A History of the Earth and Animated Nature

by Oliver Goldsmith


BOOK I—Of Cetaceous Fishes

CHAP. II—Of Cetaceous Fishes in General

As on land there are some orders of animals that seem formed to command the rest, with greater powers and more various instincts, so in the ocean there are fishes which seem formed upon a nobler plan than others, and that, to their fishy form, join the appetites and the conformation of quadrupeds. These are all of the cetaceous kind; and so much raised above their fellows of the deep, in their appetites and instincts, that almost all our modern naturalists have fairly excluded them from the finny tribes, and will have them called, not fishes, but great beasts of the ocean. With them it would be as improper to say men go to Greenland fishing for whale, as it would be to say that a sportsman goes to Blackwell a-fowling for mackerel.

Yet, notwithstanding philosophers, mankind will always have their own way of talking; and, for my own part, I think them here in the right. A different formation of the lungs, stomach, and intestines; a different manner of breathing or propagating; are not sufficient to counterbalance the great obvious analogy which these animals bear to the whole finny tribe. They are shaped as other fishes; they swim with fins; they are entirely naked, without hair; they live in the water, though they come up to breathe; they are only seen in the depths of the ocean, and never come upon shore but when forced thither. These, sure, are sufficient to plead in favour of the general denomination, and acquit mankind of error in ranking them with their lower companions of the deep.

But still they are as many degrees raised above other fishes in their nature, as they are in general in their size. This tribe is composed of the Whale and its varieties, of the Cachalot, the Dolphin, the Grampus, and the Porpoise. All these resemble quadrupeds in their internal structure, and in some of their appetites and affections. Like quadrupeds, they have lungs, a midriff, a stomach, intestines, liver, spleen, bladder, and parts of generation; their heart also resembles that of quadrupeds, with its partitions closed up as in them, and driving red and warm blood in circulation through the body. In short, every internal part bears a most striking similitude; and to keep these parts warm, the whole kind are also covered, between the skin and the muscles, with a thick coat of fat or blubber, which, like the bacon fat of a hog, keeps out the cold, renders their muscles glib and pliant, and probably makes them lighter in swimming.

As these animals breathe the air, it is obvious that they cannot bear to be any long time under water. They are constrained, therefore, every two or three minutes, to come up to the surface to take breath, as well as to spout out through their nostril (for they have but one) that water which they sucked in while gaping for their prey. This conduit by which they breathe, and also throw out the water, is placed in the head, a little before the brain. Though externally the hole is but single, it is internally divided by a bony partition, which is closed by a sphincter muscle on the inside, that, like the mouth of a purse, shuts it up at the pleasure of the animal. There is also another muscle or valve, which prevents the water from going down the gullet. When, therefore, the animal takes in a certain quantity of water, which is necessary to be discharged and separated from its food, it shuts the mouth, closes the valve of the stomach, opens the sphincter that kept the nostril closed, and then breathing strongly from the lungs, pushes the water out by the effort, as we see it rise by the pressure of air in a fire-engine.

The senses of these animals seem also superior to those of other fishes. The eyes of other fishes, we have observed, are covered only with that transparent skin that covers the rest of the head; but in all the cetaceous kinds, it is covered by eyelids, as in man. This, no doubt, keeps that organ in a more perfect state, by giving it intervals of relaxation, in which all vision is suspended. The other fishes, that are for ever staring, must see, if for no other reason, more feebly, as their organs of sight are always exerted.

As for hearing, these also are furnished with the internal instruments of the ear, although the external orifice nowhere appears. It is most probable that this orifice may open by some canal, resembling the Eustachian tube, into the mouth; but this has not as yet been discovered.

Yet Nature sure has not thus formed a complete apparatus for hearing, and denied the animal the use of it when formed. It is most likely that all animals of the cetaceous kind can hear, as they certainly utter sounds, and bellow to each other. This vocal power would be as needless to animals naturally deaf, as glasses to a man that was blind.

But it is in the circumstances in which they continue their kind, that these animals show an eminent superiority. Other fish deposit their spawn, and leave the success to accident; these never produce above one young, or two at the most; and this the female suckles entirely in the manner of quadrupeds, her breasts being placed, as in the human kind, above the navel. We have read many fabulous accounts of the nursing of the demigods of antiquity, of their feeding on the marrow of lions, and their being suckled by wolves; one might imagine a still more heroic system of nutrition, if we supposed that the young hero was suckled and grew strong upon the breast-milk of a she-whale!

The whale or the grampus are terrible at any time; but are fierce and desperate in the defence of their young. In Waller's beautiful poem of the Summer Islands, we have a story, founded upon fact, which shows the maternal tenderness of these animals for their offspring. A whale and her cub had got into an arm of the sea, where, by the desertion of the tide, they were enclosed on every side. The people from shore soon saw their situation, and drove down upon them in boats, with such weapons as the urgent occasion offered. The two animals were soon wounded in several places, and the whole sea round was tinctured with their blood. The whales made several attempts to escape; and at last the old one, by its superior strength, forced over the shallow into the depths Of the ocean. But though in safety herself, she could not bear the danger that awaited her young one; she therefore rushed in once more where the smaller animal was imprisoned. and resolved, when she could not protect, at least to share its danger.—The story ends with poetical justice; for the tide coming in, brought off both in safety from their enemies, though not without sustaining an infinite number of wounds in every part.

As to the rest, the distinctive marks of this tribe are, that the number of their fins never exceeds three; namely, two pectoral fins, and one back fin; but in some sorts the last is wanting. These fins differ very much from those of other fishes, which are formed of straight spines: the fins of the cetaceous tribe are made up of bones and muscles; and the skeleton of one of their fins very much resembles the skeleton of a man's hand. Their tails also are different from those of all other fish: they are placed so as to lie flat on the surface of the water; while the other kinds have them, as we every day see, upright or edgeways. This flat position of the tail in cetaceous animals, enables them to force themselves suddenly to the surface of the water to breathe, which they are continually constrained to do.

Of these enormous animals some are without teeth, and properly called whales: others have the teeth only in the lower jaw, and are called by the French, cachalots; the narwhal has teeth only in the upper jaw: the dolphin's teeth, as well as those of the porpoise and grampus, are both above and below. These are the marks that serve to distinguish the kinds of this enormous tribe from each other; and these shall serve to guide us in giving their history.


The cetacea, of which the whale serves as an example, respire by means of lungs, incessantly by rising to the surface for atmospheric air: they are viviparous, and suckle their young; and the sexes associate in the manner of terrestrial animals. The bones, which represent those of the anterior limbs of quadrupeds, are concealed under thick tendinous envelops in the form of pectoral fins; those representing the hind limbs are displaced by the cartilages of a horizontal tail fin  in which respect they differ from fishes, for in them it is always vertical and the pelvis is in a rudimentary state.

With gills pulmonic breathes the enormous whale, And spouts aquatic columns to the gale; Sports on the shining wave at noontide hours, And shifting rainbows crest the rising showers.     —[ERASMUS] DARWIN

Some striking peculiarities present themselves in the general organization of the cetacea. Constantly immersed in the water, with the exception of a small portion of the body, it became necessary to the act of respiration, that the nostrils should have a direction differing from terrestrial mammalia; and we find in the cetacea apertures which have been named Spiracles, placed on the summit of the head, in a perpendicular direction, by which are performed the functions of respiration, and the ejection of the water which passes into the mouth during the act of feeding.

The enormous size of the cetacea is perhaps one of the most amazing facts in their history; varying in development from the most colossal proportions to the ordinary size of other beings, they are in their extreme bulk the largest of known animals. Indeed it is natural, says Lesson, that these giants of the animal kingdom, occupying the immense deserts of the sea, should bear relation to the vast surface which they have to animate. Thus the extensive wastes of Africa are the habitations of the largest quadrupeds, such as the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the giraffe.

The habits of the cetacea vary in the different groups. The whales are large and harmless, but move in their native element with amazing power; the cachalots are fierce and courageous; the dolphins warlike and voracious. The development of the brain bears an interesting relation to the manners of the animal; of little magnitude in any of the cetacea, in proportion to the bulk of the body, it assumes its maximum in dolphins, and their possession of superior intelligence is attested by all who have studied their habits.

Till the time of Bloch, whales and their congeners were always associated with fishes, and it was not till the first edition of the Animal Kingdom by Cuvier, that a true arrangement of cetaceous animals was formed. These he divided into the herbivorous cetacea, and the cetacea proper, which feed on fish. The whole animals forming the class, however, are remarkable for the strong typical similarity that exists amongst the different species of which it is comprised.