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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Fleas are not Lobsters

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2012

Banks as the Great South Sea Caterpillar

Early naturalists often displayed deep confusion about how different species might be connected to one another.  Since the standard belief was that each species was a unique creation by God, some even asserted that there was no connection, merely correlation.  We weren’t biologically related to monkeys, for instance–it was just a sort of coincidental resemblance, perhaps from God getting lazy and plagiarizing his own work.

When naturalists tried to investigate the possible connections across the plant and animal kingdoms, they sometimes came in for ridicule.  I thought about that a little while I go when I came across a satiric roasting of Sir Joseph Banks, the world-traveling naturalist and  eminent “natural philosopher” of late eighteenth-century London.

According to the British comic writer Peter Pindar,  Banks once supposedly cooked up an experiment to boil fleas, 1500 of them, and see if they would turn red, but was disappointed in his expectations.

“There goes, then, my hypothesis to hell,” the naturalist cried, “Fleas are not lobsters, d___n their souls.”


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