Professor Ptthmllnsprts Versus Old Bones


Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley Inspecting a Water-Baby. Illustration by Linley Sambourne, from The Water-Babies, 1885. Alamy.
Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley Inspecting a H2o-Child. Illustration by Linley Sambourne, from The Water-Infants, 1885. Alamy. 

Born into an illustrious scientific family members, the upcoming biologist Julian Huxley was a precocious child. At the age of five he arrived across a caricature by the eminent illustrator Linley Sambourne in the enormously successful children’s fairytale, The Drinking water-Babies, written by Charles Kingsley. Very first revealed in 1863 with only two plates, it had bought so well that Sambourne was commissioned to make a lavish new version. The central character is an ill-handled chimney sweep known as Tom, who falls into a river and is reworked into a drinking water infant. In the course of a very long series of encounters with other youngsters and instructors residing beneath the area, he inevitably learns to adhere to the codes of Christian morality – the book’s main theme. In the illustration Julian recognised his square-jawed grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, brandishing a magnifying glass as he peers at a small naked boy imprisoned in a flask of liquid. Next to him is a balding scientist in a test jacket – Huxley’s arch rival, Richard Owen, an obstinate person renowned for nurturing enmities. A museum-centered expert on fossils, Owen coined the term dinosaur, still adamantly refused to settle for that human beings had progressed from apes.

‘Dear Grandpater’, Julian wrote, ‘Have you found a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it marvel if it could get out? Could I see it some working day?’ The aged scientist replied diplomatically but enigmatically to these thoughts: posed innocently, they nevertheless went right to the core of the scientific quandaries addressed by Kingsley in his book.


Science and faith

As in previous centuries, there was no easy, black-and-white opposition involving faith and science. Kingsley was a cleric and a naturalist who endorsed evolution by organic choice, whilst Owen was an eminent scientist who opposed Darwinism nonetheless believed that God superintended the advancement of the living planet. Some of his most famous discoveries were being of extinct creatures, even though, according to his rigid interpretations of the Bible, God at first established the dwelling environment just as it is now.

Sambourne and Kingsley both knew Huxley, Charles Darwin’s self-appointed publicity agent who is now very best recognized for confronting Bishop ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce during a fierce discussion at Oxford about Darwinian evolution. Wilberforce experienced reportedly requested sarcastically regardless of whether Huxley had descended from an ape on his grandmother’s or grandfather’s aspect. Continue to only an undergraduate, his target immediately retorted that he would alternatively be associated to an ape than to an intellectually dishonest guy. 

In his extended allegorical narrative, Kingsley imagined his individual modest son voicing identical issues to Julian Huxley’s. The fictionalised boy argued that, if Tom – the water child of Kingsley’s title – truly had been found, certainly an individual would have ‘put it into spirits [or] slice it into two halves, inadequate expensive tiny issue, and sent one to Professor Owen, and just one to Professor Huxley, to see what they would each say about it’. Kingsley reassured his youthful viewers that Huxley was ‘a pretty type previous gentleman’, who would have saved Tom alive and petted him. Yet, in The Drinking water-Babies he fondly parodied Huxley as the foolish Professor Ptthmllnsprts – Place-them-all-in-spirits – who believed that anatomical investigation would produce the secrets and techniques of existence.

Kingsley and Huxley admired every single other’s intellect but have been basically opposed on the subject of faith. While Kingsley was a devout Anglican clergyman, Huxley invented the phrase agnosticism to deal with his possess place, retaining that, without definitive proof, he lacked the certainty to be both an atheist or a Christian. After Huxley’s son died of scarlet fever Kingsley was his friend’s main supply of convenience. He hardly ever convinced the grieving gentleman to set his religion in God. 

‘Dinner in the Iguanodon Model, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham’, London Illustrated News, 7 January 1854.
‘Dinner in the Iguanodon Product, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham’, London Illustrated News, 7 January 1854. Alamy.

In The Drinking water-Babies, Kingsley derides the price of Huxley’s reasonable rationality for fixing the world’s mysteries. At just one degree a fairy story, the reserve is laced with various themes, although Kingsley said his central concept evidently: ‘Your soul would make your physique, just as a snail would make its shell.’ Significantly as he appreciated the worth of aim scientific study, Kingsley connected excellent significance to nature’s ponder, creating his guide to refute the materialist check out that daily life can exist independently of a religious God. 


A celebrated cleric

When he wrote The H2o-Toddlers, Kingsley was Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, but – as is evident from his evocative accounts of the creatures and landscapes Tom encounters – he was also a eager geologist and zoologist. Uniquely among theologians, Kingsley immediately supported the idea of evolution by purely natural selection when it was proposed by Darwin in On the Origin of Species in 1859. Gratified but surprised, Darwin opportunistically integrated his approving remarks in all foreseeable future editions of the e-book, anonymising Kingsley as a ‘celebrated cleric’. In accordance to Kingsley’s singular interpretation, Darwin’s concept relied on the noble thought of a deity who experienced ‘created primal varieties capable of self development’. This far-observing God had made residing beings that could increase by themselves, so there was no require for repeated divine interventions to fill in the gaps among various varieties of residing creature.

Victorian families generally go through books aloud to a person an additional and Kingsley evidently assumed that useful adults would be on hand to make clear the obscurer details of his topical jokes. In an apart to his young viewers he points out that, as a reasonable rationalist, Professor Ptthmllnsprts must recognise the inherent impossibility of proving a universal unfavorable. How can you be certain that some strange creature does not exist just mainly because you have never noticed it? As the realized professor wanders along a rocky shore with Tom’s subaquatic mate Ellie, she asks the professor how he can probably know that there is no these types of factor as a drinking water little one. Compelled into a rational cul-de-sac, Ptthmllnsprts resorts to a most unsatisfactory reply: ‘Because there ain’t.’ Turning absent, he starts angrily poking among the the weeds, but is horrified to see that Tom has become tangled up in his web. Rather of welcoming the residing proof he has demanded, he retreats into outright denial and throws the drinking water infant again into the water, ignoring the children’s protests. 


Of moas and males

Though he refused to accept that persons experienced evolved from apes, Owen was a renowned fossil skilled, celebrated for his skill to reconstruct an entire extinct creature from a compact fragment. In 1839, as a young mysterious anatomist, he concluded that the broken shaft of a thigh bone despatched to him from New Zealand had initially belonged to a sluggish struthious chook (the technical expression for ‘ostrich-like’). Irrespective of scathing criticisms Owen persevered, distributing 100 copies of his posting to rouse desire among the naturalists. In a couple years, he experienced been despatched so lots of bones that he was in a position to determine extra than a dozen species of vanished moa birds. In a hanging photograph a massive skeleton dwarfs, but unusually mirrors, its human discoverer with his concave experience, substantial eyes and slender, stooped system.

Owen was the initially to supply definitive proof that these large birds had at the time existed in New Zealand and he grew to become fondly known as ‘Old Bones’. In accordance to Maori tradition, moas experienced brightly coloured necks, sported a crest on their heads and devoured unsuspecting forest travellers. Even although there was no verified report of a European sighting, in advance of the islands had been comprehensively explored it was tempting to picture that a few could endure in remote areas. It seemed that these huge birds experienced only incredibly lately develop into extinct. Owen afterwards bought for the British Museum a specimen from New Zealand bearing pores and skin, ligaments and grayish-brown feathers. Some moa bones bear marks that might have been created with iron blades he blamed human beings for searching the birds so intensely that they could not survive. European travellers may possibly perfectly have been the last persons to dine on moa.

Richard Owen and a moa skeleton, 1878. Alamy.
Richard Owen and a moa skeleton, 1878. Alamy.

By coining the term dinosaur, Owen aided to bolster an evolutionary theory in which he did not consider. Infuriatingly for him, it was his arch-rival Gideon Mantell who had been the 1st to unearth a couple of mysterious enamel in a quarry in 1822, which he claimed belonged to extremely huge family members of iguanas (subsequently known as iguanadons to include the Greek word for ‘tooth’). Two many years later on William Buckland – a clergyman and palaeontologist based mostly in Oxford – designed a continue to extra momentous discovery of some gigantic fossil bones and so grew to become the 1st particular person to describe what is now recognised as a dinosaur. But it was Owen who later equipped the label. Interpreted charitably, Owen was making an attempt to make perception of all the fossil reptiles that had so much been dug up by bracketing them inside a single team of dinosaurs. Considered extra cynically, he was an bold young vocation scientist keen to assault Mantell, an more mature physician who labored on fossils in his spare time.


Champion chomper

Buckland hardly ever did get the prospect to sample moa flesh, but he was an particularly adventurous Victorian gourmet who chomped his way by an remarkable wide range of animals. While following one particular of these gastronomic experiments he refused to consume mole once again, he regularly served his visitors with delicacies these as panther steaks and mice on toast. Then, immediately after the meal, he would expose that the strange oval objects established inside of the glass tabletop were sliced coprolites (fossilised dinosaur faeces). 

A much more orthodox menu was supplied for a bizarre seven-study course evening meal celebration held as a publicity stunt to celebrate the New Year of 1854. This banquet took place at Crystal Palace inside the mould that was staying organized to develop a design iguanodon. Owen took his position at the head of a desk with some 20 company surrounded by pink and white drapery. When concluded, the iguanodon contained 600 bricks and 100 toes of iron hooping, as nicely as tiles, stone and 38 casks of cement, despite the fact that Owen – who experienced been excluded from the conclusion-earning – regularly and tactlessly pressured that there was no evidence for the well known horn on its snout. Through the upcoming fifty percent a century in excess of a million site visitors a calendar year arrived to admire this substantial beast and its 32 antediluvian companions, a supposedly realistic team assembled in Crystal Palace Park on the outskirts of London, where they can continue to be admired now.


Hippopotamus on the brain

About numerous many years Huxley and Owen confronted just about every other in savage debates that were being fuelled by individual animosity, but which also represented contrasting methods to the procedures of evolution. Symbolically, their protracted row hinged on one particular small anatomical attribute – a fold in the levels at the foundation of the mind known as the hippocampus slight. With his standing for inferring huge conclusions from minute scraps of bony evidence, Owen insisted that this element was observed only in human brains. For him, the hippocampus slight supplied clinching proof from human beings owning primate ancestors. But quite a few other scientists ended up hesitant to dismiss evolution by organic choice on this sort of an seemingly flimsy basis. Huxley continuously accused him of ‘lying & shuffling’ and of dishonestly disregarding a host of other observed capabilities.

In The Drinking water-Toddlers, Kingsley parodied Owen’s placement succinctly but ruthlessly. Your overall look and your conduct are irrelevant, he sarcastically educated his Victorian audience ‘the one accurate, particular, remaining and all-crucial difference among you and an ape is, that you have a hippopotamus important in your brain, and it has none’. But he also mocked Huxley’s avatar, Professor Ptthmllnsprts, for adopting a likewise slender-minded technique and seeking to confirm Owen improper by concentrating on anatomic capabilities of non-human primates. Other distinctions are a lot more significant, Kingsley argued, ‘such as getting ready to converse, and make equipment, and know proper from completely wrong, and say your prayers …’.

Charles Darwin will have to have felt the two disconcerted and delighted to obtain this theological naturalist in his camp. The subtleties of The Water-Babies may possibly have been beyond the grasp of many youngsters, but – as Julian Huxley exemplifies – the ebook and its illustrations delivered a beautifully helpful piece of propaganda for the subversive doctrines of Darwinism. 


Patricia Fara is an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her newest e book is Existence immediately after Gravity: The London Job of Isaac Newton (Oxford University Push, 2021). 


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