Science Art: Sea Sirens, by A.A. Jansson, 1930.

Scientific illustration of a manatee, as a model for a siren, skeptically analyzed in Natural History magazine from 1930.

“The efforts made by oversober scientists to reduce such marvels to coldly reasonable origins have in a few specific cases been only too successful,” wrote George Gaylord Simpson in 1930, following that with a warning: “Beware of disillusion, however, for the sirenians are also called ‘sea-cows’ (although, of course, they are really no sort of cows) and are as ugly and stupid as the sirens were beautiful and enticing.”

Simpson is being a little harsh there in the Jan-Feb issue of Natural History: The Journal of the American Museum of Natural History. But he’s trying to make the point that the often-told story about manatees inspiring myths of mermaids is really kind of far-fetched once you’re confronted with the creature itself. Although the real truth is that they’re quite fetching in their own way, and their sagacious tranquility is often mistaken for stupidity by those who haven’t spent enough time getting to know them.

The page layout on this seemed like part of the artwork, so you get to see Jansson’s drawing as it appeared on the page. The same issue has Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Kermit, on “The Search for the Giant Panda” and Clive Wissler on “The Universal Appeal of the American Indian.” Interesting how public attitudes on all three subjects have changed in a little less than a hundred years.