I Was Slijper’s Goat

Ehud Lamm
Ehud Lamm
Jun 13 · 13 min read

(As told to Ehud Lamm)

While it was short, I had a pretty good life, though the thing I most remember from it is the back pain. Constant back pain. That and a sense of perpetual identity crisis. Was it a life worth living? Listen to my tale and judge for yourself.

I should probably start at the beginning… I was born in 1939. It was not a good time in Europe — I was born in the Netherlands — let alone for freaks of nature like myself, but my most immediate concerns were not political. You see, I was deformed. From as early as I can remember, my body just felt wrong. Where you’d expect to see my left foreleg there was just a little knob. Looking at my right foreleg you’d immediately classify me as a freak: I had a very small, deformed leg with a hoof. Even a kid could tell something was wrong with my body. Early on I knew I would never truly belong. I later heard people speculating that my deformity could have been a mutation or caused by a viral infection, but truth be told the cause never interested me too much.

My first stroke of good luck was that I was brought to the yard by Mr and Mrs van G, a loving Dutch couple. Though they wanted to very much, the G’s did not have any children of their own. If that would not have been the case I would have probably been taken out back, “Oh, the baby goat? He is on a nice farm upstate” they would have told the kids. But, having no kids, Mrs van G took it upon herself to take care of me, deformity and all. What? You expected a young child, a girl perhaps, to have taken care of a deformed creature such as myself? Or for loving middle class parents to expose their children to something so unappetizing? No, it was Mrs van G who milked her goat, and fed me from a bottle until I was strong enough to face a world I was not adapted to. This was my second stroke of good luck. You see, Mrs van G was tall as a poplar tree and to reach the bottle in her hand I had to learn very
early on how to stand upright and hop.

I learned to walk in the small garden, next to the vegetable patch, though I still cringe when referring to my ineluctable form of locomotion as walking. You see: when others walk, as nature intended them to, I had to hop. Instead of seeing the world as it is, I learned to see the world moving up and down… and at a 45 degree angle no less. Much as I’d have liked to be a normal goat, I would have settled for walking like a man. Or hopping like a kangaroo, with their heavy tails for balance. But that was not to be. I had to hop on my two hindlegs much like a kangaroo, only without the tail, planting my hoofs way in front under my body so as not to lose balance. My tail — so attractive in normal goats — was utterly useless as a counterweight. The angle my body made with the ground was a bit scary. It is fine to stand upright, with your forelegs hugging a doe, but hopping up and down in this angle can make your stomachs turn.

Hopping in the garden was not too bad. After a little while I’d fall or, more often, just settle down where it was warm (March is not as warm as you think where I grew up). Mrs van G would come collect me, offer me a snack, and more often than not some encouragement. “Don’t worry little one. You’ll get the hang of this. Mr van G says that dogs, sheep, even horses can walk on their hindlegs. You are not as unusual as you think!” Some encouragement, that… Maybe if she had kids Mrs van G would have known that being unique is the one thing that gave me the will to go on. Don’t get me wrong, I do not hold it against her, she was the closest I had to a mother.

But with a lot of perseverance I managed to hop quite well eventually: jumping on both hindlegs at once was the key. I wanted to see what was going on behind the fence. I heard noises, smelled things. On one side, close to the house, I heard people; on the other side I heard and smelled something both scary and sweet: the sounds and smells of other goats. Oh, how I wanted to belong… I yearned to be a strong, virile buck, but I would have settled on remaining a runt, if only I could be among friends. So curious I was to see what was going on behind that fence that I would hop as best I could, often unable to transverse the few feet from the back door to the fence in one go. But after a few weeks I manged to hop well enough that you would have thought I was designed for bipedalism. I learned to plan my journey ahead of time, so I would have comfortable things to lean on or good spots to lie down and munch when I got tired. Hopping made the muscles in my hindlegs stronger, and as my posture improved and my bones reshaped standing up also became less uncomfortable. I should say that I never managed to straighten my legs like Mrs van G’s. Hard as I tried, the range of motions of my hip joints was restricted to what a quadruped needs. But, all told, these hopping exercises when I was a kid are probably what got me my place in history. But, again, I am getting ahead of myself.

Then came the fateful day that marked the end of the closest thing I had to a childhood, the turning point in my life. You see, Mrs and Mr van G decided I was old enough, large enough, a good enough hopper, to join the other goats in the meadow. Oh, if only that turned out to be true…

I was so happy. I knew that the following day I would be let out. I could just see it in the way Mrs van G played with me. I knew it was the weekend, and was aware enough to know that this is when humans like to make domestic changes.

The following day I was taken out. Don’t imagine me being carried: I was quite heavy already. Not huge, mind you, or I wouldn’t be able to hop, but we goats know how to eat. Hopping along after Mrs van G, I could barely wait for the gate to open. I immediately felt my dreams burst, my fantasy crumbling down. In front of me stood — on all fours — the biggest meanest buck you had ever seen. He was grinning. I knew I was toast. But then I saw his expression change… You see, I was standing upright, leaning on the fence, and that made me the dominant animal. I took a sigh of relief and lay on the grass, when immediately a new epiphany struck: now I was no longer a threat and that enormous buck went about his business.

While the people watched all was fine. I hopped along, tried to make friends. No one wanted anything to do with me but nothing bad happened. I found a patch of grass with something edible left on it, and began eating, my heart rate slowly returning to normal. Soon enough the area of grass was all eaten up and the small tribe moved as a group several steps away. I tried to keep up but had to take a rest. I certainly couldn’t keep up with the little ones. I lay there feeling sorry for myself. It finally dawned on me that I will never be part of the tribe.

I could hear what the others were thinking. And, sure, the minute I stopped being alert I felt a slight push, when one of the other goats, pretending innocence, tried to approach a patch of grass next to mine. A slight push, that is, if you have four working legs. Whenever I was startled I’d quickly hop a few steps away. People may not realize this, but social rank is important even for us, and while I was clearly not in the running to be the top buck, the others made sure I knew my place in subtle ways. I could tell that breeding was going to be out of the question.

You may also not realize that a lot of the time we goats simply stand around. That’s how time passes. But I could only lie on the ground or hop. Standing and socializing were out. It was all very dispiriting. I finally hopped back to the gate and bleated to be let back in. Before you judge me try to walk a mile in my hooves; I knew that I would never belong. Maybe the same love and care that made me strong enough to survive also spoiled me. I did not want to fight a fight I was destined to lose. My only mistake was that I thought that once I was let back in things would return to what they were before.

But no, Mr van G thought that it was about time I faced the world, if not at home than at THE INSTITUTE. Even the name gave me the shivers. The following day, I think, Mr van G put me in the back of a truck and took me to where the next chapter of my life was to begin. I was three months old. My new address: The Institute of Veterinary Anatomy of the State University, Utrecht, Holland; Director Prof. Dr. G. KREDIET. No more Mrs van G. No more Mr van G. My fate was to be forever known as Slijper’s goat. Everhard Johannes Slijper, that is. But, wait, I am getting ahead of myself again.

My life in the institute was more routine than at home and I spent much of the time in the grass field. When the weather turned cold I moved my activities into the stable. Everyday, maybe a couple of times a day, veterinary students came to play with me, and that meant that I had to rise up and hop a bit. Here, at the veterinary institute, my deformity was an asset. So, instead of atrophying, my hopping muscles got even more exercise than before, though in the winter, as I grew fatter, my walking became more shaky. I was never alone in the Institute, and many of the other animals that have been brought in were handicapped, so I did not feel alone, and even managed to have a friend or two.

The young and enthusiastic Dr. Slijper was particularly fond of me. It took me awhile to understand that he probably had ulterior motives beyond being captivated by the gregarious personality I had instilled in me by Mrs van G. Often I saw him pointing out my posture to students. When he petted me, admiring the muscles in my hindlegs and back I heard him murmur approvingly “function before form, ya, function before form.” Behind his back I heard the students referring to his obsessive interest in me and finally surmised that he was writing a book. “Surely not about me?”, I thought. Though the idea was exciting… I like to munch on books.

The rest of my story is pretty straightforward, even if sad. Like I said, during the winter I stayed in the stable and while I did demonstrate my skills occasionally I mostly grew bigger and fatter. This meant I did not walk as well as I did before. One day when I was hopping outside the barn I fell into a large ditch. I am not sure exactly what happened next, but either I died right away or soon thereafter. I was merely one year old. I suppose being born without forelegs was not enough, my bad luck stayed with me. Do I sound bitter? Then so be it!

So this is the story of my short life. The rest, as they say, is history. I only know what happened later from secondary sources, of course, but since I am rather proud of my posthumous celebrity, I am going to include the little that I know in this autobiographical sketch.

After I died, I got into The Good Place; based on my “perseverance, and wholesome living,” from what I heard. It took almost thirty years, but in 1968 I was joined here by Dr. Slijper. It turned out that he indeed wrote a book! And while it was not specifically about me, I am told that my story was the strongest evidence in the book for Slijper’s thesis that form depends on function and not vice versa. Remember his mumblings? It turns out that he was thinking about the topic when he was parading me around! (He published the book in 1946.) My fame rests mostly on two papers he published in 1942 in which he described me. Well, truth be told, it was not really a description of me; Slijper was interested only in my body and the papers recited the results from my autopsy. He claimed that because I had to hop on my hindlegs I developed the muscles and bone structure found in bipedal mammals like kangaroos, humans, and even — I kid you not — jumping mice that are found mostly in northern Africa. In other words, hopping on two legs (that’s what he meant by “function”) led to changes in body structure (yep, that’s what he meant by “form”). Though, of course, I never did manage to stand upright. As I mentioned, the angles between the parts of my hindlegs remained as they are in quadrupedal animals. I gather that the similarity of the curvature of my spine and that of kangaroos and humans, as well as the shape of my pelvis and thorax, and my enlarged hindlegs, may have had some theoretical implications, though it seems to me that my back pain was not duly acknowledged nor were my perseverance and good cheer (my wholesome living being more a result than a cause of my bipedalism, if you see what I mean).

You’d think my fame made Slijper happy. In fact he was hopping mad (see what I did here?). He felt that most people misunderstood his claim about form and function. Already in 1958, his example, that’s me by the way, was used by the famous scientist John Maynard Smith to argue that large jumps in evolution are possible. I was used as an illustration of a discontinuous jump from walking on fours to bipedalism, rather than gradual evolution by natural selection. The idea, if I understand it correctly, is that large changes are usually bad or “not adaptive”. But here I was, driven by necessity to make a large adjustment, and lo and behold my body organized itself in a functional way. They call animals like me “hopeful monsters”. I can’t say that this term doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I guess there’s something to it. It was Mrs van G’s hope that drove me to stand upright and Slijper’s hope to make a name for himself that led him to make me hop around for his students. These activities are what made my bones and muscles develop in the way they did. Had I remained crouched next to a bale of hay all the time I’d probably not have become an icon.

I am driven to recount my tale by the renewed interest in me since the publication of the book Developmental Plasticity and Evolution by Mary Jane West-Eberhard in 2003. This book is so thick I wouldn’t be able to munch on it. West-Eberhard dedicated a couple of pages to what she called The Two-Legged Goat Effect. The Two-Legged Goat: that’s me! Finally I got to be the protagonist. For West-Eberhard, the moral of my story was once again different. It showed how a change in one thing, like my lack of forelegs, can lead to correlated changes that show a high degree of complexity and integration, and this happened without generations of natural selection.

I can see why Slijper may have issues with how our story is used, but all this theorizing is beyond my abilities, and quite frankly my interests. I suppose I am glad to have made a contribution to science. But now I have all eternity to make up for lost time. This being The Good Place I now walk the eternal fields on all fours (and don’t get me started on the lovely does I found here if you don’t have all day). From time to time I agree to hop a bit on my hindlegs to amuse Dr. Slijper. I guess I owe him that much for my celebrity. Deep inside I still think that the motivations for his studies were more about him than about me, but long ago I have found it within myself to forgive him.

Looking back, what I most remember from my time on earth is how
important it can be that others believe in you, how this can give you
hope, but also how important it is to push through the pain and not to
be too scared to try whenever a big buck saunters by.


Note: While I was communicated this note by Slijper’s goat (who refuses to answer to any other name), I can only vouch for those details corroborated by Slijper’s original papers:

Slijper, E. J. (1942) Proc. Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie Van
Wetenschappen 45, pp. 288–295, 407–415.

I have tried to make the story accurate by consulting veterinarians
specializing in goats and familiar with the Institute of Veterinary
Anatomy, but have not been able to locate information in the archives in Utrecht. My thanks to the veterinarians who so kindly guided me through the intricacies of goat life. I have also spent time gazing fondly at goats. John Maynard Smith discussed Slijper’s goat in his popular science book The Theory of Evolution (Penguin Books, 1958; Canto Edition published by Cambridge University Press, 1993). He revisited his discussion in his 1983 essay “Current controversies in Evolutionary Biology”, which appears as chp. 16 in Did Darwin Get it Right? (Chapman & Hall, 1989). Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s discussion of Slijper’s goat is in chapter 3 of Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (2003, Oxford University Press).

For more information of Slijper’s goat and its place in evolutionary theory, head over to:

— Ehud Lamm (@ehud), February 2019.

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Ehud Lamm

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Ehud Lamm

Philosopher and Historian of Biology at Tel Aviv University. Follow me on twitter @ehud

Philosophy of Science Communication

a community of philosophers engaging in science education, outreach, and communications