Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/434

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

This idea, entirely erroneous, was corroborated later by a correct observation. This time it was in another direction that the investigator came to grief—so slippery was the eel question. He was not examining an eel, but an eel-pout, a fish very far removed from the eel, but so resembling it externally that the ichthyologists have, for a specific name, called it anguillaris, eel-like. And it has been popularly known as 'mother-of-eels. 'This eel-like fish is really viviparous, it produces its young alive, and they resemble small eels. The learned doctor thought he had solved the eel question. But he hadn't. To add to the confusion, another authority reviewed this work on the eel-pout and decided, being influenced by the previous real mistakes of the same nature, that the supposed young eels were only worms. This was plausible, yet he was wrong, for they were undoubtedly legitimate little eel-pouts, mistaken for little eels. Every one, it appears, who took up the question, managed from a basis of truth to reach a wrong conclusion.

Aristotle held that eels were also produced from the 'bowels of the earth,' by which he meant nothing more than common earthworms, which he curiously conceived to be thus related to Mother Earth. Other opinion maintained that eels were the offspring not of eels, but of other kinds of fishes, or of animals that were not even fishes. This heterodoxy was too much for Aristotle, but to this day is prevalent in some form among eel fishermen in various parts of the world. As for instance, that the 'aal-mutter' referred to, the eel-pout, really produces eels; that eels pair with water snakes; and in Sardinia that the well-known Dytiscus beetle is responsible for eels.

If these conflicting theories seem to us a ludicrous and amusing hodge-podge, it must not be forgotten that they were the wisdom of bygone days. Out of them the eel question resolved itself into a serious problem which interested the whole biological world, and to which the first talent in science addressed itself and on which voluminous and pretentious treatises appeared. Buff on, the naturalist, remarked that he considered the question of the generation of eels one of the most puzzling in natural history. Very appropriately it remained for the century of Isaac Walton to first assert that eels were not the subjects of a special dispensation for their replenishment, and that the mystery of their generation was the same mystery that envelops the rest of the kingdom of life. This not very brilliant announcement seems to have been put forth as a purely academic deduction. There were no observations in the modern sense, and the author of the 'Compleat Angler' was not particularly enthusiastic over it. He merely mentions it without subscribing, and says: 'But most men differ about their breeding,' and then after citing at some length what 'some say' and 'others say,' remarks: 'But that eels may be bred as