Sunday, February 15, 2009

Nineteenth-century scientist of the week: Elliott Coues

Elliott Coues, 1842-1899

Coues was an ornithologist, naturalist, and (according to Wikipedia) army surgeon. I first ran across him in Frederic A. Lucas's The Story of Museum Groups, a guide leaflet from the American Museum of Natural History.

Museum groups, or "habitat groups," are free-standing groups of stuffed animals, usually dioramas in which specimens are placed in a more or less naturalistic position, with an artificial background that simulates the animal's habitat. Here is one currently on display at the AMNH:

(You can read all about this diorama here.)

Coues is quoted in the leaflet as a representative of the anti-museum group old guard, saying "as late as 1874" that
'Spread eagle' styles of mounting, artificial rocks and flowers, etc., are entirely out of place in a collection of any scientific pretensions, or designed for popular instruction. Besides, they take up too much room. Artistic grouping of an extensive collection is usually out of the question; and when this is unattainable, halfway efforts in that direction should be abandoned in favor of severe simplicity. Birds look best, on the whole, in uniform rows, assorted according to size, as far as natural classification allows. (Lucas 5)
For Coues, there was something anti-scientific about the habitat group; he felt that specimens should be displayed according to their taxonomy rather than their ecological contexts. So, for instance, an ostrich would be displayed next to an emu, not next to warthogs (as they actually were at the AMNH in the 1940s). If I recall correctly, the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle at the Jardin des Plantes is in large part arranged taxonomically even today, for instance. (But then, they also had a quite goofy exhibit on dragons in the basement when I visited.)

Coues isn't particularly best known for his views on museum groups; they were common enough views in the nineteenth century. He's better known for his commitment to classification and his interest in westward exploration (he edited Lewis and Clark's journals, for example), and of course his extensive studies of birds.

Like many other scientists of the period, Coues was interested in spiritualism, and he was also a member of the American Society for Psychical Research. He was for many years committed to the notion of "biogen," a "substance of mind," or "soul-stuff," in which, according to Coues, the vital principle resided (Coues 14-5). As best I can gloss it, it was vitalism with a spiritualist twist. The idea was not welcomed by the scientific community at large, but in 1885 Coues wrote,
I know that I have made a great discovery which conservative science will properly be slow to acknowledge. I also know that I can demonstrate the thing. Meanwhile, people may call me what they please, and I say proudly, with Galvani, 'they may call me the frog's dancing-master -- but I know that I have discovered one of the great forces of nature.' Galvinism [sic] is an accepted scientific fact: so will Biogen be in due time, and sooner perhaps than even I suppose. (qtd. in Cutright and Brodhead 304)

Famous last words. This is yet another example of the way that science and its protocols fluctuate and are subject to dispute.

Here's his obituary in The Nation.

Coues, Elliott. Biogen: A Speculation on the Origin and Nature of Life. 3rd ed. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1884.

Cutright, Paul Russell, and Michael J. Brodhead. Elliott Coues: Naturalist and Frontier Historian. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.

Lucas, Frederic A. The Story of Museum Groups. 4th ed. Guide Leaflet Series, No. 53. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1926.

ETA: Apparently students who are given chocolate give more positive teaching evaluations. Oh, for crying out loud.

ETA (again): I appear to have been linked by "Your Unique Portal to the Conservative Blogosphere." It must be very unique, because last I checked, nineteenth-century spiritualist ornithologists were not a conservative issue, or a political issue at all, for that matter. In fact, this blog is in no way a part of the "conservative blogosphere," unless we are talking about conserve in the jam/jelly sense, in which case, well, maybe.

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