On Vulgar Errors In Natural History
( Originally Published 1884 )
As arts and sciences make very perceptible advances in Europe after every ten years, an Encyclopaedia or magazine, wherein to register our new stores, becomes, of necessity, a periodical publication. But as these dictionaries contain not only what is new, but generally a system of all that is known, both new and old, upon every article, they are too bulky and expensive for common use. Perhaps a more eligible method to treasure our acquisitions, and to mark the ground we have gained, would be to republish from time to time a book of vulgar errors, as fast as new lights and better knowledge concurred to remove our old prejudices. Having long entertained this thought, my expectations were very greatly raised upon seeing an advertisement not a great while since, promising a book of vulgar errors, by a Fellow of one of the colleges in Cambridge most celebrated for good philosophers and naturalists. I cannot say, however, that I found my know-ledge very much advanced by this collection ; and tho' every attempt to increase the fund of science deserves the acknowledgment of its votaries, yet I suppose every gentleman of reading will allow that a more scientific choice of articles might have been made than this of Mr. Fevargues. A collection of vulgar errors is not a collection of the errors of the vulgar, that would indeed be a large book, but of the errors of the common rate of philosophers and men of science. Such is that of Sir Thomas Brown, in which you will not find many errors of the common people, except that body was much more learned than it is at present. Of all the books recommended to our youth, after their academical studies, I do not know a better than this of Sir Thomas's to excite their curiosity, to put them upon thinking and enquiring, and to guard them against taking anything upon trust from opinion or authority. His language has, indeed, a little air of affectation, which is apt to disgust young persons; and it would be doing a very great service to that class if any gentleman of learning would take the pains to smooth and adapt it a little more to modern ears.
It is near a century and a half since this book, which was the first of the kind that in any degree answered its title, was published. Since that age I know of no other but that above mentioned of the gentleman of S. John's. Yet, as the growth of science has been so rich and fertile in the last century and this, I have no doubt but the list of errors removed would make a much larger book than even Sir T. Brown's. Out of more than three hundred I find minuted by myself, here follow a few in one part of Natural History only.
1. That the Scorpion does not sting itself when surrounded by fire, and that its sting is not even venomous. Keysler's " Travels," Maupertius, Hughes' " Barbadoes," Hamilton's Letter in the " Philosophical Transactions."
2. That the Tarantula is not poisonous, and that music has no particular effect on persons bitten by it, more than on those stung by a wasp. De la Lande's "Travels," Naples, Abbé Richard's ditto, Experiments of the Prince of San Severo. [See Note 38.]
3. That the Lizard is not friendly to man in particular, much less does it awaken him on the approach of a serpent. Hughes' " Barbadoes," Brook's " Natural History."
4. That the Remora has no such power as to retard the sailing of a ship, by sticking itself to its bottom. De la Lande, alit passim.
5. That the stroke of the Cramp Fish is not occasioned by a muscle. Bancroft's " Guiana, concerning the torporific eel."
6. That the Salamander does not live in fire, nor is it capable of bearing more heat than other animals. Sir T. Brown suspected it, Keysler has clearly proved it.
7. That the bite of the Spider is not venomous. Reaumur. That it is found in Ireland too plentifully. That it has no dislike to fixing its web on Irish oak. That it has no antipathy to the toad. —Barring-ton's Letter, " Philosophical Transactions," and Swammerdam.
8. It is an error to suppose that a fly has only a microscopic eye. Dragon-flies, bees, wasps, flesh-flies, etc., will turn off and avoid an object in their way, on the swiftest wing, which shows a very quick and commanding sight. It is probable that the sight of all animals is in quickness and extent proportioned to their speed.
9. The Porcupine does not shoot out his quills for annoying his enemy : he only sheds them annually, as other feathered animals do. He has a muscular skin, and can shake the loose ones off at the time of molting. Hughes, and alii passim.
10. The Jackall, commonly called the Lion's Provider, has no connection at all with the Lion. He is a sort of fox, and is hunted in the East as the fox is with us. Shaw, Sandys.
11. The fable of the Fox and Grapes is taught us from our child-hood, without our ever reflecting that the foxes we are acquainted with do not eat grapes. This fable came from the East; the fox of Palestine is a great destroyer of grapes. J. Hasselquist, Shaw.
12. The eye of birds is not more agile than that of other animals, though their sight is more quick. On the contrary, their eye is quite immovable, as is that of most animals and insects of the quickest sight. British Zoology, etc.
13. The Tyger, instead of being the swiftest of beasts, is a remarkably sluggish and slow animal. Owen's Dictionary, in verbo. Experiment at Windsor Lodge.
14. Sir Thomas Brown, who wrote against Vulgar Errors, maintains that apes and elephants may be taught to speak.
I am afraid of trespassing farther on your paper at this time. At some future opportunity I will convey to you a much larger list, under the heads of quadrupeds, birds, fishes, insects, vegetables and minerals. This common division seems more commodious that that of Sir Thomas, who has given a miscellany of errors in natural history, arts, civil history, religious traditions, paintings, etc. Natural History alone would furnish a considerable volume if we add to the heads we have just mentioned, the errors as to the elements, the air and the meteors, the earth, the waters, the heavens. Civil History is a very large field also. A French author has lately given us a collection of various articles of Ancient History, which pass current ; yet are many of them demonstrably false. His work has some trifling articles.