The Victorian Search for Gorillas, Evolution, and Humanness

i heart literati

du Chaillu hunts gorilla

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 is 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…

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Once Upon a Time

The Oldest Vocation

In 1955, right out of college, I found one of those jobs in publishing so dear to history and English majors who could afford them. We were paid almost nothing, which was considered OK for girls, at least if they had parents who could give them a winter coat for Christmas and bail them out in an emergency. Health insurance wasn’t necessary in those days, when a visit to the doctor or a prescription for an antibiotic cost very little. If you shared space, you could even rent an apartment in Manhattan; with three roommates, I lived near Second Avenue in the80s. We had a duplex two-bedroom apartment in a funky old house with a lot of charm – and a lot of cockroaches, but who cared? Right above the bathtub on the second floor there was a skylight that offered dirty and difficult access to the roof. We…

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