Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Pack(yderm) Up Your Trunk

                      Another use of tin-plate is to make tin boxes. This modern box is a ‘tin box’, although it is steel-plate, rather than tin, which I bought for the ‘period’ decoration. I use it for pens and pencils. The elephant on the top puts me in mind of the Great American Incognitum. 

I mentioned the renaissance yesterday, and how people began to question the veracity of the ancients. One reason for this was the growth of empirical science – scientists began to observe and experiment and found that their results were different from the received ‘wisdom of the ancients’. Aristotle’s works, for example, had long been taught as the undeniable truth, but some people began to find differences in what he had written and what they saw for themselves. Some of this is understandable – Aristotle had no knowledge of nerves or the circulation of the blood, for example, – but other things were obviously erroneous; that the skull of a dog is made from one bone, that bees don’t make honey but collect it from what falls from the sky and carry stones to balance themselves on windy days, that the hippopotamus has a mane and that horses have bones in their hearts. Other ancient writers also came under scrutiny – Pliny the Elder’s Natural History is my favourite as a treasure house of barkingly barmy ideas. 

Contemporary authors began to write their own encyclopaedic works. One such was Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who published a thirty-six volume Histoire Naturelle during his lifetime. (The quotes I use below are from an 1807 ten volume translation by James Smith Barr, published in London by H D Symonds). Buffon describes ten genera and four detached species, composing fifty species in all, which populate the New World; and that “The horse, the ass, the zebra, the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the hippopotamus, had no existence in America; neither was there an animal in this New Continent which could be compared with them either with respect to size or figure” (Vol. X, p.15). It is the tapir that ‘claims first place for size in the New Continent’ although it is ‘not bigger than an ass’. Buffon puts forward the idea that Old and New World species had a common origin, but on arrival in America, the creatures had ‘degenerated’; he devotes a chapter in Volume IX to ‘ … the degeneration of animals’, extending his views to humans too. Due to the poor nutrition, the wet climate and the fetid swamps of America, the natives were stupid and lazy, even their organs of generation were small and withered, and they had ‘no ardour for the female’.
Naturally, this ‘degeneracy hypothesis’ upset the Americans, especially when other European writers took up the idea and began to suggest the same defects were also to be found in the transplanted settlers and their offspring. Thomas Jefferson took particular offence at the sleights to American manhood, realising that these ideas could adversely affect trade and future immigration. He set about proving Buffon wrong, and devoted a large section of the only book he ever wrote, Notes on the State of Virginia, to debunking ‘degeneracy’. Jefferson happened to be minister to France, and used his position to present Buffon with the skin of a panther, being sure that such proof would convince the enlightened, reasonable Comte of his mistake. Buffon was unmoved. Jefferson tried again with a stuffed moose. He sent General John Sullivan and twenty troopers off into the woods to find a bull moose – it took them two weeks to find one, which fell apart as they dragged its corpse back through the snow and frozen forests, and it lacked the impressive antlers Jefferson had specified, so they attached horns from an elk instead. Eventually, after a series of errors in shipping, Jefferson presented the seven-foot tall specimen to Buffon. He remained unmoved.

Meanwhile, from the early 1700s, at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, big bones were being dug up. In Philadelphia, some of these were assembled to reveal the ‘Great American Incognitum’, a gigantic elephant-like creature. However, in their zeal to present a savage beast, the naturalists added claws from a giant ground sloth found nearby, and overestimated the Incognitum to be larger than it actually was by a factor of six. In 1801 Charles Willson Peale and his son, Rembrandt, exhumed the first complete skeleton of the Incognitum, which they displayed throughout America and Europe; Peale Jr.’s accompanying 112 page booklet described the ferocity of this enormous carnivore,  … a race of animals existed, huge as the frowning precipice, cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle, and terrible as the angel of night. The pines crashed beneath their feet, and the lake shrunk when they slaked their thirst; the forceful javelin in vain was hurled, and the barbed arrow fell harmless from their side. Forests were laid waste at a meal; the groans of expiring animals were every where heard, and whole villages, inhabited by men, were destroyed in a moment.” In 1816, a French traveller, Edouard de Montule, drew an image of Peales’ exhibit, clearly showing how the tusks of the beast pointed downwards, like the fangs of a sabre-tooth tiger.

Jefferson, and other Americans, believed the Incognitum still stalked the interior of the continent, and if they could capture one, the Europeans would be proved unequivocally wrong. Buffon had died in 1788, but his mantle had taken by George Cuvier. Cuvier was the finest anatomist of his day (Darwin called him ‘…the illustrious Cuvier), and examined bones from the Incognitum, going on to publish Note on the Species of Living and Fossil Elephants in 1796. From the rounded bumps on the teeth of the Incognitum, Cuvier gave it the name ‘Mastodon’, which means ‘nipple tooth’. I don’t imagine Jefferson was overly impressed with that – or with Cuvier’s affirmation that the creature was a herbivore.

Cuvier’s Note was the first work to formally examine the reality of extinctions. If true, then it clearly challenged the Aristotelian belief in the Great Chain of Being, for if God had created each species in the Chain, with its place and purpose ordered and fixed, why then would a species become extinct? And why, if everything was perfect, did creatures change? Why did they evolve? And, incidentally, why had Noah missed collecting these beings for his Ark? Questions like these puzzled, and disconcerted, Cuvier, Jefferson and others.

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