A Review of Platypus by Ann Moyal

Moyal writes clearly and arranges difficult material with crisp authority. This is a perspicacious book. Moyal cares about her subject and has used it to express more than a simple chapter of zoology. She sees the platypus within a very broad frame of reference and the result is a work of social history, the most absorbing form of literature when, as here, it is done well. Without straining for effect she shows a shrewd eye for human folly and the light of malice must have been in her eye in the writing of many passages. It would be difficult to imagine the type of intelligent reader that would not respond warmly to this book.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Platypus
by Ann Moyal
Allen & Unwin, April 2002, 226 pages
ISBN 1-86508-804-8, RRPA$19.95

As befits any scholarly book, the front matter thanks all the persons that assisted the author. Many readers skip this sort of thing or look for the names of someone they know.

It isn’t difficult to establish the importance of the subject, an anomalous animal that defies all reasonable explanations and sits in near lonely splendor as one of the oddities of the natural world. Its first appearance was dismissed as a hoax and the reality of the platypus was only grudgingly accepted.

For those interested in Colonialism the series of discoveries leading to that of the platypus has its fascinations. Captain Cook’s naturalist reported favorably on Botany Bay and this led to the formation of the penal colony at that site. The successive governors of this colony provided England with the first kangaroo and in 1799 the
platypus.

The platypus spread confusion not only through its mixed appearance – part bird, part lizard and part mammal – but also through a restless search for an acceptable name. Platypus, as it turned out, was no longer available since it already formed the name for a beetle but the original designation stuck while naturalists searched for a unique descriptive name to be used for scientific purposes. The result – ornithorhynchus anatinus – has a sad lack of appeal. Confusion continued as naturalists dissected specimens and attempted to deduce how this strange mixture
bore its young. The process involved eggs but dissection could not prove if the young were hatched within or outside of the female body. The eagerness of early enthusiasts led to the exchange of one platypus for five gallons of rum.

French scientific expeditions had peculiar vicissitudes. Hampered by inexperience and inept organization, these expeditions suffered want, illness and death of many of the participants. As a finishing touch the results of the expeditions were concealed – perhaps by jealous design – from the rest of the world for two centuries.

To get the correct answers it is necessary to ask the correct questions and the attempt to classify the platypus according to the Aristotelian system, however sophisticated by Linnaeus, led to serious problems. Writing of early taxonomic attempts, Moyal observes “each naturalist sought to shoehorn the little animal into their different prescriptive forms.” Abstract preconceptions such as the Chain of Being formulation, hallowed by Aristotle and enshrined within the religious consciousness of the time, were significant barriers to the new formulations that the
newly discovered marsupials and the platypus made necessary.

Where to put the poor platypus was equivalent to determining what it was. For over a quarter of a century British, French and German naturalists – along national lines and all unhampered by any knowledge of the living animal – argued the question furiously.

Those who were there to see the animal for themselves were enthusiastic but unprofessional. Perhaps too their efforts seemed pointless in the light of European naturalists who were too busy with theoretical arguments to give just weight to their testimony. It is amusing to learn that in the early and more hopeful days transported convicts guilty of forgery applied their artistic talents in the lawful pursuit of illustrating the fauna of the antipodes. It was a fully trained and dedicated naturalist, George Bennett, who around the 1830s began the study of the platypus in its natural habitat. He took such information as the Aborigines had, fully aware that they were not trained observers and were handicapped by conveying information in pidgin. They had also a great readiness to give answers that matched what they felt agreed with the wishes of the inquirer.

Moyal uncovers the reluctant draw of facts on the scientific minds of the early period of the nineteenth century. The most advanced thinkers fell back on God as the ultimate explanation and the scientific disagreements were edged with theological considerations. These conclusions – some involved with the geological record and some with the peculiar platypus – converged with the voyage that the young Darwin took on the Beagle. At 22 he believed in Archdeacon William Paley’s theological concept of the world and accepted the idea of catastrophism, that the startling organisms of the past were special creations of God. The voyage of the Beagle opened his mind to wider and wilder possibilities and by 1859 with the publication of The Origin of the Species gave them careful and detailed expression. The peculiarities of the platypus were much on his mind and used to vividly portray a whole branch of his extraordinary intellectual structure. Even in 1874 with The Origin of Man was the platypus still a potent consideration although the original question – how does the platypus give birth – was still unanswered.

Moyal’s account tends at midpoint to deal less with the platypus than with the duel between the two eminent naturalists of the time – Richard Owen and Charles Darwin. Owen inherited the establishment mantle from the eminent naturalists of theological leanings that preceded him. He was an expert of sorts on the platypus although he
persistently denied that the animal bore its young from external eggs. But Joseph Hooker and T.H. Huxley supported the mild and unassertive Darwin against the Owen whose newfound arrogance made him increasingly unpopular. With the accession of Charles Lyell, eminent geologist, to Darwin’s side the triumph of evolution was assured. As Moyal observes, Owen’s familiarity with the platypus did not reveal to him – as it should have – a more complex relationship among living things than he imagined.

Part of Bennett’s failure to ascertain the nature of platypus gestation resulted from his ignoring the Aborigines’ claim that the animal laid eggs. A new worker in the field, William Caldwell, had no prejudices of this kind and determined that in truth, contrary to Owen’s assertion, that platypus laid eggs. This discovery took place in 1884,
two years after the death of Darwin and ninety years after the question of platypus gestation was first raised. In a further turn of the screw Caldwell determined that the eggs had reptilian rather than avian characteristics. The slaughter of the harmless animals to determine this fact adds a grisly note to the tale. Since they were also subject to wanton destruction by the European settlers, it is amazing that they survive. Owen’s dominance of Australian naturalists did not survive and the staff members of the newly founded Medical School of the University of Sydney
were Darwinians to a man. Three of them also hunted the platypus and sought to further its study by microscopic examination and embryological analysis. Their investigations showed that the baffling animal, while it showed signs of both reptilian and avian embryonic development, also displayed mammalian characteristics.

In a further and highly suggestive phase of the platypus story, it was Harry Burrell, an unprofessional observer, dedicated and keen, who filled in many details neglected or invisible to the earlier naturalists and scientists. Burrell succeeded in keeping the platypus in captivity and even in transporting it from Australia to the United States. But the dynamic period of the platypus seemed over and all that remained were refinements of captivity and transportation, both difficult because of the delicacy of the animal combined with a voracious appetite. The latter made transportation a serious logistic problem.

But the platypus had yet one more astonishment for the world. A German zoologist, acting on a hunch, began to examine the platypus bill as a possible detector of electric energy. Once the idea was formulated, proof followed rapidly. In the light of this discovery the platypus emerged as a sophisticated product of the evolutionary process instead of, as often thought previously, an evolutionary dead end.

Moyal writes clearly and arranges difficult material with crisp authority. This is a perspicacious book. Moyal cares about her subject and has used it to express more than a simple chapter of zoology. She sees the platypus within a very broad frame of reference and the result is a work of social history, the most absorbing form of literature when, as here, it is done well. Without straining for effect she shows a shrewd eye for human folly and the light of malice must have been in her eye in the writing of many passages. It would be difficult to imagine the type of intelligent reader that would not respond warmly to this book.

For more information on Platypus visit: 
Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How…

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://fracman.home.mchsi.com/

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