The Making of the Eye

by Sir Charles Sherrington

This is the finest description I’ve read of the wonder of life. It’s long, but oh-so worth it. I’ve included this extract in full because it’s a story everyone should read at least once, just to taste the sheer miraculousness of it. The English physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) won a Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work on the nervous system of mammals. Experimenting on cats, dogs, monkeys and apes that had had their cerebral hemispheres removed, he showed that reflexes must be regarded as integrated activities of the whole organism. He coined the words ‘neuron’ and ‘synapse’ to mean the nerve cell and the point at which the nervous impulse is transmitted from one cell to another. His book Man and His Nature (1940) presents man – both mind and body – as the product of natural forces acting upon the materials of our planet. This extract is from the second edition, 1951.

The eye
Can then physics and chemistry out of themselves explain that a pin’s-head ball of cells in the course of so many weeks becomes a child? They more than hint that they can. A highly competent observer, after watching a motion-film photo-record taken with the microscope of a cell-mass in the process of making bone, writes: ‘Team-work by the cell-masses. Chalky spicules of bone-in-the-making shot across the screen, as if labourers were raising scaffold-poles. The scene suggested purposive behaviour by individual cells, and still more by colonies of cells arranged as tissues and organs.’[1] That impression of concerted endeavour comes, it is no exaggeration to say, with the force of a self-evident truth. The story of the making of the eye carries a like inference.

The eye’s parts are familiar even apart from technical knowledge and have evident fitness for their special uses. The likeness to an optical camera is plain beyond seeking. If a craftsman sought to construct an optical camera, let us say for photography, he would turn for his materials to wood and metal and glass. He would not expect to have to provide the actual motor power adjusting the focal length or the size of the aperture admitting light. He would leave the motor power out. If told to relinquish wood and metal and glass and to use instead some albumen, salt and water, he certainly would not proceed even to begin. Yet this is what that little pin’s-head bud of multiplying cells, the starting embryo, proceeds to do. And in a number of weeks it will have all ready. I call it a bud, but it is a system separate from that of its parent, although feeding itself on juices from its mother. And the eye it is going to make will be made out of those juices. Its whole self is at its setting out not one ten-thousandth part the size of the eye-ball it sets about to produce. Indeed it will make two eyeballs built and finished to one standard so that the mind can read their two pictures together as one. The magic in those juices goes by the chemical names, protein, sugar, fat, salts, water. Of them 80 per cent is water.

Water is the great menstruum of ‘life’. It makes life possible. It was part of the plot by which our planet engendered life. Every egg-cell is mostly water, and water is its first habitat. Water it turns to endless purposes; mechanical support and bed for its membranous sheets as they form and shape and fold. The early embryo is largely membranes. Here a particular piece grows fast because its cells do so. There it bulges or dips, to do this or that or simply to find room for itself. At some other centre of special activity the sheet will thicken. Again at some other place it will thin and form a hole. That is how the mouth, which at first leads nowhere, presently opens into the stomach. In the doing of all this, water is a main means.

Dragonfly eye2 Dragonfly’s eyes.
The eye-ball is a little camera. Its smallness is part of its perfection. A spheroid camera. There are not many anatomical organs where exact shape counts for so much as with the eye. Light which will enter the eye will traverse a lens placed in the right position there. Will traverse; all this making of the eye which will see in the light is carried out in the dark. It is a preparing in darkness for use in light. The lens required is biconvex and to be shaped truly enough to focus its pencil of light at the particular distance of the sheet of photosensitive cells at the back, the retina. The biconvex lens is made of cells, like those of the skin but modified to be glass-clear. It is delicately slung with accurate centring across the path of the light which will in due time some months later enter the eye. In front of it a circular screen controls, like the iris-stop of a camera or microscope, the width of the beam and is adjustable, so that in a poor light more is taken for the image. In microscope, or photographic camera, this adjustment is made by the observer working the instrument. In the eye this adjustment is automatic, worked by the image itself!

The lens and screen cut the chamber of the eye into a front half and a back half, both filled with clear humour, practically water, kept under a certain pressure maintaining the eye-ball’s right shape. The front chamber is completed by a layer of skin specialised to be glass clear and free from blood-vessels which if present would with their blood throw shadows within the eye. This living glass-clear sheet is covered with a layer of tear-water constantly renewed. This tear-water has the special chemical power of killing germs which might inflame the eye. This glass-clear bit of skin has only one of the fourfold set of the skin-senses; its touch is always ‘pain’, for it should not be touched. The skin above and below this window grows into movable flaps, dry outside like ordinary skin, but moist inside so as to wipe the window clean every minute or so from any specks of dust, by painting over it fresh tear-water.

The light-sensitive screen at the back is the key-structure. It registers a continually changing picture. It receives, takes and records a moving picture life-long without change of ‘plate’, through every waking day. It signals its shifting exposures to the brain.

This camera also focuses itself automatically, according to the distance of the picture interesting it. It makes its lens ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ as required. This camera also turns itself in the direction of the view required. It is moreover contrived as though with forethought of self-preservation. Should danger threaten, in a moment its skin shutters close protecting its transparent window. And the whole structure, with its prescience and all its efficiency, is produced by and out of specks of granular slime arranging themselves as of their own accord in sheets and layers and acting seemingly on an agreed plan. That done, and their organ complete, they abide by what they have accomplished. They lapse into relative quietude and change no more. It all sounds an unskilful overstated tale which challenges belief. But to faithful observation so it is. There is more yet.

The little hollow bladder of the embryo-brain, narrowing itself at two points so as to be triple, thrusts from its foremost chamber to either side a hollow bud. This bud pushes toward the overlying skin. That skin, as though it knew and sympathized, then dips down forming a cuplike hollow to meet the hollow brain-stalk growing outward. They meet. The round end of the hollow brain-bud dimples inward and becomes a cup. Concurrently, the ingrowth from the skin nips itself free from its original skin. It rounds itself into a hollow ball, lying in the mouth of the brain-cup. Of this stalked cup, the optic cup, the stalk becomes in a few weeks a cable of a million nerve-fibres connecting the nerve-cells within the eye-ball itself with the brain. The optic cup, at first just a two-deep layer of somewhat simple-looking cells, multiplies its layers at the bottom of the cup where, when light enters the eye – which will not be for some weeks yet – the photo-image will in due course lie. There the layer becomes a fourfold layer of great complexity. It is strictly speaking a piece of the brain lying within the eye-ball. Indeed the whole brain itself, traced back to its embryonic beginning, is found to be all of a piece with the primordial skin – a primordial gesture as if to inculcate Aristotle’s maxim about sense and mind.

The deepest cells at the bottom of the cup become a photo-sensitive layer – the sensitive film of the camera. If light is to act on the retina – and it is from the retina that light’s visual effect is known to start – it must be absorbed there. In the retina a delicate purplish pigment absorbs incident light and is bleached by it, giving a light-picture. The photo-chemical effect generates nerve-currents running to the brain.

The nerve-lines connecting the photo-sensitive layer with the brain are not simple. They are in series of relays. It is the primitive cells of the optic cup, they and their progeny, which become in a few weeks these relays resembling a little brain, and each and all so shaped and connected as to transmit duly to the right points of the brain itself each light-picture momentarily formed and ‘taken’. On the sense-cell layer the ‘image’ has, picture-like, two dimensions. These space-relations ‘reappear’ in the mind; hence we may think their data in the picture are in some way preserved in the electrical patterning of the resultant disturbance in the brain. But reminding us that the step from electrical disturbance in the brain to the mental experience is the mystery it is, the mind adds the third dimension when interpreting the two dimensional picture! Also it adds colour; in short it makes a three dimensional visual scene out of an electrical disturbance.

All this the cells lining the primitive optic cup have, so to say, to bear in mind, when laying these lines down. They lay them down by becoming them themselves.

Cajal, the gifted Spanish neurologist, gave special study to the retina and its nerve- lines to the brain. He turned to the insect-eye thinking the nerve-lines there ‘in relative simplicity’ might display schematically, and therefore more readably, some general plan which Nature adopts when furnishing animal kind with sight. After studying it for two years this is what he wrote:

The complexity of the nerve-structures for vision is even in the insect something incredibly stupendous. From the insect’s faceted eye proceeds an inextricable criss-cross of excessively slender nerve-fibres. These then plunge into a cell-labyrinth which doubtless serves to integrate what comes from the retinal layers. Next follow a countless host of amacrine cells and with them again numberless centrifugal fibres. All these elements are moreover so small the highest powers of the modern microscope hardly avail for following them. The intricacy of the connexions defies description, before it the mind halts, abased. In tenuis labor. Peering through the microscope into this Lilliputian life one wonders whether what we disdainfully term ‘instinct’ (Bergson’s ‘intuition’) is not, as Jules Fabre claims, life’s crowning mental gift. Mind with instant and decisive action, the mind which in these tiny and ancient beings reached its blossom ages ago and earliest of all.

Fly's eye Fly’s eyes.
... The human eye has about 137 million separate ‘seeing’ elements spread out in the sheet of the retina. The number of nerve-lines leading from them to the brain gradually condenses down to little over a million. Each of these has in the brain, we must think, to find its right nerve-exchanges. Those nerve-exchanges lie far apart, and are but stations on the way to further stations. The whole crust of the brain is one thick tangled jungle of exchanges and of branching lines going thither and coming thence. As the eye’s cup develops into the nervous retina all this intricate orientation to locality is provided for by corresponding growth in the brain. To compass what is needed adjacent cells, although sister and sister, have to shape themselves quite differently the one from the other. Most become patterned filaments, set lengthwise in the general direction of the current of travel. But some thrust out arms laterally as if to embrace together whole cables of the conducting system.

Nervous ‘conduction’ is transmission of nervous signals, in this case to the brain. There is also another nervous process, which physiology was slower to discover. Activity at this or that point in the conducting system, where relays are introduced, can be decreased even to suppression. This lessening is called inhibition; it occurs in the retina as elsewhere. All this is arranged for by the developing eye-cup when preparing and carrying out its million-fold connections with the brain for the making of a seeing eye. Obviously there are almost illimitable opportunities for a false step. Such a false step need not count at the time because all that we have been considering is done months or weeks before the eye can be used. Time after time so perfectly is all performed that the infant eye is a good and fitting eye, and the mind soon is instructing itself and gathering knowledge through it. And the child’s eye is not only an eye true to the human type, but an eye with personal likeness to its individual parent’s. The many cells which made it have executed correctly a multitudinous dance engaging millions of performers in hundreds of sequences of particular different steps, differing for each performer according to his part. To picture the complexity and the precision beggars any imagery I have. But it may help us to think further.

There is too that other layer of those embryonic cells at the back of the eye. They act as the dead black lining of the camera; they with their black pigment kill any stray light which would blur the optical image. They can shift their pigment. In full daylight they screen, and at night they unscreen, as wanted, the special seeing elements which serve for seeing in dim light. These are the cells which manufacture the purple pigment, ‘visual purple’, which sensitizes the eye for seeing in low light.

Then there is that little ball of cells which migrated from the skin and thrust itself into the mouth of the eye-stalk from the brain. It makes a lens there; it changes into glass-clear fibres, grouped with geometrical truth, locking together by toothed edges. The pencil of light let through must come to a point at the right distance for the length of the eye-ball which is to be. Not only must the lens be glass-clear but its shape must be optically right, and its substance must have the right optical refractive index. That index is higher than that of anything else which transmits light in the body. Its two curved surfaces back and front must be truly centred on one and the right axis, and each of the sub-spherical curvatures must be curved to the right degree, so that, the refractive index being right, light is brought to a focus on the retina and gives there a shaped image. The optician obtains glass of the desired refractive index and skilfully grinds its curvatures in accordance with the mathematical formulae required. With the lens of the eye, a batch of granular skin-cells are told off to travel from the skin to which they strictly belong, to settle down in the mouth of the optic cup, to arrange themselves in a compact and suitable ball, to turn into transparent fibres, to assume the right refractive index, and to make themselves into a subsphere with two correct curvatures truly centred on a certain axis. Thus it is they make a lens of the right size, set in the right place, that is, at the right distance behind the transparent window of the eye in front and the sensitive seeing screen of the retina behind. In short they behave as if fairly possessed.

I would not give a wrong impression. The optical apparatus of the eye is not all turned out with a precision equal to that of a first-rate optical workshop. It has defects which disarm the envy of the optician. It is rather as though the planet, producing all this as it does, worked under limitations. Regarded as a planet which ‘would’, we yet find it no less a planet whose products lie open to criticism. On the other hand, in this very matter of the eye the process of its construction seems to seize opportunities offered by the peculiarity in some ways adverse of the material it is condemned to use. It extracts from the untoward situation practical advantages for its instrument which human craftsmanship could never in that way provide. Thus the cells composing the core of this living lens are denser than those at the edge. This corrects a focussing defect inherent in ordinary glass-lenses. Again, the lens of the eye, compassing what no glass-lens can, changes its curvature to focus near objects as well as distant when wanted for instance, when we read. An elastic capsule is spun over it and is arranged to be eased by a special muscle. Further, the pupil – the camera stop – is self-adjusting. All this without our having even to wish it; without even our knowing anything about it, beyond that we are seeing satisfactorily.

The making of this eye out of self-actuated specks which draw together and multiply and move as if obsessed with one desire namely to make the eye-ball. In a few weeks they have done so. Then, their madness over, they sit down and rest, satisfied to be life-long what they have made themselves, and, so to say, wait for death.

The chief wonder of all we have not touched on yet. Wonder of wonders, though familiar even to boredom. So much with us that we forget it all our time. The eye sends, as we saw, in to the cell-and-fibre forest of the brain throughout the waking day continual rhythmic streams of tiny, individually evanescent, electrical potentials. This throbbing streaming crowd of electrified shifting points in the spongework of the brain bears no obvious semblance in space-pattern, and even in temporal relation resembles but a little remotely the tiny two dimensional upside-down picture of the outside world which the eyeball paints on the beginnings of its nerve-fibres to the brain. But that little picture sets up an electrical storm. And that electrical storm so set up is one which affects a whole population of brain-cells, Electrical charges having in themselves not the faintest elements of the visual – having, for instance, nothing of ‘distance’, ‘right-side-upness”, nor ‘vertical’, nor ‘horizontal’, nor ‘colour’, nor ‘brightness’, nor ‘shadow’, nor ‘roundness’, nor ‘squareness”, nor contour’, nor ‘transparency’, nor ‘opacity’, nor ‘near’, nor ‘far’, nor visual anything – conjure up all these. A shower of little electrical leaks conjures up for me, when I look, the landscape; the castle on the height, or, when I look at him, my friend’s face, and how distant he is from me they tell me. Taking their word for it, I go forward and my other senses confirm that he is there.

It is a case of ‘the world is too much with us’; too banal to wonder at. Those other things we paused over, the building and shaping of the eye-ball, and the establishing of its nerve connections with the right points of the brain, all those other things and the rest pertaining to them we called in chemistry and physics and final causes to explain to us. And they did so, with promise of more help to come.

But this last, not the eye, but the ‘seeing’ by the brain behind the eye? Physics and chemistry there are silent to our every question. All they say to us is that the brain is theirs, that without the brain which is theirs the seeing is not. But as to how? They vouchsafe us not a word.

Source: Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature, 2nd edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1951. Taken from the Faber Book of Science, edited by John Carey.

[1] E.G.Drury, Psyche and the Physiologists and other Essays on Sensation (London 1938), p.4.

A tortoise crosses the road

From John Steinbeck’sSteinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

This story is a metaphor in which Steinbeck compares the easygoing, patient, persistent land turtle, or tortoise, with the dirt-poor, downtrodden farmers of the dustbowl seeking a better life in the far West. I so admire the turtle and how it keeps going. And Steinbeck’s description of it, of course.

John Steinbeck, 1902 to 1968.

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement,

The sun lay on the grass and warmed it, and in the shade under the grass the insects moved, ants and ant lions to set traps for them, grasshoppers to jump into the air and flick their yellow wings for a second, sow bugs like little armadillos, plodding restlessly on many tender feet. And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.
Land turtle

The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead. He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment. Front clawed feet reached forward but did not touch. The hind feet kicked his shell along, and it scraped on the grass, and on the gravel. As the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle. Pushing hind legs strained and slipped, boosting the shell along, and the horny head protruded as far as the neck could stretch. Little by little the shell slid up the embankment until at last a parapet cut straight across its line of march, the shoulder of the road, a concrete wall four inches high. As though they worked independently the hind legs pushed the shell against the wall. The head upraised and peered over the wall to the broad smooth plain of cement. Now the hands, braced on top of the wall, strained and lifted, and the shell came slowly up and rested its front end on the wall. For a moment the turtle rested. A red ant ran into the shell, into the soft skin inside the shell, and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armored tail clamped in sideways. The red ant was crushed between body and legs. And one head of wild oats was clamped into the shell by a front leg. For a long moment the turtle lay still and then the neck crept out and the old humorous frowning eyes looked about and the legs and tail came out. The back legs went to work, straining like elephant legs, and the shell tipped to an angle so that the front legs could not reach the level cement plain. But higher and higher the hind legs boosted it, until at last the center of balance was reached, the front tipped down, the front legs scratched at the pavement, and it was up. But the head of wild oats was held by its stem around the front legs.

Now the going was easy, and all the legs worked, and the shell boosted along, waggling from side to side. A sedan driven by a forty-year old woman approached. She saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up, two wheels lifted for a moment and then settled, the car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.

And now a light truck approached, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it. His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway. The truck went back to its course along the right side. Lying on its back, the turtle was tight in its shell for a long time. But at last its legs waved in the air, reaching for something to pull it over. Its front foot caught a piece of quartz and little by little the shell pulled over and flopped upright. The wild oat head fell out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds. The turtle entered a dust road and jerked itself along, drawing a wavy shallow trench in the dust with its shell. The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust. 

Rough sex down by the river

A brutal encounter sets the wind among the willows.
by Ken Burnett


Jonathan Swift once said ‘Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.’ I like this story because it allows me to show the potential for observation in everyday things. It comes from my book The Field by the River and was originally titled The rape of the banded demoiselle. Early one July I saw this extraordinary encounter and I wrote it down on the spot. Afterwards, as I read about these delicate insects and their habits, I found all other accounts without exception were sterile and restrained by comparison. Perhaps in describing this as rape I’m over-anthropomorphising the actions of the male demoiselles. Such encounters may indeed just be normal. But I merely report what I saw and how it struck me at the time.

Sex in the world of insects is often rough, frequently not consensual. The damselfly is a favourite insect for me, and particularly among that grouping, I like the banded demoiselle.

The female of the species is slight, delicate, almost transparent; she has none of the bright, gaudy displays of her larger mate, being coloured a dull green with translucent wings, making her hard to spot. But the male of the species knows what he’s looking for and can spot her easily.

He is larger, stronger and much more brightly coloured. The one I observed was a brilliant shimmering blue with darker blue markings across his four splendid wings. His body is thicker than hers and longer too, powerful, pliable and very strong.


Watching insects have sex is a strange pastime. The thing about Peeping Toms is they should aspire not to be seen, but I can hardly avoid it. And Peeping Tom seems a strange name to give a chap when his leering visage must seem to the two sweaty beasts shagging about four inches away to loom like Jupiter seen from its moons, occupying at least a third of their available sky.

There are numerous damselflies and other winged travellers around at the water’s edge now. The female I’ve spotted has also attracted the attentions of a group of idly hovering males. Though all seem interested, one is more attentive and persistent than the rest. 

Congress can only commence when the male has trapped the female, often after a tiring chase. The chase begins at a dizzying pace with twists, turns and pirouettes up, down and sideways around the plant strewn riverbank above and across the rocks at the water’s edge. But there’s only one possible end as the male traps the female on the ground, asserting his mastery by fixing his abdomen firmly around the back of her neck. No female can resist the power of that grip. This is about control, domination and subjugation. The male then grasps and mounts his paramour and there’s nothing gentle or discreet about what he does, from here on it’s rough full-on sex, no pretence at otherwise.

After flying in tandem for a while the pair adopt what’s called the wheel position, where he holds her firmly by the neck, forcing her onto his secondary genitals. Dragonflies and damselflies are unique in that males have two sets of genitals. To fertilise his mate the male must first pass a sperm packet from his primary genitals, located at the end of his abdomen, to the secondary genitals at the top of his abdomen, just above the chest. These have hook-like grippers attached, designed for holding her firmly. Here he has to attach her genitals – just one set she has, at the end of her abdomen, which is now curled up and held against his chest, ready for the deed.

Penetration is rough and determined. In some damselfly males the tip of the whiplike penis is equipped with spines for scouring out the genital tract of the female, to remove the sperm of any other males. 

So, no gentle foreplay here. Of course it occurs to me that despite the apparent brutality the female demoiselle, while not actually enjoying it, might at least be OK. Given her contortions I conclude that this is unlikely. The female is bent over backwards and upside down, pinned down and forced to offer herself to her assailant.

From time to time throughout their vigorous coupling the male appears to pause to mop his brow, brushing his antennae with a loose forearm. The female stays trapped beneath, inverted and held in a vicelike grip while the male thrusts deeply, vigorously, rhythmically, urgently and with scant regard for his subservient partner.

At last the satiated male releases his grip and his victim is set free. It seems to take her some time to recover, while he saunters off to a nearby leaf where he sits, nay reclines, basking in the sunlight, seemingly more than a little pleased with himself – the boy done good.

Having painfully straightened her bruised and sore abdomen, she is having trouble getting her wings to work. The right wings have been bent sideways. For a while it looks like she might be unable to fly. Having forgotten the encounter already the male now moves off, in the insect equivalent of a post-coital fag, to lounge on a nearby leaf. But two more likely lads hove in view and quickly spot the weakened and disabled female, dishevelled but obviously still at least a bit alluring and fair game to her opposite sex. Eagerly they swoop and a second desperate chase begins among the ferns, with again only one possible outcome. A second rape appears inevitable and it’s unlikely to be more considerate of the female than was the first.

Of course there’s nothing to suggest that the apparent abuse I witnessed was her first or even second coupling that morning. The male who inseminates her just before she lays her eggs will be the one who gets to spread his genes. She, poor creature, has no option other than to submit to him and all others before him.


Such is the lot of the female banded demoiselle. Tempting though it is to intervene, I’ll resist and leave the banded demoiselles to their own devices, which inevitably means to the less than tender care of their males.



A salamander, c. mid 1990s

By Kang Cheol-hwan.

Yodok Salamander
Kang Cheol-hwan described his years in Yodok, political prison camp 15, North Korea, in a press ad for Amnesty International, 21 February 2014.

Mothers tried to keep their children alive by catching pregnant rats. The placentas and tiny foetuses made rich eating and were thought to cure disease.

Kang caught frogs and worms, snakes and centipedes and learned to relish salamanders, which were thought to provide the vitamins needed for survival, but his first attempt to eat one was a failure.

‘I pushed it into my mouth, but could not swallow. The creature was struggling to get out of my mouth. I was frightened, I closed my eyes and bit it hard. My mouth was suddenly full of bitter and stinking juice and I had to spit it out.’

A friend taught Kang that the only way to eat one was to hold the tail and gulp it down.


The gorilla

In the 1860s Africa was still the dark continent. Though it’s shocking to us now to read of our ancestors stumbling around the jungle blasting at pretty much everything that moved, it’s easy to forget that these were different times with different values and priorities. Still this account of the killing of a great ape is shocking. It comes in the final page of a Herculean work of natural history compiled from submissions by the leading naturalists and explorers of the day. It is added as a single last entry, almost as if it’s a STOP PRESS late discovery. In reproducing it here we have tried to keep as close as possible to the layout and style of the original which, though in two columns, has no paragraph breaks.

From A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, Part 1, by Oliver Goldsmith et al, published by W G Blackie & Co, Glasgow, 1867.

The interest excited in the natural history of the Gorilla, or Great Chimpanzee, while the latter pages of this work are passing through the press, by the publication of M Du Chaillu’s Exploration and Adventures in Equatorial Africa, will justify the occupation of a spare corner, by a brief notice of that formidable species of the simial tribe. The Troglodytes gorilla has long been known to naturalists, although it was not till the year 1848 that Professor Owen gave to the world a correct description of the animal, specimens of the skeleton of which had been obtained from the Gaboon river, and which much exceeded in size, and was found to be specifically distinct from the previously known T. niger, the Chimpanzee, or Black Orang, known in its young state also by the name of Jocko. Fresh specimens of the gorilla having been brought to this country by M. Du Chaillu, professor Owen has been able to determine still more satisfactorily the distinctive characters of this huge man-like ape. M. Du Chaillu’s account of the habits of the animal has been subjected to considerable freedom of criticism, and the accuracy of his observations has been discredited by several naturalists; ·but his descriptions can hardly fail to interest the general reader. During his African researches he had long been in quest of the gorilla, and had endured many disappointments, when at length he made the acquaintance of the animal under the following circumstances: – ‘Suddenly,’ he says,  ‘I was startled by a strange, discordant, half-human, devilish cry, and beheld four young gorillas running toward the deep forests. We fired, but hit nothing. Then we rushed on in pursuit, but they knew the woods better than we. Once I caught a glimpse of one of the animals again, but an intervening tree spoiled my mark, and I did not fire. We ran till we were exhausted, but in vain. The alert beasts made good their escape. I protest I felt almost like a murderer when I saw the gorillas this first time. As they ran on their hind legs, they looked fearfully like hairy men; their heads down, their bodies inclined forward their whole appearance like men running for their lives. Take with this their awful cry, which, fierce and animal as it is, has yet something human in its discordance, and you will cease to wonder that the natives have the wildest superstitions about those ‘wild men of the woods.’ A closer acquaintance speedily followed. The traveller thus describes the exciting incidents of that occasion: ‘The underbrush swayed rapidly just ahead, and presently before us stood an immense male gorilla. He had gone through the jungle on his all-fours, but when he saw our party, he erected himself, and looked us boldly in the face. He stood about a dozen yards from us, and was a sight I think I shall never forget. Nearly six feet high (he proved four inches shorter), with immense body, chest, and great muscular arms, with fiercely glaring large deep gray eyes, and a hellish expression of face, which seemed to me like some nightmare vision; thus stood before us this king of the African forest. He was not afraid of us. He stood there, and beat his breast with his huge fists, till it resounded like an immense bass-drum, which is their mode of offering defiance, meantime giving vent to roar after roar. The roar of the gorilla is the most singular and awful noise heard in these African woods. It begins with a sharp bark, like an angry dog, then glides into a deep bass roll, which literally and closely resembles the roll of distant thunder along the sky, for which I have sometimes been tempted to take it where I did not see the animal. His eyes began to flash fiercer fire as we stood motionless on the defensive, and the crest of short hair which stands on his forehead began to twitch rapidly up and down, while his powerful fangs were shown as he again sent forth a thunderous roar. And now truly he reminded me of nothing but some hellish dream creature  – a being of that hideous order, half-man, half-beast, which we find pictured by old artists in some representations of the infernal regions. He advanced a few steps, then stopped to utter that hideous roar again, advanced again, and finally stopped when at a distance of about six yards from us. And here, just as he began another of his roars, beating his breast in rage, we fired, and killed him. With a groan which had something terribly human in it, and yet was full of brutishness, he fell forward on his face. The body shook convulsively for a few minutes, the limbs moved about in a struggling way, and then all was quiet-death had done its work, and I had leisure to examine the huge body. It proved to be five feet eight inches high, and the muscular development of the arms and breasts showed what immense strength it had possessed.’ M. Du Chaillu also describes how one of the negroes of his escort was killed by a gorilla: ‘He said that he had met the gorilla suddenly, and face to face, and that it had not attempted to escape. It was, he said, a huge male, and seemed very savage. He said he took good aim, and fired when the beast was only about eight yards off. The ball merely wounded it in the side. It at once began beating its breasts, and with the greatest rage advanced upon him.’ The negro reloaded his gun, but the animal sprang upon him, dashed the gun out of his hands, and striking him with its immense paw, lacerated the abdomen, and laid bare the intestines. As the man sank bleeding to the ground, the monster seized the gun, and flattened the barrel between his jaws. When the party came upon the ground, the dying man was alone, the gorilla having fled.

The Gorilla

A salamander, 1505.

by Benvenuto Cellini.

This story recounts a curious incident in the life of a great man, though it was written when he was a child. I’ve included it because of the curious way the father ensures that his child learns from a singular experience.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) was a sculptor, painter, soldier and musician. Perhaps his most famous artwork is the statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa which stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi gallery on the edge of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence;

When I was about five years old my father happened to be in a basement chamber of our house, where they had been washing, and where a good fire of oak logs was still burning; he had a viol in his hand, and was playing and singing alone beside the fire. The weather was very cold. Happening to look into the fire, he spied in the middle of those most burning flames a little creature like a lizard, which was sporting in the core of the intensest coals.

Becoming instantly aware of what the thing was, he had my sister and me called, and pointing it out to us children, gave me a great box on the ears, which caused me to howl and weep with all my might. Then he pacified me good-humouredly, and spoke as follows: ‘My dear little boy, I am not striking you for any wrong that you have done, but only to make you remember that that lizard which you see in the fire is a salamander, a creature which has never been seen before by anyone of whom we have credible information.’ So saying, he kissed me and gave me some pieces of money.