Review: The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lou Shinn in Sci Fi Land
Work under Review
Ever since Darwin's Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has been the subject of parodies. In particular the descent of humans from apes has been humorously treated in cartoons, verse, and literary sketches. An early classic of evolution parody was Charles Kingsley's description of the clash between Richard Owen and TH Huxley over the proximity between apes and humans, which clash centered on a brain structure called "hippocampus minor."In reaction to the Huxley–Owen "tournament" Kingsley wrote "a little squib for circulation among his friends," entitled "speech of Lord Dundreary ...on the great hippocampus question" in which the noble lord,who had been to Eton where he had been switched for getting his Latin wrong, "accurately" expresses the general sense of the issue by confusing a hippocampus with a hippopotamus. Some of the same material went into The Water Babies in which Kingsley created an amalgam of Owen and Huxley in the character of "Professor Ptthmllnsprts" (Putthem- all-in-spirits).
Almost a century later appeared what surely must be the all-time classic of evolution parody, Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia (1957), published pseudonymously by Harald Stümpke.The booklet was translated into several languages, including English as The Snouters (1967; 1982). Its author, the Karlsruhe University zoologist Gerolf Steiner, invented the Rhinogradentia or "nose walkers," an order of mammals, discovered on a group of islands in the South Pacific, the Hi-Iay Islands. The animals are characterized by highly specialized nasal organs, used mainly for locomotion, but also for food gathering and other purposes. The spoof made light of certain iconic elements in the narrative tradition of Darwinism.
Half a century on, The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lu Shinn more comprehensively takes aim at evolution theory in the form of a capricious history of evolutionary theory from Darwin till today. Concepts such as evolution and natural selection appear as real people (or gods and goddesses), disguised in word play alterations. For those who do not recognize which concept or historical person is hidden behind the name, a cast of characters at the end explains all. Few readers will have difficulty identifying Nat Selleck, Eva Lou Shinn, and Randy Verry A Shinn, nor will they be mystified by Charles Durwen, Chuck Loyall, Terrible Tom Huxtable, and Ernie Heckler. Less obvious is Lorenzo the Magnificent (Konrad Lorenz), included in the story for his promulgation of Aryan race ideology.
As the story develops, the spoof increasingly changes into an instrument of criticism of Darwin-related theories, especially when the narrative arrives at contemporary figures such as Will Edson (Edward Wilson) and Dick Dockins (Richard Dawkins) who turned to the goddess Cultura for help in the distressing situation of Homer Sapp (Homo sapiens) merely being a temporary vehicle for Selfish Gene's journey into the future. From Cultura's
ample skirts issued forth a miasma of memes ready to infect Homer Sapp's brain ... Truth to say, Homer Sapp was in parlous condition, enslaved in body and mind by imperious genes and memes. But his case was not hopeless, said Dockins. Enlightened and encouraged by Scienza, he could throw off the shackles locked on by Selfish Gene, disinfect his brain of religious fantasies and metaphysical moonbeams, and learn to behave like an English gentleman, cooperating generously and unselfishly for the common good. (p 59–60)
What is the purpose of this spoof, apart from humorous entertainment? Parodies, we know, have often functioned as means of subtle criticism. Kingsley, in his rendition of the Owen–Huxley fight over the relation of humans to apes, indicated that more than scientific disagreement was involved and that personal rivalry added much fuel to the fire. Both sides in the controversy were doused with a bucket full of irony.A similar intent seems present in The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lu Shinn. Water gets poured over the combatants, the winners and the losers, the great and the small, the atheistic and the religious, the liberal and the conservative — although Dick Dockins and allied evolutionary psychologists get an extra dousing. The story ends with the Darwin year 2009, when a voice from heaven inquires "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ..." (Job 38:4). Keep an open mind — the author seems to indicate — for there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the certainties of entrenched positions.
Yet in order more precisely to understand this booklet's portent, it will be helpful to know who its author, A Nonimous, is. The reader may want to learn that he belongs to the generation of historians of science who professionalized the subject after World War II and is the author of many books, including a seminal study in the history of evolutionary biology, The Death of Adam (1959): John C Greene. Greene's importance for the subject as well as his particular approach and stance were celebrated with a festschrift in his honor, History, Humanity and Evolution (1989), edited by James Moore, who pointed out that a perennial concern in Greene's work has been the problem of constructing an evolutionary world view that does not cede the realm of human values to scientific expertise. This explains why the sarcasm of the parody is particularly biting when it treats of evolutionary psychology and Dockins's memes. The booklet is a cherry on the cake of Greene's impressive oeuvre and a welcome addition to the literary genre of scientific spoofs.
[The Wonderful Adventures of Nat Selleck and Eva Lou Shinn in Sci Fi Land is available from its publisher, Paige Press, a division of The Regina Group, PO Box 280, Claremont CA 91711
Institute for the History of Science
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Nicolaas Rupke is Professor of the History of Science and Director of the Institute for the History of Science at Göttingen University. His latest book is Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography, just released in paperback (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).