature.

“We didn’t discover this, it’s a known narrative,” lead researcher Dr Priscilla Wehi told the Herald.

“Our job was to bring together all the information [including oral tradition and grey literature] and communicating it to the world.”

Led by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the research focused on Māori connections with the frozen continent.

The first recorded sighting of Antarctica was during a Russian expedition in 1820, and the first person to touch the mainland of Antarctica was an American explorer in 1821.

Now the new paper can reveal a southern voyage was conducted by Polynesian chief Hui Te Rangiora and his crew over a thousand years before the Russian expedition, and long before Māori migrated to New Zealand.

But how did the authors know this? There was, after all, no written language to recount this epochal voyage, which, by the way, consists only of oral legend about “a southern voyage.” Traveling south is not the same as “discovering Antarctica,” and of course the Māori weren’t even in New Zealand in 650 AD, the legendary date of discovery (they began colonizing NZ around 1300 AD). To discover Antarctica, you have to either see the continent or land on it, and there’s no evidence from this article that they did either, much less made a voyage below the Antarctic Circle.

Here’s the “way of knowing” that the newspaper and the authors of the paper in Proc. Roy. Soc. NZ (Wehi et al., see below) used:

Much of Polynesian history is recorded through oral tradition and big discoveries as such are disregarded, but Māori scientists are proving it to be a reliable source of evidence. [JAC: Like creationism?]

“History tends to be told by one voice and there’s often a dominant narrative. Often indigenous history and even women’s history becomes invisible, so for me it’s about making that history visible.”

While the team explored grey literature (research, reports, technical documents, other material published outside of common academic or commercial publishing channels) co-researcher Dr Billy van Uitregt said oral tradition brought “richness to the conversation”.

I’ve never heard of “grey literature” before, but in this case it surely must be derived from oral tradition. It may be “rich,” but is it true? Well, author of the original paper William van Uitregt says that having evidence in writing is actually inimical to finding truth:

“It highlights the limitations of the written narratives that we have. that I don’t think can be captured in written word”.

“I’d probably argue that [translating oral tradition into academic literature] isn’t a good thing.”

“You can lose the wairua (spirit) of the human connection to the knowledge which I think is very fundamental to mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge).”

And there you have it:  the real admission that MM is not the same thing as modern science. For empirical evidence (or archaeological evidence, not in existence in this case) is not enough to support a truth claim. Nope, you have to have the wairua, or “spirit” to have “truth” in MM. Are they now supposed to teach “spirit” in science class as a substitute for the empirical verification of modern science? It seems so.

Well enough of that palaver. I’ve ordered the original Wehi et al. article by interlibrary loan, and if it gives evidence for a Polynesian discovery of Antarctica, you’ll be the first to know. (Note the conflation of Polynesians with Māori in the headline above. Modern Māori people descend from Polynesians, but it wasn’t the Maori of New Zealand who supposedly discovered Antarctica.)

UPDATES: Here’s a recent paper, not yet in print, that I got from a colleague in New Zealand. This one I have the pdf for, so if you want to see it, make a judicious request.  The paper is now online, so click to acsess. It appears paywalled, but, as always, a judicious request may bet you the pdf. 

I’ve now learned that all  of the authors are Māori , so perhaps there’s some kind of internecine division among the indigenous people about what constitutes “truth”!


The paper is short—5.5 pages—and will repay reading, especially if you want to see the weakness of “traditional knowledge” going back 1300 years. It all rests on oral transmission, of course, and hinges crucially on the translation of what is orally transmitted. It rests on a seemingly mythical voyage of a Polynesian canoe constructed entirely of human bones! That alone makes it unlikely, but authors of the paper above persist in their inquiry.  For example, they translate the Māori story this way:

The rocks growing out of the sea beyond Rapa Island; the monstrous waves; the female dwelling in those waves, with her hair waving and floating on the surface of the ocean; the tai-uka-a-pia [the frozen sea]; the deceitful animal seen on the sea, which dived below the surface a very gloomy and dark place, where the sun is not seen. There is also there [a kind of] rock whose summit pierces the sky with steep bare cliffs where vegetation does not grow. Such was the work of this vessel at that time; and also to convey people to all the islands. It was this vessel, Te-Ivi-o-Ateathat discovered all these great and wonderful things on the ocean, and all the surrounding islands.

There is some consideration of the term “the frozen sea”, which Anderson et. al say is more likely to mean “sea foam”, but they add this:

Except for the rocks beyond Rapa, the things mentioned in it have no particular geographic provenance. They are anonymous rocky reefs, large waves, marine mammals, mountainous islands, bare cliffs etc., and the long-haired sea-woman is typical of the numerous oddities such as floating islands and canoe-swallowing clams, that inhabited the mythical Polynesian ocean. The list was interpreted imaginatively by Smith (1899, pp. 1011). He thought the female tresses were bull-kelp, the deceitful animal was the walrus [sic] or the sea-lion or the elephant seal, and by combining the frozen seawith rocks growing out of the sea, he created ice-bergs.

Finally, the authors consider whether Polynesian vessels of that era would even have survived such a voyage, and consider it very unlikely. They tender these conclusions at the end of their paper:


(1) Wehi et al. (2021a, 2021b), use unexamined traditional narratives, and stories based on those, to argue that there is a pre-European history of Antarctic exploration by Polynesians. Analysis of the origin and content of these sources does not support that conclusion. In particular uka-tairefers most probably to a foaming rather than frozen sea.

(2) It is implausible that pre-European Polynesian canoes and their crews could have survived passages through the circumpolar westerlies or a sojourn in Antarctic conditions. Insofar as there is material evidence of Polynesian voyaging, it did not go beyond the northern islands of the subantarctic zone.

(3) Overall, it is most unlikely that Antarctic history began with pre-European voyaging.

That last bit won’t make MM advocates happy! But I want to add a digression of sorts that Anderson et al. offer about using this voyage to contrast MM with modern science:

These [traditional] stories, presented without nuance, qualification or critique, make extraordinary claims without offering commensurable evidence. Here, it is contended that they must be evaluated critically. In doing so, they prove debatable on key points of interpretation and plausibility. As this approach bears on the question of how mātauranga Māori – ‘Māori knowledge and all that underpins it, as well as Māori ways of knowing(Broughton and McBreen 2015, p. 83) is handled in scholarly publication, a brief comment is pertinent.

. . .Although widely discussed in positive terms, notably in environmental sciences (e.g. Hikuroa 2017; McAllister et al. 2019), the collaborative enterprise of bringing together parallel or intersecting interests in mātauranga and westernscholarship involves epistemological differences. Mātauranga emphasises integration over separation of knowledge categories, received over hypothesised interpretations and experiential over experimental practice. Exposing traditional knowledge, as received, to scholarly critique thus confronts the intrinsic contradiction of regarding mātauranga with a sense of critical distance and objectivitywhile it is, simultaneously a way of Being and a way of Knowing(Smith et al. 2016, p. 152).

There is no simple solution to this dilemma. Aspects of mātauranga that are implausible or irrational to western scholarship cannot be simply ignored and dissecting them out risks discarding contexts that disclose original meanings. Historical scholarship, at least, has to contend with the whole story, but critically

. . .The contrasting approach of Wehi et al. (2021a, 2021b), places unexamined traditional accounts of early Polynesian voyaging, or stories based on them, alongside archival records of historical Antarctic voyaging as if the two sources have the same historiographical status, i.e. as if traditional stories can be regarded without qualification as historical records. This is the method, comprehensively criticised (e.g. Sorrenson 1979), of Percy Smith and Elsdon Best more than a century ago. An analytical approach (Tau 2003, pp. 1520), taken here, considers the same accounts in terms of their origins, content and interpretation.

And that, my best beloved, is why no MM should be taught as coequal to science unless the empirical claims of MM have been verified using the methods of science. Here a scholarly analysis of an unlikely claim shows that claim to be what it seemed to be from the outset: bogus.

And remember it was Māori scholars who were largely responsible for debunking the Māori myths.

Finally, for the short read, here’s the bit about the Māori discovery of Antarctica from the Wikipedia article on “History of Antarctica“:

According to Māori oral history in New Zealand, Hui Te Rangiora (also known as ‘Ui Te Rangiora) and his crew explored Antarctic waters in the early seventh century on the vessel Te Ivi o Atea. Accounts name the area Te tai-uka-a-pia, which describes a ‘frozen ocean’ and ‘arrowroot’, which resembles fresh snow when scraped. However, this interpretation of the original account is disputed by Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Henry Buck) who lists evidence for his belief that ‘later historians embellished the tales by adding details learned from European whalers and teachers’. This interpretation of oral history and the probability of such a voyage have likewise been dismissed more recently by Ngāi Tahu scholars, who agree that ‘it is very unlikely that Māori or other Polynesian voyaging reached the Antarctic’.

I fear that it’s too late for New Zealand to get back on the rails and teach science as science in school, because Wokeness, once it gets started, is very hard to stop. And that’s what the coequality of MM with science is about: an attempt to valorize an oppressed minority by arguing that their very myths are the same thing as modern science. There are better ways to emphasize the Māori contributions to New Zealand without destroying science education in that country.



Wehi PM, Scott NJ, Beckwith J, Rodgers RP, Gillies T, van Uitregt W., and Watene K. 2021. A short scan of Māori journey to Antarctica. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. doi:10.1080/ 03036758.2021.1917633.

Anderson, A., T O’Regan, P. Parata-Goodall, M. Stevens, and T. M. Tau. 2021.  On the improbability of pre-European Polynesian voyages to Antarctica: a response to Priscilla Wehi and colleagues Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, in press.

Guest post: A scholarly critique of the 1619 Project finds many omissions and distortions

January 3, 2022 • 9:30 am

A friend of mine who’s followed the New York Times‘s 1619 Project sent me a link to an article that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below. It’s in the Catalyst Journal, and my friend adds “don’t confuse it with Catalyst Magazine, which is pure woo!!” First, though, be aware that Catalyst seems to be largely socialist and anti-capitalist, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything they say simply because of that. Here’s its mission as stated on its website:

Discussion of capitalism is not off the table any longer. Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy launches with the aim of doing everything it can to promote and deepen this conversation. Our focus is, as our title suggests, to develop a theory and strategy with capitalism as its target — both in the North and in the Global South. It is an ambitious agenda, but this is a time for thinking big.

Catalyst is a peer-reviewed journal sustained by the support of over 7,500 individual subscribers and our institutional readers.

This explains the remarks on capitalism included at the end of this critique by historian James Oakes. (Note: it’s long: 47 pages as I’ve printed it out, but if you’re interested in the 1619 Project, its implications, its benefits, or its dangers, you should read it.). Click on the screenshot or go here; both afford free access.

And if you’re worried about Oakes’s credibility, below are his credentials from Bookreporter. You can also go to his Wikipedia bio, where you can see his impressive list of books relevant to the issues of slavery and race. One simply can’t dismiss his critique on the grounds of his credentials!

My friend’s take on Oakes’s piece was sufficiently eloquent and thoughtful that I asked him/her—not a pronoun but a disguise!—if I could use it to introduce the article, and he/she agreed. It’s between the two lines below. At the bottom I give a few quotes from Oakes’s piece:

The beating heart of wokeness is racial guilt––sincerely felt by remorseful white liberals, but amplified by BLM advocates seeking to convince the liberals that they and all of their ancestors have always been “supremacists” and nothing else. Although repentance and reparations are called for, the demand is made without an expectation that the original sin will thereby be purged. Whiteness itself is construed as an indelible sign of racism.

The New York Times is impressive and invaluable in many ways, but it has become desperately trendy in others. With its recent 1619 Project, the paper has lent its well-deserved prestige to the woke worldview. The Project amounts to a recasting of American history that turns racial domination into an all-explanatory factor––the only significant motive in “the white mind” from the seventeenth century until today. The result is a moralizing simplification of the key issues in our national development.

As the following essay by James Oakes––Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY––reveals, one of those distortions has to do with the work of historians themselves. According toThe 1619 Project, all preceding experts have whitewashed the record. They have minimized the importance of 1619, when the first British slave ship landed in the Colonies, while jingoistically celebrating 1776 instead. And they have misinterpreted the Revolution itself, Abolitionism, the Civil War, and the economic development of the country, which, it is said, was powered above all by slave labor.

As the author of such books as The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, James Oakes is well situated to assess those claims. You will see that he shows them to be libels of nuanced studies by major American historians––liberals, one and all. And you’ll be left to wonder whether the New York Times, always so insistent on fidelity to facts, will now apologize to its readers and cease recommending its deeply flawed Project to schools and colleges across the country. (Don’t wait up for it.)

JAC: Here are a few quotes from Oakes’s piece:

If the 1619 Project was not actually introducing Americans to an aspect of their history they were never taught in school, why the controversy? If all the Times was doing was restating what we already knew, why the complaints? What was it about the way the Times presented that history that caused so much strife? There were the egregious factual errors, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s the ideological and political framework of the project that led its editors to those inaccuracies and distortions. The 1619 Project is, to begin with, written from a black nationalist perspective that systemically erases all evidence that white Americans were ever important allies of the black freedom struggle. Second, it is written with an eye toward justifying reparations, leading to the dubious proposition that all white people are and have always been the beneficiaries of slavery and racism. This second proposition is based in turn on a third, that slavery “fueled” America’s exceptional economic development.

. . . If nearly everything was caused by racism and slavery, it must follow, as night follows day, that the defense of slavery had to be one of the “primary” reasons for the American Revolution. This absurd, insupportable claim is derived from a syllogism rather than source material. The jury is not out on the question, because juries deliberate over evidence. When confronted by the absence of evidence, the Times changed to wording that read that protecting slavery was the primary reason “some” Americans rebelled. That may be true, but there’s more evidence that “some” Americans rebelled so they could begin to undermine slavery. Either way, the effect of that rewording is to destroy the intellectual architecture of the entire project, for if — whatever the individual motives of “some” people — the revolution itself was not driven primarily by the defense of slavery and racism, it follows that slavery and racism cannot explain one of the most important events — if not the most important event — in US history.

. . .The political goal animating the 1619 Project is reparations. “If you read the whole project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, “I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed.”But if the case for reparations rests on distorted history, it can’t be a good case. On the subject of slavery, the distortions of the 1619 Project are numerous, and they are significant. It conflates the wealth of the slaveholders with the wealth of the United States. It asserts without evidence that slavery “fueled” the growth of the Northern economy. It betrays a stunning lack of familiarity with the basic facts of cotton cultivation. It stresses the expansion of the cotton economy but ignores the South’s relative decline in the national economy. Slavery consigned generations of Southerners, black and white, to poverty and economic backwardness. Its legacy is hardship and misery, not widespread wealth.

Most of what the 1619 Project has to say about Southern slavery is contained in an essay by sociologist Matthew Desmond that grossly distorts the history of the slave economy and is riddled with factual errors. . . .

Read the rest for yourself; it’s the most powerful takedown of the 1619 Project I’ve seen, and I thank my friend for calling it to my attention.

Two questions about human history

December 26, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’m sure that historians have pondered the first question at length, but I haven’t read their lucubrations. According to Wikipedia, the first definitive use of the wheel on transportation was in Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. We don’t know how many times it was invented independently, but probably more than once (see below):

So, my first question is this: Why was the wheel not devised in the New World? The Americas had plenty of civilizations, including many Native American groups, and the Aztecs, Incas, and Maya as well as many other groups, but none of them had the wheel, with one exception (see below). Why? Further, the Diquis culture had stone spheres beginning about 300 A.D., so they certainly knew that something round could roll. But this wasn’t adapted for carts or other rolling entities. Yet the Incas are said to have used wooden rollers to roll large stones for their walls and cities. Why no wheels, then?

According to The Straight Dope (I just looked this up), there was one exception:

The wheel evidently was familiar to the ancient Mexicans, the only known instance of its having been invented independently of the Sumerian version. Unfortunately, it apparently never occurred to anyone at the time that wheels had any practical application, and their use was confined to little clay gadgets that are thought to be either toys or cult objects.

That link also gives you an explanation that Cecil Adams considers definitive, but I don’t know. See for yourself.  I am guessing that Jared Diamond pondered this question in Guns, Germs, and Steel but I read it so long ago I can’t recall. Go to the link, read “the” answer to my question above, and see if you agree with Cecil.

My second question is this:  How did our ancestors keep their fingernails and toenails at reasonable length?

I thought of this question while clipping my nails the other day, and thought, “Scissors and nail clippers, and even steel knives were not invented in fairly late in human history. But yet our ancestors did without them for millions of years.  How did they keep their nails short?

Now you might say, “They didn’t need to: their nails wore down from hunting, gathering, and walking barefoot.” But I am not sure this is the case. How would walking barefoot wear down your toenails? And we know that, at least in modern society, if you don’t trim your fingernails and toenails, they get ungodly long (see below).  Did the ancients use flint? And what did they do before they had flint implements? Or did they bite their fingernails?

Now we could surely answer this question by observing what hunter-gatherers do, if anything, to keep their nails short. But I am not going to look it up; I’d rather have readers speculate or, if they know the answer, tell me.

Below: a video showing what happens if you don’t trim your nails: here’s a man who didn’t trim the nails on one hand for 66 years. (He explains why.) He has, on that hand, the longest known fingernails in history.

Of course he had to cut his nails on his right hand so he could do stuff (and I’m betting he’s a rightie). Nobody would marry him, and you can imagine the trouble he had just living from day to day. It’s all in the video

At the end they cut his nails:


Readers’ wildlife photos

December 18, 2021 • 8:45 am

We’re having a touristic/historical photo experience today courtesy of reader Athayde Tonhasca Júnior.  Athayde’s words are indented (quotes from Wikipedia are doubly indented), and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

Perhaps the crew would enjoy a short trip to a British Historical site.

Any history buff visiting UK (traveling is just around the corner, let’s have faith…) should consider a trip to The Vindolanda Museum and Hadrian’s wall. Both are about 1 h from Newcastle.

From Wikipedia:

Vindolanda was a Roman fort and is an active archaeological site located in Northumbria. Predating the construction of Hadrian’s wall, Vindolanda provides a look at Roman life on the frontier. Based on current excavations, archaeologists date the fort as being occupied from 85 BCE to 370 CE..

The fort:

This site is significant due to the artifacts that have been preserved in the Anoxic conditions of the area, such as the Vindolanda tablets, which are the oldest preserved writing in Britain. The Vindolanda Tablets were, at the time of their discovery, the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain They are a rich source of information about life on the northern frontier of Roman Britain. Written on fragments of thin, post-card sized wooden leaf-tablets with carbon-based ink, the tablets date to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD (roughly contemporary with Hadrian’s Wall). The documents record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an invitation to a birthday party held in about 100 AD, which is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman. The translation is as follows:

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings.

On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings.

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

To Sulpicia Lepidina, (wife) of Cerialis, from Cl. Severa.

Photo and caption from Wikipedia:

Roman writing tablet from the Vindolanda Roman fort of Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland (1st-2nd century AD). Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews. British Museum (London)

The tablets are fantastic, and so are the shoes. They don’t look very different from our footwear. From the Museum website: “One of the most prevalent types of objects to come from the site are leather boots and shoes. We have some 5,000 of them in many different shapes and sizes. They tell us a lot about the people who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago.”

A boot:

A fancy shoe:

An intricate sole:

As for the Hadrian Wall, “it is the remains of stone fortifications built by the Roman Empire following its conquest of Britain in the second century A.D. The original structure stretched more than 70 miles across the northern English countryside from the River Tyne near the city of Newcastle and the North Sea, west to the Irish Sea. Hadrian’s Wall included a number of forts as well as a ditch designed to protect against invading troops. The remnants of a stonewall are still visible in many places. Contrary to popular belief, Hadrian’s Wall does not, nor has it ever, served as the border between England and Scotland, two of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom. However, it does hold significance as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction” (History website).

Section of the wall by Vinolanda:

The Wall facing east:

The tree marks the Sycamore Gap, one of the most photographed spots in the country. The tree of uncertain age—”a few hundred” is the best estimate—stands along the Hadrian Wall, about 3 km west of the Roman Fort. It’s a nice walk, but the terrain can be challenging to some. You already saw it if you watched ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ with Kevin Costner.

And what our photographer dubs “The latest archaeological discovery at the site”:

JAC: Here’s a map of Hadrian’s Wall, a World Heritage site, which runs 73 miles from coast to coast (there’s a footpath); much of it remains. Wikipedia notes:

Hadrian’s Wall marked the boundary between Roman Britannia and unconquered Caledonia to the north. The wall lies entirely within England and has never formed the Anglo-Scottish border.

You can read about the more northerly Antonine Wall here.

More infighting among academics about the 1619 Project

December 13, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I can’t remember how I found this article at the American Institute for Economic Research (if a reader told me, apologies for forgetting); I suspect it’s a conservative site but I’m not going to check. I did check on the author of the piece, Phillip Magness, who is an economic historian and Education director at the Institute. The article below also describes his work:

Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

His website shows he’s written a number of books, including one called The 1619 Project: A Critique, which shows you that he’s no fan of the New York Times Initiative. And here’s a screenshot of his book’s contents: Amazon:

The book gets 4.5 stars out of 5 on Amazon, with 793 ratings, but I’ll discount those because those might come from people who object to the 1619 Project on principle because it calls attention to oppression. (I’m trying here to avoid being overly critical of the 1619 Project despite its publicly-revealed problems—some revealed by Magness—because the project’s intentions were generally good. I don’t recommend its curriculum being taught in schools because of the historical inaccuracies, nor do I approve of a woke newspaper using its power to indoctrinate schoolchildren—but past teaching about the history of African Americans, at least when I was a kid, was woefully deficient, and I hope that the Project calls attention to any remaining wrong impressions that need to be righted.

At any rate, what is Magness’s problem? In this article, it’s that Nikole Hannah-Smith, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning instigator of the 1619 Project, used Magness’s own research on slavery extensively to support her thesis, but then deep-sixed his findings and used other sources when she found that Magness was highly critical of other aspects of the Project. The article does have a whiff of sour grapes, but it also reveals the mess that the 1619 Project has become, and the unprofessional way that Hannah-Jones behaves, including ad hominem questioning of historical credentials when someone disagrees with her.

Click on the screenshot to read:


The stuff that Hannah-Jones used in the 1619 Project from Magness was his finding that even up to his assassination, Lincoln was looking for a way to export black people (slaves, I presume) to other countries. This was not done as a “Final Solution,” but as a way to remove blacks from the hate and oppression that they’d encounter in the U.S. I suppose Hannah-Jones likes this idea because it seems to knock Lincoln down as “The Great Emancipator”, buttressing the 1619 Project’s initial claim that African-American progress in the U.S. barely depended on white people.

Here’s what Magness says, and it’s not at all flattering towards Lincoln:

Reality is much more straightforward. In addition to being a sincere antislavery man, Lincoln was also a sincere colonizationist who meant what he said when he espoused this position. A substantial body of my own work on the Civil War era investigates this exact question, conclusively showing that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization schemes through diplomatic channels well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, and likely into the last months of his presidency. When Nikole Hannah-Jones made similar claims in 2019, she was drawing directly on my work as a historian of that subject.

In fact, Hannah-Jones stated as much in a series of now-deleted comments as some of the other historian-critics questioned her claims about Lincoln and colonization.

Then things went sour.

There were certain interpretive differences between my work and the 1619 Project on this point – for example, Hannah-Jones understated the extent to which antislavery motives shaped Lincoln’s support for the measure, which he saw as a pathway to wean the country away from the brutal plantation system. But the historical evidence of Lincoln’s deep connections to colonization was clear, and at least on that point the 1619 Project got it right.

That is, until Hannah-Jones realized that the historian she was citing was also an outspoken critic of other aspects of the 1619 Project.

“What are the credentials, exactly of Phil Magness?” Hannah-Jones fumed in another now-deleted comment after she realized that I had offered a less-than-favorable assessment of her project’s other historical claims, and particularly its error-riddled essay on the economics of slavery by Matthew Desmond. Her fury intensified in January 2020 after Alex Lichtenstein published a lengthy defense of the 1619 Project against his historian critics, attempting to invoke his authority as the editor of the American Historical Review to arbitrate the disputes over its claims about slavery in the Revolutionary through Civil War eras. At the time I pointed out that Lichtenstein – a 20th century historian – was not an expert in the antebellum United States, and was thus not qualified to assume the role of historical judge and jury on specialist claims about that era. Hannah-Jones snapped back, “Lol. You aren’t a specialist in that era either yet that didn’t stop you.”

Setting aside the fact that only a few weeks prior Hannah-Jones herself had been explicitly touting my work on Lincoln’s colonization projects to justify her own claims in the 1619 Project, I’ll simply note that I’ve authored over two dozen scholarly works on slavery and the Civil War era. This includes my aforementioned book, the chapter on colonization in the Essential Civil War Curriculum, as well as multiple peer-reviewed articles on slavery in the U.S. and broader Atlantic world. Hannah-Jones, by contrast, has no known original scholarship to her name of any kind on slavery or this period of American history.

This is more or less academic gossip, but it does show that the academic underpinnings of the 1619 Project, at least insofar as how its director deals with actual historical data, are shaky, especially when she doesn’t argue the data (she just deletes tweets), but questions credentials. That’s not the way to argue, particularly because professional historians with more training and accomplishment than Hannah-Jones have taken issue with important conclusions of the 1619 Project. Those she dismisses because the criticism is from white people:

When James McPherson offered his own less-than-flattering take on Hannah-Jones’s work in November 2019, she responded dismissively: “Who considers him preeminent? I don’t.” McPherson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War, and author of what is widely considered the standard single-volume treatment of the subject, Battle Cry of Freedom. In December 2019, McPherson joined distinguished scholars Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes in questioning Hannah-Jones’s attempts to recast the American Revolution as a fight to preserve slavery. Rather than answer them, she dismissed the group as a whole by labeling them “white historians.”

And she’s criticized academics who aren’t professional historians but who weighed in against the Project; you’ll know these people:

Hannah-Jones saved her most brazenly abusive attacks though for African-American critics of the 1619 Project, such as Columbia University professor John McWhorter and journalist Coleman Hughes. When McWhorter, Hughes, and other African-American scholars launched a competitor 1776 Project in February 2020 through the Robert Woodson Center, Hannah-Jones lashed out on Twitter by posting photos of herself making derogatory gestures at her black interlocutors. Although she later deleted the tweets at the apparent request of her employer, Hannah-Jones made Hughes in particular a focus of her continued verbal abuse. “That Ivy League education certainly didn’t do you any favors,” she wrote in another comment to Hughes in August 2020. “Next time screenshot me and don’t quote text me because I’d rather not read your drivel. I tried to find something to quote tweet in that profoundly mediocre 1776 Project essay you wrote, but alas, nothing was worthy.”

Here’s one of those derogatory gestures, though I’m not quite sure what it means. Readers?

At any rate, the idea that Lincoln may not have been as anti-slavery as we thought, something raised by Magness and used and touted by Hannah-Jones, was credited to someone else when Hannah-Jones found that Magness wasn’t fully on board with the 1619 Project:

The 1619 Project book now states only that Lincoln supported “colonization schemes as late as 1862,” and further implies that Lincoln abandoned the program after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Hannah-Jones’s new source for this revised claim appeared in footnote 38 of her essay: a 2016 popular press book entitled Stamped From the Beginning by Critical Race Theory activist Ibram X. Kendi.

And, having observed Hannah Jones’s behavior through all the criticism, I’ve realized that no real scholar would act the way she did in the face of that criticism, including questioning credentials, making gestures, changing what you wrote without admitting it, and so on.  The Project could have been so much better—and it still has some very good stuff—but the moment the NYT decided to call it the 1619 Project was the moment that they wedded themselves to an ideology and a narrative that could not be altered.

But as a broader matter of principle, Hannah-Jones’s behavior illustrates the absence of basic scholarly integrity from her approach to writing history. Rather than following the evidence where it leads, Hannah-Jones picks and chooses bits and pieces of her arguments from a secondary literature based on whether it conforms to her preconceived political narrative. She approaches citations as a tool by which she can reward other scholars who affirm that narrative. And if a previously-cited scholar runs afoul of Hannah-Jones, she is perfectly willing to alter the “history” presented in the 1619 Project in ways that excise the offending work and replace it with a completely different narrative – provided that its author flatters Hannah-Jones’s own personal politics and ambitions in the process.

The problematic Thomas Jefferson

October 23, 2021 • 12:04 pm

What do we do about Thomas Jefferson? He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served the new United States government in several capacities, including Vice-President and Secretary of State, was our third President, founded the University of Virginia as a secular school, and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religion Freedom—the model for America’s First Amendment. All that would commend him to our approbation, but for one ineluctable fact. He kept slaves: many of them. More than that—he had a relationship with and impregnated one of those enslaved people, Sally Hemings, and fathered at least a couple of her children. That relationship, because of the power imbalance, is considered rape.

Because of the slave issue, Jefferson’s star has sunk very low (see my piece here). A statue of him at my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, has been repeatedly defaced, a statue of Jefferson in front of a Portland, Oregon high school has been pulled down, Jefferson Elementary School in San Francisco is to be renamed, and, as I reported this week, as gleaned from the New York Times, a statue of Jefferson in the council chambers in New York’s City Hall has been relocated elsewhere.  All of this for the same reason: Jefferson was a slaveholder.

I’ve been conflicted about this legacy for a while, for how do we balance the good with the bad (more on that below).? And I was influenced by the comment of reader Historian about Jefferson on my post, to wit:

The removal of the Jefferson statute from the New York City council chamber is justified totally. While one can at least make an argument that the statue of a slaveholder need not be removed from some areas because of the “good’ things he did and looking at the statue is optional. In this case the chamber is the workplace of the council members, who have no choice but to look at it. Minority members of the council are forced to look at a statue of a person that may have very well enslaved, whipped, sold, and raped their ancestors. To them, they don’t care that he hypocritically wrote words about freedom, liberty, and equality. They are revulsed by the statue; they should not be subjected to looking at it. It’s as if Jews were compelled to look at a statue of Dr. Mengele because his medical experiments on their ancestors may have resulted in advances in medicine.

There’s food for thought there, though the Jefferson statue can’t really be compared to one of Mengele for obvious reasons: Jefferson did a lot of good stuff, much involving the founding of this Republic. Mengele was an unmitigated horror of a man.

What to do? Must we dismantle the Jefferson Memorial and remove all his statues, including the bronze one in the Capitol Rotunda that was the model for the one in New York? And if he’s canceled for slaveholding, what do we do about George Washington, who had slaves? (So did ten other Presidents.) Do we take him off the dollar bill, remove the Washington Monument from the District of Columbia, and, of course, change the name of Washington D.C. itself?

According to the White House Historical Association, at least 12 Presidents owned slaves:

. . . .at least twelve presidents were slave owners at some point during their lives: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant.

That’s more than a quarter of U.S. Presidents, and several of them were distinguished in various ways. How do we regard them? Should we honor their accomplishments at all in light of the fact that they engaged in one of the more reprehensible behaviors possible: owning other human beings, treating them badly, and making them work without pay? Remember, even during this time slavery was not seen as “business as usual”, for there were many abolitionists, especially in the UK.

While you ponder this conundrum—perhaps the hardest case of conflict between public vice and virtue—have a look at this article in Bari Weiss’s Substack site. It’s by Samuel Goldman, described this way on the site:

Samuel Goldman is a national correspondent at The Week. He is also an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His books include “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America” and “After Nationalism.”

Goldman’s thesis is that removing Jefferson statues isn’t just an attack on the man, but an attack on the ideas he stands for (aside from slavery, of course). Click on the screenshot to read.

Goldman admits at the outset that Jefferson “didn’t live up to his own words, owning more than 600 people in his life, and, unlike Washington, didn’t have plans to free them. He “recognized his own hypocrisy,” but didn’t do anything about it. But Jefferson’s accomplishments, and the good he did, are also undeniable. And so, for Goldman, this brings up the important issue:

The question, though, is whether everyone implicated in slavery is ipso facto ineligible for public celebration. That standard doesn’t only exclude Jefferson but virtually every major figure in American history before 1861. And ruling these out of public discourse doesn’t only affect their personal memory. It also renders speechless the other Americans, like the Levy family, who’ve used their names, words, and careers as symbols to articulate their own aspirations for justice.

That’s why attacks on Columbus Day are as misplaced as removal of the Jefferson statue. The holiday and memorials in many cities aren’t really about the Genoese explorer who served a Spanish king. They are confirmations of the presence of Italian-Americans in public life, to say nothing of the courage and adventuresome spirit that led to the discovery of the New World.

The reduction of American history to an unbroken story of racial oppression comes at particular cost to Jews. Because we have been among the greatest beneficiaries of liberal institutions, we are unavoidably targets when those institutions abandon or reject their liberal mission. A widely despised and persecuted people who thrived in America like nowhere else, Jews do not fit into the sharp distinction between oppressor and oppressed that characterized ideological “antiracism.” Therefore, Jewish experiences must either be ignored or reduced to a monolithic conception of white supremacy.

I’m not sure how relevant the Jewish issue is to the discussion of Jefferson, even though it poses thorny issues for the woke. Goldman does bring up the fact that the original Jefferson statue, sculpted by the French artist David d’Angers, was commissioned by a Jew, Uriah Levy, who was not only repeatedly attacked for his religion but, as a naval officer, helped suppress the slave trade in the West Indies. Yet Levy’s own legacy was mixed. As a Jefferson admirer, he restored a decrepit Monticello—but using more than a dozen slaves.

And you can answer the first question for yourself: is every American who was implicated in slavery ipso facto ineligible for public celebration?

Goldman says “no”. While he’s not absolutely clear about the statue removal, he’s crystal clear that there has to be some celebration of Jefferson’s ideas, and how do you do that without statues or any kind of public memorial? Can we celebrate good ideas completely disconnected from the people who had them?

Goldman’s conclusion:

Jefferson’s far from the first statue to fall, and it won’t be the last. But the plaster and bronze of which they’re composed isn’t the most important thing. What matters is the fate of the ideas in that Declaration in Jefferson’s hand. The ones that Lincoln described as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” and “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” That’s what Uriah Levy saw in Jefferson and what we should continue to honor today.

Again, how does one honor abstract ideas without mentioning the people who had them? Should we ignore Jefferson’s positive contributions by shoving his statues into dark corners because of his negative acts? And if you say, “yes,” what do we do about George Washington.?

As I’ve written before, I judge whether or not someone should be honored if both questions below are answered “yes”:

1.) Are we honoring the positive contributions that the person made?

2.) On balance, did the person’s life contribute more good than bad to the world?

#1 was a “yes” for the New York City statue: Jefferson was depicted holding a quill pen, clearly being honored for his writings.

#2 is the hard one. After all, holding down 600 black people as property is no small thing. Against that one must balance that Jefferson helped bring about a Republic that, though it’s denigrated by many these days, I see as the greatest experiment in liberty and democracy of our era. Jefferson wrote the document that helped bring that about, and, though he was in France during the Constitutional Convention, many of his ideas infuse that Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights—most notably the First Amendment. Jefferson kept slaves, and thereby supported slavery, but the net harm was largely to his own slaves.

When you balance America as a refuge for the oppressed, Jefferson’s role in the creation of America, and his role in creating our founding documents, I would judge, subjectively, that his life was on I conclude that we should honor the man as a way of honoring his ideas—the good ones.

Muir Woods gets its reckoning

September 2, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The Big Reckoning that’s sweeping America has made its way west to California’s Muir Woods, as reported by SFGate (click on screenshot below). If you’ve been to Muir Woods (and you definitely must go), you’ll know that it’s one of the few large stands of old growth coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) left in this country, with trees up to 1200 years old. This is the world’s tallest species of tree, and they’re unbelievably tall, soaring like a verdant cathedral. (The tallest ones aren’t flagged to prevent vandalism.)

It’s always amazed me that within less than two days of driving in California, you can see the world’s oldest trees (the bristlecone pines), the tallest trees (coastal redwoods), and most massive trees (the Giant Sequoias). I’ve seen all three, and recommend them highly. It’s impossible to convey the height of the coastal redwoods in a photo, but here’s one anyway:


But we’re not here today to admire trees. Rather, we’re here to describe how the historical revisionists have hit upon Muir Woods as a way to point out the impurities of those who created this National Monument, and to honor those who were overlooked. Click on the screenshot to read:

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club after whom these woods are named, has himself already been the subject of a deplatforming of sorts. I wrote about that a year ago, and decided that, since Muir recanted bigoted statements he made early in his life, as well as having been demonized for merely being associated with people who were impure in other ways, his denigration wasn’t really fair. (If it was, they should immediately rename Muir Woods!)

As always, I use two criteria for judging whether to engage in deplatforming or cancellation. First, is the person being honored for achievements that are admirable? Second, did the person’s life create a net good or a net bad? Given the circumstances I described a year ago, Muir shouldn’t be canceled.

But that’s not the question, which is this: “Should the exhibits at Muir Woods be changed to give ‘a more complete history’?” And you know what that means: ferret out all the stuff involved with the site that would be considered immoral today. The site’s exhibit has already been changed, with the collaboration of park employees who slapped signs and sticky notes on what was already there to revise the given history.

To me, this action is definitely a mixed bag. My take is that yes, some additional information should be added, but some information shouldn’t—on the grounds that it’s irrelevant. To why people visit the woods. They come to see the trees for crying out loud, and get a little education on the side, but they definitely don’t come to be propagandized.

For an example of the latter, take these changes, one of which is shown in the picture just above:

“Alert: History Under Construction,” the paper reads. “Everything on this sign is true but incomplete.”

The sign contains information about the park’s founding, along with a timeline of the park’s history and photographs. Credit for saving the park’s treasured redwood and creek habitat is given to “influential, philanthropic white men,” the paper explains.

“While they undoubtedly contributed to the forest becoming a national monument, part of our duty in the National Park Service is to tell the full story of how that happened,” the paper says. “Look at the timeline below to see the park’s history under construction.”

The “full story” of course, is how the white men involved with Muir woods were bad men: bigots.  And it’s true, they surely did things that we wouldn’t countenance today, but remember that the Woods came into being at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. It wasn’t exactly an enlightned time, at least compared to our own:

For an 1898 item about the man referred to as “The Father of American Forestry,” the Muir Woods staff also felt more information was needed. “Gifford Pinchot appointed Chief of what is now the US Forest Service; advocates ‘scientific forestry,’” the item reads. The staff added, “… and eugenics, … defined… as ‘controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition.’” Eugenicists often targeted nonwhite people, labeling their races as inferior and socially undesirable. Pinchot, who for 10 years served on the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, has a Muir Woods tree named in his honor.

The question is whether Pinchot advocated sterilization, whether his efforts actually did anything to foster eugenics in the U.S., and what good he did as head of the U.S. Forest Service. Since I (and probably the employees) can’t answer the first question, it seems superfluous to tell visitors that he was on an advisory council of a eugenics society.

Likewise with this:

Another pair of timeline items added by the staff expound on the background of Congressman William Kent, who with his wife Elizabeth Thatcher Kent donated 295 acres that became Muir Woods. One note explains how Kent’s anti-Asian policy and rhetoric laid the groundwork for Japanese incarceration during World War II, while a second note emphasizes how in 1920, Kent “advances the expansion of California’s Alien Land Laws, preventing non-citizens from owning or leasing land. These laws complicate immigration from Asia and create a more hostile environment for Asian immigrants in California.”

That’s a bit more problematic, because Kent’s donation of land is a very good thing (the park wouldn’t exist without it), but his efforts to incarcerate Japanese-Americans during WWII, and his promotion of “alien land laws”, is definitely bad. Should this be imparted to Park visitors, who come to look at the trees? I don’t know; it depends on whether you think that it’s important to tell this stuff to visitors.

What about these additions?

Before the staff marked up the timeline, which is entitled “Path to Preservation,” its first item was the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. And while that was certainly an important precedent, the staff of Muir Woods felt that other events that took place long before were also crucial to the establishment of the park. They added four sticky notes to a blank area to the left, starting with the stretch of time when 20,000 Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people managed the land and conducted prescribed burns, taking care of the forest.

Other insertions include a note for 1769, when Spanish missionaries began using the labor of Bay Area’s indigenous people, who then grappled with disease, slavery and genocide (which created a disruption in the stewardship of the land). An 1861 note tells how Congress extinguished the Indian title to the land that became Muir Woods, and an 1869 note mentions how John Muir — the famous naturalist for whom the park is named — included racist language in writings about indigenous people.

The exploitation of indigenous people by missionaries is reprehensible, but has nothing to do with Muir Woods. The previous occupation of the woods by Native Americans, however, should be mentioned—it’s part of the site’s history. Whether you want to harp on Native American genocide is up to you, but remember that every square centimeter of North America was claimed by Native Americans before the colonists arrived, and once you know that, and the disgusting genocides that pushed Native Americans off their land (this should be taught in schools), you needn’t repeat it every time you give a lecture.

I don’t think Muir’s racist mentions of indigenous people should be brought up, because he repudiated those ideas later in his life. If you can’t change your mind in a way that makes your words or actions more moral, but must still be held accountable for things that you repudiated—and not under pressure—then we’re all doomed.

But here’s a good change:

The notes also address overlooked contributions of women, for instance, when the California Club — an elite women’s club — in 1904 launched the first-ever campaign to save the land that would become Muir Woods.

That’s part of the history that overlooks the contributions of an important group.

The impression I get is that this revision of the history of Muir Woods was done as a performative act rather than thoughtfully, and that while some of the history needs to be revised, it should be history that’s relevant to Muir Woods, not a litany of the bad things said by those associated with the Woods. This “revision” has all the signs of being a rush job intended to jump on the bandwagon of the times, and that’s kind of sad.

A photo of a “helper”:

(From article): National Park Service Ranger Rafael Velazquez stands next to a sign called “Saving Muir Woods” in Muir Woods National Monument National Park. Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE