Geese from barnacles

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

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Note that the cirriped *Pollicipes* is still called goose barnacle in Englisch, and Entenmuschel (duck clam) in German.

One might speculate that some people, especially monks, had a vested interest in spreading this legend in medieval days: If those birds grew from animals that lived in the water, they would have been fish by medieval standards. If they grew on trees, they would have been plants. In both cases, they would not fall under the church`s dietary restrictions that regulated the consumption of meat.

So last Saturday night I was telling my music buddy about the way I'd been plate of shrimping lately.

"Plate of shrimping?"

"You know, like in Repo Man. Someone says plate of shrimp, then you pass by a restaurant advertising shrimp at six bucks a plate, someone says 'I feel like a plate of shrimp...' It's been just crazy, every day or two some weird little synchronicity has been cropping up. It's kinda creeping me out."

The thing is -- is that Saturday morning I'd been garage sailing with the missus and had been sorely tempted to purchase a rock encrusted with goose barnacles. Too much money and no place to put it but it was a lovely object. I pointed it out to the missus and gave her the goose story which I'd read as a child in a book by Willy Ley.

I also mentioned that goose barnacles were good eating for seafood fans. Because they were crustaceans. Like crabs.

And shrimp. (cue rimshot)

Sometimes I feel like the brain ain't nothing but a pattern recognition organ...

(As an aside, Willy Ley. You're very likely familiar with his natural history books. If not, well, he's right up your alley. I know I shouldn't taunt a fellow bibliovore with this but the dude was the Tetrapod Zoology of his day. Exotic Zoology is a relatively easy-to-locate best-of collection that includes his article on this subject.)

That legend actually was around at least since the 13th century, when it was mentioned by Alexander Neckam and Thomas de Cantimpré. It apparently started in Scotland and Ireland. There were some skeptics even in the Middle Ages, like Frederick II and Albertus Magnus, but most people still believed it, and it appeared in almost every natural history book for several centuries. The source was probably really barnacles, whose cirri indeed look a bit like feathers sticking out from the shell. One species of barnacles was even named Lepas anatifera (Duck-bearing barnacle) by Linnaeus, although I don't think he believed the story. Branta leucopsis is still called the Barnacle Goose in English, but that one does breed on the British Isles, so the legend was probably originally about B. bernicla, which nests in the Arctic, and wasn't seen nesting by anyone before Barendsz in 1595.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 03 Jul 2008 #permalink

I guess I'm the only one who hadn't heard of this before!

Being the victim of a catholic education, myself, I was taught that the "barnacle geese come from barnacles, not eggs" story was on the authority of Plato himself.

I can't find any direct attribution of this nowadays. Maybe the wiki-censors have 'corrected' it. A case of corrupt xians both ways. Very 'ministry of truth'...

I don't understand the vitriol about the crinoid being a foot (long?). The "growing" doesn't make sense if it was a fossil either. Aren't living crinoid stalks fairly long? I mostly see fossilized individual segments in my neck of the woods, but I've seen embedded sections that are several inches long. And there are some really big segments that must have come from a fairly large animal. rb

"Being the victim of a catholic education, myself, I was taught that the "barnacle geese come from barnacles, not eggs" story was on the authority of Plato himself."

I don't know about Plato, but some medieval authors cited Aristotle as a source for that story. The only problem is that Aristotle didn't mention it anywhere. Probably some monk thought it was missing, and inserted a few sentences into the copy he was making, as was quite common then.
On the crinoid: I think living stalked crinoids were only discovered in the 19th century. So I don't know what the authors meant, but I don't think it was really a crinoid. Terminology was often quite vague back then.
Also, I wrote:
"wasn't seen nesting by anyone before Barendsz in 1595."
I meant "anyone European". Of course the natives of Siberia knew it long before that.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 04 Jul 2008 #permalink

Wiki says the longest fossil crinoid stalk is around 30 meters.

Arby; We can't look at that statement from a modern perspective based upon what we know now. I am not entirely familiar with the state of paleontology in 1751 but it's entirely possible that they did not know what a fossil crinoid was yet; the use of the term "entrochi" suggests they may have thought it to be some other variety of fossil. Furthermore, if I read the passage correctly, they're specifically calling out someone for saying that they are growing this particular type of fossil to a relatively large size. I will try to track down the case being referred to but in the meantime we certainly cannot suppose that members of the Royal Society in 1751 knew everything we do now about crinoids.

There is an article on Beaumont's Entrochi in the book linked to in the original post on p. 235-240. The problem with his claims was that he believed that these were real plants growing in the stone. He said that they were originally of clay, which gradually hardened into stone, and he claimed to have found still growing stalks in the rock that were over a foot long, not articulated and made of soft clay. The authors understandably didn't believe this, and compared the real fossils to the arms of a "Magellanick Star-Fish".
Another interesting thing: after the barnacle article they mention a Dr. Mather, who suggested that migratory birds flew to an undiscovered and quite close satellite of the Earth.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 05 Jul 2008 #permalink

I've done some further research on the migratory birds thing, and it appears that "Dr. Mather" was none other than Cotton Mather, known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 05 Jul 2008 #permalink

I've now found out that the author was indeed the same John Hill whom the wikipedia article is about. He apparently had a grudge against the Royal Society, allegedly because they rejected his membership application. For that reason, he wrote this book to ridicule the Society by pointing out what kind of nonsense got published in the Philosophical Transactions. Some of this was a bit unfair, as some things published in the late 17th century looked less absurd then than in 1751. However, this book reportedly did have the effect that the Society became a bit more careful about what they published.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 06 Jul 2008 #permalink

Excellent work, Lars! Thank you for devoting so much time to this. You really should write up something about it and post it somewhere; you definitely deserve recognition for your efforts.

Thanks for the encouragement! I'll see what I can do. I don't have a blog, and haven't really planned to start one. I've now started reading that book from front to back (I'm now at p. 19), maybe I'll write something about it when I'm finished. John Hill seems to have been quite an interesting character, I still don't know enough about him. I hope I eventually get anything done, I also have to do some things for the university.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 06 Jul 2008 #permalink

John Gerrard famous for his 'Herball' was also included the creature in 1597. the north parts of Scotland, & the Ilands adjacent...wherein are conteined little living creatures: which shels in time of maturite doe open, and out of them grow those little living things; which falling into the water, doe become foules, whom we call Barnakles; in the north of England, Brant Geese, and in Lancashire, tree Geese: but the other that do fall upon the land, perish and come to nothing.
However by the time Thomas Johnson revised the herbal (1633), he declared the geese had hatched from eggs. As the breeding ground (Svalbard) had been discovered by Hollanders, in trying to find a passage to China (round the top of Russia).
Source; Strange Blooms by Jennifer Potter

By hereisabee (not verified) on 21 Oct 2009 #permalink