A superabundance of detail on the biology of the platypus, which made its debut European appearance as a hide preserved in a keg of spirits—and landed smack in the middle of the scientific debate over the classification of species, confounding naturalists throughout the 19th century.
In the era that was “destined to become the great century of classification and the decoding of the complex, and diversifying, book of Nature,” the platypus proved a tantalizing puzzle. Moyal, scientific historian and founder of the Independent Scholars’ Association of Australia, has found an object worthy of obsession in the history of the “elusive duck-bill mole.” With admirable focus, she has devoted herself to teasing out the theories and general bewilderment that the platypus engendered in the European and Australian naturalist communities, and through scientists’ efforts and opinions, Moyal provides a fount of information about the habits and behavior of the shy creature. Although reported in detail that is at times bewildering for those not wholly captivated by the back and forth of the great platypus debates, it’s nonetheless charming to witness the author’s enchantment with all the minutiae of the battles, dead-end theories, and large personalities of the major players. The great, familiar names—Darwin, Linnaeus, Lamarck—appear, as do their lesser-known contemporaries: Buffon, “hyperactive” Frenchman and “that greatest enemy of arrangement”; St. Hilaire, who inquired, “If these are mammary glands, where is the butter?”; Richard Owen, who had “brains enough to fill two hats”; and Burrell, designer of the first “platypusary.” Moyal brings the whole to vivid life, detailing the fruitless field expeditions and the under-appreciated contributions of the aborigines, and unearthing numerous bits of historic verse devoted to the platypus and its confounding structure: “O! Thou prehistoric link / kin to beaver, rooster, skink / Duck, mole, adder, monkey, fox / Paleozoic paradox!”
For the layperson willing to persist, a delightful window into the very human enterprise that helped shape our current theories of evolution.