Source: Pseudodoxia Epidemica (the ‘Plague of Pseudoscience’), by Thomas Browne.
Date: 1646 A.D.
Highlights: It turns out that in the seventeenth century, belief in phoenixes, griffins and unicorns was still a thing.
To stop you feeling too proud of ‘how far we’ve come’ I should point out that we still have one or two irrational beliefs today.
THE PLAGUE OF PSEUDOSCIENCE
Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a controversial figure when he was alive. He was a doctor, but also had links with occult circles; he wrote on esoteric philosophy and practiced alchemy. His first book (Religio Medici – a ‘Doctor’s Religion’) was attacked and banned by the Catholic Church soon after being published.
His second book (Pseudodoxia Epidemica – the ‘Plague of Pseudoscience’), written in 1646, is the one which is actually interesting for our purposes. This book is basically one long Cracked article or Mythbusters episode about false beliefs. Here are Browne’s most important ideas about animals:
- Griffins, phoenixes, unicorns and two-headed snakes don’t exist.
- Frogs, toads and salamanders aren’t magical, and aren’t very poisonous. (water frog)
- Hares don’t change their sex.
- Moles, lampreys and snails all have eyes, although maybe more than two each.
- Chameleons don’t eat air and ostriches don’t eat iron.
- Not every animal on land can also be found in the sea.
- Ambergris is not whale sperm.
Apart from the fun of reading through these ideas, and the pain of pushing through Browne’s self-righteous indignation, this book really is important for two reasons: First, it shows us that the ‘Baconian’ rational approach was becoming more popular. More important than that though, the book also shows us what people did believe. If Browne is being forced to write a book to show an idea is wrong, it’s probable that many people actually believed it. It’s amazing to hear that griffins and phoenixes were still thought to be real in the seventeenth century. Even more than that though, it’s amazing to hear that the idea that every land animal can be found in the sea was ever commonly believed in any century.
21ST CENTURY RATIONALITY
Before you feel too proud of yourself though, here is a lesser myth which Browne busts:
There is found in the Summer a kind of Spider called a Tainct, of a red colour, and so little of body that ten of the largest will hardly outway a grain; this by Country people is accounted a deadly poison unto Cows and Horses; who, if they suddenly die, and swell thereon, ascribe their death hereto, and will commonly say, they have licked a Tainct.
Now to satisfie the doubts of men we have called this tradition unto experiment; we have given hereof unto Dogs, Chickens, Calves and Horses, and not in the singular number; yet never could find the least disturbance ensue. (Sayle, 1904, 98-9)
The word ‘tainct’ is not used any more, and it is not clear what kind of spider Browne is talking about here (perhaps a velvet mite: Trombidium sp.?). His experimental method to determine whether the mites are deadly poisonous (trial and error) was completely unethical, but it was also effective. Browne was a truly innovative and rational scholar for his time period.
But before we start calling Browe ‘ahead of his time’ and start patting ourselves on the back for being so rational today, we have to remember two things: (i) Rationality is not something that has been ‘developing’ from the superstitious old days to the critical modern age (the modernisation theory). (ii) The twenty-first century certainly is not entirely rational either.
For example, over 600 websites currently report (agree or disagree) that “daddy-long-legs are venomous”, (Google , 2015).
What do you think – is it true?
The American answer:
The European answer:
Ultimately, there are just a few things for us to learn from reading about Browne.
- There was a rise in the popularity of critical thinking in the mid-seventeenth century.
- In the seventeenth century, some people still believed in unicorns, griffins and phoenixes.
- We shouldn’t laugh at that too hard because we’re not immune to believing in myths today.
Google (2015) “daddy long legs are venomous” (address: https://www.google.com/search?%22daddy+long+legs+are+venomous%22, accessed 17th May 2015).
Sayle C (1903) The Works of Thomas Browne, vol. 2. (Grant Richards, London)