Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Collecting Evolution by Matthew J. James

Why I Read It: A review for Sea History magazine.

Summary: The 1905-1906 California Academy of Sciences expedition to the Galapagos Islands and its aftereffects.

My Thoughts: Oh, how the world has changed.

In 1905, it was acceptable - expected, even - to kill off the last individual of a species on an island under the notion that "if we don't kill it now, we might just lose scientific knowledge of it forever." It is possible, in the case of this particular expedition, that the collectors from the Academy (sailing on the eponymous schooner Academy) killed off one species of tortoise forever under this guiding ethic.

And so they killed. Eight young men with machetes and guns and bullets killed and killed and killed.

Ironically, had they not, the Academy might not exist today. While spending their 366 days in the Galapagos Islands, the collectors were spared the horror of the San Francisco Earthquake of April 1906, and the fires that burned for the days that followed. They missed the destruction of the Academy, and its collection. In the end, they carried the new collection in their hold. Their safe return to San Francisco kept the Academy afloat.

The author details how the expedition was guided by both the work of Charles Darwin and that of Georg Baur, a paleontologist who believed that the islands were not volcanic in nature, but instead the result of a gradual separation of land masses driven by rising waters. The notion would be debated for a few more years, but ultimately proved false. Still, it held merit as the biologists of the day debated how very similar species could be found on the various islands with slight differences. Birds could fly, sure, but could snakes swim, or lava lizards ride driftwood and colonize new islands?

The story has a modicum of testosterone, as eight young men in a ship for a year and a half eventually will blow off steam and throw some lefts and rights. It is riddled with scientific discovery and even has some maritime history credibility. It's not for the squeamish, unless one can put aside modern sensibilities and understand that the study of animals a century ago and beyond involved a whole lot of slaughter.

Doughboys on the Great War by Edward A. Gutierrez

Why I Read It: Fascination with the centennial anniversary of World War I.

Summary: A thorough, detailed study of documents filled out by returning American soldiers after World War I.

My Thoughts: Gutierrez deserves a medal.

When the boys came marching home from the trenches, from the desecrated fields of Europe in 1918 and on, some - in four states at least - were given opportunities to fill out forms detailing their experiences, even sharing their opinions.

Mostly they said the same thing. They confirmed the utterance of General William Tecumseh Sherman: "War is hell."

But it's interesting to see what else they had in common. Soldiers from Connecticut, Utah, Minnesota and Virginia left the most detailed records, because their states were the most diligent about the process. Across the country, men reacted the same way. They charged happily into service, influenced by the writings of Stephen Crane, and an ethos of manliness and devotion to country. They ignored the imagery in the newspapers of the day of war-torn cities. They came out jaded, yet they said they would do it again if their country needed them.

Gutierrez went through them all, checked with the other states, and ultimately codified and boiled down the thoughts of every soldier who left behind comments. His work considers the various groups - African-Americans, recent immigrants, etc. - who put on the AEF uniform and entered combat. He picks up the anger, the patriotism, the pensive reflection and even the humor of the war. He brings the war back to life, through the eyes of the average soldier.

For the enormity of the task and for the wonderful read he crafted for us all to enjoy, Gutierrez deserves that medal.