Fish

‘Fish’ is one of my favourite words. Having only a single syllable means it can be dropped into conversation without a second thought, thus enabling one to cause maximum confusion with minimal time spent considering one’s move, which often rather spoils the moment. The very… forward nature of the word also suits this function- the very bluntness of it, its definitive end and beginning with little in the way of middle to get distracting, almost forces it to take centre stage in any statement, whether alone or accompanied by other words, demanding it be said loud and proud without a trace of fear or embarrassment. It also helps that the word is very rarely an appropriate response to anything, enhancing its inherent weirdness.

Ahem. Sorry about that.

However, fish themselves are very interesting in their own right; and yes, I am about to attempt an overall summary of one of the largest groups in the animal kingdom in less than 1000 words.  For one thing, every single vertebrate on the planet is descended from them; in 1999 a fossil less than 3cm long and 524 million years old was discovered in China with a single ‘stick’ of rigid material, probably cartilage, running down the length of its body. It may be the only example ever discovered of Myllokunmingia fengjiaoa (awesome name), but that tiny little fossil has proved to be among the most significant ever found. Although not proven, that little bit of cartilage is thought to be the first ever backbone, making Myllokunmingia the world’s first fish and the direct ancestor of everything from you to the pigeon outside your window. It’s quite a humbling thought.

This incredible age of fish as a group, which in turn means there are very few specimens of early fish, has meant that piscine evolution is not studied as a single science; the three different classes of fish (bony, cartilaginous and jawless, representing the likes of cod, sharks and hagfish respectively- a fourth class of armoured fish died out some 360 million years ago) all split into separate entities long before any other group of vertebrates began to evolve, and all modern land-based vertebrates (tetrapods, meaning four-limbed) are direct descendants of the bony fish, the most successful of the three groups. This has two interesting side-effects; firstly that a salmon is more closely related to you than to a shark, and secondly (for precisely this reason) that some argue there is no such thing as a fish. The term ‘fish’ was introduced as a coverall term to everything whose lack of weight-bearing limbs confines them to the water before evolutionary biology had really got going, and technically the like of sharks and lamprey should each get a name to themselves- but it appears we’re stuck with fish, so any grumpy biologists are just going to have to suck it.

The reason for this early designation of fish in our language is almost certainly culinary in origin, for this is the main reason we ever came, and indeed continue to come, into contact with them at all. Fish have been an available, nutritious and relatively simple to catch food source for humans for many a millennia, but a mixture of their somewhat limited size, the fact that they can’t be farmed and the fact that bacon tastes damn good meant they are considered by some, particularly in the west (fish has always enjoyed far greater popularity in far eastern cultures), to the poor cousins to ‘proper meat’ like pork or beef. Indeed, many vegetarians (including me; it’s how I was brought up) will eschew meat but quite happily eat fish in large quantities, usually using the logic that fish are so damn stupid they’re almost vegetables anyway. Vegetarians were not, however, the main reason for fish’s survival as a common food for everyone, including those living far inland, in Europe- for that we can thank the Church. Somewhere in the dim and distant past, the Catholic Church decreed that one should not eat red meat on the Sabbath day- but that fish was permitted. This kept fish a common dish throughout Europe, as well as encouraging the rampant rule bending that always accompanies any inconvenient law; beaver were hunted almost to extinction in Europe by being classed as fish under this rule. It was also this ruling that lead to lamprey (a type of jawless fish that looks like a cross between a sea snake and a leech) becoming a delicacy among the crowned heads of Europe, and Henry I of England (third son of William the Conqueror, in case you wanted to know) is reported to have died from eating too many of the things.

The feature most characteristic of fish is, of course, gills, even though not all fish have them and many other aquatic species do (albeit less obviously). To many, how gills work is an absolute mystery, but then again how many of you can say, when it comes right down to the science of the gas exchange process, how your lungs work? In both systems, the basic principle is the same; very small, thin blood vessels within the structure concerned are small and permeable enough to allow gas molecules to move across the gap from one side of the blood vessel’s wall to the other, allowing carbon dioxide built up from moving and generally being alive to move out of the bloodstream and fresh oxygen to move in. The only real difference concerns structure; the lungs consist of a complex, intertwining labyrinth of air spaces of various size with blood vessels spread over the surface and designed to filter oxygen from the air, whilst gills basically string the blood vessels up along a series of sticks and hold them in the path of flowing water to absorb the oxygen dissolved within it- gills are usually located such that water flows through the mouth and out via the gills as the fish swims forward. In order to ensure a constant supply of oxygen-rich water is flowing over the gills, most fish must keep swimming constantly or else the water beside their gills would begin to stagnate- but some species’, such as nurse sharks, are able to pump water over their gills manually, allowing them to lie still and allow them to do… sharky things. Interestingly, the reason gills won’t work on land isn’t simply that they aren’t designed to filter oxygen from the air; a major contributory factor is the fact that, without the surrounding water to support them, the structure of the gills is prone to collapse, causing parts of it cease to be able to function as a gas exchange mechanism.

Well, that was a nice ramble. What’s up next time, I wonder…

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Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be