In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used “imaginary illustrations” to develop his case for natural selection: “In order to make it clear how, as I believe, natural selection acts, I must beg permission to give one or two imaginary illustrations.”
The use of imaginary tales can be traced back to Greek mythology. Thales of Miletus (640–545 BC) reasoned that “all things are water,” and that the Earth rests on water and life originates from water. Anaximander (610–546 BC), a student of Miletus, extended his theory by claiming the “life had evolved from moisture”; and that “man developed from fish”—the origin of the mermaid myth.
In 1842 English naturalist “Dr. J. Griffin”, a member of the British Lyceum of Natural History, arrived in New York City bearing a remarkable curiosity—a real mermaid allegedly caught near the Fiji Islands in the South Pacific. The mermaid became most popularly known as the “FeeJee Mermaid”.
The New York Sun on August 5, 1842 ran the story, “We’ve seen it! What? Why that Mermaid! The mischief you have! Where? What is it? It’s twin sister to the deucedest looking thing imaginable—half fish, half flesh; and ‘taken by and large,’ the most odd of all oddities earth or sea has ever produced”—evidence for evolution.
“Dr. Griffin” argued that mermaids are real since all things on land have their counterpart in the ocean—sea horses, sea lions, sea dogs, etc.
The showman P.T. Barnum promoted the mermaid exhibit at the American Museum in New York City with the woodcut print of the beautiful, bare-breasted mermaids—illustrated above. The FeeJee Mermaid exhibit was an instant sensation, attendance tripled—the talk of the city.
During the nineteenth century, in Darwin’s words, the topic is evolution was “in the air”. Barnum’s mermaids seemed to support Darwin’s theory of evolution. Finally, in 1872 the British Parliament commissioned the HMS Challenger on the first international expedition to circumference the globe in search of Darwin’s missing links in the ocean. The search for mermaids was formally launched.
Darwin aligned with Barnum and popular Greek philosophy. For Darwin, the two large sea mammals, the Halithermium and the Zeuglodon, seemed to be logical transitional links to man, forerunners of the elusive mermaid. When the HMS Challenger report was finally released in 1895, however, the nearly 30,000-page report found no evidence for Darwin’s imagined missing transitional links. Not a single mermaid was caught.
Barnum’s mermaid exhibit had not faired any better. After visiting the P.T. Barnum museum in 1842, a Charleston Courier correspondent reported, “Of one allusion… the sight of the wonder has forever robbed us — we shall never again discourse, even in poesy, of mermaid beauty, nor woo a mermaid even in our dreams — for the FeeJee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.”
Rather than a beautiful mermaid, the correspondent saw a clever hoax: an upper half of a monkey fabricated with a bottom half of a fish, see second illustration. Barnum cashed-in on the fraud.
Amazingly, in January 2011 the widely circulated magazine Scientific American in the evolutionary section, featured an story entitled “Getting a Leg Up on Evolution–the Comic Book Version,” with the subtitle “A graphic tour of how we humans came to be, through the eyes of space aliens Bloort and Prince Floorsh” by Jay Hosler of Juniata College, cartoonists Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon.
The comic opens with a conversation between two sea creatures: the Prince and Bloort:
Prince Floorsh asks: Bloort, I thought we were going to see the humans?
Bloort replies: We are, Your Majesty.
Prince Floorsh asks: Then why are we still standing in this holographic Earth water? I thought humans lived on land.
Bloort replies: They do, Your Highness, but I wanted to start a little earlier, when the first vertebrate crawled out of the water.
Like “Dr Griffin”, P.T. Barnum, and Charles Darwin, Scientific America entered the imaginary mermaid zone to promote that presumed “facts of evolution” rather than the ever elusive scientific evidence.
In the words of Australian journalist Suzan Mazur in the book The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry, “Evolutionary science is as much about the posturing, salesmanship, stonewalling, and bullying that goes on as it is about actual scientific theory… In short, it’s a modern day quest for the holy grail, but with few knights. At a time that calls for scientific vision, scientific inquiry’s been hijacked by an industry of greed, with evolution books hyped like snake oil at a carnival.”
References available upon request