High Priests And Kraken Soup

Fortean Times|January 2018

High Priests And Kraken Soup

Richard Freeman in a recent opinion piece (FT357:55) discussed the fascinating life of Pierre Denys de Montfort, who, according to the article, died penniless in the gutter in Paris having seen his career destroyed because he argued for something that the “high priests of science deemed to be an old wives tale” – the existence of giant cephalopods (the taxonomic group that consists of squids, cuttlefishes and octopuses).

It’s a great story, deriving in part from Bernard Heuvelmans’s early, rather odd interpretation of the history of the discovery of the giant squid, Architeuthis.1 It is clear that Denys de Montfort has not had his due, but at least part of this story is somewhat inaccurate: the high priests of science (or at the very least the British ones) did not disbelieve the existence of giant cephalopods. And this was not least because one high priest of science – Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and surely the personification of the scientific establishment in early 19th century Britain – would have had no doubt about the existence of large cephalopods at all. Indeed, it could be said that he would have happily swallowed the idea of large cephalopods – because in his youth he had eaten one!

In 1768, Joseph Banks, elected at the ridiculously young age of 23 to the Royal Society, was appointed as a naturalist on James Cook’s Endeavour expedition to the Pacific. One day, he embarked on an unusual meal. From the journal of Joseph Banks (reproduced verbatim): 3rd

Richard Freeman in a recent opinion piece (FT357:55) discussed the fascinating life of Pierre Denys de Montfort, who, according to the article, died penniless in the gutter in Paris having seen his career destroyed because he argued for something that the “high priests of science deemed to be an old wives tale” – the existence of giant cephalopods (the taxonomic group that consists of squids, cuttlefishes and octopuses). It’s a great story, deriving in part from Bernard Heuvelmans’s early, rather odd interpretation of the history of the discovery of the giant squid, Architeuthis.1 It is clear that Denys de Montfort has not had his due, but at least part of this story is somewhat inaccurate: the high priests of science (or at the very least the British ones) did not disbelieve the existence of giant cephalopods. And this was not least because one high priest of science – Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and surely the personification of the scientific establishment in early 19th century Britain – would have had no doubt about the existence of large cephalopods at all. Indeed, it could be said that he would have happily swallowed the idea of large cephalopods – because in his youth he had eaten one!

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January 2018