Man's Place in Nature

Man's Place in Nature

by Thomas H. Huxley

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Known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his impassioned defense of evolutionary theory, Thomas Huxley published this, his most famous book, just a few years after Darwin's The Origin of Species. Unlike Origin, this book focuses on human ancestry and offers a concise, nontechnical survey of the state of mid-nineteenth-century knowledge about primate and human paleontology and


Known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his impassioned defense of evolutionary theory, Thomas Huxley published this, his most famous book, just a few years after Darwin's The Origin of Species. Unlike Origin, this book focuses on human ancestry and offers a concise, nontechnical survey of the state of mid-nineteenth-century knowledge about primate and human paleontology and ethology. Man's Place in Nature concurs with Darwin's assertion of the absence of a physiologic and psychic structural line of demarcation between humans and apes. Huxley ventures further than Darwin, however, by making the first attempt to apply the principles of evolution directly to the human race (an issue that Darwin skirted). Despite Huxley's acknowledgements of the wide gulf represented by the human capacity for rational speech and language, some Victorian readers were scandalized by the application of Darwinian theory to humans and by Huxley's evidence of the fundamental similarities between the human brain and the ape brain. A landmark of scientific progress, this immensely readable book reflects the stylistic gifts that made its author a popular public speaker.

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I: On the Natural History of the Man-like Apes

Ancient traditions, when tested by the severe processes of modern investigation, commonly enough fade away into mere dreams: but it is singular how often the dream turns out to have been a half-waking one, presaging a reality. Ovid foreshadowed the discoveries of the geologist: the Atlantis was an imagination, but Columbus found a western world: and though the quaint forms of Centaurs and Satyrs have an existence only in the realms of art, creatures approaching man more nearly than they in essential structure, and yet as thoroughly brutal as the goat's or horse's half of the mythical compound, are now not only known, but notorious.

I have not met with any notice of one of these Man-like Apes of earlier date than that contained in Pigafetta's "Description of the kingdom of Congo,"* drawn up from the notes of a Portuguese sailor, Eduardo Lopez, and published in 1598. The tenth chapter of this work is entitled "De Animalibus quæ in hac provincia reperiuntur," and contains a brief passage to the effect that "in the Songan country, on the banks of the Zaire, there are multitudes of apes, which afford great delight to the nobles by imitating human gestures." As this might apply to almost any kind of apes, I should have thought little of it, had not the brothers De Bry, whose engravings illustrate the work, thought fit, in their eleventh "Argumentum," to figure two of these "Simiæ magnatum deliciæ." So much of the plate as contains these apes is faithfully copied in the woodcut (Fig. 1), and it will be observed that they are tail-less, long-armed, and large-eared; and about the size of Chimpanzees. It may be that these apes are as much figments of the imagination of the ingenious brothers as the winged, two-legged, crocodile-headed dragon which adorns the same plate; or, on the other hand, it may be that the artists have constructed their drawings from some essentially faithful description of a Gorilla or a Chimpanzee. And, in either case, though these figures are worth a passing notice, the oldest trustworthy and definite accounts of any animal of this kind date from the 17th century, and are due to an Englishman.

The first edition of that most amusing old book, "Purchas his Pilgrimage," was published in 1613, and therein are to be found many references to the statements of one whom Purchas terms "Andrew Battell (my neere neighbour, dwelling at Leigh in Essex) who served under Manuel Silvera Perera, Governor under the King of Spaine, at his city of Saint Paul, and with him went farre into the countrey of Angola;" and again, "my friend, Andrew Battle, who lived in the kingdom of Congo many yeares," and who, "upon some quarell betwixt the Portugals (among whom he was a sergeant of a band) and him, lived eight or nine moneths in the woods." From this weather-beaten old soldier, Purchas was amazed to hear "of a kinde of Great Apes, if they might so bee termed, of the height of a man, but twice as bigge in feature of their limmes, with strength proportionable, hairie all over, otherwise altogether like men and women in their whole bodily shape.* They lived on such wilde fruits as the trees and woods yielded, and in the night time lodged on the trees."

This extract is, however, less detailed and clear in its statements than a passage in the third chapter of the second part of another work-"Purchas his Pilgrimes," published in 1625, by the same author-which has been often, though hardly ever quite rightly, cited. The chapter is entitled, "The strange adventures of Andrew Battell, of Leigh in Essex, sent by the Portugals prisoner to Angola, who lived there and in the adioning regions neere eighteene yeeres." And the sixth section of this chapter is headed-"Of the Provinces of Bongo, Calongo, Mayombe, Manikesocke, Motimbas: of the Ape Monster Pongo, their hunting: Idolatries; and divers other observations."

"This province (Calongo) toward the east bordereth upon Bongo, and toward the north upon Mayombe, which is nineteen leagues from Longo along the coast.

"This province of Mayombe is all woods and groves, so overgrowne that a man may travaile twentie days in the shadow without any sunne or heat. Here is no kind of corne nor graine, so that the people liveth onely upon plantanes and roots of sundrie sorts, very good; and nuts; nor any kinde of tame cattell nor hens.

"But they have great store of elephant's flesh, which they greatly esteeme, and many kinds of wild beasts; and great store of fish. Here is a great sandy bay, two leagues to the northward of Cape Negro,* which is the port of Mayombe. Sometimes the Portugals lade logwood in this bay. Here is a great river, called Banna: in the winter it hath no barre, because the generall winds cause a great sea. But when the sunne hath his south declination, then a boat may goe in; for then it is smooth because of the raine. This river is very great, and hath many ilands and people dwelling in them. The woods are so covered with baboones, monkies, apes and parrots, that it will feare any man to travaile in them alone. Here are also two kinds of monsters, which are common in these woods, and very dangerous.

"The greatest of these two monsters is called Pongo in their language, and the lesser is called Engeco. This Pongo is in all proportion like a man; but that he is more like a giant in stature than a man; for he is very tall, and hath a man's face, hollow-eyed, with long haire upon his browes. His face and eares are without haire, and his hands also. His bodie is full of haire, but not very thicke; and it is of a dunnish colour.

"He differeth not from a man but in his legs; for they have no calfe. Hee goeth alwaies upon his legs, and carrieth his hands clasped in the nape of his necke when he goeth upon the ground. They sleepe in the trees, and build shelters for the raine. They feed upon fruit that they find in the woods, and upon nuts, for they eate no kind of flesh. They cannot speake, and have no understanding more than a beast. The people of the countrie, when they travaile in the woods, make fires where they sleepe in the night; and in the morning when they are gone, the Pongoes will come and sit about the fire till it goeth out; for they have no understanding to lay the wood together. They goe many together, and kill many negroes that travaile in the woods. Many times they fall upon the elephants which come to feed where they be, and so beate them with their clubbed fists, and pieces of wood, that they will runne roaring away from them. Those Pongoes are never taken alive because they are so strong, that ten men cannot hold one of them; but yet they take many of their young ones with poisoned arrowes.

"The young Pongo hangeth on his mother's belly with his hands fast clasped about her, so that when the countrie people kill any of the females they take the young one, which hangeth fast upon his mother.

"When they die among themselves, they cover the dead with great heaps of boughs and wood, which is commonly found in the forest."*

It does not appear difficult to identify the exact region of which Battell speaks. Longo is doubtless the name of the place usually spelled Loango on our maps. Mayombe still lies some nineteen leagues northward from Loango, along the coast; and Cilongo or Kilonga, Manikesocke, and Motimbas are yet registered by geographers. The Cape Negro of Battell, however, cannot be the modern Cape Negro in 16ƒ S., since Loango itself is in 4ƒ S. latitude. On the other hand, the "great river called Banna" corresponds very well with the "Camma" and "Fernand Vas," of modern geographers, which form a great delta on this part of the African coast.

Now this "Camma" country is situated about a degree and a half south of the Equator, while a few miles to the north of the line lies the Gaboon, and a degree or so north of that, the Money River-both well known to modern naturalists as localities where the largest of man-like Apes has been obtained. Moreover, at the pres-ent day, the word "Engeco," or "N'schego," is applied by the natives of these regions to the smaller of the two great Apes which inhabit them; so that there can be no rational doubt that Andrew Battell spoke of that which he knew of his own knowledge, or, at any rate, by immediate report from the natives of Western Africa. The "Engeco," however, is that "other monster" whose nature Battell "forgot to relate," while the name "Pongo"-applied to the animal whose characters and habits are so fully and carefully described-seems to have died out, at least in its primitive form and signification. Indeed, there is evidence that not only in Battell's time, but up to a very recent date, it was used in a totally different sense from that in which he employs it.

For example, the second chapter of Purchas' work, which I have just quoted, contains "A Description and Historicall Declaration of the Golden Kingdom of Guinea, &c. &c. Translated from the Dutch, and compared also with the Latin," wherein it is stated (p. 986) that-

"The River Gaboon lyeth about fifteen miles northward from Rio de Angra, and eight miles northward from Cape de Lope Gonsalvez (Cape Lopez), and is right under the Equinoctial line, about fifteene miles from St. Thomas, and is a great land, well and easily to be knowne. At the mouth of the river there lieth a sand, three or foure fathoms deepe, whereon it beateth mightily with the streame which runneth out of the river into the sea. This river, in the mouth thereof, is at least foure miles broad; but when you are about the Iland called Pongo, it is not above two miles broad. . . . On both sides the river there standeth many trees. . . . The Iland called Pongo, which hath a monstrous high hill."

The French naval officers, whose letters are appended to the late M. Isidore Geoff. Saint Hilaire's excellent essay on the Gorilla,* note in similar terms the width of the Gaboon, the trees that line its banks down to the water's edge, and the strong current that sets out of it. They describe two islands in its estuary;-one low, called Perroquet; the other high, presenting three conical hills, called Coniquet; and one of them, M. Franquet, expressly states that, formerly, the Chief of Coniquet was called Meni-Pongo, meaning thereby Lord of Pongo; and that the N'Pongues (as, in agreement with Dr. Savage, he affirms the natives call themselves) term the estuary of the Gaboon itself N'Pongo.

It is so easy, in dealing with savages, to misunderstand their applications of words to things, that one is at first inclined to suspect Battell of having confounded the name of this region, where his "greater monster" still abounds, with the name of the animal itself. But he is so right about other matters (including the name of the "lesser monster,") that one is loth to suspect the old traveller of error; and, on the other hand, we shall find that a voyager of a hundred years' later date speaks of the name "Boggoe," as applied to a great Ape, by the inhabitants of quite another part of Africa-Sierra Leone.

But I must leave this question to be settled by philologers and travellers; and I should hardly have dwelt so long upon it except for the curious part played by this word "Pongo" in the later history of the man-like Apes.

The generation which succeeded Battell saw the first of the man-like Apes which was ever brought to Europe, or, at any rate, whose visit found a historian. In the third book of Tulpius' "Observationes Medicæ," published in 1641, the 56th chapter or section is devoted to what he calls Satyrus indicus "called by the Indians Orang-autang, or Man-of-the-Woods, and by the Africans Quoias Morrou." He gives a very good figure, evidently from the life, of the specimen of this animal, "nostra memoria ex Angola delatum," presented to Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Tulpius says it was as big as a child of three years old, and as stout as one of six years: and that its back was covered with black hair. It is plainly a young Chimpanzee.

In the meanwhile, the existence of other, Asiatic, man-like Apes became known, but at first in a very mythical fashion. Thus Bontius (1658) gives an altogether fabulous and ridiculous account and figure of an animal which he calls "Orang-outang"; and though he says "vidi Ego cujus effigiem hic exhibeo," the said effigies (see Fig. 6 for Hoppius' copy of it) is nothing but a very hairy woman of rather comely aspect, and with proportions and feet wholly human. The judicious English anatomist, Tyson, was justified in saying of this description by Bontius, "I confess I do mistrust the whole representation."

It is to the last mentioned writer, and his coadjutor Cowper, that we owe the first account of a man-like ape which has any pretensions to a scientific accuracy and completeness. The treatise entitled, "Orang-outang, sive Homo Sylvestris; or the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man," published by the Royal Society in 1699, is, indeed, a work of remarkable merit, and has, in some respects, served as a model to subsequent inquirers. This "Pygmie," Tyson tells us, "was brought from Angola, in Africa; but was first taken a great deal higher up the country;" its hair "was of a coal-black colour, and strait," and "when it went as a quadruped on all four, 'twas awkwardly; not placing the palm of the hand flat to the ground, but it walk'd upon its knuckles, as I observed it to do when weak and had not strength enough to support its body."-"From the top of the head to the heel of the foot, in a straight line, it measured twenty-six inches."

These characters, even without Tyson's good figures (Figs. 3 and 4), would have been sufficient to prove his "Pygmie" to be a young Chimpanzee. But the opportunity of examining the skeleton of the very animal Tyson anatomised having most unexpectedly presented itself to me, I am able to bear independent testimony to its being a veritable Troglodytes niger,* though still very young. Although fully appreciating the resemblances between his Pygmie and Man, Tyson by no means overlooked the differences between the two, and he concludes his memoir by summing up first, the points in which "the Ourang-outang or Pygmie more resembled a Man than Apes and Monkeys do," under forty-seven distinct heads; and then giving, in thirty-four similar brief paragraphs, the respects in which "the Ourang-outang or Pygmie differ'd from a Man and resembled more the Ape and Monkey kind."

Meet the Author

Thomas H. Huxley was born in Ealing, near London, in 1825. A stint as an assistant surgeon aboard the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a Royal Navy frigate assigned to the Australian and New Guinea coasts, solidified his interest in naturalism, and his research earned him a place next to leading scientists of his day, such as Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, and Charles Darwin. He died in 1895.

Stephen Jay Gould is the Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology and professor of geology at Harvard and the Vincent Astor visiting professor of biology at New York University. Recent books include Full House, Dinosaur in a Haystack, and Questioning the Millennium. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City.

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