100 YEARS AGO
An interesting description of the ravages of white ants, or termites, in Rhodesia is furnished by the Rev. A. Leboeuf to the Zambesi Mission Record for January. The special interest of the contribution centres in the account of the damage done to property by white ants in Rhodesia, which seems to be even greater than in India. It is no uncommon thing, says the writer, for the colonist, on returning from his day's labour, to find the coat he left hanging on a nail of his cottage wall and the books on the table absolutely destroyed by these tiny marauders. Nor is this all. “On awaking next morning,” writes Mr. Leboeuf, “you are astonished to see in the dim light a cone-shaped object rising from the brick floor a short distance from your bed, with two holes on the top like the crater of a miniature volcano. Upon closer examination you discover that the holes have just the size and shape of the inside of your boots, which you incautiously left on the brick floor the night before. They have given form and proportion to an ant heap, and nothing is left of them except the nails, eyelets and, maybe, part of the heels.”
From Nature 24 January 1901.
50 YEARS AGO
May I support Prof. Alan Boyden's plea that parthenogenesis should not be classified as asexual reproduction? The habit of doing so presumably arose because the text-book definition of sexual reproduction excludes anything which does not involve fusion of gametes; but such a reliance on a definition instead of on the facts implies a degree of philosophical realism which has no proper place in science. Biology, unlike logic and mathematics, has to take the world as it finds it. Definitions are descriptions of concepts or phenomena, sometimes of arbitrary stages in a series, and when they are made short they inevitably become inaccurate. . . No satisfactory definition of 'species' has ever been made. One of the latest, that of Mayr, is quite inadequate; apart from being formally incorrect in stating that a species is a group of populations, which it certainly is not, his definition would, since it contains the terms 'interbreeding', exclude Amoeba proteus and all creatures without cross-fertilization. Similar difficulties arise with the words cell, reproduction, tissue, skeleton, parasite and many others.
From Nature 27 January 1951.