A wonderful Victorian children's story, as popular once as The Wizard of Oz in the 20th century, or Harry Potter is now. It tells of a child chimney sweep named Tom who is employed by a terrible man named Grimes. Tom falls down a chimney and meets a girl whose cleanliness and neatness make Tom realize, for the first time, his own filth. After being chased out of the house, he falls into a river and is magically transformed into a "water baby", a gilled creature only four inches long.
The book evokes Alice in Wonderland and Oliver Twist, and it has a scientific twist that separates it from other children's literature.
Young readers did not realize that the book, written in 1862-3 by a preacher named Reverend Charles Kingsley, had been intended in part as a satire of Darwinian science and as a serious critique of the closed-minded approaches of many scientists.
In the book, for example, Kingsley argues that no person is qualified to say that something that they have never seen (like a human soul or a water baby) does not exist.
How do you know that? Have you been there to see? And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none . . . And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.
Kingsley was a proponent of the theory of degeneration, the notion that evolution does not necessarily imply progress. (He is entirely correct about this, no modern scholar of the subject would suggest that new species are better than old ones, merely that they were able to out-compete them under prevailing conditions.) In The Water Babies, Kingsley tells of a group of children who do "whatever they like" and gradually lose the power of speech. They degenerate into monkeys are are shot by the African explorer Paul de Chaillu.
The Water Babies at various times refers to "Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor [Richard] Owen, Professor [Thomas Henry] Huxley, [and] Mr. Darwin", and thus they become explicitly part of the story. In the accompanying illustrations by Noel Paton, Huxley and Owen are caricatured, studying a captured water baby.
Delightfully, in 1892 Thomas Henry Huxley's five-year-old grandson Julian saw this engraving and wrote his grandfather a letter asking
Dear Grandpater -- Have you seen a Waterbaby? Did you put it in a bottle? Did it wonder if it could get out? Could I see it some day? -- Your loving Julian.
Huxley wrote back a letter that is, to me, as wonderful as the New York Sun's "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" letter, which it somewhat resembles. It is a blessing from a great scientist to a young boy whom he hopes will some day be a scientist too.
My dear Julian -- I could never make sure about that Water Baby.
I have seen Babies in water and Babies in bottles; the Baby in the water was not in a bottle and the Baby in the bottle was not in water.
My friend who wrote the story of the Water Baby was a very kind man and very clever. Perhaps he thought I could see as much in the water as he did -- There are some people who see a great deal and some who see very little in the same things.
When you grow up I dare say you will be one of the great-deal seers, and see things more wonderful than the Water Babies where other folks can see nothing.
Julian Huxley did go on to be a scientist. In the 1940s, he was a driving force behind the development of the synthetic theory of evolution.
Richard Milner points out that Julian's early scientific work involved the axolotl, an animal that never matures past its gilled stage. It is therefore a real-life vision of Kingsley's imagined Water Babies.
The book does not hide merely scientific messages; it also questions the morality of enforced child labor and the treatment of the poor in England.
The Water Babies is too long to include here in its entirety, but I have printed the first paragraph. The text is out of copyright and you can find it at http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/30/991/frameset.html and many other websites.
Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived. He had never been taught to say his prayers. He never had heard of God, or of Christ, except in words which you never have heard, and which it would have been well if he had never heard. He cried half his time, and laughed the other half. He cried when he had to climb the dark flues, rubbing his poor knees and elbows raw; and when the soot got into his eyes, which it did every day in the week; and when his master beat him, which he did every day in the week; and when he had not enough to eat, which happened every day in the week likewise. And he laughed the other half of the day, when he was tossing halfpennies with the other boys, or playing leap-frog over the posts, or bowling stones at the horses’ legs as they trotted by, which last was excellent fun, when there was a wall at hand behind which to hide. As for chimney-sweeping, and being hungry, and being beaten, he took all that for the way of the world, like the rain and snow and thunder, and stood manfully with his back to it till it was over, as his old donkey did to a hail- storm; and then shook his ears and was as jolly as ever; and thought of the fine times coming, when he would be a man, and a master sweep, and sit in the public-house with a quart of beer and a long pipe, and play cards for silver money, and wear velveteens and ankle-jacks, and keep a white bull-dog with one gray ear, and carry her puppies in his pocket, just like a man. And he would have apprentices, one, two, three, if he could. How he would bully them, and knock them about, just as his master did to him; and make them carry home the soot sacks, while he rode before them on his donkey, with a pipe in his mouth and a flower in his button-hole, like a king at the head of his army. Yes, there were good times coming; and, when his master let him have a pull at the leavings of his beer, Tom was the jolliest boy in the whole town.
Richard Milner, Encyclopedia of Evolution, 1990