The Origin of Styles
"(H)e gives a laughable account of their behavior and strange grimaces. On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression; when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away with disgust but relished the taste of lemons. An American monkey, an Ateles, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus was wiser than many men."The first passage could be from Watson's account of a heretofore unknown case of Sherlock Holmes'. The second could well be Holmes explaining his methods, and one can almost see his condescending smile. But both are from a book published a decade and a half before the first Holmes stories, and their author was one of that relatively small group of Victorians whose influence exceeded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's. Dwarfed it, in fact. This author was also working on a mystery far more momentous than any of Holmes' cases. He was Charles Darwin, and the book is The Descent of Man.
"He who rejects with scorn the belief that the shape of his own canines, and their occasional great development in other men, are due to our early forefathers having been provided with these formidable weapons, will probably reveal, by sneering, the line of his descent. For though he no longer intends, nor has the power, to use these teeth as weapons, he will unconsciously retract his `snarling muscles' ... so as to expose them ready for action like a dog prepared to fight."
It is pleasant to see that the breeziness characteristic of much Victorian prose style crossed the boundaries of fiction. It is thrilling to see that for all the mystique, misconception and slander that surrounds the name of Darwin, his thought was grounded in simple, empirical observation, just like that of another Victorian, a fictional one who wore a deerstalker.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008