Sunday, May 11, 2014

Crowdsourcing Taxonomy

Crowdsourcing is an old idea. All of the plants in Botanica Caroliniana are the result of a large effort to crowdsource taxonomy.

James Petiver (1665-1718) was an apothecary in London. Petiver was a member of the Royal Society and a collector - of all sorts of things. Except for a brief period studying entomology in the Netherlands, Petiver worked in London. He kept a shop "at the sign of the white cross in Aldersgate, London."

Somehow Petiver got into the business of collecting natural history specimens, especially insects and plants. Ships were visiting all parts of the world, and Mr. Petiver and his friends evidently had an insatiable appetite for the curiosities they might bring back. So he started printing pamphlets asking for contributions to his collections, with explicit directions for collectors to follow for collecting and storing herbarium specimens. The collectors - Lord, Lawson - would package up their materials and send them to London when they could. Petiver then organized them according to some taxonomic scheme - if you look at the order of Lord's specimens, they are pretty much arranged by current families - and bound them in books.  By the time he died in 1718, Petiver had the largest collection of dried plants in the world.

Hans Sloane (1660 - 1753) jumped on this opportunity, purchasing Petiver's collections and many others, which eventually became the basis of the Natural History Museum, London. Sloane himself spent some time in Jamaica and is famous for his descriptions of Jamaican natural history, but the vast majority of his collection - some 120,000 specimens - came from people he never met and places he never visited. Catesby was one of his contributors. William Sherard (1659 - 1728), another of Catesby's sponsors, was doing much the same thing in Oxford.

The big man himself, Carolus Linnaeus, used this same business model. His travels were mostly restricted to places close by - Lapland, central Sweden, the Netherlands - and he did most of his work from his comfortable facilities in Uppsala. To fill his coffers, he sent his students on voyages of discovery. Daniel Solander and another student traveled around the world with Captain Cook. Others visited Japan, the Americas, Australia, and anyplace else they could reach. The ones who survived gave their specimens to Linnaeus, who worked them into his Systema Naturae.

Why do it this way? Well, for one thing, traveling was dangerous. Lots of Linnaeus' students died on their journeys, cutting short their aspirations for scientific discovery.

But more practically, you can't do two big things at once. Exploring and collecting specimens is one job. Assembling a collection is another. To make a collection, you have to be physically present at your research site, and you are encumbered by lots of stuff - camping gear, the specimens themselves. You can visit only a restricted area, and you might have to visit that area repeatedly to catch your subjects in bloom.

Assembling a collection, on the other hand, requires peace and quiet, a large flat surface and a roof overhead, lots of paper and glue, and reference materials. It's not easily done in the field. More importantly, a good collection requires a large body of specimens. Specimens from multiple collectors can offer perspective that the work of a single collector cannot. If you want to organize the world's plants, you need lots of contributors in lots of different places. You want to see the big picture.

This is how crowdsourcing works today. Project Budburst, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and NASA's Disk Detective program (sorting out stars with disks from nebulae and galaxies) all use non-scientist volunteers to collect and process data. The professional scientists then process what the citizen scientists send them, and the result is much better than they could achieve trying to gather data alone.

Like our historic collectors, today's citizen scientists are motivated by a desire to be part of something bigger - to make a contribution to science and maybe learn a little more science themselves. Lord and Lawson collected for Petiver out of interest in the world around them and the hope that what they saw might be of use - and as a way of making contact with London intellectual life, in short supply in the Carolinas in 1700. And their contributions did turn out to be real, useful both to the botanists creating modern taxonomy and to those of us studying them today.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Winchester Wedding

In A New Voyage to Carolina, John Lawson records this scene:


        Next Morning we set out early, breaking the Ice we met withal, in the stony Runs, which were many. We pass'd by several Cottages, and about 8 of the Clock came to a pretty big Town, where we took up our Quarters, in one of their State Houses, the Men being all out, hunting in the Woods, and none but Women at home. Our Fellow Traveller of whom I spoke before at the Congerees, having a great Mind for an Indian Lass, for his Bed-Fellow that Night,

Page 41 spoke to our Guide, who soon got a Couple, reserving one for himself. That which fell to our Companion's Share, was a pretty young Girl. Tho' they could not understand one Word of what each other spoke, yet the Female Indian, being no Novice at her Game, but understanding what she came thither for, acted her Part dexterously enough with her Cully, to make him sensible of what she wanted; which was to pay the Hire, before he rode the Hackney. He shew'd her all the Treasure he was possess'd of, as Beads, Red Cadis, &c. which she lik'd very well, and permitted him to put them into his Pocket again, endearing him with all the Charms, which one of a better Education than Dame Nature had Bestow'd upon her, could have made use of, to render her Consort a surer Captive. After they had us'd this Sort of Courtship a small time, the Match was confirm'd by both Parties, with the Approbation of as many Indian Women, as came to the House, to celebrate our Winchester-Wedding. Every one of the Bride-Maids were as great Whores, as Mrs. Bride, tho' not quite so handsome. Our happy Couple went to Bed together before us all, and with as little Blushing, as if they had been Man and Wife for 7 Years. The rest of the Company being weary with travelling, had more Mind to take their Rest, than add more Weddings to that hopeful one already consummated; so that tho' the other Virgins offer'd their Service to us, we gave them their Answer, and went to sleep. About an Hour before day, I awak'd, and saw somebody walking up and down the Room in a seemingly deep Melancholy. I call'd out to know who it was, and it prov'd to be Mr. Bridegroom, who in less than 12 Hours, was Batchelor, Husband, and Widdower, his dear Spouse having pick'd his Pocket of the Beads, Cadis, and what else should have gratified the Indians for the Victuals we receiv'd of them. However that did not serve her turn,but she had also got his Shooes away, which he had made the Night before, of a drest Buck-Skin. Thus dearly did our Spark already repent his new Bargain, walking bare-foot, in his Penitentials, like some poor Pilgrim to Loretto.        After the Indians had laugh'd their Sides sore at the Figure Mr. Bridegroom made, with much ado, we muster'd up another Pair of Shooes, or Moggisons, and set forward on our intended Voyage, the Company (all the way) lifting up their
Page 42 Prayers for the new married Couple, whose Wedding had made away with that, which should have purchas'd our Food.

Stole his shoes! That's cold!

This story seems to be a popular one. I've found it in this blog and mentioned in this book on humor and the American Indian. The author of the essay in question suggests that portrays himself and his fellow European explorers as the greenhorn butt of jokes, and the Winchester Wedding as a big joke by the Indians on the whole expedition.

So what is a "Winchester Wedding"? Just what it looks like, apparently - a hookup. The term appears in broadside ballads from the time. Lawson wrote more on the subject of Indians and Winchester Weddings in a description of Indian women (scroll down a bit; these pages are undifferentiated, so the links aren't that useful):

"As for the Indian Women, which now happen in my Way; when young, and at Maturity, they are as fine-shap'd Creatures (take them generally) as any in the Universe. They are of a tawny Complexion; their Eyes very brisk and amorous; their Smiles afford the finest Composure a Face can possess, their Hands are of the finest Make, with small long Fingers, and as soft as their Cheeks, and their whole Bodies of a smooth Nature. They are not so uncouth or unlikely, as we suppose them; nor are they Strangers or not Proficients in the soft Passion. They are most of them mercenary, except the married Women, who sometimes bestow their Favours also to some or other, in their Husbands Absence. For which they never ask any Reward.
As for the Report, that they are never found unconstant, like the Europeans, it is wholly false; for were the old World and the new one put into a Pair of Scales (in point of Constancy) it would be a hard Matter to discern which was the heavier. As for the Trading Girls, which are those design'd to get Money by their Natural Parts, these are discernable, by the Cut of their Hair; their Tonsure differing from all others, of that Nation, who are not of their Profession; which Method is intended to prevent Mistakes; for the Savages of America are desirous (if possible) to keep their Wives to themselves, as well as those in other Parts of the World. When any Addresses are made to one of these Girls, she immediately acquaints her Parents therewith, and they tell the King of it, (provided he that courts her be a Stranger) his Majesty commonly being the principal Bawd of the Nation he rules over, and there seldom being any of these Winchester-Weddings agreed on, without his Royal Consent. He likewise advises her what Bargain to make, and if it happens to be an Indian Trader that wants a Bed-fellow, and has got Rum to sell, be sure, the King must have a large Dram for a Fee, to confirm the Match. These Indians, that are of the elder sort, when any such Question is put to them, will debate the Matter amongst themselves with all the Sobriety and Seriousness imaginable, every one of the Girl's Relations arguing the Advantage or Detriment that may ensue such a Night's Encounter; all which is done with as much Steadiness and Reality, as if it was the greatest Concern in the World, and not so much as one Person shall be seen to smile, so long as the Debate holds, making no Difference betwixt an Agreement of this Nature, and a Bargain of any other.
If they comply with the Men's Desire, then a particular Bed is provided for them, either in a Cabin by themselves, or else all the young people turn out, to another Lodging, that they may not spoil Sport; and if the old People are in the same Cabin along with them all Night, they lie as unconcern'd, as if they were so many Logs of Wood. If it be an Indian of their own Town or Neighbourhood, that wants a Mistress, he comes to none but the Girl, who receives what she thinks fit to ask him, and so lies all Night with him, without the Consent of her Parents."