Note: Many thanks to Lars Dietz (see comments) who has done so much to correct some errors of attribution I made in this piece. He truly went above and beyond to dig up the truth behind John Hill’s book and I am certainly thankful that he has done so.
In 1751 John Hill, upset the Royal Society of London rejected his application for membership, published a scathing critique of credulous papers printed by that body. One such review focused on a paper printed about an old, but common, legend that the Brent-Goose (probably Branta bernicla) was born not of eggs but of seashells dropped like fruit from a particular type of tree. Hill could not stand to see such nonsense peddled to the people, and the fact that it was being promulgated by the Society that rejected him gave him an opportunity for some revenge;
Ignorance is the great Parent of Miracles ; the World ought therefore, to wonder, that they find more of them in the Publications of the Royal Society of London, than in any Works of equal Quantity : We could pardon, however, Errors of Opinion in these Authors; what we are most provoked at, is the frequent Assertions we meet with there, of Things that are impossible; Histories of Facts that cannot have happened, and Accounts of Things that never did, or can exist, delivered by People who pretend to have seen and examined them.
It is with this View, that we shall be more than ordinarily severe on Mr. Beaumont, who describes growing Entrochi* of a Foot long; and we cannot but be of Opinion, that the Author of the Account now under Consideration, deserves also the utmost Censure and Contempt, from every body who knows any thing of natural History, or who wishes to know any thing of it.
(*Although the term seems to have fallen out of usage, as far as I can tell “entrochi” was a term used for fossil crinoids, particularly the columnar stems.)
These were certainly strong words for the “enemies of reason” so identified by Hill. Indeed, the mating habits of the waterfowl in question were not mysterious or unknown; although they did not breed or nest in Scotland they most probably did so elsewhere, migrating with the seasons. The fact that many people had not seen them nest created a question that demanded an answer in the mind of the public, though, and the sea-side habitat of the birds seemed to provide an answer. Trees with shells embedded in them would sometimes wash up on the beach, the shells having some kind of filament or thread-like substance coming out of them. According to Hill’s essay fishermen mistook the filaments for rudimentary feathers, the shells affixed to the trees revealing the origin of the geese.
Much like the game of telephone, however, the myth picked up new variations as it spread. Rather than being born of shells affixed to rotting logs and driftwood they became the peculiar “fruit” of trees that grew in the ground. There was even some disagreement as to how, exactly, the little geese would be born; some said that the “fruit” had to fall in the water (for Providence had places the trees on the shore so this could be so) and others said that the geese hatched from their shelly confinements and dropped into the water. When some curious people went to visit the trees, however, they could not find any such plant. Despite the number of people who would swear they had seen the geese born of calcareous fruits there did not seem to be any actual evidence to support the claim.
Hill was thus disgusted to learn of a Royal Society member being so ignorant as to support the vulgar legend;
Sir Robert Moray, a favourite Member of that Body, made a Journey on purpose to enquire into the real Origin of these Birds; He brought up an Account with him that settled the World in an Opinion that they were really the Product of a Shell-Fish, and that these, little Philosophers, who had attempted to argue for their being hatched out of Eggs, had imposed upon their Ignorance. This noble Knight tells us in his Account, which is printed in the hundred and thirty-seventh Number of the Philosophical Transactions, that every thing he relates he was an Eye-witness to. That he found on the Shores of this Island a dead Fir-tree without its Boughs, whose Length and Diameter he, gives us with the fame Accuracy that Mr. Baker does that of a Pill-Box. The Trunk of this Tree had been covered all over with the Shells which breed these Geese, he tells us, but at the Time when he saw it, the greater Part was decayed, and only its underside furnished some ; many of these he opened, and, to repeat his own Words, he found in every one that be opened , a perfect Sea Fowl : The Bill, he tells us, was like that of a Goose, the Head, Neck, Breast, Wings, Tail and Feet like those of other Water Fowl ; the Feathers, he adds, “were every everywhere perfectly formed, and of a blackish Colour, as were also the Feet.
Dr. Tancred Robinson refuted Moray’s statements, clearly stating that the Brent-Goose hatched from eggs just like any other species. The fact that Dutch sailors had reported seeing innumerable nests of these birds on other islands proved as much. What Moray probably saw was a barnacle, the little cirriped inside being construed to be an embryonic goose. Still, the legend of the Goose Tree had already spread into the literature, even books specifically addressing botany;
Honest John Gerard, in writing a History of Plants, could not deny himself the Pleasure of giving the History of the Goose Tree, as it may very well be called if we refer to the Authors who have written on it. He closes his Book in a very pompous Manner, with the Description of it, and, like Mr. Arderon on the Disposition of the Strata, praises and honours God’s Name for it : What Honour ought a rational Creature to have for Authors who have dared to address his and their Creator with false Praise, on a Subject that does not exist, and that would but have preverted the Order of Nature if it had!
Gerard goes further than parroting Moray’s story, however; he came up with his own variety of Concahe Anatifera of which the members of the Royal Society had never heard previously. If it existed at all, they asserted, it would probably be found to be no different from Moray’s barnacle, the invertebrate having nothing at all to do with the origin of geese.
The rest of the collection of papers is a motley collection of “arts” (the first paper is “A way to kill rattlesnakes”) and sciences, the authors delving into the internal anatomy of fishes and also casting light on the true origin of the “unicorn” horns. Reason and observation were the virtues that most honored Providence; not blind acceptance of fantastic claims. Perhaps the masses could be excused for coming up with fantastic myths but the utmost “Censure and Contempt” was reserved for the credulous within their own ranks. How could they be taken seriously if one of their members claimed to have found birds born from barnacles?
1751 “Of the Production of Geese out of Shell-Fish” A Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London, p. 105-110