jump to navigation
  • The First Mythbuster? July 27, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    sir thomas browne

    In June 1771 one H wrote to the most important English review, The Gentleman’s Magazine. He claimed to have put together a list of over three hundred myths: what this blog refers to as cobblers. It is one of the first examples of the very modern habit of debunking myths: Snopes is the best contemporary manifestation of this habit that stretches back to the enlightenment; Fortean Times has Mythconceptions. Where does this myth-busting tendency begin: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com The earliest I’ve been able to track down is Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646, a great title): I have half a mental bell ringing though about a Roman writer…

    H only actually gives a list of just fourteen from his three hundred, all concerning the natural world. But what is striking is how many are still much repeated myths today. For example:

    i) the scorpion does not sting itself when surrounded by fire.

    ii) the tarantula does not bite and does not cause people to dance.

    vi) salamanders don’t survive long in fire [!].

    vii) the bite of the common spider is not venemous. (I get this a lot in Italy, with people pointing to rashes and claiming that nocturnal spiders did it)

    ix) The porcupine does not shoot his quills at enemies, he sheds them once a year ‘as other feathered animals do’ [!]

    If writers have been banging on about this stuff for the better part of two hundred and fifty years and yet adults still repeat all this around camp-fires why bother? Perhaps because there is progress of sorts. Some of the others are, certainly, to the modern reader, downright weird and suggest that knowledge grows, while caving in elsewhere. For instance, did you know…

    III) that the lizard is not friendly to man and does not warn those sleeping on the side of the road of the approach of the snake…

    XV) that elephants and apes cannot be taught to speak.

    Beach would say that one interesting phenomen with the rise of the myth busters is their habit of perpetuating or better still creating myths of their own. The pleasing nonsense that elephants can speak probably came from Thomas Browne (noted above) one of original challengers of cobblers.

    Nor beside the affinity of reason in this Animal any such intollerable incapacity in the organs of divers quadrupedes, whereby they might not be taught to speak, or become imitators of speech like Birds. Strange it is how the curiosity of men that have been active in the instruction of Beasts, have never fallen upon this artifice; and among those, many paradoxical and unheard of imitations, should not attempt to make one speak. The Serpent that spake unto Eve, the Dogs and Cats that usually speak unto Witches, might afford some encouragement. And since broad and thick chops are required in Birds that speak, since lips and teeth are also organs of speech; from these there is also an advantage in quadrupedes, and a proximity of reason in Elephants and Apes above them all.