A morbid curiosity for beasts

The Platypus and the Mermaid
February 20, 1998

I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity,
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity.
He used to live in lodgings with myself and Arthur Purvis,
And we all went up together for the Diplomatic Service.

- Patrick Barrington, 1940

The sad but inevitable rise and fall of Patrick Barrington's remarkable platypus is a surprising omission from Harriet Ritvo's otherwise extensive account of the discovery and taxonomic outrage caused by this strange egg-laying mammal (the only other such creature being the echidna, or spiny ant-eater), which sent Victorian Britain into paroxysms of bitter and often vicious dispute.

Taxonomy is among the most volatile disciplines. As a student of herpetology I was shaken when one day I discovered that the king cobra, the longest venomous snake and certainly the most spectacular of them, was not related to the cobras at all. It is now recognised as the single species of a genus all its own. Think of the confusion that existed in the minds not only of the public but of the scientific community a little more than a century ago, before the Linneaean system of binominal nomenclature had been firmly accepted. It must have been as difficult for the laymen to accept that whales and dolphins were not fish as it was for their ancestors to credit that the sun's apparent daily movement across the sky was an illusion caused by the earth's rotation on its axis.

Ritvo's description of the 19th-century turmoil over classification is not for the light reader: I found her heavy syntax and technical vocabulary an unfortunate and unnecessary impediment to the entertaining and often hilarious story of how 19th-century scientists and philosophers tried to come to terms with the complex problem of classifying living things. For example, it is not really clever to refer to a "struthious habit" when you have the head-in-the-sand ostrich myth in mind, and while zoologists might know that graminivorous animals are those that eat grass and that gallinaceous birds include the domestic fowl, as well as turkeys, pheasants, grouse and partridges - surely such a vocabulary will deter the general reader. Ritvo's language is, I fear, somewhat sesquipedalian, sending even Oxbridge scholars scurrying to their dictionaries.

This is a pity, for the subject is certainly of wide interest. Ritvo gets off to a good start with her Victorian Punch cartoon of a railway porter addressing a lady travelling with a menagerie of pets. To conform with regulations the bewildered porter has consulted the station master, and is therefore able to instruct the lady that "...cats is 'dogs', and Rabbits is 'dogs', and so's Parrots; but this 'ere 'Tortis' is a Insect, so there ain't no charge for it!" In the 18th and 19th centuries, the porter was not alone in his difficulty. British explorers such as Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks and Darwin himself were agitating staid, respectable but comatose scholars at British institutions out of their customary torpor by discovering such previously unimagined creatures as the marsupials, birds small and big but of incredible diversity of form and colour, and a pageant of insects, especially beetles, that even today is probably less than half way to its end.

In 1884, a certain W. H. Caldwell shot and brought back a platypus that had just laid an egg while a second was found in her partially dilated os uteri. Even that did not convince the majority, as was evident several years later when the Illustrated London News smugly reported of a stuffed platypus on display that "fables were formerly told of this queer creature, as that it laid eggs".

The public were more willing to accept genuine frauds, so to speak, for they flocked in hundreds to see a "mermaid", the second creature of Ritvo's title, which had been brought to London in 1822 by a Captain Aedes, who sold his ship to pay for the exhibit and was clever enough to ask the renowned anatomist Everard Home to examine it. Home at once declared it a fake, consisting of the remains of an orang-utan, a baboon and a salmon, clumsily cobbled together. But far from discouraging the public, Home's examination and declaration somehow proved to be an added attraction.

The Victorians developed a morbid curiosity for mythical and monstrous beasts. These included the eponymous Siamese twins Mr Chang and Mr Eng, who ended their long career in the United States with a "literary outpouring described as 'simply stupendous' in amount and variety"; the "Two-headed Nightingale" (two heads, four legs, one torso); and the Indian boy Laloo (half boy, half girl, the latter headless).

Among my own menagerie, over the past few decades, is an intelligent and beautiful little animal known familiarly as the Smaller Spotted Indian Civet, Viverricula indica. This baffles, and even irritates visitors who demand to be told what kind of animal it is, and are clearly dissatisfied when told that it is, in fact, a specimen of a group of animals known as civets. Some sort of cat, they ask, for surely one speaks always of civet-cats? I have to tell them that civets are in no way related to cats. Just as an elephant is an elephant and not a sort of bulky long-nosed horse, so a civet is a civet, not some sort of cat. This exemplifies the confusion that arose among both scientists and laymen at the end of the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, when they found themselves flooded with the skins and sometimes living representatives of creatures they had never even dreamt of. In the case of my pet civet, its cousin, the common palm civet, often called the toddy cat or even the tree dog, was found to have an aperture so closely resembling the female vulva and so near the male organs of reproduction that it was dubbed Paradoxorus hermaphroditis, a libel from which it still suffers a century or more after its ostensible vulva was discovered to be the opening of its powerful scent gland.

Ritvo tries hard to convey the bewilderment of Victorian taxonomists in her densely written and indisputably scholarly book (there are 74 pages of references to prove it). But both she and her publisher seem confused as to whether they are aiming chiefly at an academic or a popular readership. This is a great pity, for the subject is of enduring interest and the book is the first I have encountered that deals with it so thoroughly and accurately. Ritvo and Harvard University Press should have a stab at dealing with this topic in a more colloquial fashion in a further book. It certainly deserves such an attempt.

Harry Miller is a fellow of the Zoological Society.

The Platypus and the Mermaid

Author - Harriet Ritvo
ISBN - 0 674 67357 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 288

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