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Poe's Mashup: I'm reading Steven Jay Gould's last book, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox, which is about what science can do vs. what the humanities can do. I was expecting to have a big argument with Gould on this because I really disagree with the way he's applied this "magisteria" model to science and religion. Maybe this is an artifact of my upbringing, but what Gould describes does not look like religion in general; it looks like Unitarian Universalism.

But I think the magisteria model makes a lot of sense in this context, and in the first section of the book he comes up with good points about analytical tools. But what I really want to talk about is one of these cool pieces of detective work that Gould does. This bit is copied in from an essay in Dinosaur in a Haystack, which I haven't read.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote a book about mollusk biology, or, as it was called then, conchology. It included English translations from Cuvier, and plates of drawings. Except he didn't write it. First, it was a joint project with a guy named Wyatt. Second, Poe ripped off a lot of the introduction from another conchology book (The Conchologist's Text Book by Thomas Brown), and Wyatt stole the plates from the same source. In "Poe's" book the plates show up in a different order, but so what? Ripoff.

This kind of behavior was not unheard of in the early 19th century, when the US was still in its "prosperity through copyright violation" phase, but it's still pretty sleazy. But here's the thing. In the 18th century, mollusk biology was called "conchology" because you generally didn't study the soft mollusky bits. You studied the shells, because that's what you had. In the 19th century this was changing: mollusk biology was being renamed malacology ("study of the soft bits"), and the Poe/Wyatt book was part of the change.

But at the time there was no primary literature about the soft bits in English. Only in French, from Cuvier and Lamark. Poe translated Cuvier's descriptions of mollusks and made them available for the first time (?) in English. Why were the plates in a different order? Because the original conchology book ordered them according to a shell-based classification. The Poe/Wyatt ripoff ordered them according to the soft bits.

In other words, they made a mashup. They took French text from source A, excerpted and translated it with attribution. They took English text from source B, sort of rewrote it and claimed it as original. They took a whole bunch of pictures from source B, rearranged them to tell a different story than source B told, and published them without attribution. Every element of the book comes from somewhere else, but the finished product is original. Their motives were clearly mercenary, but unlike most copyright ripoff artists of the nineteenth century they weren't reprinting something without understanding it. They were taking their sources apart and recombining them to tell a new story. And without telling anyone that's what they were doing, except to cash in on Cuvier's name recognition. It ranks slightly above those sleazy "100-in-one" Nintendo cartridges you used to see in video rental stores.

In a sense, the whole thing is moot by now since both the originals and the ripoff are in the public domain. Here's The Conchologist's Text Book with some of the plates, though others seem to have been washed out in the scanner. Here's a translation of Cuvier on mollusks, possibly Poe's source document. Can't find the ripoff, though.

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