Thursday, November 10, 2011

Darwin Had a Sense of Humour

Anyone who has read the Origin of Species would say that it is clearly and beautifully written, with occasional bursts of beauty, even though it is verbose and formal like all Victorian writing. But funny? I wasn’t expecting Darwin’s writing to be funny. But there is a passage in Descent of Man that is funnier than anything I have read by other Victorian writers.

Darwin begins the Descent of Man by presenting evidence of the close similarity of humans and apes. He mentions several anatomical characteristics in which humans and apes hardly differ at all. In this book and in the Expression of Emotions, Darwin notes many behavioral similarities (gestures, facial expressions, etc.) that humans share with apes. But Darwin had very little to say about physiological similarities, because so little was known about physiology at the time. Enzymes? Genes? How nerves work? None of this was known.

Darwin did the next best thing. He presented evidence that humans and other apes have similar physiological reactions to chemicals. One of the chemicals that he chose was alcohol. Here is a really funny passage, in which Darwin explains not only that monkeys can get drunk, but even have similar responses the next day (Chapter 1):

“Many kinds of monkeys have a strong taste for tea, coffee, and spirituous liquors: they will also, as I have myself seen, smoke tobacco with pleasure. Brehm asserts that the natives of north-eastern Africa catch the wild baboons by exposing vessels with strong beer, by which they are made drunk. He has seen some of these animals, which he kept in confinement, in this state; and he 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 juice of lemons. An American monkey…after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus was wiser than many men. These trifling facts prove how similar the nerves of taste must be in monkeys and man, and how similarly the whole nervous system is affected.”

A passage that is both funny and scientifically significant. Way to go, Charley!

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