Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 17.djvu/106

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
96
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

SOME FACTS AND FICTIONS OF ZOÖLOGY.
By Dr. ANDREW WILSON.

WHEN the country swain, loitering along some lane, conies to a standstill to contemplate, with awe and wonder, the spectacle of a mass of the familiar "hair-eels" or "hair-worms" wriggling about in a pool, he plods on his way firmly convinced that, as he has been taught to believe, he has just witnessed the results of the transformation of some horse's hairs into living creatures. So familiar is this belief to people of professedly higher culture than the country-man, that the transformation just alluded to has to all, save a few thinking persons and zoölogists, become a matter of the most commonplace kind. When some quarrymen, engaged in splitting up the rocks, have succeeded in dislodging some huge mass of stone, there may sometimes be seen to hop from among the débris a lively toad or frog, which comes to be regarded by the excavators with feelings akin to those of superstitious wonder and amazement. The animal may or may not be captured; but the fact is duly chronicled in the local newspapers, and people wonder for a season over the phenomenon of a veritable Rip Van Winkle of a frog, which, to all appearance, has lived for "thousands of years in the solid rock." Nor do the hair-worm and the frog stand alone in respect of their marvelous origin. Popular zoölogy is full of such marvels. We find unicorns, mermaids, and mermen; geese developed from the shell-fish known as "barnacles"; we are told that crocodiles may weep, and that sirens can sing—in short, there is nothing so wonderful to be told of animals that people will not believe the tale; while, curiously enough, when they are told of veritable facts of animal life, heads begin to shake and doubts to be expressed, until the zoölogist despairs of educating people into distinguishing fact from fiction, and truth from theories and unsupported beliefs. The story told of the old lady, whose youthful acquaintance of seafaring habits entertained her with tales of the wonders he had seen, finds, after all, a close application in the world at large. The dame listened with delight, appreciation, and belief, to accounts of mountains of sugar and rivers of rum, and to tales of lands where gold and silver and precious stones were more than plentiful. But, when the narrator descended to tell of fishes that were able to raise themselves out of the water in flight, the old lady's credulity began to fancy itself imposed upon; for she indignantly repressed what she considered the lad's tendency to exaggeration, saying, "Sugar mountains may be, and rivers of rum may be, but fish that flee ne'er can be!" Many popular beliefs concerning animals partake of the character of the old lady's opinions regarding the real and the fabulous; and the circumstance tells powerfully in