September 21, 2012 | 4
“Scientists should take the science seriously, but they should not take themselves too seriously.”
Philippe Blanchard, physicist
Caricatures show a person or behaviour in a simplified, exaggerated or distorted manner. However good caricatures are more than simple drawings, in fact they contain deep and complex insight in our culture and society. This consideration is also true for scientific caricatures, dealing with subjects or persons involved in science and research.
The most famous caricatures dealing with geology and palaeontology were produced by the English geologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855) to lampoon the theories of Charles Lyell and other contemporaries.
But not only Lyell had to deal with the satiric comments of cartoonists, De la Beche himself experienced harsh critics of some of his theories regarding stratigraphy – another part of geology that during the 19th century experienced profound changes.
In 1834 geologist Roderick Impey Murchison affirmed that certain geologic formations predated the appearance of terrestrial plants; however De La Beche found just in these formations some fossils, proving Murchison wrong. Murchison gathered support in the Geological Society and questioned in public De la Beche’s ability to identify rock formations, without even bother to look at the fossil plants or the outcrops described by De La Beche.
De La Beche in response produced a cartoon showing him engaged in a debate with his many opponents – to characterize them he added the symbols of prejudices he already used for “Professor Ichthyosaurus“, the glasses of theory and the dress of the lawyer, who claims knowledge without experience.
It is interesting to note that De la Beche overlooked the detail that he himself wore glasses (appropriately not shown) – also his hair at the time was already a bit thinner than the picture shows.
Fig.1. The caricature drawn by De la Beche to lampoon his opponents (wearing yet again the spectacles of theory) in the ongoing discussion of the appearance of fossil plants in older geological formations, entitled “Preconceived Opinions vs. Facts” (image in public domain).
De la Beche: “This, Gentlemen, is my Nose.”
Critics: “My dear Fellow! – your account of yourself generally may be very well, but as we have classed you, before we saw you, among men without noses, you cannot possibly have a nose.”
LEEDER, M.R: (1998): Lyell’s Principles of Geology: foundations of sedimentology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 143: 95-110
RUDWlCK, M. S. (1975): Caricature as Source for the History of Science: DE LA BECHE’S Anti-Lyellian Sketches of 1831. Isis, Vol. 66 (234): 534-560
RUDWICK, M.J.S. (2008): Worlds before Adam – The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform. The University of Chicago Press: 614