Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Joachim Barrande

A paleontologist - a fervent Catholic - who discovered thousands of species of trilobites...

On the 5th October 1883 there died at Frohsdorf near Vienna, far from his native France from which he had voluntarily exiled himself, one of the most distinguished paleontologists of the nineteenth century, Joachim Barrande. All over the learned world the death of this man was felt to be a heavy loss to science.
In every land in which Palæontology has a place", writes Ferdinand Roemer, "the announcement of this death will be received with sympathy and sorrow. For who is there to whom his name is unknown? Who is there but has contemplated with a mixture of admiration and astonishment the long row of mighty quartos that bear his name, marvelling, even though he be ignorant of their contents, that such a mass of work could proceed from a single pen? But what student of palæontological remains is there that has not occasion, almost every day of his life, to consult Barrande's works, and to thank him for the almost inexhaustible ocean of information which he has brought together in them?"
The investigator who is praised in this wise was born on his father's estate near Sangues, in the department of Haute-Loire. A strong Legitimist, he left France in 1830 with the banished royal family, and settled in Bohemia as tutor to Count Chambord. From 1833 he devoted himself to the investigation of the geological and palæontological conditions of that country. Supported by the kingly generosity of his former pupil he achieved wonderful results.
"By the epoch making work of Joachim Barrande", says Von Zittel, "Bohemia became a classic ground of the oldest fossil-bearing formations." A preliminary sketch of the Bohemian silurian basin, issued in 1846, was followed in 1852 by the first volume of his great work on the silurian system in Bohemia. There is practically nothing that can bear comparison with it in the whole literature of Palæontology. In 22 mighty quarto volumes, with 1160 wonderfully executed tables, Barrande from 1852 to his death in 1883 described the trilobites and other crustaceans, molluscs and brachiopoda, to be found in the Bohemian silurian basin."
Barrande investigated in the first place the geological formation of the Bohemian Silurian district. He recognised it as a tolerably regularly formed basin of elliptical shape, consisting of several successive layers and veins. The earliest layers appeared on the outer circumference, the latest in the middle.
"He next sought to investigate with the greatest zeal the organic contents of the different veins, and their subdivisions. He collected fossils as no one ever did either before or after him. He kept in his pay all the year round an army of collectors and labourers; he worked numerous quarries for no other purpose. He thus brought together a collection of fossils the like of which has not been gathered from any other area of palæozoic strata. It contains some 5000 species, and numerous examples of almost every one of these."
After years of preparation he began the publication of his work. "Its appearance", says Roemer, "was received by his colleagues with amazed admiration. It was difficult to know what to admire most, the fulness of the new materials, the keen observation, the careful description, the comprehensive knowledge of all relevant literature or, finally, the unsurpassed fidelity to nature and the clearness of the drawings. The volume not merely gives a description of the Bohemian trilobites, but brings forward for comparison everything that was previously known from other countries concerning these remarkable animals. The description thus assumes the proportion of a great monograph on trilobites."
When Barrande began his work in Geology there were 13 species of trilobites known; at his death he bequeathed to the Bohemian museum S000 species, 3060 of which he had himself examined and described. In order to attain such results he had to exercise an indomitable patience and pertinacity, for the trilobites break up very easily after the death of the animal. You may find thousands of fragments before you meet a specimen in which the parts preserve their original arrangement. To attain certainty in respect of one particular kind of trilobite (Dalmanites socialis) took a ten years' search although traces of it were to be found at every step. Occasionally in his excavations he would encounter for years only the same types at the place of his search and then there suddenly would come to light a quite new and important fossil.

Barrande was a fervent and practical Catholic. His religious temper of mind finds frequent expression in his great work. We take as an instance a passage in which he is writing of instinct and intelligence as they present themselves in the animal kingdom. In the contrivances which enable the nautilus to swim, he contends, we discern clear tokens of a shaping intelligence, an intelligence which does not reside in the tiny creature itself.
"We are forced then to the conclusion that the marvellous structure and organs of the cephalopods are the work of a Mind superior not only to them but to man. This great Mind, author not only of these but of all the other wonders of life, can be no other than the Creator and Sovereign Lord of all things.... Man, created in the image of God, possesses moral freedom and an intellect to which we find no parallel among the lower animals. He can show works of his mind and hand which almost justify his assumption of the proud title, Icing of Nature. But in all his creations in science or art he is confined within the limits of his finite nature. The devices in which he seeks to embody his thought, bear tokens of their limited and imperfect author, fail to attain their purpose at one effort, and often demand - as in the case of the steam-engine - a long course of modification and development before reaching even a moderate degree of effectiveness.
"By contrast the lower animals may be compared to slaves, set by the Creator to do a day's work, which is in all its details mapped out and prescribed. They possess only a sufficient endowment of intelligence to enable them to perform the tasks assigned them. But, as it were by way of compensation, their faculties go out directly to the ends prescribed them without any preliminary feeling and fumbling. Such an order of things, so simple and at the same time infallible, can proceed only from an infinite Intelligence. We have already observed that in many instances the human mind cannot reach so far even as to understand it, although perceiving its results so clearly."
In the dedication of a later volume Barrande observes that "from the point of view of our religious belief" Astronomy, the sublimest of the natural sciences, confesses sisterhood with Palæontology. "Both reveal to us, each in its manner and measure, the power and glory of the Creator."

The dedication in question bears the date Dec. 8th, 1881, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. A friend of Barrande's, observing this, concluded that it had been his wish to complete his great work under the protection of the Mother of God. He asked Barrande if this was the case, and was told that his inference was perfectly just. Almost all of Barrande's works bear the dates of great Catholic feasts. Thus the various sectional parts of Vol. II are dated: September 15th 1852 (Octave of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin); "Easter Day, April 1, 1877." Vol. III is dated May 30th 1867 (Ascension Day), Vol. V July 1 1879. This last is the Octave of John the Baptist and, at Paris, a Feast of the Blessed Virgin which had a special significance for the exiled savant: Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance. Other sections exhibit September 28 1877: Feast of Venceslas, patron saint of Bohemia, March 25 1871 (Feast of the Annunciation); December 8th 1881 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception).

"We mourn in Joachim Barrande", says H. B. Geinitz, "a man, venerable for his noble struggle to attain truth and justice, for the self-sacrifice with which he laboured for the advancement of science; a master of all humanistic and realistic culture, a loyal colleague, and a generous friend" - and let us add, in the interest of historical fact, a fervent Catholic.

[Kneller Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]

Also see here.


At 02 April, 2009 04:14, Blogger GANGES said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 02 April, 2009 04:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

31 mar 2009 par Dr. Thursday :
We have to thank you for this article on our dear Uncle Joachim which is the 210̊anniversary
of his birth.
Best regards.
Bruno B.


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