Thursday, 10 October 2019

When it rains conkers


In one of the most popular scenes in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice [1], Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) dived into the lake at Pemberley and then encountered Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) while walking back to the house. His swim was an invention, although the meeting at Pemberley does take place in the book, as does the introduction to Mr and Mrs Gardiner (Tim Wylton and Joanna David). In that dialogue, there is further invention when Mr Darcy relates that he used to run from Pemberley into Lambton (more than four miles!) as a boy to collect horse chestnuts from the tree on the green. It did seem an odd thing to do, but maybe there were no suitable horse chestnut trees on the Pemberley estate, despite its many acres of “some of the finest woods in the country” [1]?

The dialogue brought fond memories of playing conkers to all of us who watched the programme: collecting the conkers; making a hole through the “best” ones with a meat skewer; and threading through a piece of strong and knotting its end. Then heading for the playground to try and demolish someone else’s conker by swiping at it with one’s own prized weapon, while avoiding, as much as possible, sore knuckles from an opponent’s misguided shot. During these contests there was much chat of how to prepare the best conkers (with vinegar and baking), although the ones we used were not treated.




I was reminded of those times earlier this week as I walked across Boxmoor in Hertfordshire, that has a splendid avenue of horse chestnut (Aeschylus hippocastanum) trees (see above). It had been raining and there was a moderate breeze, with the result that conkers were falling constantly and I was grateful that my bald head was covered by a cloth cap (although none of them fell on me). There were conkers all over the path and the freshly-fallen ones had that lovely lustre of polished veneers that soon dies on exposure to the air. Each conker is different in shape and patterning and they are beautiful: they provide yet another aspect of the “mellow fruitfulness” of autumn and one which brings, for me, a child-like appreciation of the natural world.

Christian believers might suggest that this is something that God intended at the time of the Creation, but atheists are more likely to point to the evolution of the horse chestnut, that began many millions of years ago, way before the creatures that led to H. sapiens first appeared. Conkers are, of course the means of dispersal of future generations of trees and we probably all remember planting some in pots and watching shoots appear at the surface of the soil.

Earlier this year, an interesting paper on the horse chestnut appeared in the Journal of Ecology [2]. It is a comprehensive account, well worth reading for those who love these trees, and it includes the following information:

Aeschylus hippocastanum is native to the Balkan Peninsula in south-east Europe but has been widely planted in temperate areas from the 17th Century onwards..

..Horse chestnut is best known as a tree planted for ornamentation and shade in parks and streets, particularly by the Victorians, since little else can rival the sight of a horse-chestnut in full flower. Indeed, it was voted the UK’s favourite tree in 2017 in a poll run by the Royal Society of Biology. The British population is an estimated 470,000 trees.

Like many other trees, horse chestnuts are attacked by insects and by disease organisms [2]. Those having the greatest aesthetic impact are larvae of a leaf-mining moth, Cameraria ohridella, that first appeared in the late 1970s in Macedonia. They feed on the tissue inside the leaf and produce unsightly brown blotches that have the effect of colouring the whole tree through the summer months and into autumn. While these attacks reduce the ability of the tree to photosynthesise, and thus produce energy, the trees still produce conkers (if smaller and in lower numbers than in unaffected areas). It would be so sad if future generations were prevented from enjoying the appearance of these wonderful fruits, then gathering them for a game of conkers. Or is that the sentiment of an old man, out of touch with the modern age?


[1] Jane Austen (1813) Pride and Prejudice. London, T.Egerton.

[2] Peter A. Thomas, Omar Alhamd, Grzegorz Iszkulo, Monika Dering and Tarek A. Mukassabi (2019) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Aeschylus hippocastanum. Journal of Ecology 107:992-1030.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Watching starfish move


All of us who enjoy looking in coastal rock pools are pleased when we find a starfish sheltering under a stone, or under fronds of algae. When we pick up our specimen, we see that the undersides of its arms bear many tube feet that are used both in locomotion and also as a means of obtaining food. Their use is explained in the following video clip [1]:


In the Nineteenth Century, our knowledge of starfish locomotion was dependent on written accounts, aided by illustrations, and no-one was better at describing the animals of the shore than Philip Henry Gosse. In Land and Sea, Gosse writes of a visit to Meadfoot Beach in Torquay to explore the rock pools there (see below), a collecting site within easy walking distance of his home [2].


Gosse found a large starfish in the Meadfoot rock pools and moved it to another pool that provided a better chance of detailed study, as the animal was too large to take back to his aquarium. His description in Land and Sea [2] of its locomotion provides an interesting comparison with the video recording above. In reading it, we can admire Henry Gosse’s ability as a writer and it is easy to see how he was such an important figure in the development of the “Marine Biology Craze” of the Victorian era:

I mark it gliding smoothly, and with a moderate rapidity, over the unevenness of the rocky bottom, and notice the mechanism by which its progression is effected, I see at once that I have before me one of the great types of animal locomotion; a series of contrivances, by which a given end, that of voluntary change of place, is accomplished, which are quite sui generis; admirable in their adaptation to the prescribed end, but totally unlike the arrangements by which the same object is attained in higher forms of life..

..Each of the five thick and bluntly-pointed arms, or rays, of this star-like animal is seen to be indented on its underside by a rather wide and deep furrow, which extends from the hollow in the centre, where the mouth is seated, throughout its length, to the point. Along the floor of this groove we should see in the dead and dried animal four rows of minute perforations, running lengthwise. We cannot discern them directly during the living activity of the starfish, because the crowding sucker-feet conceal them. Each of these suckers is a tube of delicate membrane, a continuation of the common skin; and its interior accurately corresponds with one of these perforations in the skeleton..

..If we were to dissect this animal, we should find, on the interior surface of the semi-crustaceous integument of the arm, a little globular bag of similar transparent membrane, on each aperture, which opens into the cavity of the globe, just as on the outer side it opens into the tube. Thus there is a free intercommunication between the globose sac on the inside and the sucker-tube on the outside, through the tiny perforation in the crust. The interior is filled with a clear fluid, scarcely differing in its nature from sea-water. The globular sac within and the tube without are both composed of highly contractile tissue, under the control of the animal will.

Gosse goes on to describe the stepping motion of the tube feet, but does not describe the complete water vascular system, its connection to the surrounding sea water via the madreporite (the porous plate shown in the video), or the nervous system by which the movement of the tube feet is controlled. Being a devout Christian, he does, however, state:

Here we have one of the multitudinous results of the infinite Wisdom and almighty Power combined in creation. The problem is to endow with the faculty of voluntary locomotion a sentient creature which has no internal skeleton, and no limbs. It is solved in many ways in the invertebrate classes, and this is one example.

While writing this, Gosse was aware that there was a growing acceptance of the theory of evolution (Darwin having published On the Origin of Species in 1859), something which he vehemently opposed, as he believed in a literal interpretation of the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis. He looked upon the wonderful complexities of the natural world as the work of an all-powerful God.

I, too, am filled with amazement when looking at specimens of the same animals and plants that Gosse observed and this always presents a challenge. Coming back to the example of locomotion in starfish, I find myself trying to answer questions on how the water vascular system evolved – what were the various stages required and did they occur near-simultaneously, or gradually? Isn't the sense of wonder posed by such questions very similar to that Gosse felt about God's Creation?




[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co..


Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Pufflets, pimplets and muzzlets – Gosse and the common names of sea anemones



Philip Henry Gosse (above), together with his young son Edmund, moved to a new house in St Marychurch, Torquay in 1857. It was a tough year for him, as his wife, Emily, died of breast cancer and Omphalos, his book that attempted to resolve the conflict between Creation and the contemporary view of the geological record, was published to a hostile reception from all quarters. Against this background, Henry busied himself with collecting on the shore and working on describing the British sea anemones and corals. He published what was to become Actinologia Brittanica in 12 parts from 1858 to 1860 and the parts were gathered into a book that was published in 1860 [1,2]. I am fortunate to own a first edition of the book and I have also seen many of the original paintings by Gosse on which its illustrations are based [3].

To many, sea anemones and corals may seem an odd subject for study, yet these primitive animals fascinated many Victorian collectors and they gain their name because of their bright colours and the way they superficially resemble flowers. While those of scientific bent used a Latin binomial classification, others used the common names that are found in the book and which provide a splendid example of the richness of the English language. Gosse himself was aware of the colour provided by these names and, in the Preface of The Romance of Natural History [4], he wrote:  

In my many years’ wanderings through the wide field of natural history, I have always felt towards it something of a poet’s heart, though destitute of a poet’s genius.

That’s not to suggest that Gosse was not a good scientist (he was a Fellow of the Royal Society), but he recognised the value of popularising the subject. Here is a list of the common names of most British sea anemones and corals, as given by Gosse (the definite article has been omitted in each case) [1]:

Plumose anemone *
Daisy anemone *
Scarlet-fringed anemone *
Rosy anemone *
Ornate anemone
Fish-mouth anemone (*)
Orange-disked anemone *
Snowy anemone *
Sandalled anemone
Pallid anemone
Translucent anemone
Eyed anemone
Cave-dwelling anemone *
Snake-locked anemone *
Parasitic anemone *
Gold-spangled anemone
Cloak anemone *
Walled corklet *
Warted corklet
Painted corklet
Eyelet
Trumplet
Opelet *
Beadlet *
Deeplet
Gem pimplet *
Glaucous pimplet
Red-specked pimplet *
Diadem pimplet *
Marigold wartlet
Dahlia wartlet
Necklet
Gapelet
Scottish pearlet
Scarlet pearlet
Arrow muzzlet *
Waved muzzlet
Trefoil muzzlet
Sand pintlet
Rock pintlet *
Painted pufflet
Crimson pufflet *
Sprawlet
Vestlet
Crock
Crimson Imperial
Yellow Imperial
Globehorn *
Sandy creeplet
Furrowed creeplet *
Wrinkled creeplet
Devonshire cup-coral *
Moray cup-coral
Shetland cup-coral
Winged cup-coral
Smooth-ribbed wedge-coral
Knotted wedge-coral
Scarlet crisp-coral
Tuft-coral
Weymouth carpet-coral
Scarlet and gold star-coral

* = collected by Gosse from the shores around Torquay
(*) = sent to Gosse, having been collected by others from the shores around Torquay

Of the 61 types of sea anemone and coral in this list, 22 (36%) were collected by Gosse from the coast around Torquay. Although an excellent area for discovering these fascinating creatures, the high number reflects Gosse’s industry rather than this coast being a mecca for the animals. As an example of his industry, he remarks that the area shown in the image below was an especially good one for sea anemones, if one ventured by small boat to explore the cracks and fissures during low spring tides.


Anyone reading the list, and who wishes to escape the superficiality of the modern world, will be struck by the beauty of the names. My favourites are the red-specked pimplet, the dahlia wartlet, and the crimson pufflet: Gosse’s illustrations of these sea anemones, scanned from my copy of Actinologia Britannica, are shown below (in order).




I’m sure you will have your own favourites and, like Gosse, be stimulated to find examples during visits to the British coast.


[1] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) Actinologia Britannica: a history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, John Van Voorst.

[2] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A bibliography. Folkestone, Wm. Dawson & Sons Ltd..


[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J.Nisbet & Co.

Friday, 30 August 2019

The Corbyn's Head Stack


When growing up in Torbay, I was fascinated by all the creatures that lived in rock pools. In addition to fish – blennies, gobies, butterfish, pipefish – there were many invertebrates. Limpets and barnacles could not easily be removed, as their defence against being swept away by waves, and attack by predators, also deterred human collectors. However, a wide variety of crabs, snails, worms, sea anemones, and many other creatures were collectable and I took some to observe in an aquarium tank. This was the early 1960s and I don’t know whether I would have spent hours on the shore had I been a young teenager today, with a mobile ‘phone, computer games, etc.. I like to think that I would, as I have never grown out of a child-like enthusiasm for “rock-pooling” and am only prevented from this pleasure today by living 100 miles from the sea.


One of the richest collecting spots (see above) was the rocky coast just to the north of a promontory called Corbyn’s Head (or Corbyn Head). At low tide, there are wide stretches of flattish sandstone rock, with many pools that contain easily-lifted boulders and large stones. Perfect for those interested in the creatures of the shore, but I was so fixated on the hunt that I never asked myself where the boulders came from, although I knew that they must be the result of erosion somewhere. I now know that they were likely to come from the promontory and that Corbyn’s Head has changed considerably over the last 200 years. Going much further back, we know that sea level rise after the Ice Age swamped a forest that filled much of what is now Torbay [1] and the rise in water level, together with storms, then eroded the Head.



As recently as 100 years ago, there was a stack off the headland and this was first formed into an arch before the whole collapsed. In the first photographs above, we see the appearance of the stack in 1928 and this can be compared to the contemporary appearance of the headland (above, lower). In an earlier engraving, taken from Gosse’s Land and Sea [2], we see a tall stack that is almost the height of the rest of the promontory and without the hole of the arch. Of course, there may be some artistic licence here, but this image (see below), from the mid-1850s, shows how Corbyn’s Head (referred to by its old name of Corbons Head) must have looked 150 years ago.


Anyone brought up in South Devon will feel an affinity for the red soils of the area and these derive from sandstones that were, in turn, formed by the compression of ancient sands and muds. It is a soft rock and is easily eroded, as I knew well as a child. Our house was faced with sandstone blocks and one of my household jobs was to sweep up the red dust that accumulated on the tiles of our verandah. On a much larger scale, there were also cliff falls; the most recent of which [3] was caused by sandstone rock becoming saturated and then collapsing under its own weight, as cracks widened and the whole became unstable. 

Sandstone may also contain pebbles washed by some ancient dramatic flood and this composite is called breccia. At Corbyn’s Head we have layers of sandstone overlain by breccia and a full description is given in the excellent, well-illustrated review of the local geology by West and Csorvasi [4]. 

I wonder what the coast of South Devon will look like in a few hundred years’ time, when global warming will bring further increases in sea level and when climate change may bring more violent storms? Will generations to come look at images from their holiday at the coast and remember fondly walking by cliffs and headlands that are then very different in appearance?
  

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.





Monday, 19 August 2019

How the Devil has changed through time


Paintings allow us to see the visions of individual artists and they provide an insight into the way perceptions change through the centuries. Recently, I taught a course on “Angels and Demons” at the National Gallery in London and, while preparing the lectures, I was struck by the difference in the way that the Devil (Satan, Lucifer, etc.) was portrayed over the last 800 years. In contrast, angels were portrayed consistently as being androgynous, clothed in a loose full-length robe, and having large bird wings attached somewhere near the shoulder blade.

Here are some examples, with brief notes, of how the Devil has changed (all are details: for URLs to images of the complete works, see the end of this essay):

Duccio (1308/11) shows the Devil as being hairy and having bat wings (bats being regarded in folklore as sinister creatures of the night) and large pointed ears (below, upper) and Fra Angelico (c.1431) also portrays the Devil as being hairy, with tufted, pointed ears and small horns. It (I use “it” and not “he” or “she”) is seen eating humans, so is clearly very large, and appears to have near-human dentition (below, lower).



In Stefan Lochner’s (c.1435) vision of Hell, it is difficult to pick out the Devil as there are so many demonic figures of different kinds (and remember that this work was painted before the well-known works of Hieronymus Bosch). If the figure in the lower right is the Devil, it is noticeable for appearing hairy, with two horns, pointed ears, a non-human face and pronounced canine teeth. Interestingly, a second visage is present in the groin region and this appears to be a replica of the “proper” head (below).


The Devil in Bermejo’s (1468) painting has many sharp teeth, a prominent tongue, pointed ears and horns. It also has three-fingered hands emerging from serpent arms and bright, jewel-like nipples that resemble the eyes. The wings are part bat-like and part like those of a butterfly; the one leg that is clearly visible emerges from the mouth of a serpent; and the abdomen has a second, toothed mouth from which a snake is slithering (below).


Pacher’s (1471-75) Devil has bat-like wings anchored at the shoulder blade and its legs bear cloven hooves. Most of the body is human-like, as are the arms and hands, but the head is grotesque, with prominent teeth, an upturned snout, horns and large ears. Interestingly, a second face is shown, with prominent eyes and mouth and having the tail for a nose. The presence of this second visage is something shred with the previous two examples (below, and compare to the images above).


In Crivelli’s (c.1476) painting, the Devil is dark-coloured but humanoid, except for the feet, hands, bat wings and the presence on the head of horns and long, pointed ears (below).


Apart from black bird’s wings, claws instead of feet, and small horns on the head, d’Oggiono’s (c.1510) Devil has a human form, as does Bonifacio Veronese’s (c.1530) Devil, although it clearly has human feet as well as dark brown bird wings, pointed ears, and appears to be breathing fire (both are shown below).



Guido Reni (1635) paints the Devil as a muscular man, with thinning hair and a beard; the only distinguishing feature being the presence of small bat wings on the back (below, upper). de Ries (1640s) also presents the Devil as being a human figure, but the wings are large and, unusually, those of a bird (below, lower).



Further examples of the Devil taking human form come in the painting of Delacroix (1854-61), where wings are carried on a helmet (below, upper), while Epstein’s famous sculpture at Coventry Cathedral (below, lower) shows a human form with no wings, but with horns just above the ears.



The earliest images are thus of a hairy monster, capable of ingesting people, and occasionally of quite macabre appearance, developing through time into a nude human-like figure with devilish features (sharp teeth, long and pointed ears, horns, bat’s wings, claws) and then to an often powerful-looking nude human male that has only a few of these features.

Several explanations can be put forward for the transformation of the image of the Devil through time:

1. I may have been selective in my choice of paintings and sculpture, although I tried not to be.

2. 800+ years ago we had a highly developed folklore, many superstitions and myths about creatures around us, and a fear of many things in brought into Christianity from paganism, witchcraft, etc. We retain some of these fears but, as humans became increasingly able to control the environment and gain some understanding of it, we became more and more confident in our abilities as humans. This resulted in the increasingly human form taken by images of the Devil.

3. By portraying the Devil as being human (like other angels) it shows viewers that he represents the worst side of human nature, while angels show the best side (music, protection, kindness, etc.). It is a distasteful naked human male, unlike angels who are clothed, sexless, and of universal appeal. We must watch out for the Devil at all times.


Of course, there are other possible explanations, but I wanted to keep this article short. The lectures at the National Gallery were much more detailed and wide-ranging, and they promoted lively discussions, so I hope this blog post brings a similar response..



The works of art discussed:

Duccio (1308/11) The Resurrection Duomo, Siena [sometimes labelled Descent into Hell]: https://www.wikiart.org/en/duccio/descent-into-hell-1311

Fra Angelico (c.1431) Last Judgement San Marco, Florence: https://www.wikiart.org/en/fra-angelico/last-judgment


Bartolomé Bermejo (1468) St Michael Triumphs over the Devil National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/bartolome-bermejo-saint-michael-triumphs-over-the-devil

Michael Pacher (1471-75) ?Saint Augustine and the Devil Bavarian State Collection, Munich: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Pacher_004.jpg

Carlo Crivelli (c.1476) Saint Michael National Gallery: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/carlo-crivelli-saint-michael

Marco d’Oggiono (c.1510) The Archangels triumphing over Lucifer Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan: http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_229178/Marco-D%27Oggiono/The-Archangels-triumphing-over-Lucifer


Guido Reni (1635) The Archangel Michael defeating Satan Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome: https://www.wikiart.org/en/guido-reni/the-archangel-michael-defeating-satan-1635

Ignacio de Ries (1640s) Saint Michael the Archangel The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437729

Eugène Delacroix (1854-61) St Michael defeats the Devil Saint-Sulpice, Paris: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_St_Michael_defeats_the_Devil_-_WGA06220.jpg

Jacob Epstein (1958) Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil Coventry Cathedral: https://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/5686639646


Monday, 12 August 2019

“Great leaps often need eccentric thought”.


As I cook at week-ends, Saturday mornings are spent shopping for groceries and, when these are packed away, I make a jug of good coffee and we settle to read the newspapers. It is a relaxing, and informative, way to start the week-end and there are occasions when a particular story stands out. That happened on Saturday 10th August when an interview with Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care at UCL, was published in the FT Weekend Magazine. The whole article is shown below, together with a highlighted section, and it started me thinking.



Of course, I agree with Hugh Montgomery’s sentiments about UCL, as I taught, and carried out research, there for 23 years. I have also taught in other leading UK Universities, and been a student at others, so have some basis for supporting the view that Montgomery expresses.

There is increasing pressure from high-fee-paying students that courses should be relevant to the workplace and that extends beyond vocational training, like that in medicine, law, architecture etc. However, one of the greatest experiences that a student can enjoy, and benefit from, are enthusiastic teachers with vision and creativity who introduce eccentric thought (to quote Montgomery). The same qualities are also important in research. Unfortunately, the pressures of student needs, and the unimaginative world of research funding, mean that there are fewer and fewer “eccentrics” being appointed to University posts and those that are may be encouraged to conform to certain mores.

I make no claim to be an able teacher and researcher, but I was fortunate in being allowed to do my own thing at UCL. After several years of rather dull research, I decided to branch out and look outside my narrow discipline. That took me further and further into scholarship and away from practical science, so I gained black marks for not having much research funding (a conventional measure of being any good…). Having worked on the biology of streams and rivers, I became fascinated by many other aspects of aquatic science and ended up publishing a book and several review papers. I felt excited by my discoveries, especially in the role of exopolymers: ubiquitous compounds that are very important to all living organisms, including humans.

I devised a course in aquatic biology (freshwater, marine, coastal and oceanographic approaches being integrated) that started from first principles and then followed through to looking at the metabolism of life in all water bodies. It was a big task, but was eventually reduced to just 20 lectures and an accompanying web book entitled “Life in Water” that had live web links kept up to date until seven years ago, when I retired. Many of the students who took Aquatic Biology had taken a course with me in their second year, based largely on old-fashioned zoology that has certainly now gone out of favour in the current world. Some students were expecting more of the same, but all engaged with what I was trying to say about aquatic biology and we had good fun – well, I certainly did.

The question then arises as to whether my “eccentric” approach was of value to the students. I like to think so, but I have no way of knowing. The course was designed to show the results of scholarship and to convey my enthusiasm for an unconventional approach. If that is something that students took on board, they may be able to contribute to some of the great leaps that Montgomery describes in his interview. Who knows? They were certainly excellent students.




Friday, 2 August 2019

The sad story of John the Gorilla


Our ancient ancestors were familiar with the animals that shared their surroundings: some were used as food; some were threatening; and others were of little consequence. As we moved from a hunter-gatherer culture to an agrarian one, we began to domesticate animals that could be used as food; a means of providing transport; as an aid to our hunting; or for companionship as pets. During this process we began to anthropomorphise and earlier folklore about animals became increasingly humanised.

In modem times (over the past several millennia) we explored areas of the World that were distant, and the development of trade brought many imports of plants and animals that we could grow, or rear, for food (this was something that occupied the mind of Frank Buckland and others in Victorian times [1]). Creatures could also be for ornament and pleasure (think peacocks, for example). The anthropomorphic interest became highly developed when we discovered apes and, while our dogs had long been considered “honorary humans”, apes looked a bit like us and had a wide range of expressions and habits with which we could identify: for example, Chimps Tea Parties (extended to advertisements for brands of tea) were held in zoological gardens for our amusement, although this practice has now thankfully disappeared.

In addition to their capture for zoos, there was, and is still, a profitable market in capturing baby apes (often after killing their protective mothers) and these are traded to those who want this type of “baby” to live with them – Michael Jackson’s “Bubbles” being a good example (see below, showing Bubbles with Mr Jackson in one of his early identities). Of course, the cute babies grow into powerful, and potentially dangerous adults, and then they must be taken to a centre that can look after them, a return to the wild being out of the question unless the apes can be trained at “schools” to teach them how to survive before their release into their natural habitat.


A well-known case of an ape that was humanised is that of John the Gorilla. He lived with Alyse Cunningham in Sloane Street in London and his story is recounted by E Ray Lankester in his popular Great and Small Things [2]. He describes how John (see below) was traded from Gabon by a French officer who sold him to a London dealer in July 1918, and from whom he was acquired by Major Rupert Penny (Ms Cunningham’s nephew). John came to live in Sloane Street in December 1918 and Ms Cunningham describes his life there [3]:



I was getting to like John, and to take a great interest in him. I fed him, washed his hands, face and feet twice a day, and brushed and combed his hair – which he would try and do himself whenever he got hold of the brush or comb. He soon got to like all this. My next idea was to teach him to be strictly clean in his habits..

..we took him out of his cage and allowed him the freedom of the house. Thereafter he would run upstairs to the bathroom of his own accord, turning the door knob of whichever room he was in and also opening the door of the bathroom..

..John loved to have people come to see him in his home.. ..Whenever people came to see him, he would show off like a child. It was his custom to take them by the hand and lead them round and round the room. If he saw that a person was at all nervous about him, he loved running past them, and give them a smack on the leg – and you could see him grin as he did so..

..His table manners were really very good. He always sat at the table, and whenever a meal was ready, would pull his own chair up to his place.. ..He always took afternoon tea – of which he was very fond – and a thin piece of bread with plenty of jam; and he always liked coffee after dinner..

..He was especially fond on my little niece, three years old, who loved to come with her father to stay. John and she used to play together for hours and he seemed to understand what she wanted him to do.


An excellent illustration of the two is given in the article (see above), although the little girl seems far from delighted.

Ms Cunningham goes on to report that John was taken by train “as an ordinary passenger, without even a chain around his neck” to the family’s country cottage; something that must have surprised other passengers. The cottage was in the village of Uley, where John also visited the local school and was something of a celebrity [4].

Eventually, he grew too big and Lankester describes his fate [2]:

I regret to have to state that, owing to the expense involved in keeping John in a private house and the natural anxiety as to whether he could be kept at all in such conditions when he reached maturity, his owner was induced to sell him, in the belief that he was to be specially cared for in a warm climate. He was taken by his new proprietor to the United States, and became very ill owing to his separation from the friend who had hitherto cared for him and loved him.. ..This novel and complete exile utterly prostrated him; it deprived him of all spirit and appetite. An attack of pneumonia killed him soon after his arrival in America.

Contemplating this tragedy, Lankester concludes that “no one should adopt a young gorilla who is not possessed of a large income and able to pay for skilled attendants and courageous companions for him when he is grown up.”

Far better then to leave gorillas, and other great apes, where they are and, if absolutely necessary, visit them to have experiences like those enjoyed by David Attenborough in Life on Earth (easily the best remembered scene in the whole of the excellent series of programmes). Such ecotourism needs strict controls to avoid exploitation, but it is not the main threat to the great apes; that comes from competition for space. As we are the superior species, we win in these encounters and the majority of us do not care. We are so keen to think that we can make the apes like humans, yet we cannot teach them about the rapacious needs of consumer capitalism.

If we turn our approach on its head, what can we learn from the great apes? Asking that question may mean that we have to concede that we are not the best at everything.


[1] Christopher Lever (1992) They Dined on Eland. London, Quiller Press.

[2] Ray Lankester (1923) Great and Small Things. London, Methuen & Co.

[3] Alyse Cunningham (1921) A Gorilla’s Life in Civilization. Bulletin of the Zoological Society of New York, September 1921 pp.118-124.