The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 11

The Anthroposauruses

It would certainly be an overstatement to say that nobody at that time ever spoke or wrote about anything but the talking newts. People also talked and wrote about other things such as the next war, the economic crisis, football, vitamins and fashion; but there was a lot written about the newts, and much of it was very ill-informed. This is why the outstanding scientist, Professor Vladimir Uher (University of Brno), wrote an article for the newspaper in which he pointed out that the putative ability of Andrias Scheuchzer to speak, which was really no more than the ability to repeat spoken words like a parrot, was of far less interest from a scientific point of view than some of the other questions surrounding this remarkable amphibian. For the scientist, the mysteries of Andrias Scheuchzeri were quite different: where, for instance, did it come from; where had it been throughout entire geological periods; how did it remain unknown for so long when reports of it now were coming in from all tropical parts of the Pacific Ocean. It seems to have been multiplying at an exceptional speed in recent times; how had it acquired such amazing vitality while still in a primitive triassic form, and how had it remained entirely hidden until recently, existing, most likely, in extremely isolated geographic pockets? Had there been a change of some sort in this ancient newt that brought biological advantages so that this rare vestige from the miocene period was given a new and remarkably effective period of existence? In this case it would not be out of the question for Andrias not only to multiply but even to evolve into a better form, and that human science would have the unique opportunity to assist in some of the enormous changes to be undergone by at least one animal species. The ability of Andrias Scheuchzeri to grunt a few dozen words and learn a few phrases - which the lay public perceives as a sign of some kind of intelligence - is no great wonder from a scientific point of view; but the power and vigour with which it shows its ability to survive, bringing it so suddenly and so successfully back to life after spending so long in abeyance, in a retarded state of development and nearly extinct, is no less than miraculous. There are some unusual circumstances to be considered here: Andrias Scheuchzeri is the only species of newt living in the sea and - even more remarkable - the only newt to be found in the area from Ethiopia to Australasia, the Lemuria of ancient myths. Could we not almost say that Nature now wishes to add another form of animal to the world by a precipitate acceleration of the development of a single species, a species which she has so far neglected or has so far been unable to bring fully to life? Moreover: it would be odd if the giant newts of Japan and those of the Alleghan Islands did not have some connecting link in the regions of the ocean lying between them. If Andrias had not been found it would have been necessary to postulate its existence in the very places where it was found; it would simply be needed to fill the space where, according to the geographic and developmental context, it must have been since ancient times. Be that as it may, the learned professor’s article concluded, this evolutionary resurrection of a miocene newt cannot fail to fill us all with as much reverence as astonishment at the Genius of Evolution on our planet which is clearly still far from ending its creative task.

This article was published despite the tacit, but definite, view of the editors that a learned article of this sort does not belong in a newspaper. Soon afterwards, Professor Uher received a letter from one of its readers:

Esteemed Professor Uher,

Last year I bought a house on the town square in Čáslav. While examining the house I found a box in the attic containing some rare and very old papers which were clearly of a scientific nature. They included two years’ issues of Hýbel’s journal, Hyllos for the years 1821 and 22, Jan Svatopluk Presl’s Mammals, Vojtěch Sedláček Základ’s Nature of Physics, nineteen years’ issues of the general educational publication, Progress, and thirteen years’ issues of the Czech Museum Magazine. Inserted next to Presls translation of Cuviers Discussion of Upheavals in the Earths Crust (from 1834) I found and article torn out of some old newspaper about some remarkable lizards.

When I read your distinguished article about these mysterious newts I was reminded of this box and brought it back down. I think it might be of some interest to you, and I am therefore, as an enthusiastic nature lover and great admirer of your works, sending its contents to you.

 

With deepest respects,

 

J. V. Najman

 

The cutting included with this letter bore neither title nor date; but the style and spelling suggest it came from the third or fourth decade of the nineteenth century; it was accordingly so yellow and decayed that it was very hard to read. Professor Uher was about to throw it into the bin but he was somehow impressed by the age of this piece of printed paper; he began to read; and after a short time he exclaimed “My God!” and readjusted his glasses. The cutting bore the following text:

Concerning Anthropoid Lizards

 

We read in one of the newspapers published overseas that a certain captain, the commander of an English man of war, having returned from a voyage to distant lands, has brought back reports concerning some rather remarkable lizards which he encountered on a minor island in the Australian ocean. On this island, we are told, there is to be found a salt water lake which has neither access to the open sea nor any other means of approach not involving great exertions and difficulties. It was this salt lake that the aforementioned captain and his medical officer had chosen for their recreation when from it emerged some unfamiliar animals. These animals greatly resembled lizards, their means of locomotion, however, was on two legs similar to human beings. In size they were comparable with a sea lion or seal, and once on shore they began to move around in their peculiar manner, giving the impression of a charming and elegant dance. The captain and his medical officer were successful in obtaining one of these animals by means of their guns and inform us that their bodies are of a slimey character, without hair and without anything resembling scales, so that they bear some resemblance to salamanders. The following day, when they returned to the same spot, they were obliged immediately to depart again because of the overpowering stench, and they instructed their divers to hunt all the newts in the lake with their nets, by which means all but a few of the animals were annihilated, leaving no more than two examples which were taken on board the ship. Upon establishing that their bodies contained some kind of poison and the skin was burning to the touch in a way that resembled the sting of a nettle, the animals were placed in barrels of salt water in order that they might be returned to england alive. However, while the ship was near the island of sumatra the captive lizards were successful in making their way from the barrels, opening without any assistance one of the windows of a lower deck, throwing themselves into the sea, and making their escape under cover of darkness. According to the testimony of officers and ratings on board the ship these animals were remarkably odd and sly, walking as they did on their hind legs, and issuing strange barking and squelching sounds. They seemed however to present no danger to man. It would seem appropriate from the preceding to give them the name ‘anthroposaurus’.

So the cutting went. “My God!” repeated the professor in some excitement, “why is there no date or title on this cutting? And what was this foreign newspaper named by this certain commander and what English ship was this? What was the small island in the Australian Ocean? couldn’t these people have been a bit more precise and a bit more, well, a bit more scientific? This is a historic document, it’s priceless . . . ”

A small island in the Australian Ocean, yes. A small salt water lake. It sounds like a coral island, an atoll with a salt lagoon, difficult of access: just the sort of place a prehistoric species of this sort might survive, isolated from the evolutional developments of other species and undisturbed in a natural reservation. Of course they wouldn’t have been able to multiply because of the lack of food in the lake.  It’s obvious, the professor said to himself. An animal similar to a lizard, but without scales and walking on its hind legs like a man: it could only be Andrias Scheuchzeri, or another newt closely related to it. Supposing it was the same Andrias. Supposing those damned divers in that lagoon wiped them out and just the one pair were taken alive onto that ship; a pair that escaped into the sea by Sumatra. That would mean right on the Equator, in conditions highly favourable for life and with unlimited food. Could it be that this change of environment gave this miocene newt a powerful new evolutionary impulse? It was certainly used to salt water: lets suppose its new home was a calm, enclosed bay with plenty of food; what would happen then? The newts transposed into an environment with optimal conditions, having enormous vigour; their population would burgeon. That’s it, the scientist declared joyfully. The newts would start to develop uncontrollably; they would throw themselves into life like mad; they would multiply at an amazing rate because their eggs and their tadpoles would have no particular enemies in the new environment. They would colonise one island after another - it’s only strange that some islands have been overlooked. In all other respects it’s typical of migration patterns in pursuit of food - and that raises the question of why they didn’t develop earlier. Could it be to do with the fact that there is no known species of newt in the area between Ethiopia and Australia? Or rather hasn’t been until now. Could there have been some development in this area in the miocene period which was unfavourable for newts? It is certainly possible. Could there have been some particular predator which simply hunted the newts to extinction? Just on a single small island, with an isolated lake, is where the miocene newt survived - albeit at the price of its evolution coming to a halt. It was like a compressed spring waiting to be released. It’s not even out of the question that Nature had its own great plans for this newt, it might have developed even further and further, higher and higher, who knows how high . . . (At this thought, Professor Uher shuddered slightly; who knows that Andrias Scheuchzeri was not meant to be the human beings of the miocene!)

Enough of that! This undeveloped animal suddenly finds itself in a new environment offering boundless promise; a compressed spring waiting to be released. Andrias will have thrown itself into its development with so much miocene vigour and enthusiasm, so much élan vital! So much frenzy to catch up on the thousands and millions of years during which evolution passed it by! Is it at all possible it would be content with just the level of development it has reached today? It would show just the sort of upsurge we have seen - or else it’s just on the threshhold of its evolution and getting ready to rise - and who can say where it will go! These were the thoughts and observation that Professor Vladimír Uher wrote down about this yellowed cutting from an ancient publication, shaking with the intellectual enthusiasm of a discoverer. I must publish it in the newspapers, he said to himself, as nobody ever reads scientific publications. Let everyone know what enormous events Nature has in store for us! I will entitle it Do Newts have a Future?

Only, the editor of the Peoples Press looked at Professor Uher’s article and shook his head. Not these newts again! I think our readers have had it up to their necks with these newts. It’s about time we found something else to write about. And a scientific article such as this doesn’t belong in the papers anyway.

As a result, the article about the development and prospects of the newts never did appear.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/newts/chapter11.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34