Sunday, May 23, 2010

Whose animals are more awesome? America's or Europe's?

I'm finally finishing Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (I started it a few years ago and for some reason stopped) and I am enjoying it very much. Intertwined in his popular tour of the history of science are interesting and sometimes hilarious anecdotes about the scientists under discussion.

During a discussion of the awkward rise of paleontology, Bryson writes about a surprising dispute between Europeans and Americans over the impressiveness of each continent's natural fauna. The great French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, writing about America, said that the animals and Native Americans were inferior in every way to those of Europe. According to Leclerc, North America was a country of stagnant water, sunless forests, and rotten swamps where the animals and even the Native Americans "lacked virility." "They have no beard or body hair, and no ardor for the female," and their reproductive organs were "small and feeble." Other Europeans joined in the attack, one writing that Native American males were so feminine that they had "milk in their breasts."

Thomas Jefferson was furious with this description and sent a general and some soldiers into New Hampshire to capture a bull moose to send to Leclerc as, in Bryson's words, "proof of the stature and majesty of American quadrupeds." Unfortunately, the moose they brought back didn't have horns big enough for Jefferson's liking, but the general had also included a large rack of antlers from an elk for Jefferson to attach if he would like. Apparently they figured no one in France would know the difference anyway.

At around the same time, other Americans were unearthing "the great American incognitum," a huge creature that would only later be identified as a mastodon (oddly, a Frenchman named Cuvier would be the first to formally describe and name it; even more oddly, mastodon means "nipple-teeth"). I'll let Bryson tell the story:

"In their keenness to demonstrate the incognitum's bulk and ferocity, the American naturalists appear to have become slightly carried away. They overestimated its size by a factor of six and gave it frightening claws, which in fact came from a Megalonyx, or giant ground sloth, found nearby. Rather remarkably, they persuaded themselves that the animal had enjoyed "the agility and ferocity of the tiger," and portrayed it in illustrations as pouncing with feline grace onto prey from boulders. When tusks were discovered, they were forced into the animal's head in any number of inventive ways. One restorer screwed the tusks in upside down, like the fangs of a saber-toothed cat, which gave it a satisfyingly aggressive aspect. Another arranged the tusks so that they curved backwards on the engaging theory that the creature had been aquatic and had used them to anchor itself to trees while dozing."

Unfortunately, Leclerc was not impressed. He insisted that the most telling feature of this animal is that it was extinct, "proof of its incontestably degenerate nature."


Erik DiVietro said...

One of my all-time favorite books from my all-time favorite travel writer. Do you have his other stuff? A Walk in the Woods has quite a bit of interesting information on the development of the Appalachian Mountains and the flora/fauna found therein.

Unknown said...

I don't have anything else of his, but I'll have to check it out.

ed cyzewski said...

I may have to add this book to my summer reading list. Funny stuff.