In 1857, less than two years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Richard Owen delivered a lecture about gorillas. As Europe’s preeminent zoologist / public intellectual—a Carl Sagan of the Victorian era—Owen’s opinion carried a lot of weight. And in his opinion, the brains of man and gorilla differed so greatly that the two species could not be linked by “transmutation” (evolution). In other words: humans did not descend from apes, and the brain was the anatomical bulwark that separated man from beast. It was an argument for human exceptionalism and against Darwinian evolution.
Owen was wrong, but his idea was emblematic of a larger conflict. A paradigm-shifting concept—evolution by natural selection—was meeting a profoundly hierarchical society obsessed with quantifying distinctions in race, class, gender, culture, and ability. The gorilla was right in the middle, and what followed was Victorian England’s “gorilla wars.”
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When Owen delivered his lecture, the gorilla was so novel and mysterious to Europeans as to be almost mythical. Only a decade earlier, in 1847, Owen had received a letter from a missionary in Gabon, depicting massive humanoid skulls said to come from an apelike beast known locally as njena. Based only on these drawings and descriptions, Owen declared the creature a new species of chimp, troglodytes savagei (not for its temperament: the missionary’s surname was Savage).
But he’d already been scooped: in the meantime, Savage had found some actual skulls and named the species troglodytes gorilla (eventually, gorilla gorilla). And yet by 1857, the sum total of western scientific knowledge about gorillas consisted only of a partial skeleton cobbled together from scattered bits of bone, and some mythical white-man tales of a chest-beating, man-eating, musket-destroying jungle behemoth. Before the gorilla could become the flashpoint of cultural and scientific debate, someone would have to find one.
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Even while Owen lectured, Paul du Chaillu and a crew of Fang porters were trekking through the forests of Gabon, searching for gorillas. du Chaillu was born in 1831, the son of a French merchant and a black woman from Reunion Island, a fact later crucial to his story. He lived most of his life on Gabon’s coast, his teenage years spent with a pair of American missionaries who taught him English and told him about America.
In the early 1850s, du Chaillu came to the United States. He taught French and lectured on life in Africa, but what he really wanted was status—not fame, necessarily, but intellectual celebrity; access to the ivory tower and the intelligentsia, a world all but closed off to him thanks his lack of traditional academic credentials. But he’d heard of the gorilla, and reasoned that a specimen—which his childhood in Africa made him uniquely qualified to find—would establish his scientific bona fides. It took some wheedling, but in 1855 a Philadelphia ornithological society agreed to fund an expedition. They wanted birds; du Chaillu was after the gorilla.
The trip began inauspiciously. With a meager budget, du Chaillu had few supplies and no surplus goods to trade with the coastal Mpwonge people, who served as gatekeepers and emissaries for all the strange white men who came to “explore” the African interior. Here du Chaillu’s background was crucial: he’d spent time in Africa, knew some local languages and had a facility for picking up new ones, and, compared to other explorers, did not treat indigenous people as subhuman.* These traits helped him to befriend the Mpwonge enough that, despite his lack of goods to barter, they agreed to help him out.
*Claims of cannibalism are a classic way to demonize the other, and some part of the British mania for tales of exploration owed to the popular belief of Africa as a land of cannibals. du Chaillu at one point met a tribe who feared the British were cannibals—why else, they said, would the white man keep taking the biggest and strongest of their people, if not to eat them?
It took two years of travelling through largely inhospitable areas unknown to Europeans before du Chaillu and his associates even saw a gorilla. What happened when they found one is a superb example of divergent cultural priorities: the porters killed and ate it. Though a priceless specimen to du Chaillu, it was just another njena to the locals. That first sighting was portentous, though, and soon they even managed to capture a few gorillas, all of which quickly escaped or died. These encounters revealed gorillas as herbivores, not man-eaters; as shy, not aggressive. But their most conspicuous—and most unsettling—feature was what du Chaillu called their “horrid human likeness.” They seemed almost human.
A four year expedition ended in 1859. du Chaillu, with the help of his porters, traveled further into the African mainland than any European, sent back hundreds of new-to-science bird specimens to his ornithological benefactors, and amassed a collection of 20 stuffed gorillas. His dream of capturing a live gorilla went unfulfilled. And right about the time he made his way back to America, specimens in tow, On the Origin of Species was published.
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Though successful, the expedition did not earn du Chaillu academic celebrity. In fact, it didn’t earn him anything at first: he was ignored by scientists and his patrons didn’t bother to reimburse him, despite the hundreds of bird specimens he’d acquired for them. To make ends meet, he put together a gorilla sideshow, but even that failed when PT Barnum showed up next door with fake gorillas and better showmanship, running Paul’s show right out of town.
Here the paths of Paul du Chaillu and Richard Owen cross. Owen invited the intrepid and destitute Frenchman to London—so long as he brought his gorilla specimens for Owen to inspect. Once du Chaillu arrived, Owen—who as we shall see was otherwise utterly loathsome—did something considerate: he used his clout to arrange for du Chaillu’s journals to be published.
The journals were a massive hit, mostly because they were sensationalized. For example, though du Chaillu described gorillas as nonthreatening herbivores in lectures, they were depicted as fearsome, man-hungry leviathans in the books (indeed, the myth of violent chest-beating brutes like King Kong owes mainly to his hyperbolic descriptions; strangely there was no myth of eunuch gorillas even though he castrated his display specimens to avoid offending Victorian morals). And though his expedition, his survival, and what he learned about gorillas owed entirely to the knowledge and guidance of his Fang porters, his journals refer over and over to the dangers he faced from “exotic” and “cannibal” tribes. (I recommend this fascinating article about how western scientific knowledge of gorillas was built on the profoundly “unscientific” folk knowledge of du Chaillu’s assistants.)
In other words, du Chaillu the “objective” scientist and du Chaillu the popular author were at odds. And so even while gorillas became a staple of British pop culture—appearing in literary magazines, political cartoons, slang, and young adult adventure novels—du Chaillu’s literary success, which he hoped would translate to academic success, was instead consumed in backlash. The pushback began with John Gray, a scientist once blackballed by Richard Owen and now taking it out on Owen’s quasi-protege; he claimed that du Chaillu had never actually left the African coast (false), had copied his book’s illustrations (partially true), and was a terrible cartographer and observer (absolutely true).
This kicked off an outrage dogpile, with the claims that grew more and more vicious as the logic behind them became ever more spurious. A German explorer noted minor inconsistencies in the journals and claimed the entire trip was fabricated. Charles Waterton, a British explorer emeritus, saw his spotlight dimming and called du Chaillu a fake (a devout Catholic and taxidermist, Waterton should be better known for his bizarre stuffed animal dioramas of Catholic dogma: a snake as John Calvin, a donkey-eared ape as Martin Luther, etc.). Incompetent “explorer” Winwood Reade failed to duplicate the trip and thus declared it, with impeccable logic, not only fake but impossible. By the time the next official maps of Africa were published, du Chaillu’s credibility was vaporized: all the inland locations he’d discovered were still on the map, but had been moved to the coast.
Claims on du Chaillu’s intellectual integrity soon gave way to, and were inextricably intertwined with, claims on his racial integrity. As the relatively new idea of “scientific objectivity” filtered into a deeply racist and colonial society, scientific racism flourished and “objective” evidence was manufactured or manipulated to support commonly-held racist beliefs. And though du Chaillu never discussed his background, the rumor mill churned apace: the Times hinted at a “suspicion of Negro sympathies,” others at “evidence of a spurious origin,” both were intended as aspersions on his character and capabilities. Assaults on his scientific credibility were pretext for impugning his racial background, and his race likewise was a lever with which to disparage his academic contributions.
The same racially-suffused (il)logic was playing out as people grappled with the meaning of the gorilla. Was the gorilla the “missing link,” man’s nearest ape relative? In a way, that depended on what “human” meant. Monogenists held that all human races descended along a single lineage—which (oddly) made it a position encompassing both Darwinians and Adam-and-Eve believing Christians. From the Darwinian monogenist perspective, the gorilla was nothing more or less than another link in the evolutionary chain, whether or not it was man’s nearest ancestor. Polygenists, in contrast, held that human races were distinct species with distinct lineages—and for them the dark-skinned gorilla was direct evidence of the racial hierarchy polygenism inevitably entailed.
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Richard Owen’s belief in human superiority over the animal kingdom outweighed any other concerns (perhaps this owed to his upbringing—he was literally a Huguenot). The claim that humans were exceptional meant they could not have descended from apes—which was easy enough to argue when “gorillas” were nothing more than a few bones and some drawings. But for Owen, du Chaillu’s specimens presented both a threat and an opportunity: on the one hand, they could end up providing evidence against human exceptionalism. But on the other hand, Owen realized, the specimens could prove him right, if only he could examine them and isolate some anatomical feature that would clearly and forever distinguish man from beast.
Owen looked for that feature in the place that seemed to give rise to man’s superior mental faculties: the brain. He examined ape brains and human brains—so many brains—and found that only the human brain had a hippocampus minor, a small spur deep in the temporal lobe. If apes lacked it and humans had it, he reasoned, it must be what makes us human—the anatomical signature of human uniqueness.
Merely holding the belief was never enough for Owen, who bullied, antagonized, undermined, and professionally annihilated anyone who even seemed to challenge him. See, for example, his aforementioned blackballing of John Gray, or his “anonymous” 1860 review savaging Darwin’s book (he was too callow to put his name on it, though everyone knew it was him). For Owen, the hippocampus minor wasn’t just the key to human exceptionalism: it was a wedge to muscle out Darwin and lend credence to his own evolutionary theory, which was mostly indistinguishable from Darwin’s. All of Owen’s posturing was political, not ideological: he just wanted the credit. If it is not already clear, Owen was an absolute churl.
Darwin’s public champion was one of the few people cynical and misanthropic and catty enough to stand up to Owen’s combination of status and personality: Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” the self-taught Huxley was as caustic as Owen, but not nearly as cruel. When he read Species, he said “how stupid of me not to have thought of that” (actual quote) and, in contrast to Owen’s attempts to bury it, took up the mantle of defending it: “I am sharpening my claws and beak in readiness.” In addition to his other talents, Huxley was an unrivalled wordsmith.
The most famous of his defenses was an 1860 debate against the Reverend Samuel Wilberforce. Owen, perhaps once more too callow to do his own dirty work, coached Wilberforce, who delighted in asking Huxley whether it was his grandfather or grandmother that was an ape. Huxley’s exact riposte varies depending on the source, but went something like this:
“…the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence & yet who employs these faculties & that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”
I can only assume Wilberforce required months of bed rest to recover from the traumatic shaming. Of Owen, meanwhile, Huxley promised to “nail … that mendacious humbug like a kite to a barn door (again, wordsmith). And boy, did he: his own work, published in the 1863 book Evidence on Man’s Place in Nature, showed that indeed, gorillas do have a hippocampus minor. In fact, all apes do. Not only was Owen on the wrong side of the “Great Hippocampus Question”, he’d planted his flag on an argument that ended up supporting Darwin.
Owen’s reputation was wounded, though not fatally. He remained callous and spiteful until he died in 1892. The extent of his maliciousness is no better summed up than by Darwin himself: “I used to be ashamed of hating (Owen) so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred and contempt to the last days of my life.” Huxley fared better, historically—he went on to suggest that birds evolved from dinosaurs, roughly a century before the idea was generally accepted.
And what of du Chaillu? He sold his gorilla skins to fund a repeat expedition that he hoped would prove his doubters wrong, training for months on proper “scientific” observation—star readings, chronometric and navigational equipment, even photographs. The trip was a disaster. He lost his supplies in heavy weather before making it ashore, then inadvertently spread smallpox throughout inland Africa, ravaging the local population, who eventually and quite literally chased him back to the coast. He left behind most of his gear and notes in the escape, as well as a trail of human wreckage.
He did manage to hang onto his journals, which earned great acclaim on their publication in 1866. Though they were once again sensationalized, his scientific observations helped to rehabilitate his academic reputation. Later, he published children’s books, then earned such renown as a scholar of Norse history that he was invited to Minnesota—land of Scandinavians—to stump for McKinley. He died in 1903 in Russia, and is buried in New York under a tombstone that gets everything wrong but his name.
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Sources & References:
1. Monte Reel, Between Man and Beast.
2. Richard Conniff, “Race, Sex, and the Trials of a Young Explorer,” New York Times
3. Paul du Chaillu at The Baldwin Project (includes excerpts from his journals)
4. Elaine Ayers, “Hunting Gorillas in the Land of Cannibals: Making Victorian Field Knowledge in Western Equatorial Africa,” The Appendix (role of Fang porters in developing western scientific knowledge).
5. John Wallen, “The Cannibal Club and the Origins of 19th Century Racism and Pornography,” The Victorian.
6. Wolpoff, Race and Human Evolution (notes on polygenism and monogenism)