Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ann Moyal "Platypus"

Ann Moyal’s “Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How A Curious Creature Baffled the World” is a book in search of a protagonist. Why that is, is unclear for certainly this oddest of beasts has an inbred star quality, or so it would seem.

Yet the book lacks a center, a thread, instead following the complicated historical flow of platypus scientific discussion – a complicated ping-pong of (mis)communication between (mostly) amateur scientists in its Australian native land and (mostly creationist) scientists in Europe.

The first platypus pelt reached the West in the late XVIII century and threw naturalists into a frenzy. So bizarre was this duck bill tucked into a small brown and furry body, with a fat sheep’s tail and webbed feet, that some British scientists are reported to have looked for stitch marks. It seemed like an elaborate hoax.

The small platypus got caught up into a scientific discussion that went largely beyond its own strange attributes: did it lay eggs or give birth to live young? Was it a marine mammal, a fury reptile or a missing link between birds and alligators? These were questions that, due to the distances involved, the difficulty in preserving live animals (or even dead ones), the hiatus between letters and the generally discreet habits of the platypus would take many years to answer.

But there was a more explosive argument going on. One that asked the loaded question: “do species evolve?”. The Platypus got pushed into taxonomic categories where it might best serve the underlying ideology of the leading scientists of the day, even when it was clearly a round peg in a square hole.

Moyal faithfully traces the history of platypus correspondence and theorizing while making a great job of explaining the leading scientific trends of the day and the main scientist’s curricula. But I often felt I was losing sight of what really interested me - the platypus and its native habitat - and being pulled instead through a series of smoky salons where the dried specimens were hardly a match for the huge egos in the room.

The Darwin chapter in particular seemed unnecessarily long, since he had little to say about the creature, though Moyal suggests the platypus might have had some influence on his theories.

All in all “Platypus” is an interesting natural history book, though probably not for everyone. The author obviously sifted through an impressive amount of historical data and I suspect it might have bogged her down. For my taste the book is a little too heavy on documental minutia (a lot of which I had already come across in more generic books on Darwinism and precedent scientific theories) – and in the end, seems to lack sheer passion for the fantastic creature whose story it tells.

No comments: