an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

how statins work 3: the beginnings of cholesterol, from Acetyl-CoA

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Coenzyme A – an acetyl group attaches to the -SH shown in red

So how is cholesterol made in the body? We need to know this in order to understand how statins inhibit or interfere with this process.

I’ve shown the actual structure of cholesterol in part 1 of this series, but remember it’s a sterol, which is a steroid – four carbon rings with hydrogen atoms attached – in which one of the hydrogens is replaced by an alcohol group. The particular form of sterol called cholesterol, with a 7-carbon chain attached to the end-carbon ring (the D ring), and three methyl groups attached to specific carbons in the rings and chain (it’s better to look at the skeletal structure in part 1). There are precisely 27 carbon atoms specifically placed within the molecule.

I’m using a set of videos to understand how cholesterol is synthesised – it might be best to look at them yourself, but I’m writing it all down to improve my own understanding. So we start by understanding something about acids and their conjugate bases. Apparently an acid is a molecule which is capable of donating protons into solution. Take pyruvic acid and its conjugate base pyruvate. Here’s what Wikipedia says about them:

Pyruvic acid (CH3COCOOH) is the simplest of the alpha-keto acids, with a carboxylic acid and a ketone functional group. Pyruvate, the conjugate base, CH3COCOO, is a key intermediate in several metabolic pathways throughout the cell.

I don’t understand the first sentence, but no matter, pyruvic acid is a 3-carbon molecule with a carboxylic acid at one end and a ketone group in the middle of the molecule (according to Britannica, a ketone is ‘any of a class of organic compounds characterized by the presence of a carbonyl group in which the carbon atom is covalently bonded to an oxygen atom. The remaining two bonds are to other carbon atoms or hydrocarbon radicals)’. The proton that comes off the oxygen of the alcohol group of the pyruvic acid can be donated into the surrounding solution, increasing its acidity. The pyruvic acid is thus transformed into its negatively charged conjugate base (it’s no longer capable of donating protons but it can receive them). This is the case with all acids in the cytoplasm of cells. As inferred in the quote above, conjugate bases are vital components of biosynthetic pathways. Most of the molecules in the cytoplasm will exist as pyruvate at a physiological pH of around 7.5.

Next – and hopefully this will become clear eventually – we’re going to look at two molecules, NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) and NADP+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate). They transport electrons, and are capable of accepting a hydride anion, which is a hydrogen atom with a negative charge. The normal hydrogen atom, called protium, has a proton and an electron only. When it donates away its electron it becomes a hydrogen cation, and when it gains an electron it becomes a hydride anion.

NAD+ is an adenine organic base bound to a ribose sugar. Then there are two phosphate groups coming off the ribose sugar, the second of which attaches to another ribose sugar. This second ribose sugar has nicotinamide attached to it (see below),

in which the phosphate groups are magenta-coloured circles. To explain something about ribose sugars, here’s something from Pearson Education:

The 5-carbon sugars ribose and deoxyribose are important components of nucleotides, and are found in RNA and DNA, respectively. The sugars found in nucleic acids are pentose sugars; a pentose sugar has five carbon atoms. A combination of a base and a sugar is called a nucleoside. Ribose, found in RNA, is a “normal” sugar, with one oxygen atom attached to each carbon atom. Deoxyribose, found in DNA, is a modified sugar, lacking one oxygen atom (hence the name “deoxy”). This difference of one oxygen atom is important for the enzymes that recognize DNA and RNA, because it allows these two molecules to be easily distinguished inside organisms.

So, just for my own understanding, nucleotides include phosphate groups. NAD+ is a dinucleotide, with two nucleotides (ribose sugars with phosphate groups attached), attached to adenine and to nicotinamide molecules. Also, NAD+ has a positive charge around the nicotinamide – on its nitrogen atom.

NAD+ becomes neutralised by accepting a hydride anion (one proton and two electrons) and becomes NADH, or reduced NAD. Now, remembering NADP+, it has an extra phosphate group on the ribose sugar of the adenine nucleotide (also called an organic base, apparently). Like NAD+, NADP+ can accept a hydride anion (becoming reduced NADP) and then later exchange it in another reaction. Effectively these molecules are electron carriers, collecting electrons and transporting them to where they’re needed for other reactions.

Now to introduce something else completely new for me – Acetyl-CoA (acetyl coenzyme A). A quick grab again, this time from Wikipedia:

Acetyl-CoA is a molecule that participates in many biochemical reactions in protein, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism. Its main function is to deliver the acetyl group to the citric acid [Krebs] cycle to be oxidized for energy production

Acetyl-CoA is found, and presumably produced, in mitochondria, and as part of this cholesterol-synthesising pathway it needs to be removed from the ‘mitochondrial matrix’. What’s that, I ask. So here’s a bit about the mitochondrial matrix, from yet another source, this time

The mitochondrion consists of an outer membrane, an inner membrane, and a gel-like material called the matrix. This matrix is more viscous than the cell’s cytoplasm as it contains less water. The mitochondrial matrix has several functions.It is where the citric acid cycle takes place. This is an important step in cellular respiration, which produces energy molecules called ATP. It contains the mitochondrial DNA in a structure called a nucleoid. A mitochondrion contains its own DNA and reproduces on its own schedule, apart from the host cell’s cell cycle. It contains ribosomes that produce proteins used by the mitochondrion. It contains granules of ions that appear to be involved in the ionic balance of the mitochondrion.

So basically this matrix is like (or equivalent to) the cell’s cytoplasm, only more viscous, and contains ribosomes, one or more nucleoids and ionic granules, inter alia.

Acetyl-CoA is essential to the biosynthesis of cholesterol, and is found initially in the mitochondrial matrix, and we need to look at the pathway for its removal from that matrix into the cytoplasm, where all the action occurs.

Intruding into the mitochondrial matrix from the (quite impermeable) inner cell membrane are the cristae, which give the membrane more of a surface layer for interactions. This inner membrane is the site of oxidative phosphorylation. What’s that, I ask. Well, it’s key to the production of ATP, and at least I know that ATP is the ‘energy molecule’, and that it’s produced in mitochondria. Here’s something about the process from Khan Academy:

Oxidative phosphorylation is made up of two closely connected components: the electron transport chain and chemiosmosis. In the electron transport chain, electrons are passed from one molecule to another, and energy released in these electron transfers is used to form an electrochemical gradient. In chemiosmosis, the energy stored in the gradient is used to make ATP.

So a strong proton gradient is built up across the inner membrane of the mitochondrion. It’s a concentration gradient but also an ‘electrical potential difference’ gradient, so that the electrical potential within the matrix is lower, by some 160 millivolts, than that across the inter-membrane space. The protons within this space are unable to pass back into the matrix. The only way they can get back into the matrix is by means of ATP synthase which can harness the energy from the protons as they move down the chemical and electrical gradient, and use that energy to bind ADP to inorganic phosphate to create ATP.

I don’t fully understand all that, but the main point here is that the mitochondrial inner membrane is very ‘tight’, which makes it difficult to transfer Acetyl-CoA out of the matrix and into the inter-membrane space, from which it can more easily diffuse through the more permeable outer membrane into the cytoplasm.

The structure of Acetyl-CoA: it consists of an acetic acid molecule (CH3COOH) with a thioester link to the thiol group of a coenzyme A molecule. The importance for us here is this thiol (HS) group, which is similar structurally to an alcohol (HO) group, as sulphur has similar properties to its periodic table neighbour, oxygen. So thiol groups can be linked to carboxylic acid groups as alcohol groups can. Acetyl essentially means acetic acid with the alcohol removed. To get this Acetyl-CoA out of the matrix, it is first bound to oxaloacetate, a four-carbon molecule, to create citrate, the first molecule of the citric acid cycle. This citrate can be passed through the mitochondrial inner membrane and into the cytoplasm where it can be converted back into Acetyl-CoA.

So the conjugate base, oxaloacetate, has carboxylic acid groups, attached to the first and fourth carbon atoms, that have lost their protons into solution. An enzyme within the matrix is able to combine oxaloacetate with Acetyl-CoA and water to create citrate…

Okay, this is proving to be a much longer story than I might’ve hoped, but I like to be thorough – and in reality I’m still not being thorough enough. There’s a lot of rubbish on the internet about statins, much of it self-serving in one way or another, so I’ll just keep plodding along until I feel at least halfway informed about the matter. Meanwhile, you just keep getting on with your work, and don’t mind me.


Cholesterol biosynthesis part 1, by Ben1994, 2015

Cholesterol biosynthesis part 2, by Ben 1994, 2015

Written by stewart henderson

October 14, 2019 at 5:26 pm

Trump as dysfunctional crime machine

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One way to look at Trump is not so much as anything human but as a machine for generating crime – but as a somewhat dysfunctional one, in that everything he does is crooked but not all of it rises to the level of crime – which is I think, one of his major failings, and I’m sure he’s disappointed about it. For example he lies as others breathe, but not all his lies are crimes, so they don’t get the attention he wants them to get. In interviews or press conferences he doesn’t present talking points, he presents lying points. He doesn’t play golf, he cheats at golf. He doesn’t have advisors, he has echo-chambers.
But he’s also undisciplined, and sometimes falls down on the job and blurts out the truth. That’s when he gets into trouble. It’s like the ghost in his machine, and it scares the bejesus out of him.

Written by stewart henderson

October 13, 2019 at 1:49 pm

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some thoughts on regression to the mean and what causes what

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Regression effects are ubiquitous, and so are misguided causal stories to explain them. Daniel Kahneman

Canto: So here’s an interesting thought, which in some ways is linked to the placebo effect and our attributing recovery from an illness to something we ate, drank or did, rather than to the silent and diligent work of our immune system. You know about the regression to the mean concept?

Jacinta: Of course. It’s a statistical phenomenon that we tend not to account for, because we’re always looking for or imagining causal effects when they don’t exist.

Canto: Well, they do exist but we attribute the wrong causal effects – we don’t account for ‘bad luck’, for example, which of course is caused, usually by factors we can’t easily uncover, so for convenience we give it that name. For example, a golfer might be said to have had an unlucky day with the putter because we observe that she she went incredibly close to dropping a number of difficult long putts, but none of them went in, so she made five over par instead of even. Of course every one of those failed putts was caused – one because her aim wasn’t quite true, another due to a tuft of grass, another because of a last moment gust of wind and so on… 

Jacinta: And some of those causes might be deemed unlucky, because on a less windy day, or with a better maintained green, those putts might’ve gone in.

Canto: Okay okay, there is such a thing as luck. But luck, I mean real luck, like the effect of a sudden gust of wind that nobody could’ve factored in, tends to even itself out, which is part of regression to the mean. But let me get back to illness. Take an everyday illness, like a cold, a mouth ulcer (which I suffered from recently)…

Jacinta: Or a bout of food poisoning, which I suffered from recently…

Canto: Yes, something from which we tend to recover after a few days. So the pattern of the illness goes something like this – Day 1, we’re fine. Day 2, we feel a bit off-colour. Day 3 we definitely feel much worse. Day 4, much the same. Day 5, starting to feel better. Day 6, definitely a lot better. Day 7, we’re fine. So it follows a nice little bit of a sine wave – two peaks and a trough – as shown above. 

Jacinta: So you’re saying that getting back up to the peak again is regression to the mean?

Canto: Well, sort of, but you’re getting ahead of me. Maybe it isn’t precisely, because a mean is the midpoint in a fluctuation between two extremes. Sort of. Anyway, let me explain. When you’re ill, you can choose to ride it out, or you can go to a doctor, or take some sort of medication, or some concoction recommended by a friend, or a reflexologist, whatever. But here’s the thing. You’re not likely to go to the doctor/acupuncturist/magus on day 2, when you’re just starting to feel queasy, you’re much more likely to go when you’re at the bottom of the trough, and then you’ll attribute your recovery to whatever treatment you’ve received, when it’s really more about regression to the mean. Sort of.

Jacinta: Hmmm. I agree that we’re unlikely to rush to the doctor or even the medicine cabinet when we’re just feeling a bit queasy, but that’s probably because experience tells us we’ll feel better soon – that maybe we’re already at the bottom of a little trough. But when we start going into a deeper trough, naturally we start getting worried – maybe it’s pneumonia, or tuberculosis…

Canto: Or diphtheria, malaria, typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague, acute myeloid leukaemia….

Jacinta: Don’t mock, I’ve had all of those. But it’s interesting to think of illness and wellness in this wave form. I’m not sure if it works as regression to the mean. Because wellness is just, well, feeling well. Feeling ‘normal’ or okay. We don’t tend to feel super-well – do we?

Canto: You mean you don’t believe in biorhythms? So you think the line pattern would be like, a straight horizontal one with a few little and big troughs here and there, and then finally off the cliff and straight down to death?

Jacinta: Well, no, isn’t it a slow decline into second childhood and mere oblivion – sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Canto: Haha well not so much with modern medicine – though my hearing’s starting to go. But one of them-there invisible implants should fix that, at a price. But you’re probably right – what we call wellness at sixty is a lot different from the wellness we felt at twenty, but we’re probably lucky we can’t feel our way back to that twenty-something feeling. But getting back to the case of the person who applies a treatment and then gets better, there are, I suppose, three scenarios. The treatment caused the improvement, the treatment had no effect (the person improved for other reasons – such as our super-amazing immune system), or the treatment actually had a detrimental effect, but the person got better anyway, probably due to our wondrous immune system.

Jacinta: So that’s where the placebo idea comes in. And our tendency to over-determine for causality. You mention something like a cold, which is generally a viral infection, and mostly rhinoviral. The symptoms, like a runny nose and a sore throat, are actually caused by a mixture of the virus itself and the immune system fighting it, but mostly the latter….

Canto: Yeah, is that about antigens, or antibodies, I always get confused…

Jacinta: Well, it’s very very complicated, with T cells, immunoglobulin and whatnot, but essentially antigens are the baddies which trigger an antibody response, so antibodies are the goodies. So, if someone has a cold then unless they know their immune system is compromised in some way, the best thing is to let their immune system do its job, which might cause a few days’ discomfort, like extra phlegm production as the system, the antibodies or whatever, attempts to expel the invaders.

Canto: Yes, but the immune system is invisible to us, and is vastly under-estimated by many people, who tend to like to see something, like a big bright red pill, or a reflexology foot massage, or a bunch of needles needling their chi energy points, or unblocking their chakras…

Jacinta: Can they see their chakras?

Canto: No, but the magus can, with his various chakra-probing methods, and aural and oratorical senses developed over a lifetime – that’s why he’s a magus, dummy.

Jacinta: Yeah, and I’m sure we can all feel when our chakras are unblocked. It’s sort of like body plumbing.

Canto: So, getting back to reality, there is definitely something like this regression to the mean, to our own individual ‘normal’, but maybe ever-declining physical and mental state, that our wonderful immune system helps us to maintain, a system we rely on more than we realise….

Jacinta: Yes, but you know, it’s good that we don’t realise it so much, because think of all the acupuncturists, Alexander technicians, anthroposophicalists, antipharmaceuticalists, aromatherapists, auriculotherapists and ayurvedicists whose jobs might be on the line – and that’s just the A’s! Then we have the baineotherapist, the bead therapists and the bowen therapists, not to mention the chakra scalpel weaponmasters… can you imagine all those folk not being able to make a living?

Canto: Okay, that’s enough. It truly is a sad thing to think upon, but never fear, your horror scenario will never eventuate, my faith in human nature tells me….

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 2: effective law and distributed power

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I have established the republic. But today it is not clear whether the form of government is a republic, a dictatorship, or personal rule.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Australia’s House of Reps – politics as a team sport – mostly!

Australia has a Constitution, and so does Britain, but we don’t talk about them much – they don’t loom so large over the political system. The Westminster system doesn’t have an impeachment process, for the obvious reason that it is surplus to requirements. Due to its being a political process, impeachment is an unmitigated disaster.

So what happens, under the Westminster system, if a Prime Minister ‘goes rogue’ and either breaks the law or conducts herself in a manner contrary to the nation’s interest?

Well we need to step back a little to answer this question, because, under the US system, an elected President can be a rogue from the start. Trump is a clear case in point. Trump was, of course, far from being regarded as kosher by the Republican powers-that-be when he first suggested himself as a Presidential candidate, so he took his Barnum & Bailey campaign directly to the public, and in doing so highlighted the central problem of democracy, recognised two and a half thousand years ago, by Plato and Aristotle, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. The problem being, of course, demagoguery or populism – the notion that the public can be easily swayed by a candidate who promises everything and delivers nothing. The fact that this remains the most central problem of democracy surely says something about humanity in general – something that we may not be able to fix, but which we need to be on our guard against. Democracy is in fact a seriously flawed system – but far better than any other political system we’ve devised to regulate our seriously flawed human nature.

Under the Westminster system it’s far more difficult (though perhaps not impossible) for a ‘rogue from the beginning’ to reach the top of the political tree, because Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected. In fact the Westminster system has no correlate to the US presidential system, its general elections being much more correlated to the US mid-terms. This means, in effect, that under the Westminster system there is one set of general elections to two under the US system. Having two sets of general elections every four years seems a little over-indulgent. It means that you’re always preparing for or recovering from some election or other, and I’m not convinced that this is a good thing for your political health or your economy. And if you were ever to consider dispensing with one of those two sets of elections, clearly the Presidential elections should be the one to go.

Of course, this is sacrilege. Americans are obsessed with their Presidents – they even remember them as numbers – it’s bizarre. But it’s part-and-parcel, of course, with US individualism. It’s not surprising that the superhero is largely a US phenomenon. Many of your worst movies feature a Rambo or Indiana Jones-like character who single-handedly wins out over the baddies, often against a background of official incompetence or corruption. Think again of Trump’s OTT drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. And speaking of OTT, let’s not forget the carnivalesque razzamatazz of US Presidential elections, and the oodles of money that candidates are expected to raise, for no reasonable reason as far as I can see.

So, bearing all this in mind, let’s compare the situation and the job description of a Westminster-style Prime Minister with a US President.

Generally the Prime Minister is already an elected member of a party (either of the left or the right) and is chosen by parliamentary members of that party to be leader – much like a captain of a soccer team is already a player in the team and has proven herself to be experienced and knowledgable about playing the game and getting results. She has, in other words, earned the respect of her fellows. The Prime Minister works alongside her fellows, and under the scrutiny of her opponents, in the parliament. The President, on the other hand, is completely separate from parliament and surrounded by his own hand-picked team of very powerful courtiers, who need not have had any previous political experience.

The Prime Minister is able to choose her own cabinet, but only, of course, from elected members of parliament. All cabinet ministers, and indeed all MPs, are under continual scrutiny from other members of the House or the Senate. If the Prime Minister herself (or any other minister) is thought to be ‘going rogue’ or underperforming, she can be subjected to a no-confidence or censure motion in the House – requiring a simple majority. These have sometimes been successful, resulting in a change of Prime Minister between federal elections. While traumatic, such changes of leadership have nowhere near the impact that a change of President would have, since under the Westminster system the power is far more distributed, the team is far more important than its captain. The ‘great man’ Presidential system is such, however, that the only feasible way of dumping a President is by impeachment – an overly elaborate and highly political procedure that is almost designed to inflict trauma upon the populace.

There is, of course, no provision for impeachment in the Westminster system, and there has never been any need for such a process. A Prime Minister can, of course, be dumped for any number of reasons – most of which fall very far short of high crimes and misdemeanours. However, if a Prime Minister does go that far, she would be dealt with by law. There’s no suggestion under the Westminster system that a Prime Minister or any other minister or government official, would be immune from prosecution while in office. To me, the idea is totally absurd, for it seems far more reasonable that the precise opposite should be the case – that a country’s leader should be held to a higher legal standard than any other citizen. In other words, with great power comes greater legal responsibility, as a matter of course. Any political system that operates otherwise is simply rotten at its very core. It follows that the nation’s body of law, not the constitution, should govern the behaviour of those holding high office in government. For example, gaining a financial benefit from holding high office, other than the official salary and benefits that accrue to that office, should be illegal and cause for immediate dismissal in the most straightforward way. Contravening campaign finance laws should also be dealt with severely and immediately. If this causes a crisis in government, then clearly the system of government needs to be reformed, not the law. The constitution is at best a quasi-legal document, a laying out of the political system and the roles of its component parts. As an eighteenth century document, it can’t possibly be expected to cover the legal responsibilities of 21st century office-holders. That’s the vital role of a living, constantly adjusting body of law, to keep up with the legal responsibilities of a constantly modernising and complexifying political and business sector.

But let me return to the situation of Presidents, and candidates for the Presidency, since it’s unlikely that the US is going to give up on that institution.

You’ve learned the hard way that a rogue from the outset can bypass the traditional party system and win enough popular vote – with the help of a foreign nation – to become the leader of the most militarily and economically powerful nation on earth, despite having no political experience, no understanding of his nation’s history, no understanding of the geopolitical framework within which his nation operates, and no understanding of or interest in the global issues that all nations need to work together to solve. In other words, you’ve learned the hard way that anyone can indeed become your President, no matter how unsuited they are to the position. So how do you stop this from ever happening again?

Well if you insist on maintaining a system which ultimately pits one superhero against another, then you need I’m afraid, to admit to a serious but really rather obvious deficiency of democracy – the attraction of the demagogue (and I leave aside here the inherent problems of a state in which so many people can be hoodwinked). You need to vet all Presidential candidates with a set of questions and problems pertaining to both character and knowledge. Character questions wouldn’t be just of the type “What would you do if…” or ‘Do you think it is right to…’, questions that a sociopathic personality can always find the ‘successful’ answer to (though it’s doubtful that Trump could). They should be in the form of complex moral dilemmas that experimental psychologists have been adept at formulating over the years, requiring essay-type responses. The knowledge questions, by comparison, would be straightforward enough. Such tests should be assessed by professional diplomats and psychologists. This vetting, of course, cuts across the democratic process with a measure of ‘adults in the room’ intellectual, emotional and ethical elitism. Because of course you need a member of the intellectual and ethical elite to hold such a high office.

You might argue that Prime Ministers aren’t formally vetted, and that’s strictly true, but there’s at least an informal vetting system in that leaders have generally to climb from the ranks by impressing colleagues with their communication skills, their understanding of policy, their work ethic and so forth. It’s also the case that Prime Ministers have far less power than US Presidents – who have pardoning powers, special executive powers, power to shut down the government, veto powers, power to select unelected individuals to a range of high offices, power to appoint people to high judicial office and so forth. It’s hardly any wonder that characters like Trump are frustrated that they can’t take the next few steps towards total dictatorship. It’s interesting that I’ve recently heard a number of US pundits saying out loud ‘this isn’t a dictatorship’, as if they need to remind themselves of this fact!

Many will scoff at all this gratuitous advice. But you currently have a self-styled ‘very stable genius’ – a boorish, blustering, bullying, belly-aching buffoon in fact – in barricaded isolation in your White House and due to the multi-faceted failings of your politico-legal system, you can’t get rid of him as easily as you obviously should be able to, and I honestly feel that things will get much much worse before you do get rid of him. You can’t blame Trump for this – he has been exactly the same person for over 60 years. The fault lies with your system. If you don’t change it, you’ll never be able to regain the respect of the rest of the democratic world.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2019 at 1:21 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 1 – some modern history regarding two democratic systems

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It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. Thomas Paine

So Australia’s getting a tiny mention now in the Trump debacle, as he and his henchmen try desperately to find dirt on Mueller, Biden, anyone they can divert attention to as this iniquitous regime stumbles towards its own doom.
So it seems to me an opportune time to reiterate and expand upon some of my views about the US political and social system which led to this pass.

First, a bit of a history of modern democracy and a corrective, to some of the views I’ve regularly heard on MSNBC and CNN as the journos and other pundits wring their hands over how the mighty have fallen. It seems accepted wisdom in the USA that their country is the leader of the democratic world, the potential bringer of democracy to the unenlightened, the light on the hill, the world’s moral police officer, the first and best of the world’s free nations. And its beginnings are often cited in the War of Independence against a tyrant king. So how could a nation, which owes its very existence to a revolt against tyranny, succumb to the blusterings, badgerings and bullying of this tyrant-child in their midst?

Well, let’s look at this story.  Britain did indeed tyrannise its colony. But let’s take note of some facts. George III was a constitutional monarch. Lord North was Britain’s Prime Minister during the war of independence. A century and a half before the War of Independence, Britain beheaded its king for being a tyrant. It was then ruled for a time by the Long Parliament, and then the Rump Parliament, before Oliver Cromwell was made Lord Protector of the Realm. These were some of the first none too successful steps towards a modern democracy. Baby steps. Two steps forward, one step back you might say. It didn’t work out so well, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, under the proviso that there would be some parliamentary representation. Then in the 1680s another king was forced out of the country, again for being a tyrant, and trying to convert the nation to Catholicism. This Glorious Revolution, as it was called, brought another branch of the royal family in from overseas, and William and Mary Stuart were presented with the crown, and the first constitutional monarchy was formed – though of course Magna Carta had earlier brought about the first limitations to royal authority, and there were more limitations to come in the future. Again, baby steps away from tyranny and towards democracy. A Bill of Rights was introduced in 1689, much of it based on the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke whose work also influenced the American constitution. 

So, America’s War of Independence was a war against tyranny, I grant that, but the tyrant was more a nation, or a government, than a king – though George III was certainly tyrannical in his attitude to the colonies. Britain, at the time, and for a long time afterwards, was a very powerful nation. And – guess what – powerful nations are always bullies. Always. That’s a universal. Imperial Britain was always a bully to its neighbours, and to less powerful nations that it could benefit from exploiting. The USA in more recent times, has been the same, as has China, Russia (or the USSR) and powerful empires of the past, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian Assyrian, etc. It doesn’t matter their internal politics – they’re always bullies on the international stage. That’s why more powerful international agencies are needed and are just beginning to arise.

So getting back to democracy – the first US Presidential election was an odd one, as there was only one candidate – Washington. There were no parties, and very few states, and even then only about 7% of the adult population of those few states were considered eligible to vote, based on the possession of property (and of course skin colour, and gender). So, one of the bigger baby steps towards democracy, perhaps, but still another baby step. Of course, parliamentary membership in Britain at the time was subject to a vote, but also with a very limited franchise. 

So The USA significantly contributed to modern democracy, without a doubt, but the whole democratic movement proceeded by baby steps worldwide. For example, it’s surely unarguable that no nation or state could consider itself an effective democracy until it gave women – half the effing population! – the vote, and the USA was far from the first nation to do so. In fact the first state of any kind to do so was New Zealand in 1893, followed by the colony of South Australia – my home, from which I’m writing – in 1894. The USA didn’t grant the vote to women until 1920. 

So enough about democracy for now, but one reason I brought this up was to sort of complain a bit about American jingoism. You’re a really flag-waving, breast-beating country, and you tend to go on about patriotism as some kind of fundamental value. I say you because, though I have precious few readers, by far the majority of them come from the US, according to my WordPress data. Now, this kind of jingoism doesn’t allow for too much healthy self -analysis and critical distance. You need to get out more. I live in Australia, I was born in Scotland, so I’m a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, but I barely have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag in my life, never sung a national anthem. Nowadays I call myself a humanist, but I really came to that idea much later – my kind of visceral discomfort and dislike of nationalism goes back to my childhood, I can’t easily explain it, and any explanation would be post-hoc rationalism. I’m happy in any case that my humanism chimes with modern times, as we live in a more global and integrated world than ever before, but I do recognise that nations are still necessary and useful, and that global government will probably always remain an Einsteinian pipe-dream.

In any case, I feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life here in Australia. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 35-40 countries, the most developed economies in the world – the world’s richest countries by GDP. Every year for several years now, they’ve rated the member countries on a ‘Better Life Index’ based on 11 different criteria, such as health, income, safety, job opportunities and so on. Basically, a rating of the best countries in the world to live in. A new rating has just come out, and Australia ranks at number two, up from number three last year, but down from number one the year before, and the year before that. So lucky me, though I have plenty of criticisms about the way this country is going. So how does the USA rate? Well, it’s never been number one, or two, or three or four or five or six, and I could go on – which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near the bottom. But could this just be anti-American bias from the OECD? Well, in a sense yes, because I suspect they’re biased towards nations or states that look after their citizens – where there’s more of a sense of communal values. They measure categories such as ‘civic engagement’, ‘community’, ‘environment’ and ‘work-life balance’, categories which step a little beyond individual rights and freedoms – and I think that’s a good thing.

So here’s how I see the problem. The USA seems a little overly obsessed with the individual, and that seems to put it a little out on the libertarian end of the spectrum that stretches from libertarians to communists. I’d argue that there’s never been any instantiation of a communist state or a libertarian non-state – and in a democracy, which is by its nature a bottom-up sort of system, which has to cater for a wide range of views about government, you should always expect to be swinging mildly in the centre between these extremes. But America’s focus on individual freedoms and the great individual leader was evident from the outset, with the way it set up its federal political system. My plan here is to compare it to the Westminster system which I know quite well, and which has sort of evolved slowly rather than being set in stone by an all-powerful 18th century constitution.

Under the Westminster system there’s no directly elected President. Of course, that system did begin with a great individual power, the unelected, hereditary monarch, who, in the time of the USA’s founding and the drawing up of its constitution, was a lot more powerful than today’s monarch. So it seems to have been the thinking of the founding fathers that you could have this powerful figure but he could be elected. And I do say ‘he’ because, be honest, there’s nothing in the thinking of the founding fathers to suggest that they would ever have contemplated a female President. So, remembering that many of the ideas of the founding fathers actually came from Britain, through the likes of John Locke and Tom Paine, their idea seemed to be something like a constitutional President, elected rather than blue-blooded, and hedged around by a parliament that was more constitutionally powerful than the parliament of the time back in the old ‘mother country’. And by the way, it slightly irritates me that there’s this lexical difference for the legislature in the USA versus Britain/Australia, i.e congress/parliament. They’re really the same thing and I wish they had the same name. From now on I’ll use the term ‘parliament’ to refer to the legislative branch under both systems.

So, it seems – and I’m by no means an expert on the US constitution – that the constitution was drawn up to create a kind of balance of power between three branches of law and government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And this would have been quite revolutionary and progressive in its time, some two hundred odd years ago. In fact, the founding fathers may have seen it as so progressive and all-encompassing that the term ‘eternal’ might have been whispered about, like the eternal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so they may have suffered from that natural pride which assumed that the constitution ought not to be altered without difficulty, and so the USA has largely been stuck with it. And I should point out – because it strikes non-Americans as a bit weird – that Americans seem a bit overly obsessed with their constitution.

Okay, so I’ll leave it there for now. Next time I’ll focus a bit more on the Westminster system, and a comparison between Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm

The Israeli horrorshow that our governments pretend isn’t happening

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Canto: We just have to talk about Israel. It’s doing my head in.
Jacinta: I know. So let’s start with the slogan – don’t know if its like some official government position – ‘Jewish and Democratic’ – do you see the problem with that?
Canto: You know I do. Democracy is, at least theoretically, inclusive, while Jewishness is, most practically, exclusive. The two are as immiscible as lipids in water.

Jacinta: Well put. And on that basis, I mean considering the putative inclusiveness of democracy, much-touted Athenian democracy, which never lasted long anyway, was never really democratic, because women weren’t regarded as citizens, in fact they were virtually non-persons.

Canto: Right, not to mention slaves, who would’ve been a substantial proportion of the population, and non-citizens like Aristotle, who could never become citizen-voters, despite their contributions to the state. But turning to modern democracies, we’re far more sensitive to the need for inclusiveness if we’re to legitimately describe ourselves as democratic – think of the national shame we feel in Australia about not allowing our indigenous people the right to vote until the early sixties. And of course anyone from overseas who becomes an Australian citizen not only can but must vote here. 

Jacinta: But we don’t think of our country as ‘Australian and democratic’, in spite of some pollies and others trying – unsuccessfully in my view – to characterise typical Australians. And the same with Brits and Americans.

Canto: So that takes us back to Israel and the Jewish obsession with cultural identity, and its association with a particular piece of land, which some Jewish people seem to think is exclusively and eternally theirs. We’ve read a number of texts on the Palestine-Israeli tragedy, or disaster, or whatever you choose to call it, the first one being The case for Palestine, by Australian lawyer Paul Heywood-Smith, which focuses particularly on the legal issues re the creation of the Israeli state, as well as all the hard-headed lobbying of  western politicians by Zionist ideologues in the early twentieth century. It was most educational, but what has most haunted me since reading the book is a less characteristic passage:

What is a secular American Jew? 22% of American Jews now describe themselves as having no religion. That figure rises to 32% for those born after 1980. Is this secular American Jew an American? Is he/she a Jew? Is he/she an Israeli living in the US? Why do Jewish American Organisations regard assimilation as the greatest danger? Religious Jews no doubt have a reason to call themselves Jews. But non-religious American Jews no longer suffer discrimination….. Why can’t they just be American? The answer is – Israel

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, p83.

The reference here is to American Jews but of course it equally applies to Australia, Britain or any other country. It’s strange that Jewishness, which began as a religious rather than a national signifier, should continue to have such significance for non-religious Jews. I think there are two answers rather than one: first, the land of Israel, which was propagandised in Jewish religious writings as ‘the promised land’, upon which was built a magnificent but totally mythical kingdom under David and Solomon, and second, the history of Jewish oppression, throughout Europe in particular, culminating in the holocaust. This has combined to create a heavy sense of culture, associated with a particular stretch of land – which, to be factual, never belonged wholly to the Jews during Old Testament times.

Jacinta: Yet it’s still strange. It does seem, though, that heavy culture – in which one’s culture almost seems to take precedence over one’s humanity – is generally forged in opposition to oppressors. Members of indigenous cultures, for example, who probably took that culture for granted when left to themselves, often develop a fierce pride in it, when it comes under threat from ‘whities’.

Canto: Yes, they dig in and get quite conservative about it. They become preservationists. But returning to Israel – is there any nation now existing on this planet that’s more racist than Israel?

Jacinta: That’s interesting. You might say that because there’s actually no such thing as ‘race’, and I think science backs me up on this, there can be no such thing as racism, but that’s not true. Race is about fact and science, whereas racism is about perception and belief. I’d roughly define racism as a belief in superiority based on a perception of skin colour and/or cultural identity. That saying, I’m inclined to agree with you about Israel, though I haven’t visited that many nations, even in my cyberworld travels…

Canto: No matter, it’s clearly a racist country, by your definition. Add to that sense of superiority the nonsensical idea that the piece of land modern Israel has been built upon (whatever its rather flexible boundaries) has ‘always’ been theirs, and the promotion of a peculiar ‘everyone hates us so we must be super-strong to defend ourselves’ paranoia, and you have a most peculiar and unique form of racism, which is no less vicious for being so.

Jacinta: So clearly Israel is no more a democracy than South Africa was under apartheid. Now, over the past months we’ve been educating ourselves about the situation there via reading – notably four texts. First, The case for Palestine, which is useful for, inter alia, recording the indefensible attitude of successive Australian governments towards Israel’s brutality, of which more later. Second, Tears for Tarshiha, a memoir by Olfat Mahmoud, who was born in Burj Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, after her family were driven out of their native town, Tarshiha, in what is now the north-west of Israel, as part of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, which saw some 700,000 Palestinians fleeing or being forced out of the region. Mahmoud is a Palestinian peace activist and director of an international NGO, who represents the resilience of Palestinians amid horrendous suffering. Her story is simply told but sometimes painful to read. Third is The last earth, by Ramzy Baroud, which tells multiple stories from the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian diaspora, as part of a people’s history of individual voices and perspectives, a rejection of the ‘terrorist’ stereotype. Fourth is Goliath: life and loathing in greater Israel, an enormous piece of on-the-ground reportage by the Jewish-American journalist Max Blumenthal, which identifies some of the main figures in Israeli right-wing politics and presents a stark picture of the cultivated racism of the Israeli military and its education system, and a multi-faceted picture of the resistance movement. Honestly, no words of mine could do justice to this valuable work.

Canto: Yes, so let’s take some choice quotes from these books to discuss. From The case for Palestine:

In the days preceding the September 2013 election, the [Australian] Foreign Minister and deputy leader of the party Julie Bishop, attacked the Greens over its supposed ‘support’ of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. Bishop demanded that the Greens leader, Senator Milne clarify her party’s stand on ‘the anti-Semitic boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign’. To so describe the BDS campaign demonstrates a remarkable lack of understanding by an incoming foreign minister.

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, p111

Jacinta: Yes, and the author goes on to quote from the movement’s website, which makes clear its human rights agenda, its opposition to racism, anti-Semitism, etc. This ‘anti-Semitic’ slur is commonplace from the defenders of the indefensible, but I’m not sure about Bishop’s lack of understanding – I suspect she knew exactly what she was saying re defending Israel at all costs, which is habitual with right-wing politicians (and many left-wing politicians) in Australia. We’ve long been all the way with the Americans on the topic of Israel, as witnessed by our shameful unwillingness to censure Israeli practices at the UN, putting us always in the outlying position along with our Great Ally.

Canto: I have nothing to add. From Tears for Tarshiha I will quote something in the preface, from a speech made by the author Olfat Mahmoud at the UN, to mark the formation of UNRWA:

As a Palestine refugee in Lebanon, I have very limited rights, I am stateless, and I exist but am not recognised… My father and mother and my grandmothers and grandfathers and my children will remain refugees even if they marry Lebanese. For us the phrases ‘human rights’ and ‘the right to be free from statelessness’, and the right to live in safety and dignity’ have lost all their meaning.

Olfat Mahmoud, Tears for Tarshiha, p4

Jacinta: Well, this speaks to so much, it’s hard to know where to start. The beginning of the end came for non-Jewish Palestinians at the turn of the 20th century, in a rather quiet way, when wealthy European Zionists began buying up land in the region, setting up the Jewish National Fund in 1901 and making it a rule that all land that it acquired was ‘to remain inalienable Jewish property that could not be sold or leased to others’ (Heywood-Smith, p25). This dubious ‘law’ still exists, and reflects the exclusivity that has led to today’s horrorshow in Israel.

Canto: Yes and speaking of horrorshows, the horrific treatment of the Jews under nazism meant that, post-war, the Jewish people benefited from a surge of goodwill, more or less worldwide, which helps explain the rush to create the Israeli state and the bowing to Zionist pressure to ‘simplify’ the massively complex politics of the region in order to bring that state about. And so, the Nakba and all that followed, as some of the world’s most powerful nations turned a blind eye.

Jacinta: All of which cemented thinking in the neighbourhood of the region, which didn’t have to be the case. Israel, due to its behaviour, will have to make itself a fortress against all its neighbours, when it isn’t attacking them. It’s astonishing, when reading Olfat’s book, how little bitterness she shows for the tough upbringing she was forced to endure, but it shouldn’t be at all astonishing that many Palestinians, and their supporters, do feel bitter, and vengeful.

Canto: Now to Ramzy Baroud’s The last earth. I won’t quote from it, I’ll briefly mention some of the stories (there are nine in all), to give some semblance of their variety. Marco’s story – a Palestine refugee born in Yarmouk, Syria, he couldn’t help but be caught up in the conflict there, identifying himself with any one of the competing forces he needed to in order to survive, until he realised that flight was the only option. In his struggle to get to Europe he meets with many demoralising setbacks and the story ends with him still trying to reach a destination with some modicum of security. Ahmad al-Haaj’s story tells of his escape, as a teenager, from the siege of Al-Faluja in 1948, where many family members died. The siege itself is described in detail – the hope followed by despair and the sense of betrayal, the sense of being eternally out-gunned and harrassed, the ruthlessness of Moshe Dayan and the Israeli military. The disruption of families is a major feature throughout. Another story tells of life in a Gaza refugee camp – the disappearances, the frustrations, the constant Israeli intrusions, the quasi-mythic heroes and the legends used to maintain morale amid the desolation. Other stories tell of imprisonment, torture, ritual humiliation, martyrdom, starvation, as well as love and humour.

Jacinta: Yes, these are the stories of ‘ordinary’ people in intolerable situations, people who are as smart, thoughtful, hard-working and ambitious as the rest of us to our varying degrees, but who find themselves thrown into a hellhole by an unlucky throw of the dice.

Canto: Finally, Goliath, which we can no more do justice to here than to any of the other works. For his reportage, Blumenthal mixed with the new right-wing high-fliers as well as the Palestian-Jewish protest movement, the religious zealots and their trapped victims. This overheard piece of conversation from one Jeremy Gimpel, described as ‘a thirty-two year old Israeli transplant from Atlanta who lived in the settlement of Efrat’ and was an electoral candidate, caught my attention:

‘When was Palestine called Palestine? We’re from Judea… we are the indigenous people of the land of Israel!’ I heard him proclaim in a suburban American accent. ‘How dare they try to kick us out of our homeland!’

Jacinta: Yeah, right, note again the paranoia – who is this ‘they’? But the absurdity here needs to be highlighted. The idea (coming from an American!) seems to be that, assuming that Palestine was never an ‘official’ name, the people of Palestine, apart from the Jews, aren’t ‘official’ human beings. It’s like saying that Australia’s indigenous people (or those of the US) aren’t really people because the land then didn’t have an official name – so the white people who arrived and bestowed a name on the place are the indigenous inhabitants!

Canto: Yes, it’s all very logical. Of course, Judea, a small section of Palestine, is only as old as Judaism – a mere 4000 years, and the region had human inhabitants long before that….

Jacinta: Yes but they were all wiped out by the Israelites coming out of Egypt, remember?

Canto: Haha, oh yes, ethnic cleansing….


The case for Palestine: the perspective of an Australian observer, by Paul Heywood-Smith, 2014

Tears for Tarshiha: a Palestinian refugee’s inspiring tale of her lifelong fight to return home, by Olfat Mahmoud, 2018

The last earth: a Palestinian story, by Ramzy Baroud, 2018

Goliath: life and loathing in greater Israel, by Max Blumenthal, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

September 30, 2019 at 12:23 pm

women of note 1: Mary Anning, palaeontologist

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She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore,
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I’m sure
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells. 

Terry Sullivan, 1908 – said to be inspired by Mary Anning’s fossickings

Unfortunately, I want to write about everything.

So now I begin an occasional series about women to be celebrated and never forgotten.

Mary Anning was born in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, Devon, in 1799 and died there, too young, of breast cancer in 1847. According to Brian Ford, author of Too big to walk: the new science of dinosaurs, she was ‘the first full-time professional palaeontologist anywhere in the world’. It’s a fair statement; those before her were generalists, given the name ‘naturalists’, and made their livings as pastors or physicians, or were independently wealthy. The term ‘palaeontology’ was just starting to gain traction in the early nineteenth century, replacing the intriguing but probably short-lived ‘oryctology’, though fossil-finding and speculations thereon (mostly infused with religious or mystic beliefs) date back to civilisation’s dawn.

Fossil-hunting had become quite trendy from the late eighteenth century, and Mary’s dad, a cabinet-maker by trade, supplemented his income by selling fossil bits and pieces, discovered himself on the nearby cliffs, to locals and tourists (the region had become something of a haven for those escaping the Napoleonic wars). The cliffs around Lyme Regis on England’s south coast form part of the Blue Lias, alternating sediments of shale and limestone, very rich in fossils from the early Jurassic, around 200 mya.

Richard and Molly, Mary’s parents, had ten children, but only two, Joseph and Mary, survived infancy. Childhood diseases such as measles were often killers, especially among the poor – a reminder of how lucky we are to be living in an economically developed country in the 21st century. The Anning family was never well-off, and Richard died when Mary was just 11 years old. Mary herself just managed to escape death by lightning strike when she was a baby. The strike killed three women, one of whom was tending her at the time. But the family suffered many hardships besides infant mortality. Food shortages and rising prices led to riots in the neighbourhood, and Richard himself was involved in organising protests.

As kids, Joseph and Mary sometimes accompanied their father on fossil-hunting trips on the dangerous cliffs, which were subject to landslides. They would sell their finds, which were mostly of invertebrate fossils such as ammonite and belemnite shells, in front of their home, but clearly life would’ve been a real struggle in the years following Richard’s death, during which time they relied partly on charity. It wasn’t long, though, before Mary’s expertise in finding and identifying fossils and her anatomical know-how came to the attention of well-heeled fossickers in the region. In the early 1820s a professional collector, Thomas Birch, who’d come to know the family and to admire Mary’s skills in particular, decided to auction off his own collection to help support them. This further enhanced their reputation, and Mary became something of a local celebrity, reported on in the local papers:

This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half-suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of ichthyosauri of the great collections.

Bristol Mirror, 1823 – quoted in Too big to walk, by Brian Ford, p61

As this article mentions, Mary Anning’s name is often associated with ichthyosaur fossils, but she also discovered the first plesiosaur, the identity of which was confirmed by Georges Cuvier – though he at first accused her of fraud. Amongst other contributions, she was the first to recognise that the conical ‘bezoar stones’ found around the cliffs of Lyme were in fact fossilised faeces of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

plesiosaur skeleton, beautifully sketched by Mary Anning

For my information, ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles dated from the early Triassic to the late Cretaceous periods (250-90 mya), though most abundant in the early period, after which they were superseded as the top marine predators by the plesiosaurs (approx 204-66 mya).

Anning’s exact contribution to palaeontology is impossible to determine, because so many of her finds were snapped up by professional collectors, in an era when attributions weren’t preserved with much care, and this would have been compounded by her status as an ‘uneducated’ amateur, and a woman. Contemporary commentary about her expertise was often infused with a subtle condescension. There’s little doubt that, had she been male, her admirers would have seen to it that her talents were sufficiently recompensed with scholarships, senior university posts, and membership of the prominent scientific societies. Instead, she remained a fixture at Lyme Regis – there’s no indication that she ever travelled, apart from at least one trip to London, though her expertise was recognised throughout Europe and America. It’s also likely that, coming from a family of Dissenters – a reformist Protestant group – she was regarded with suspicion by the Anglican-dominated scientific hierarchy of the time. Let’s take a look, for comparison, at some of the males she associated with, and who associated with her, and how their professional lives went:

Sir Henry de La Beche – KCB, FRS. That first TLA means ‘Knight Commander of the Bath’ or something similar. I seem to recall bestowing a similar title upon myself while commanding battleships in the bathtub at age six or so. Never received a stipend for it though. FRS means Fellow of the Royal Society of course. Son of a slave-owner who died young, Beche was brought up in Lyme Regis where he became a friend of Anning, sharing her interest in geological strata and what they contained. It’s not unlikely that she was an inspiration for him. He was able to join the male-only London Geological Society at age 21, and later became its President. He became a FRS in 1819 at the still tender age of 24. He was appointed director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain in the 1830s and later the first director of the Museum of Practical Geology in London (now part of the Natural History Museum). He was knighted for his genuine contributions to geology in 1848. Beche was in fact an excellent practical and skeptical scientist who gave support to Anning both financially and in his published work.

William Conybeare – FRS. Born into a family of ‘divines’ (at least on the male side) Conybeare became a vicar himself, and a typical clergyman-naturalist, with particular interests in palaeontology and geology. Educated at the elite (and all-male) Westminster School and at all-male Oxford University, after which he travelled widely through the country and on the Continent (all paid for by ‘a generous inheritance’) in pursuit of geological and palaeontological nourishment. He became an early member of the Geological Society, where he met and advised other notables such as Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland, and contributed papers, including one with Beche which summarised findings about ichthyosaurs and the possibility of another species among them, the plesiosaur. This was confirmed by Anning’s discovery and detailed description of a plesiosaur, which Conybeare later reported to the Geological Society, delighted to be proved correct. He failed to mention Anning’s name. In 1839 Conybeare, together with two other naturalist heavyweights, William Buckland and Richard Owen, joined Mary Anning for a fossil-hunting excursion. Unfortunately we have no smartphone recordings of that intriguing event.

William Buckland, DD [Doctor of Divinity], FRS. Born and raised in Devon, Buckland accompanied his clergyman dad on walks in the region where he collected fossil ammonite shells. He was educated at another elite institution, Winchester College, where he won a scholarship to Oxford. In 1813 he was appointed reader in minerology there, and gave popular lectures with emphasis on geology and palaeontology. He seemed to cultivate eccentricities, including doing field-work in his academic gown and attempting to eat his way though the animal kingdom. His most important association with Mary Anning was his coining of the term ‘coprolite’ based on Anning’s observation that these conical deposits, found in the abdomens of ichthyosaurs, were full of small skeletons. Clearly, Anning knew exactly what they were, but had no real opportunity to expatiate on them in a public forum. Women were often barred from attending meetings of these proliferating scientific societies even as guests, let alone presenting papers at them.

Gideon Mantell, MRCS [Member of the Royal College of Surgeons], FRS. Mantell was himself a rather tragic figure, whose association with Anning was less personal, though he did visit her once at her Lyme Regis shop. He was inspired more by news of her ichthyosaur discoveries, which reinforced an obsession with fossil hunting in his own region of Sussex, where many fossils of the lower Cretaceous were uncovered. Born in Lewes in Sussex, the fifth child of a shoemaker, he was barred from the local schools due to his family’s Methodism. He underwent a period of rather eccentric but obviously effective private tuition before becoming apprenticed to a local surgeon. Though worked very hard, he taught himself anatomy in his free time, and wrote a book on anatomy and the circulation of the blood. He travelled to London for more formal education and obtained a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1811. Returning to Lewes, he partnered with his former employer in treating victims of cholera, smallpox and typhoid epidemics, and delivering large quantities of babies, building up a thriving practice, but also somehow finding time for fossil-hunting, corresponding with others on fossils and geology, and writing his first paper on the fossils of the region. He started finding large and unusual bones and teeth, which turned out to be those of an Iguanadon, though it took a long time for this to be recognised, and he was mocked for his claims by experts such as William Buckland and Richard Owen. Although he was becoming recognised for his many writings and discoveries, he always remained something of an outsider to the establishment. He later fell on hard times and suffered a serious spinal injury from a horse-and-carriage accident, from which he never really recovered. He apparently died from an overdose of laudanum, used regularly as a pain-killer in those days.

Returning to Mary Anning, we see that class as well as sex was a barrier to intellectual acceptance in early nineteenth century Britain – but sex especially. Mary struggled on in Lyme Regis, recognised and sought out by other experts, but never given her full due. In the 1840s she was occasionally seen to be staggering about, as if drunk. In fact, she too was dosing herself on laudanum, due to the pain of advancing breast cancer. She died in 1847, aged 47.

I should point out that, though Mary Anning’s name is largely unknown to the general public, so are the male names mentioned in this article. We generally don’t fête our scientists very much, though they’re the ones that really change our world, and help us to understand it. Mary was helped out by luminaries such as Beche and Buckland in her later years, and received a small annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Upon her death, Beche wrote a modest eulogy, which he presented at a Geological Society meeting, which, had she been alive, Anning wouldn’t have been allowed to attend. It was later published in the transactions of the Society. Here’s how it begins:

 I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians [now known as Euryapsida], and other forms of organic life entombed in the vicinity of Lyme Regis ..

Mary Anning by her beloved cliffs, tool in hand, pointing to her not yet dead dog Tray, killed in the line of scientific duty…


Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2019 at 11:14 am