Making creatures make themselves


As I was skimming through Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1863), a book that injects a fair amount of Lamarckian evolution into a children's moral fable (the character Mother Carey "make[s] creatures make themselves."), I came across a section that made me grin.

During the course of the story the protagonist Tom is told that he needs to go see the Gairfowl, an old Great auk bird of high breeding (the Great auk just having become extinct in 1852. Thanks to Allen for the correction about the meaning of "Gairfowl."). I do not know what Kingsley thought of the evolution of birds (T.H. Huxley had only just begun to teach his students about the Sauropsida [birds + reptiles] when the book was published), but I did find the Gairfowl's snobby commentary amusing in light of what we presently know of birds origins;

Tom came up to her very humbly, and made his bow; and the first thing she said was -

"Have you wings? Can you fly?"

"Oh dear, no, ma'am; I should not think of such thing," said cunning little Tom.

"Then I shall have great pleasure in talking to you, my dear. It is quite refreshing nowadays to see anything without wings. They must all have wings, forsooth, now, every new upstart sort of bird, and fly. What can they want with flying, and raising themselves above their proper station in life? In the days of my ancestors no birds ever thought of having wings, and did very well without; and now they all laugh at me because I keep to the good old fashion. Why, the very marrocks and dovekies have got wings, the vulgar creatures, and poor little ones enough they are; and my own cousins, too, the razor-bills, who are gentlefolk born, and ought to know better than to ape their inferiors." [emphasis mine]

The attitude of the Gairfowl is more important for another reason. Although we often talk about the history of science in terms of who thought what (and who disagreed with whom) social and political context should not be overlooked, especially in the case of evolution. Some among the comfortable classes were concerned that if the idea of evolution became widespread in England that the country would undergo a bloody revolution like France had undergone, the idea that you could change your station in life being a dangerous concept to those who wanted to maintain their influence. It doesn't matter that Darwin kept discussion in On the Origin of Species to scientific concepts; from the time of Lamarck onward some people interpreted evolution as a "revolutionary" area in more ways than one.

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Do you have an unabridged original version? Some 'dangerous' passages were deleted from the original US edition.

The Gairfowl isn't just "modeled on" the Great Auk: "Gairfowl" is (one of many alternative spellings of) an alternative name for the Great Auk.
(Nice post.)

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 20 Jun 2008 #permalink

Now I have to read The Water Babies again. I was nine or ten when I did read it, having found it tucked in with my grandparents' religious books - wonder how different it will seem to me now. Thanks for reminding me of that peculiar book.

"Always remember that the one true, certain, final and all-important difference between you and an ape is that you have a hippopotamus major in your brain, and it has none" Professor Ptthmllnsprts

Charles Kingsley's Water Babies, 1863
Hippos (but not the hairy pygmy hippo) often give birth underwater, the newborn swims to the surface to breathe, close relative to whales.

Humans (but not hairy apes) can and do give birth underwater, the placenta keeps pumping oxygenated blood to the newborn while submersed for awhile.

Neither here nor there, but it's worth noting that the "hippopotamus major" crack is a reference to the Huxley/Owen Hippocampus debate...and um, not a reference to the aquatic ape -ahem hypothesis. Also pygmy hippos don't have considerably more hair than nile hippos, although they do have hairy tails with split ends for rubbing feces around. No joke.

Glad you're reading Water Babies Brian I figured that you would enjoy it!