The following email appeared on one of the ornithology list servers some years ago. It is not clear how much of it was written by Byron Butler and how much by Burton Guttman, but, acknowledging that both had some hand in composing this, I present it as an interesting discourse on the development of ornithology in North America in the 20th century.
Date: Sat, 26 Aug 1995 23:50:07 -0400
From: "Byron Butler (GD 1995)"
Subject: Orn history (was Help: Stresemann, 1934)
On Thu, 24 Aug 1995, Priyantha Wijesinghe wrote: Even if (like me!) you don't read German or French it is easy to see when leafing through these volumes the tremendous scholarship they represent. Why is it that one rarely gets that impression when reading modern textbooks of ornithology, Gill included? On Fri, 25 Aug 1995, Burton Guttman replied:
Our knowledge of birds (and just about everything else, I suppose) is growing exponentially. I think it was possible for Stresemann, in the 1920s and '30s, to know essentially everything that ornithologists knew about birds at that time. Now look at what goes into even a handbook on the birds of a limited area, like Europe or Africa: a multivolume series, written by many people. No one can encompass it all. No one could learn all the physiology, ethology, genetics, etc., in addition to all the morphology, taxonomy, and distribution information, and put it into a huge (colossal!) book. Frank Gill, writing a text for a one- semester (or even one-year) ornithology course, can only skim the surface and give people a start on searching the literature.
Other authors have also suggested that Stresemann was that last ornithologist to have been able to encompass the whole of ornithology and to cover it in a single author work. Perhaps this is true, but it is necessary to put this idea in perspective. Stresemann spent 10 or more years preparing his "Aves," before it came out in parts from 1927-1934. At the time he worked, ornithology was a museum based discipline and Stresemann worked at the Berlin Museum. Ornithology in those days was largely descriptive being concerned mostly with biogeography, evolution, and systematics, and less so with ecology and behavior (both of which were new and growing disciplines). Anatomy and morphology being done largely for purposes of understanding evolution and phylogeny (e.g., see the works of Fuerbringer, Gadow, Garrod, etc.). Ornithologists were trained in field methods including observation, but not in hypothetico-deductive experimentation.
In the United States, most of the ornithologists were advanced amateurs, many with degrees in medicine. Throughout the 19th century there were three respectable career routes for the social elite, medicine, religion, and law. A high percentage of our leading naturalists were trained in medicine, this being where one could obtain a natural history education. Even at the turn of the century there were few ornithologists with Ph.D.s in the Americas, there were more in Europe, but still few. There were relatively few paid ornithological positions, and those were at the leading museums: US National Museum (Washington, D. C.), American Musuem of Natural History (New York City), Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Carnigie Museum (Pittsburgh), the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard (Boston), and a few others. Even then, many of the positions were filled by wealthy amateur volunteers (e.g., Major Charles E. Bendire who curated the egg collection at the US National Museum).
There were no faculty ornithologists at academic institutuions, at least in North America, until 1915 when Arthur A. Allen went to Cornell and set up the Laboratory of Ornithology. Allen offered the first American college course in ornithology and others soon followed. Experimental ornithology is generally regarded as beginning with the Canadian William Rowan who studied the basis for migratory behavior in White-crowned Sparrows in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Then came the "evolutionary synthesis" (aka: the modern synthesis) generally denoted as the years 1936-1947. It was during this period that natural history based disciplines (like ornithology) merged with more traditional academic institution based disciplines like genetics, physiology, embryology, etc. and a big picture understanding of the whole of biology emerged.
The result of these events was that ornithology as a scientific discipline was changed forever. Descriptive studies in the post WWII scientific environment were now out of fashion, experimental studies were in. Natural history was declared dead. The appearance of journals changed as their contents increased in the proportion of experimental studies and decreased in the proportion of descriptive studies. Then in 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik (sputnik = satelite in Russian) which so greatly alarmed Americans that science research in America became a primary public agenda. With much popular support great amounts of money poured into scientific research during the "Golden Age" of American science in the mid-1960s.
Thus, there was a great transition period in American ornithology from the 1920s to the 1960s, after which ornithology would never again be the same. After this period American scientific ornithology became almost exclusively an experimental science. This is when the gap between professional and amateur ornithology began to grow, a gap that has been widening ever since, is still widening today, and promises to continue to widen in the future. Thus, it should be no surprise that it was also during this transition period that new field guides for amateur birders by Hoffman, Peterson, and others appeared and that this is also when the American Birding Association formed. The first paragraph of "Birding" Volume I, Number 1, Jan-Feb 1969 states: "With this, the first official issue of _Birding_, a new era has begun in the lives of many birders. It is an era of systematic and organized cooperation with other birdwatchers across the country. It is an era during which birding is destined to come into its own as a well known and popular sport as well as hobby. It is inevitable that this will happen and this journal, rather than representing the cause, is only a strand in the interwoven complexity of the movement." Thus, professional ornithology went in one direction, and amateur ornithology in another. The great relationship between professional scientists and amateur naturalists split into experimenters and sport birders (= listers), lost in this dichotomy were the were the students of bird study, i.e., the traditional naturalists, or birdwatchers.
Along with the shift to experimental science came specialization in research. I do not yet know the history of ornithology in Europe in the 20th century well enough to know how it parallels events in America, but I suspect it was very similar at a course-grained scale. The differences in Stresemann's "Aves" and Gill's "Ornithology" reflect the character of pre- and post- WWII ornithology more than the ability of one individual to keep up with the field -- in my opinion. Yet, to end here would be a great oversimplification.
Stresemann headed the leading school of avian systematic thought in the world during his time. His students were trained in biology programs and obtained Ph.D.s. Stresemann was in close and frequent contact with some of the best ornithologists the world has ever seen (e.g., Ernst Hartert). His most notable student, Ernst Mayr, imigrated to the United States in 1931 (to the American Museum of Natural History) and found in the intellectual environment here a prime opportunity to synthesize German, Russian, and American thought, culminating in 1942 in his _Systematics and the Origin of Species_, an obvious play on Darwin's _On the Origin of Species_. Actually, this title was suggested to Mayr by T. Dobzhansky, the famous Russian imigrant and good friend of Mayr, who had just earlier written his classic, _Genetics and the Origin of Species_. Both Mayr and Dobzhansky are to be considered among the leading architects of the "evolutionary synthesis," and their books as classics of that time -- and still valuable reading, I might add. [Both Dobzhansky's and Mayr's books developed from Jesop Lectures given at Columbia University.]
American ornithology in the post-WWII period was, greatly influenced by the events of the "evolutionary synthesis," by the developing fields of animal behavior and ecology, and by the work of David Lack (English) and Robert MacArthur (American). Whereas American naturalists were trained in German prior to WWII, anti-German sentiment during the post-war period abandoned that language requirement. Thus, many great ornithological works originally written in German but that have never been translated to English are out of reach of most Americans. These include not only Stresemann's "Aves" but also classic books and papers by Fuerbringer, Schlegel, Hartert, Naumann, Oskar Heinroth, Finsch, Rensch, Reichenow, and others. It is not possible to truly have mastery of the whole of ornithology without having read these works.
In addition to the loss of the German language requirement, post-WWII American ornithology also abandoned training in field observation and careful description. Ornithologists of the '60s and '70s were trained in experimental design, measurement & data collecting, mathematics, and computer science - this tradition continues today. Data collection and analysis of data are the fashion today as "physics envy" has taken over the whole field of biology. This change in the epistemology of American biological sciences actually began in the late 19th century with C. O. Whitman's group at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Significantly, Whitman had earlier studied in Germany and also in Naples; he brought to America the ideas and methods of the leading European schools. Again, all of these developments resulted in increased specialization.
Along with the shift from descriptive studies to hypothetico-deductive experimental and reductionist studies has been a change in emphasis from scholarship to "salami science" wherein *number* of papers published has become more important than the *quality* of a given paper for many workers in this "publish or perish" environment, leading to the often repeated observation that "Deans can't read, but they can count." The typical American biologist today is generally ignorant of the history and philosophy of science and often even disdains it as irrelevant. I believe Burt Guttman is correct in his above contrast of Stresemann and Gill. Stresemann's "Aves" was a comprehensive coverage of the field of ornithology and due to his mastery of the discipline, it served as a guide for a future research program. One reason for the success of Stresemann's group is that he was able to clearly see what questions were important and needed to be investegated, then he put his graduate students on those projects. In contrast, Gill, writing today is constrained by pressures from his publisher to have a new text out approximately every five years (personal commm.), the text is clearly written to become the dominate ornithology text for undergraduate college courses, not to be a synthesis comparable to Stresemann's "Aves." Gill's text emphasizes experimental results at the expense of some important descriptive natural history and is clearly written in and for the post-transitional period. When Gill's book first came out I analyzed his approx. 1,600 references and posted my analysis to BirdChat -- I don't have that information with me today, but according to my memory (not 100% trustworthy) over 75% of the literature he cited was written after the 1950s, and very little of it came from the 19th century. The importance of this is that it is impossible to obtain an historical perspective from such a biased selection of the literature. To be fair to Gill, it must be stated that such a bias was conscious and intended, the idea being to reflect the activity of current ornithology, not to recap the whole of ornithology. Also, it should be noted that it is not appropriate to put the onus on the authors and/or publishers, after all they are only feeding a demand. The problem, and I do think the lack of present day scholarship *is* a problem, is that too many readers want only to read about the "hot" current research, they are not willing to spend the time to develop the historical perspective. Guttman states that ornithology has grown to such a degree that it is now impossible, or at least unlikely, for any one person to master the whole field. Perhaps this is correct, but before adopting this explanation I would like to offer an alternative view. Due to the change in the epistemology of the biological sciences, post-transitional ornithologists, like other biologists, have become specialists in an experimental arena, a tradition that directs them away from "big picture" thinking and scholarship. Yet, while ornithology has grown to envelop such specialties as genetics, endocrinology, immunology, neuroethology, etc., it is still largely a natural history based discipline with its main contributions in the fields of ecology, animal behavior, evolutuion, biogeography, and systematics. It is definitely true that no one person can master all of these specialties, however, I think it might still be the case that one can become familiar enough with the contributions of each subdiscipline to be able to write a scholarly summary of the field similar to that of Stresemann. I believe the reason no one has done it to date is that the pressures of the current research paradigm do not allow anyone enough time to do the scholarly research. I know this is the case with Gill.
Byron K. Butler, Guilford, CT