Chapter VI: Some Theories, Darwinian and Otherwise
"I observe," said Doctor Darwin, looking up from a perusal of an asbestos
copy of the London Times — "I observe that an American professor has discovered
that monkeys talk. I consider that a very interesting fact."
"It undoubtedly is," observed Doctor Livingstone, "though hardly new.
I never said anything about it over in the other world, but I discovered
years ago in Africa that monkeys were quite as well able to hold a sustained
conversation with each other as most men are."
"And I, too," put in Baron Munchausen, "have frequently conversed with
monkeys. I made myself a master of their idioms during my brief sojourn
in — ah — in — well, never mind where. I never could remember the names of
places. The interesting point is that at one period of my life I was a
master of the monkey language. I have even gone so far as to write a sonnet
in Simian, which was quite as intelligible to the uneducated as nine-tenths
of the sonnets written in English or American."
"Do you mean to say that you could acquire the monkey accent?" asked
Doctor Darwin, immediately interested.
"In most instances," returned the Baron, suavely, "though of course not
in all. I found the same difficulty in some cases that the German or the
Chinaman finds when he tries to speak French. A Chinaman can no more say
Trocadero, for instance, as the Frenchman says it, than he can fly. That
peculiar throaty aspirate the Frenchman gives to the first syllable, as
though it were spelled trhoque, is utterly beyond the Chinese — and beyond
the American, too, whose idea of the tonsillar aspirate leads him to speak
of the trochedeero, naturally falling back upon troches to help him out
of his laryngeal difficulties."
"You ought to have been on the staff of Punch, Baron," said Thackeray,
quietly. "That joke would have made you immortal."
"I AM immortal," said the Baron. "But to return to our discussion of
the Simian tongue: as I was saying, there were some little points about
the accent that I could never get, and, as in the case of the German and
Chinaman with the French language, the trouble was purely physical. When
you consider that in polite Simian society most of the talkers converse
while swinging by their tails from the limb of a tree, with a sort of
droning accent, which results from their swaying to and fro, you will
see at once why it was that I, deprived by nature of the necessary apparatus
with which to suspend myself in mid-air, was unable to quite catch the
quality which gives its chief charm to monkey-talk."
"I should hardly think that a man of your fertile resources would have
let so small a thing as that stand in his way," said Doctor Livingstone.
"When a man is able to make a reputation for himself like yours, in which
material facts are never allowed to interfere with his doing what he sets
out to do, he ought not to be daunted by the need of a tail. If you could
make a cherry-tree grow out of a deer's head, I fail to see why you could
not personally grow a tail, or anything else you might happen to need
for the attainment of your ends."
"I was not so anxious to get the accent as all that," returned the Baron.
"I don't think it is necessary for a man to make a monkey of himself just
for the pleasure of mastering a language. Reasoning similarly, a man to
master the art of braying in a fashion comprehensible to the jackass of
average intellect should make a jackass of himself, cultivate his ears,
and learn to kick, so as properly to punctuate his sentences after the
manner of most conversational beasts of that kind."
"Then you believe that jackasses talk, too, do you?" asked Doctor Darwin.
"Why not?" said the Baron. "If monkeys, why not donkeys? Certainly they
do. All creatures have some means of communicating their thoughts to each
other. Why man in his conceit should think otherwise I don't know, unless
it be that the birds and beasts in their conceit probably think that they
alone of all the creatures in the world can talk."
"I haven't a doubt," said Doctor Livingstone, "that monkeys listening
to men and women talking think they are only jabbering."
"They're not far from wrong in most cases if they do," said Doctor Johnson,
who up to this time had been merely an interested listener. "I've thought
that many a time myself."
"Which is perhaps, in a slight degree, a confirmation of my theory,"
put in Darwin. "If Doctor Johnson's mind runs in the same channels that
the monkey's mind runs in, why may we not say that Doctor Johnson, being
a man, has certain qualities of the monkey, and is therefore, in a sense,
of the same strain?"
"You may say what you please," retorted Johnson, wrathfully, "but I'll
make you prove what you say about me."
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Doctor Livingstone, in a peace-making
spirit. "It would not be a pleasant task for you, compelling our friend
to prove you descended from the ape. I should think you'd prefer to make
him leave it unproved."
"Have monkeys Boswells?" queried Thackeray.
"I don't know anything about 'em," said Johnson, petulantly.
"No more do I," said Darwin, "and I didn't mean to be offensive, my dear
Johnson. If I claim Simian ancestry for you, I claim it equally for myself."
"Well, I'm no snob," said Johnson, unmollified. "If you want to brag
about your ancestors, do it. Leave mine alone. Stick to your own genealogical
"Well, I believe fully that we are all descended from the ape," said
Munchausen. "There isn't any doubt in my mind that before the flood all
men had tails. Noah had a tail. Shem, Ham, and Japheth had tails. It's
perfectly reasonable to believe it. The Ark in a sense proved it. It would
have been almost impossible for Noah and his sons to construct the Ark
in the time they did with the assistance of only two hands apiece. Think,
however, of how fast they could work with the assistance of that third
arm. Noah could hammer a clapboard on to the Ark with two hands while
grasping a saw and cutting a new board or planing it off with his tail.
So with the others. We all know how much a third hand would help us at
"But how do you account for its disappearance?" put in Doctor Livingstone.
"Is it likely they would dispense with such a useful adjunct?"
"No, it isn't; but there are various ways of accounting for its loss,"
said Munchausen. "They may have overworked it building the Ark; Shem,
Ham, or Japheth may have had his caught in the door of the Ark and cut
off in the hurry of the departure; plenty of things may have happened
to eliminate it. Men lose their hair and their teeth; why might not a
man lose a tail? Scientists say that coming generations far in the future
will be toothless and bald. Why may it not be that through causes unknown
to us we are similarly deprived of something our forefathers had?"