Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Call for Scientific Evidence (1842)

In the September issue of the New Genesee Farmer (the "old" Genesee Farmer had merged with the Cultivator), the bird protection controversy was directly addressed. "J," under the heading, "Spare the Birds," assessed the conflict as follows:
A sort of skirmish has been going on for some time past between the advocates of the birds on one hand, and the friends of unmangled fruit on the other; the one maintaining that all the depredations of the feathered race on the products of their orchards are immensely overbalanced by the hordes of pestiferous insects they destroy; while the others say that the good they do is greatly overrated, and that even those insects which they do eat, are more commonly of the harmless kind, the more destructive affording not quite such delicate morsels, and as a consequence remaining untouched. Now all this contention would much better become the mode of philosophical inquiry adapted by philosophers of former centuries, who tried to investigate the operations of nature by abstract reasoning in their closets instead of observation in the open air.
"They could tell what time of day
The clock would strike, by Algebra [Ben Jonson]
and some of them went so far as to get into long and angry quarrels whether two angels or spirits could actually occupy the same mathematical point at the same time!!
As the New England Farmer had indicated earlier, it was best to leave values (anti-cruelty or aesthetics, e.g,) aside and frame the conflict on the basis of a single question: whether or not certain birds destroyed sufficient numbers of harmful insects to be considered "useful." This could not be resolved by an exchange of opinions. One needed facts.
Common sense teaches that when anything is to be ascertained in the natural world, the right way to do it is by direct observation and experiment, not by splitting hairs and dove tailing syllogisms. If you want to know which way the wind blows, why, go outdoors and see; or how many bushels of wheat you have to the acre, measure it; argument and guessing will not avail much. So with the bird controversy: instead of battling it out on paper, resort to direct examination. Watch their operations, and see what they eat; dissect their stomachs and see what they have swallowed; and let not hasty examination suffice. The experiments must be repeated, and repeated, and repeated,--in all seasons and at all places: and then we shall not work in the dark, but know which are our enemies and which our friends; which are devouring the noxious and which the harmless insects; and properly estimate the pleasures of their singing, while we are sighing for the loss of our fine fruit which they have just swallowed. 
This was essentially a call for what would come to be called "Economic Ornithology." It would still be several years before this project would be institutionalized. 

The New England Farmer, for its part, had already begun including accounts of experiments with birds as part of its overall coverage of agricultural experimentation. In its May 18, 1842 issue, it reported its own project dealing with crows. That crows can be destructive to corn was acknowledged:
We have recently written, and inserted much that others have written, in favor of sparing the birds. We did this with a distinct knowledge and remembrance that crows and blackbirds often make sad and provoking ravages in the cornfield soon after the corn comes up. A few crows will sometimes pull up most of the corn on an acre of ground in a few days. But this is the only time of the season of the year…when they do the farmers of this vicinity much if any harm. Their food during the remainder of the year, consists mostly of worms and other matters which we are entirely willing to have devoured.
The author went on to suggest a variety of means, some more successful and humane than others, of preventing the crows from digging up young corn, including "broadcasting" a peck of good corn so that crows won't bother to dig up new corn. Thus the experiment:
This year one pair have built their nest immediately by the side of our corn field, and we have requested that they not be disturbed. We have so much confidence that they will be of more service to us in the course of the season, than it will cost us to feed them upon corn sown for the purpose for three or four weeks….Our nearer neighbor last year, saved his crop unharmed, by taking this course, though the crows were abundant in his fields.
If you fed corn directly to crows during the sowing period, would that keep them away from young corn?

On December 21, 1842, the New England Farmer ran a letter from a dubious correspondent, challenging the paper to disclose the results of the experiment.
Sir--I, in common with your readers generally, I presume, have been both entertained and instructed by your published details of experiments made by you the past season, in processes and means of cultivating the earth. There is one experiment, however, which you proposed to make (and in which I feel no little interest,) whose success you have not yet reported….If you had forgotten the matter, this gentle "jog" to your memory may be of some service to your readers… 
Now I am very desirous to learn how this benevolent experiment of yours resulted, since it may have settled one, and not the least important, of the many disputed questions in agriculture….And in making the inquiry, I disclaim being actuated by any less frivolous motive than a desire to know if, (as I have never believed,) there is any thing of wisdom or profit in treating with civility and forbearance those black-hued and no less black-hearted pilferers and disgrace of the feathered tribe, yclept crows--toward whom (though I can applaud your humanity,) I cannot but act in the spirit of the lex talionis [the law of retaliation], so long as they manifest such an utter disregard of the laws of meum and tuum [what's mine and what's yours]. If your experiment, however, has demonstrated that these troublesome outlaws may be bought to respect one's rights, then if the price be not too high, I shally most gladly pay the tribute, in lieu of resorting to the "murderous saltpetre." With high respect, I. Killem (Hull)
The Farmer responded directly to the request. The experiment had been a success.
Thank you for the "jog," Mr. "Killem." when we stated that we should not disturb the said crows, we said also that we should feed them. We did so: they ate of what we gave them, and they did no harm to the cornfield. So much for the experiment, to you, Mr. "Killem", from "Hull." There's the whole story. …
As, was common practice in the Farmer, the editor could not result having fun with the author's chosen pseudonym. 
What seer, gifted with prophetic sight, gave you your name, so descriptive of your disposition? Cruel, faithless, murderous man! Right was you named, "I Killem." Kill 'em, then, if such is your innate and cherished propensity--but we'll feed'em again.
Values were clearly still relevant to this conversation, despite the focus on the "facts" of the matter.

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