Addendum 5. A harsh letter to Ingo Breuer

An edited copy of an unnecessarily harsh letter sent to Ingo Breuer, which includes a letter sent to Mr Harry Mays, editor of Haworthiad.  That letter commented on an article by Breuer published in Haworthiad and my reaction to it.  The comment was not for publication and was a request for assistance in countering bad and inaccurate writing.  I will make any apology for any offence and hurt I have caused by writing in this way, but I cannot apologise for anything which is true outside of my own thoughts:-


Dear Ingo,

This is an angry letter written for a purpose and with intent.  You must perhaps take it that I am actually writing to myself otherwise you may find it unnecessarily hurtful.  This is to challenge you to do a proper piece of thoughtful work and nothing else.  It is clear to me from your article that Peter Bruyns concluded quietly to himself that you would be wasting my time (Breuer had arrived in South Africa unknown to me and apparently asked Bruyns if we could meet).  It seems to me that polite comment makes no impression and so here are some vigourous knocks.  If you find my comments offensive it is because I feel offended.  On reading and re-reading my own writing, I wish someone had said some of these things to me.

I have just seen your article in Haworthiad and quite frankly …..  Herewith is a draft of my comments which I want to send to Harry Mays.  However, I am also sending you a copy of a letter which I wrote to Harry Mays in August last year which I now think you should read.  I was thoroughly … to see a note in an Abbey Garden plant catalogue where they imply that my handbooks have not resolved any confusion in Haworthia.  I think the reason for the continued confusion is the presence and activities of pseudo-scientists …. and the inability of people to read and understand what is written.  …………… your article in Haworthiad .. is factually weak and inaccurate and ……………. to the literature of the genus because it has derived absolutely nothing from it.  I think … who cannot write or speak reasonable english but expect me to believe that nevertheless … properly read and understand it.  I am offended by … presumption that … are fit and able to pass righteous judgement on Pilbeam, Scott or Bayer or anyone else for that matter.  …………. no more than an unproven member of a long list of writers who are nothing more than their readers.

I am offended ……… by vacuous claims about ‘still more characters useful for classification …’.  It is very very clear since Uitewaal (1947) that this may be true for levels of species and above; and equally clear that …… no insight into the dilemma of presenting a nomenclatural scheme which is botanical (perhaps 30 species) and one which meets the needs of a diverse audience who simply like the plants.  Nor into the problems of applying such ‘characters’ to all the lesser ranks.


**** Copy of a letter to editor Haworthiad:- 96-08-08

Dear Mr Mays,
I have been thinking about the issue of ‘discussion’ we have been communicating about, and in writing a letter added below, have wondered if it would not be a good start.  Could you formulate an approach in which Breuer is neither hurt nor offended, nor cornered.  My experience is that authors (and me) are generally unable to take any critical examination of their work.  Unfortunately we are also unable to deliver properly without it.  In the past I have cursed editors for not protecting writers from negative criticism, and conversely for presenting potential critics with such inviting material.  We need to consult one another and examine ourselves analytically and critically, before we step into print.  In these days of electronic communication perhaps this will come.

Comment on Breuer’s article on phytogeography of Haworthia in Haworthiad 10:35(1996):-

“I saw Craig Hilton-Taylor at Kirstenbosch last week and he gave me his note refuting some of what Breuer had to say in Haworthiad April 96, and it made me re-read that article which I had dismissed for the sake of mind’s peace.  I think the refutation was rather mild.  What kind of statement is this – ‘However, I believe that the same factors that are important for the distribution of other genera in South Africa (Jurgens 1986,1991) are important for Haworthia species’.  Does this suggest that someone thinks they are not?.  The statement ‘the prime selective factors… are the availability of water’ really raises my eyebrows.  Unfortunately Breuer does not say just what it is that Jurgens has shown.  Above any things water means to the plant directly, is the massive role it plays in shaping the landscape, and generating and characterising the soils that it permits to form there.  So if Jurgens has some new perceptions about the importance of water previously unknown to science, I wish my German language skills were up to examining them.  The other climatic elements cannot be excluded.   So much work has been done on vegetation in SA, and I think my weak article in Veld and Flora (1975?) was about the first that formulated an historic link between vegetation and even seasonal rainfall pattern.  So every evidence probably reduces the water factor as Breuer has specified it, to fairly low down on the scale when it comes to the species level.  It needs to be seen in a much wider and better defined context.

Why don’t these authors and pseudo-scientists make better use of the literature, including that cited in their reference lists.  Why didn’t Breuer refer to Smith and van Wyk in Taxon 40, (1991) where there are excellent maps of genus distributions, and then make a sensible comment on origin and distribution and phylogeny of the genus.  There was an article in Aloe regarding nurse-plants, and a very extensive paper in Jl.SA Bot. on Aloe ferox.  Or contact SA botanists like Hilton-Taylor who has been busy since 1985 trying to identify phytogeographic and diversity centres.  Whenever I have been in the field I have asked myself when I see an Haworthia population “why here?”, because the location of individual plants sometimes seems to make no sense.  For Breuer, investigating these things and thus of all people to accept Col Scott’s soil requirements eg. ‘H. reticulata grows in a firm hard soil with pH 6.2′ is beyond all belief.  In 1972 I consulted Prof. Orchard (soil chemist) and the local agricultural authority C.P. Beyers about soil mixtures for succulents, and they could not remotely suggest how to approach the problem of identifying the soil requirements of succulent plants.  The question of ‘in situ’ requirements is about 100 times (a guess) harder.  There is a vast study on the soils of the Karoo and extraordinary maps of soils types with highly detailed analyses.  There are complex and detailed geological maps which are generally available.  For Breuer to say of Haworthia ‘most of them grow in soils originating from sandstone mountains’ is total nonsense.  The Table Mountain sandstones are very low in nutrients (and succulents) and it is on the interfaces with the earlier Malmesbury, and later Bokkeveld shales that the excitement starts.  Surely he might have referred to some of my writing about ecotypes?  The perception that species were once widespread and then were cut-up into isolated populations is quite a funny one that persists despite its absurdity.  It seems that speciation starts with cutting up and the fact that they spread in the first place at all is probably a mystery.  Breuer says that a scheme of distribution could be devised only if details of their phylogenetic relationships are known.  If he will refer to Aloe he will see that Kamstra looked at distribution of aloes.  In Excelsa 1975 there is an article on the retuse haworthias in which a scheme of distribution is presented without any pretence about phylogeny.  Like others who have cited my handbook as a reference (apparently also without reading anything in it) he seems to overlook the fact that geographic distribution even at local level, contributed to the formulation of the species that I recognised.

The map No. 2 fascinates me and I wonder how he arrived at it.  Can I do better from just the memory of the NBG sheets.  The National Herbarium lists about 150 species of Haworthia and I wonder if Breuer used their data.  Two at 2529 is bad taxonomic botany.  Two species at 2731 may include Aloe aristata!.  3 at 2922 is interesting.  14 at 3224 is very steep.  Even 3221 is quite high at 5, but believable.  There are 3 at 3227.  Again 14 at 3420(-CC) – the ocean included?  The most I can scrape up for there is 8 – but then I haven’t been out to sea.  Water seems to be more significant than I thought. I am not a great scientist or intellectual (or sailor) myself and it disturbs me when this level of writing is presented or disguised as credible science.  It means that my mistakes also pass unnoticed and what positive merit there may be, becomes debased.  It is also makes the task for genuine researchers a little more difficult.  People need to be encouraged to write but the readers must also have confidence in the authors.  Phillips (ref. cited in Haworthiad) listed ‘organised scepticism’ as one of the four essential ingredients of science.  What pains me most is the lack of organisation which I experience in the scepticism expressed by layman and scientist.

My regard for Haworthiad has grown for the way in which it generally has helped to organise scepticism.  I have also noted a good few letters in which the writers have obviously just thrown in the towel.  It must be incredibly difficult for the beginner to organise scepticism in the face of non ‘science’, and find and identify good foundation stones   I hope this sally will be a challenge to Breuer, to his mentor and to those writers to take a step up the ladder of debate.  Perhaps we can approach readers to see where they perceive weaknesses and then build from there.”  ****

There is very good information and science outside of the German language and outside of Germany.  Your comments about past authors and this sentence ‘In general I believe that the division of species into subspecies, where necessary, is totally sufficient’, are among the most ……………… statements I have ever read.  I have respect and affection for Col Scott and I think he too would be justifiably angry at your pretention to a vision which you do not have.  I think you actually know really very little about Haworthia and about plants in general and need to somehow avoid the apparent pretention that you do.

You will be hurt and offended by all this and it is important to me that you try and understand why.  You claim that you do not want to add further confusion to Haworthia.  I want to see this demonstrated.

Yours sincerely