Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Traditional story about Cuvier

I had half an eye on the third part of the BBC programme The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion last night. The third part of the series, 'How Did We Get Here?', dealt with the rise of scientific assessments of biodiversity. Along the way, presenter Michael Mosley (left) looked at the contribution of the great French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Mosley told this story about Cuvier (pictured below). I've transcribed the story from the broadcast programme:
There's a story about Cuvier which I like, which I think really sums up the man. It's late at night, and Cuvier has gone to bed, when one of his students, dressed in a devil's costume, bursts into his room and cries 'Cuvier! Cuvier! I have come to eat you!' Cuvier opened one eye, calmly looked the student up and down, and said 'All animals that have hooves and horns are herbivores. You cannot eat me'.
I've always liked this story, too, and it seems to have had an oral circulation. Augustus Hare recalled being told the story in Suffolk in 1894. Hare's version concerns 'some young men ... determined to frighten the famous naturalist'. His version doesn't change tense, as Mosley's does, but this might be because it was written down. Hare's punchline is a bit pithier than Mosley's rather classroom description, too:
Cuvier looked at him. 'Carnivorous! horns - hoofs - impossible! Good-night;' and he turned over and went to sleep. (1)
It's always a pleasure to hear a tale with some kind of traditional life being told orally, and it's a delight to hear them crop up on television.
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1) reprinted in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, ed. Neil Philip (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 394

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