Monday, August 11, 2008

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."

"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."
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.

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

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12 Comments:

Blogger Loren Eaton said...

An American monkey, an Ateles, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus was wiser than many men.

This is an admittedly great line.

August 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And who would expect a line like that in a classic of science?

August 11, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

So the great Darwin, in addition to espousing evolution, was also a corrupter of monkeys?!?

Figures.
(/snark)

August 11, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, Darwin was careful to put the reports of simian crapulence in the mouths of others. At least as far as I've read, he never admits getting drunk with monkeys himself.

August 11, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

Probably not. If he did admit such things, no one would've taken his controversial writings seriously..............or would they?

August 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps they would have done so regardless of whether Darwin bore witness to monkey carousing. I get the feeling from reading Darwin that science made itself more accessible in his time, which means that a bit of human presence or, heaven forbid, even fun might not have disqualified the work from serious consideration the way it might today.

August 12, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

Reading those passages you can just visualise the Victorian men in the smoking room, drinking Brandy guffawing at the simian comments and sneering at Darwin's assertions.

Perhaps there was a spot of the influence of Grandad - Erasmus Darwin, physician and poet, for both the science and the prose.

August 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One can equally visualize Victorian men in the smoking room guffawing at the simian comments and taking them seriously. Wasn't Darwin himself a man of landed family and independent means?

I don't know much about Erasmus Darwin other than that he was an early evolutionist and that he had a suitable first name for a humanist.

August 12, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter,

I heard that Jane Goodall shares a quiet vodka tonic with her primate companions every evening before supper. They used to drink vodka martinis but getting ice into the jungle was too much of a hassle.

TCS,

Is Darwin controversial? Case closed as far as I can see.

Adrian...

August 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I heard she chucked that habit when some of the younger primates, paticularly those in gentrified areas of older cities, started affecting martinis and cigars. Darwin, I suspect, might have found this a particularly annoying form of reversion.

August 12, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Cigars with your martini? What would Nick Charles say?

A....

August 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nick Charles would probably say, "Thank you. I think I will."

In fact, I don't if cigars and martinis are enjoyed together, but they are enjoyed by the same type of youthful poseur.

August 12, 2008  

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