Jean François Laterrade was a French botanist.


Notice en refutation de la non-existence de la licorneEdit

French originalEdit

English translation (Jacob Porter)Edit

Man is naturally disposed to call in question that of which he cannot conceive; because his mind, brought down from the exact sphere of his knowledge, would see the limits of creative power within the narrow boundaries of human weakness: then, relying on this false principle of analogous consequences, as soon as he doubts, he has decided; as soon as he has decided, he hears no further; and so great is his error, that he very soon exults in wandering from the truth, if it is common, because it does not agree with his pride to be like his equals, if they are of an opinion contrary to what he supposes to be the fruit of his genius.

Hence literary disputes, confident assertions, and denials, a thousand times more injurious to science than doubt: hence that incredulity in natural history, which leads us to deny the existence of such species as have not come under our observation, and particularly that of the quadruped that now engages our attention.

To say that it is impossible that there should be, or, at least, should have been, such an animal as the land unicorn, would be to go astray from acquired knowledge, to credit an absurd fable, in a word, to affect singularity. Meanwhile, if we can show that the account of this animal has in it nothing remote from the ordinary laws of nature, that several authors have made mention of it, and that there is found no proof that can overthrow the ideas that have been formed respecting it, its existence is thereby established. Let us endeavor to illustrate our threefold proposition.

1. The account of the unicorn has in it no appearance of the fabulous. Let us hear our opponents themselves. "It is said," says the Dictionnaire des Sciences, "that this is a timid animal, inhabiting the depths of the forests, of the size of the horse, bearing in front a white horn five hands in length, and with brown hair hanging over that, which is black." The difficulty can fall only on the long horn, with which the front of our quadruped is armed. Its horizontal direction, its position, its being single, the form of the animal that carries it; these, it is said, are by no means natural. But then the defence of the narwhal, which a horn fourteen feet in length, that has a horizontal direction, proceeding from the upper jaw, and finally belonging to an inhabitant of the waves, is certainly far less natural. Yet this ii's a cetaceous animal, concerning whose existence there is no doubt, and which is common in the northern seas; and the armed fox, which M. Duhamel, after M. de Mannevillette, made known to us, presents a phenomenon still more extraordinary, since it has a horn, small indeed, but placed on the backside of the head; a most singular character, and altogether peculiar to this species.

2. Several authors have spoken of the unicorn. First, if we open the sacred Scriptures, we shall see that David and the Prophets were well acquainted with it. But as the commentaries speak of this animal only in a figurative manner, we respect their silence, and pass over a proof, which alone would, perhaps be sufficient for our purpose. It satisfies us to know that they have made mention of it.

Pliny, whom none will suspect of connivance with the sacred writers, gives a description of the unicorn in his eighth book, adding that it cannot be taken alive.

Accordingly, Hieronymus Lupus and Balthazar Tellez found, in Abyssinia, a quadruped of the size of a horse, and whose front was armed with a horn.

Finally, the respectable Leibnitz announces, in his Protogea, on the authority of the celebrated Otho Guérike, that, in 1663, there was dug up, from a quarry of limestone in the mountain of Zeuniqueslberg, in the territory of Quedelimburg, the skeleton of a land quadruped, flat on the back parts of the head, but the head itself elevated, and bearing in front a horn about ten feet on length and terminated in a point. This skeleton was broken up by the workmen; nevertheless, the head and some of the ribs were sent to the Princess Abbess. These details are accompanied with an engraving.

3. As yet there is no sufficient proof found of the non-existence of the unicorn. The account of it has no appearance of fable; and several authors, at different times and among different people, have mentioned it in a positive manner, as we have just seen. What further objections then is there? That the ancients attributed to the horn of our quadruped properties so extraordinary and ridiculous, that every thing relating to it can be no more than a fable. What! it would be deemed sufficient then that falsehood or ignorance should add to real facts, compared with which they should spread the poisonous venom of calumny over the sacred truth, for which it ought henceforth to have no affinity! Where then shall we be? But, without straying from our subject, what animal is there a little extraordinary, concerning which there have not been suspicious, when the night of time has removed it a little distance from us? The giraffe is an example as striking as it is recent; and the mammoth, whose remains have been discovered, has fairly overthrown such reasoning; and the shells, the inhabitants of which we have not yet been able to determine, will tell us with silent but irresistible eloquence that nature loses nothing by growing old. Besides, the bezoars, to which have been attributed properties scarcely less ridiculous than to the horn of the unicorn, do they not exist? Do not such things occur still with respect to animals that live in parched countries, where heat fives to vegetable juice a power that is unknown in temperate regions? Nevertheless, it is unnecessary to dissemble that it would be in vain for all antiquity to testify in favour of this singular production, it would be in vain that the cabinets should furnish it to the curious; these recitals would be false, these productions would be the work of imposter, if the fact were not still repeated, or if our weakness could not perceive it.

Will it be objected that the moderns have never seen this animal? How many other species are there, which they have not noticed! New discoveries sufficiently prove this. Besides, the unicorn inhabits the interior of Africa, and precisely that part of it of which we know the least; and in Africa, as well as in other countries, certain animals might well appear, at first, even on the coasts, and afterwards, when the number of inhabitants was increased, be confined to the centre of the forests. A countless number of similar facts, sufficiently weld known, may excuse us from enlarging upon this. In short, let us, without being detained by unimportant discussions come to the grand proof of the non-existence of the unicorn; let us examine attentively, and judge with impartiality.

For a long time there was exhibited a defence resembling ivory, white and channeled, of a very considerable length, and terminating in a point. It was asserted that it was the horn of a quadruped. Of this, however, notwithstanding all the researches that were made, nothing could be discovered; from time to time these defences became more numerous, no other part of the animal being united with it; finally, there was brought to Wormius the head of the narwal; then the question was decided: and because some too credulous persons had said that the tooth of a cetaceous animal was the horn of a quadruped, it was thence concluded that the unicorn had never existed, and consequently that it was only a fabulous animal, whose non-existence was mechanically demonstrated by Kamper. Without detracting from the celebrity of this great anatomist, we do not cite his demonstration, persuaded that the beauties of nature and her admirable secrets cannot be explained by the laws of mechanics only.

Nevertheless, we may remark that Wormius, cautious in his inferences, is always in doubt; that he speaks of the unicorn as he had heard the King of Denmark, by an Ambassador from Congo; that Gmelin is not sure that the fossil unicorn, which is sometimes found in the earth, is the defence of the narwal; that, finally, if the narwal were unknown till of late, the unicorn after being seen by the ancients, may not yet have been discovered by us.

Finally, is it not the height of error and blindness to maintain the non-existence of our quadruped by the existence of the narwal? It must be confessed that this would be to disguise the process of nature, which seems to delight in repeating the particular animals in each class; and that it is to regard as favourable to an opinion that which is almost sufficient to overthrow it. Thus, as the ostrich among birds, and the high-bunched coffre among the inhabitants of the seas, are the representatives of the camel, and the fish zebra is of the quadruped zebra, so the unicorn of the sea seems to prove the existence of the land unicorn.

We conclude, therefore, that we have satisfactory evidence, to say the least, that this animal may have existed, and that it is possible that he exists still; and we close by saying, with the immortal Buffon, "It is not by contracting the sphere of nature, and contracting her within a narrow circle, that we shall be able to understand her; it is not by making her act according to some preconceived ideas, that we shall be able to judge of her or comprehend her; and we shall not be able to fathom the designs of the Creator by furnishing him with our ideas: instead of confining the limits of his power, it is necessary to extend them even to immensity: it is necessary to consider nothing as impossible; to look for every thing; and to suppose that whatever can exist, really does."