First Issued: 6 September 2012
Revised (substantive): 9 March 2013
Part I: Editor’s Introduction to Ross’s animadversions on the chameleon
HE 17th century was a polemical age, full of bitter debates over a host of issues, large and small. In England, where a civil war led to regicide in 1649, irreconcilable differences over religion, Weltanschauung, and government cut deep into the culture, but many heated exchanges in print were encouraged, at least in part, by the booksellers (that century’s equivalent of this century’s “mass media”), who profited from the proliferation of agitprop. In effect, booksellers and printsellers often fanned the flames (a metaphor dating back to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tragedy that was first performed in 1608).
The growing trade in controversy drew the ire of the physician Richard Whitlock in 1654 when he complained about all the authors who write
against Things or Men (if the Spirit of contradiction prove saleable) that they can neither Master, nor Conquer; Sparing neither Bacons, Harveys, Digbys, Brownes, or any the like of Improvement COLLEDGE (as I may terme them) though (beside some little somewhat for the venture) they get nothing, but such a credit as he did, that set Diana’s Temple on fire, to perpetuate his Name.
(Whitlock, Zoötomia, or a Morall Anatomy of the Living by the Dead, 232)
Whitlock here makes an oblique reference to the Church of England clergyman and writer on philosophy, Alexander Ross (1591–1654), who made a name for himself as a vigorous defender of the “textbook science” (Bauer) embedded in classical and scholastic learning, and as an equally vigorous opponent of the “frontier science” (Bauer) produced by his contemporaries.
Though it would normally be dangerous to characterize such a large and diverse body of writings, in Ross’s case virtually all of his prolific output was underpinned by a violent and often vituperative indignation directed at other authors. Most important, and perhaps inspired by the resurgent scholasticism of the Aberdeen curriculum to which he had been exposed as a student, Ross revealed himself an unreconstructed and unapologetic Aristotelian at a time when in physics, physiology, ethics, and politics its previous dominance was under increasing threat throughout Britain and Europe. Ross cast himself as the angry defender of scholastic convention, loftily dismissing the revisions or refutations contributed by near contemporaries like William Harvey, Johann Kepler, Petrus Ramus, Sir Thomas Browne, and Thomas Hobbes.
One of Ross’s less prudent decisions was to attempt to rebut the charges levelled against Aristotelian cosmology by the experimental scientists—a project which has earned him a minor place in the history of scientific error. Beginning with Commentum de terrae motu circulari (1634), gratefully dedicated to Laud himself, and culminating in The New Planet No Planet (1646), an assault on the recent work of Wilkins, Ross denied the claims of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler and others that the planets rotated around the sun rather than the earth. A more intriguing controversy was the one in which Ross lambasted Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Kenelm Digby for their misguided revisions of scholastic orthodoxy. In Medicus medicatus and in The Philosophicall Touch-Stone (both 1645), he delivered himself of a ripe attack on assorted philosophical errors, including the ideas of Descartes, Spinoza, and Ramus, as well as on the negligence of his erring English contemporaries. Leviathan Drawn out with a Hook (1653) also won Ross temporary celebrity as one of Hobbes’s many seventeenth-century critics.
Yet Ross was not immune to philosophical fashions where they seemed more palatable. Indeed, he engaged sympathetically with neo-Stoicism, the body of revived classical thought associated with recent scholars such as Justus Lipsius and Pierre Charron on the continent and Joseph Hall and Sir Walter Ralegh in England.... Later works, especially parts of the responses to Browne and Digby, together with Mystagogus poeticus (1647) and the series of lengthy treatises dedicated to revising Ralegh’s historical philosophy (The Marrow of Historie, 1650, The History of the World, 1652, and Som Animadversions and Observations upon Sir Walter Raleigh’s Historie of the World, 1653), all make intelligent attempts to evaluate Stoical morality and metaphysics in a modern Christian context.
Ross’s heartfelt scholasticism and more ambivalent neo-Stoicism are never satisfactorily reconciled in his writings, though both seem to bear some relation to the political and personal frustrations of his mature years....
(Allan, n. pag.)
Ross gave a copy of “his book against Mr. Hobbes’s Leviathan” (A View of all Religions in the World, 1st edn., 1652) to John Evelyn on 1 February 1653, and Evelyn was flattered enough to record the visit from “Old Alexander Ross” in his diary (Diary, ed. Dobson, 1908, 171). Ross had earlier visited Evelyn on 11 July 1649: “Came to see me old Alexander Ross, the divine, historian, and poet ...” (Evelyn, Diary, ed. Dobson, 1908, 150), and there is every reason to interpret these visits from Ross as welcome. Evelyn’s remarks remind us that the prolific Ross was more than just the crank immortalized in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (Part I, Canto ii, ll. 1–2: “There was an ancient sage Philosopher, / That had read Alexander Ross over.”). Ross “was a Scotchman, born in 1591; and after receiving an education for the church, took orders, became master of a free school at Southampton, and preached, wrote, and taught with a diligence that ought to have obtained him other reputation than Butler’s ludicrous lines have bestowed upon him.” (Evelyn, Diary, ed. Dobson, 1908, 150n1)
* * *
In Arcana Microcosmi ... with a Refutation of Doctor Browns Vulgar Errors, and the Ancient Opinions Vindicated — dedicated to “my much honored Friend, Edward Watson,” who bears a “hearty affection to true and solid Philosophy” (sig. A2r) — Ross complains about
how much the Dictates and Opinions of the ancient Champions of Learning, are sleighted and misconstrued by some modern Innovators: whereas we are but children in understanding, and ought to be directed by these Fathers of Knowledge; we are but Dwarfs and Pigmies compared to those Giants of wisdom; on whose shoulders we stand, yet we cannot see so far as they without them: I deny not but we may and ought to strive for further knowledge, which we shall hardly reach without their supportation. I disswade no man from inventing new; but I would not have him therfore to forget the old, nor to lose the substance whilst he catches the shadow. Women and Children love new Wine, because pleasant to the palat; but wise men chuse the old, because wholsomer for the stomach[.]
(Epistle Dedicatory, sig. A2v–A3r)
Among those “modern Innovators” at whom Ross took aim was the physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), author of the popular Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenents and Commonly Presumed Truths (1st edn., 1646).
When I fell upon this piece, I thought not to meddle with Doctor Browns Enquiries: but finding some of his Assertions contradictory to what I was to write, I thought good to bring some of them to the Test, and to remove all rubbish out of my way; wherein I hope I shall doe him no wrong, seeing as he saith in his Epistles, Opinions are free, and open it is for any to think or declare the contrary. Having therefore examined some of his Assertions, I will be bold to enquire into some more of his Enquiries, having no intent to traduce or extenuate his excellent paines, but to elucidate what may seem to be obscure, and to deliver my opinion wherein I think he is mistaked.
(Ross, Arcana Microcosmi ..., 1651, 207)
And Ross thought Browne was mistaken just about everywhere, including his essay “Of the Cameleon” in Book 3, Chapter 21 of Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Ironically, while “Browne’s constant use of observation and experiment, in truth, distinguishes him as a modern and a Baconian scientist” (Chalmers, 46), it was the conservative Ross who offered evidence collected from personal observation for his contrary case study of the chameleon. One can interpret, as does Chalmers, Browne’s essay “Of the Cameleon” as exemplar of Browne’s progressive scientific practice:
Sir Thomas not only understood the problem, he applied Bacon’s solution. This, in brief, was to treat all ancient scientists as counsels, not dictators, to apply “the light of nature”, or reason to their deliverances, and “relying on the evidence and truth of things” to observe nature itself. The method of Pseudodoxia is exactly this. Browne gives the old belief and the grounds for it. Then he cites, if possible, one or two authorities who have called it in question. Then he asks whether the old theory is reasonable and finally reports the observations of others and his own experiments. For example, at the beginning of his chapter on the subject he observes that Solinus, Pliny, and Ovid have given currency to the opinion “that the Chameleon lives only upon air” “and is sustained by no other aliment”. This is “very questionable,” says Sir Thomas, and “Some have positively denied it, as Augustinus, Niphus, Stobaeus, Dalechampius, Fortunius Licetus, with many more.” He then subjects the opinion to reason:
“As touching the verisimility or probable truth of this relation, several reasons there are which seem to overthrow it.”
Because the chameleon has “guts, stomach, and other parts official unto nutrition,” says Sir Thomas, it is unreasonable to think that an animal could be nourished by air alone, since we can observe no means of digesting air in the body of the chameleon. Again, experiment calls the opinion in question:
“Bellonius hath been ... satisfactorily experimental, not only affirming they feed on flies, caterpillars, beetles, and other insects, but upon exenteration he found these animals in their bellies; whereunto we might also add the experimental decisions of the worthy Piereschius and learned Emanuel Tizzanius, in that chameleon which had been often observed to drink water, and delight to feed on meal-worms. And although we have not had the advantage of our own observation, yet we have received the like confirmation from many ocular spectators.”
Many other experiments in refutation of vulgar errors Browne himself was able to make: he rubbed his magnet with garlic and proved that garlic does not hinder the attraction; he placed a diamond “between a needle and a loadstone” and observed that coition was not interrupted; he made two magnetical dials and proved that there is no sympathy between the needles; he fastened a frog “about a span under water” and observed that it may not “be easily drowned,” for “it lived almost six days”; he put spiders in a glass with a toad and saw the latter, “upon advantage” swallow down seven, disproving the “famous and solemn stories” that spiders and toads “poisonously destroy each other”. Professor Howell has studied in detail Browne’s analysis of ten of the errors in Book III of Pseudodoxia, indicating in each the use of authorities, reasons, experiments and observations to confute the old opinions. Of the latter he notes down over a dozen, including anatomical dissections and several attempts to make a weather vane of a kingfisher “hanged up with untwisted silk”.
But it was Ross who offered new experimental data supporting his point of view, rather than simply rehashing the same old evidence:
5. He that kept the Camelion which I saw, never perceived it to void excrements backwards; an argument it had no solid food: and what wonder is it for the Camelion to live on aire, when Hay a beast of Brasill as big as a Dog, was never seen to feed on any thing else, as Lerius witnesseth? The Doctor concludes, That the Camelion is abstemious a long time, but not still, because divers other animals are so. He may as well inferre, that the Camelion is cornuted [i.e., horned], because divers other animals are so. Each species hath its property, which is not communicable to other species; otherwise it were no property.
(Ross, Arcana Microcosmi ..., 1651, 203)
Such diversity in “eye-witnesse” accounts introduced problems of bias and error in personal testimony which no one was eager to attribute to the character of gentlemen and ladies, although not doing so undermined individual claims to truth and objectivity in interpretation, even by the most authoritative witnesses. Joannes Lerius was the Latinized name of Jean de Léry (1534–1611), author of Histoire d’un Voyage Fait en la Terre du Brésil autrement Dite Amerique (1st edn., 1578), a “vivid and subtle ethnography of the Tupinamba Indians” and “description of the marvellous abundance of their natural setting,” “rendered by a generous-minded, acutely observant man with a story-teller’s gift.” (History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, 1992, xv) Excerpts from Léry’s Histoire were published in English translation by Edward Aston (in 1610, rpt. 1611) and by Samuel Purchas (in 1625, and reprinted many times thereafter), making it even more accessible to English audiences, who had no reason to question Léry’s credibility. Whatley gives the following modern translation of Léry’s description of the sloth:
The bigger of these, which the savages call hay, is of the size of a big spaniel, with a face rather like a monkey’s, approaching the human; it has a belly hanging down like that of a pregnant sow, a gray coat with a smoky-brown tinge like the wool of a black sheep, a very short tail, hairy legs like those of a bear, and very long claws. And although when he is in the woods he is very wild, once he is caught, he is not hard to tame. It is true, nevertheless, that his claws are so sharp that our Tupinamba, who are always naked, do not take much pleasure in playing with him. Now this may sound like a tall tale, but I have heard not only from the savages but also from the interpreters who had lived a long time in that country, that no man has ever seen this animal eat, either in the fields or in a house; so that some think that he lives on air.
(Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, otherwise Called America, 1992, 85)
This kind of evidence bolstered Ross’s more extravagant claims, such as his long list of men and women believed to have survived for lengthy periods without food. For example, “In the Palatinate there lived a maid nine years together without food; who afterward married and had children.” (Arcana Microcosmi, 201) And: “In the year 1593, a maid lived at Colen three years without food; another at Berne lived eighteen yeares on the aire alone anno 1604.” (Arcana Microcosmi, 202)
A. Ross so resolutely withstands the Doctor’s [Browne’s] arguments against the common opinion, as even to assert that flies are eaten by the chameleon, “rather out of wantonness or for physic”. He adverts indeed to the fact, only as giving a reason for the animal being provided with digestive organs; but says that the slime on the tongue is not intended for catching the flies, but for destroying serpents, on whose approach the chameleon drops some of the slime on the head of the serpent, which presently dies.
(Wilkin, Sir Thomas Browne’s Works, 1835, ii. 482n7)
Not all of Ross’s arguments are so tortured. In my opinion, he gets in some solid digs at Browne, such as when he critiques Browne’s rhetorical reliance on intelligent design (very popular with 17th-century scientists in general):
Thus we perceive the providence of Nature, that is, the wisdom of God, which disposeth of no part in vain, and some parts unto two or three uses, will not provide any without the execution of its proper office, nor where there is no digestion to be made, make any parts inservient to that intention.
(Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, 158)
with the simple retort:
Moreover, we must not think every thing in nature superfluous, whereof we can give no reason ...
(Ross, Arcana Microcosmi, 1651, 198)
It is easy when reading Ross’s or Browne’s arguments to fixate on “the quaintness or oddity of some of the more vulgar or more ancient errors”:
... one of the pleasures of modern exploration of seventeenth-century learning comes from a happy awareness of our effortless superiority in simply being modern.
But we should also remember that these were serious issues at the time, being intelligently debated in public by thoughtful men and women, with skills and erudition to rival any of us today. For all our advantages as “moderns,” we are no more reliable as eye-witnesses and interpreters of “the evidence” than were our ancestors (see, e.g., The Invisible Gorilla by Chabris and Simons).
Ross has two critiques of Browne’s essay “Of the Cameleon” in Book 3, Part 2 of his Arcana Microcosmi: the first in Chapter 7, Sect. 4 (pp. 197–201), and the second in Chapter 8, Sect. 1 (pp. 201–203). Both of the texts I have digitized here (see Part 2 of this e-publication) are transcribed from the first edition of 1651.
Allan, David. “Ross, Alexander (1591–1654), Church of England clergyman and writer on philosophy.” Oxford dictionary of national biography. Online edition, Oxford University Press, Oct. 2007. Accessed 12 April 2012, from < http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24110 >.
Bauer, Henry H. Scientific literacy and the myth of the scientific method. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
(I can’t recommend this book enough! ;~) Bauer’s Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method also received a thumbs-up review in the trade journal, Publishers Weekly:
“To put some of the adventure back in everyday science, this study is the place to start. Bauer, chemistry professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, upends current contentions about science literacy in a small, dense book that could be the nucleus of a restructuring of how science works in our culture, or, in the author’s terms, how its reputation works. The call for more science literacy is a shibboleth in this STS-based (science, technology, society) exposition, which is a sort of deconstruction of the general image of science. Excising popular fallacies, Bauer argues that science is particular knowledge embedded in its time’s social context and, therefore, in continuous change. His critique is radical: demystify the science we learn as fact (‘textbook science’), keep ‘frontier science’ (research) from being overwhelmed by structural forces in technocracy, avoid ‘scientism’ as a basis of social policy. Science can be made to serve us better, stresses the author, but not as a new mythology.”
Browne, Thomas, Sir. Pseudodoxia epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received tenents, and commonly presumed truths. By Thomas Browne Dr. of Physick. London: Printed by Tho. Harper for Edward Dod, 1646.
1st edn. Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica was also known as Vulgar Errors (which is how Ross usually refers to it) from its running title, Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors.
Browne’s essay “Of the Cameleon,” with a lengthy digression on air (as the “food of life”) and on combustion is also available as a She-philosopher.com digital edition.
Browne, Thomas, Sir. Pseudodoxia epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received tenents and commonly presumed truths. By Thomas Browne Dr of Physick. The second edition, corrected and much enlarged by the author. Together with some marginall observations, and a table alphabeticall at the end. London: Printed by A. Miller, for Edw. Dod and Nath. Ekins, at the Gunne in Ivie Lane, 1650.
2nd edn. It was probably the re-publication of this “corrected and ... enlarged” text in 1650 that caught Ross’s attention.
Butler, Samuel. Hudibras, parts I and II and selected other writings. Ed. by John Wilders and Hugh de Quehen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Butler’s best-selling Hudibras was originally published in 3 parts, 1663–1678.
Chabris, Christopher, and Daniel Simons. The invisible gorilla: and other ways our intuitions deceive us. New York: Crown Archetype, 2010.
ISBN-10: 0307459659 and ISBN-13: 978-0307459657. As reviewed in the trade journal, Publishers Weekly:
“Professors of Psychology Chabris and Simons write about six everyday illusions of perception and thought, including the beliefs that: we pay attention more than we do, our memories are more detailed than they are, confident people are competent people, we know more than we actually do, and our brains have reserves of power that are easy to unlock. Through a host of studies, anecdotes, and logic, the authors debunk conventional wisdom about the workings of the mind and what ‘experts’ really know (or don’t). Presented almost as a response to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the book pays special attention to ‘the illusion of knowledge’ and the danger of basing decision-making, in areas such as investing, on short-term information; in the authors’ view, careful analysis of assumed truths is preferred over quick, intuitive thinking. Chabris and Simons are not against intuition, ‘... but we don’t think it should be exalted above analysis without good evidence that it is truly superior.’”
In an opinion piece for the 7/25/2010 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Chabris & Simons extended their arguments in The Invisible Gorilla to online communications, taking a critical look at various urban legends about how spending so much time on the Internet is changing our brains. In summary: “Ignore the alarmists. Our ability to think, focus and learn won’t be destroyed by spending so much time online.” To read She-philosopher.com’s HTML transcription of their op-ed, click/tap here.
Chalmers, G. K. “Sir Thomas Browne, true scientist.” Osiris 2 (1936): 28–79.
Endicott, Norman J., ed. The prose of Sir Thomas Browne edited with an introduction, notes, and variants by Norman J. Endicott. 1967; rpt. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.
Evelyn, John. The diary of John Evelyn. With an introduction & notes by Austin Dobson. 1906; rpt. London and New York: Macmillan, 1908.
Léry, Jean de. History of a voyage to the land of Brazil, otherwise called America. Containing the navigation and the remarkable things seen on the sea by the author; the behavior of Villegagnon in that country; the customs and strange ways of life of the American savages; together with the descriptions of various animals, trees, plants, and other singular things completely unknown over here. Translated and introduced by Janet Whatley. Latin American literature and culture, no. 6. 1990; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.
This is an excellent modern edn. of Léry’s text, originally printed at Geneva in 1578 with the title, Histoire d’un Voyage Fait en la Terre du Brésil autrement Dite Amerique. Like so many other authors of this era, Léry continued to revise his text, and Whatley chooses the 2nd “corrected” edn. printed at Geneva in 1580 as the source for her translation.
Léry’s travel to Brazil (1556–1558) occurred 2 decades before his printed account was published.
Léry, Jean de. “Certaine things concerning America of Brasil, collected out of the Historie of John Lerius.” In [The manners, lawes, and customes of all nations. Collected out of the best writers by Joannes Boemus Avbanus, a Dutch-man. With many other things of the same argument, gathered out of the Historie of Nicholas Damascen. The like also out of the History of America, or Brasill, written by John Lerius. The faith, religion and manners of the Aethiopians, and the deploration of the people of Lappia, compiled by Damianus à Goes. With a short discourse of the Aethiopians, taken out of Joseph Scaliger his seventh booke de emendatione temporum. Written in Latin, and now newly translated into English. By Ed. Aston.] Compiled and trans. by Edward Aston. [London: Printed by G. Eld, 1610.] 483–502.
1st printing. The copy I read is missing its title-page.
Because Aston’s focus here is on “the manners, lawes, and customes” of nations, he does not include any of Léry’s detailed discussion of the flora and fauna of Brazil.
Léry, Jean de. “Extracts out of the Historie of John Lerius a Frenchman, who lived in Brasill with Mons. Villagagnon, ann. 1557, and 58.” In Hakluytus posthumus, or Purchas his pilgrimes. Contayning a history of the world in sea voyages and lande travells, by Englishmen and others. Wherein Gods wonders by nature & providence, the actes, arts, varieties & vanities of men, w[i]th a world of the worlds rarities, are by a world of eyewitnesse-authors, related to the world. Some left written by Mr Hakluyt at his death. More since added. His also perused & perfected. All examined, abreviated, illustrated w[i]th notes, enlarged w[i]th discourses. Adorned w[i]th pictures, and expressed in mapps. In fower parts, each containing five bookes. By Samuel Purchas B.D. Comp., trans., and ed. by Samuel Purchas. 4 vols. London: Imprinted for Henrie Fetherstone, at the signe of the Rose in Pauls Churchyard, 1625. iv. 1325–1347.
This is Samuel Purchas’ 17th-century translation of selections from Léry’s Brazilian narrative, printed in Vol. 4, Book 7, Chapt. 3 of the greatly enlarged 1625 edn. of Purchas His Pilgrimes.
Purchas’ translation of Léry’s passage on the sloth (which Purchas summarizes in the marginalia as “a deformed beast”) reads: “The one which the Barbarians call Hay, is of the bignesse of a Dog, with an hanging bellie, like a farrowing Sow with pigge, of an ash-colour haire very much washed, with a very long tayle, hairy feet after the manner of a Beare, and long clawes: but as, while it liveth in the Woods, it is very fierce; yet being taken, it is very easily tamed. But the naked Tououpinambaultii doe not willingly play with him, because he hath both long, and also sharpe clawes. They say, it liveth onely on aire.” (iv. 1328)
Ross, Alexander. Arcana microcosmi: or, The hid secrets of mans body disclosed; first, in an anatomical duel between Aristotle & Galen, about the parts thereof. Secondly, by a discovery of the strange and marvellous diseases, symptomes, and accidents of mans body. With a refutation of Doctor Browns Vulgar errors, and the ancient opinions vindicated. By Alexander Ross. London: Printed by Thomas Newcomb, and are to be sold by George Latham at the Bishops Head in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651.
Ross, Alexander. Arcana microcosmi: or, The hid secrets of man’s body discovered; in an anatomical duel between Aristotle and Galen concerning the parts thereof: as also, by a discovery of the strange and marveilous diseases, symptomes & accidents of man’s body. With a refutation of Doctor Brown’s Vulgar errors, the Lord Bacon’s Natural history, and Doctor Harvy’s book, De generatione, Comenius, and others; whereto is annexed a letter from Doctor Pr. to the author, and his answer thereto, touching Doctor Harvy’s book De generatione. By A. R. London: Printed by Tho. Newcomb, and are to bee sold by John Clark, entring into Mercers-Chappel, at the lower end of Cheapside, 1652.
Whitlock, Richard. Zootomia, or, Observations of the present manners of the English: briefly anatomizing the living by the dead. With an usefull detection of the mountebanks of both sexes. By Richard Whitlock, M.D. late fellow of All-Souls Colledge in Oxford. London: Printed by Tho. Roycroft, and are to be sold by Humphrey Moseley, at the Princes Armes in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1654.
Wilkin, Simon. Sir Thomas Browne’s works including his life and correspondence. 3 vols. London: William Pickering, 1835–6.
NOTE: This original She-philosopher.com e-publication is
one of several digital editions relating to our ongoing
Study: The Natural and Cultural History of the Chameleon.
go up a level: Table of Contents page for the She-philosopher.com LIBRARY