Apes and Angels


A silverback Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), photographed on July 23, 2008 at the Bronx zoo.

During my elementary school years I was spoon-fed the classic, textbook mythology about evolutionary theory. Although Jean Baptiste Lamarck had come up with a ridiculous notion to explain the neck of the giraffe the world was wholly unprepared for Charles Darwin’s crystal clear scientific revelation in 1859, On the Origin of Species instantaneously being accepted as the only reasonable explanation for the unity and diversity of life. This is absolute nonsense, of course, but as we approach the “Darwin Year” the opportunities for scientific legend to be clothed as historical fact increase. Darwin’s work is important, absolutely, but we would do well to remember that if not for some other contemporaneous developments the evolutionary explosion may have been muffled.

The emergence of Darwin’s famous abstract about natural selection took decades to go from the germ of an idea to an articulately argued theory yet I doubt that it could have arrived at a better time. Social, scientific, and religious forces would appear to have conspired to set the stage for the first reasonable mechanism for evolutionary change. First there was the fossil record, the emergence of paleontology providing not only a staggeringly deep past but also a progression of life (which Charles Lyell and T.H. Huxley denied until they later changed their minds). Darwin recognized that geology, “Queen of the Sciences,” had not yet spat out graded, branching lineages that his theory supposed but at the very least it presented his mechanism time in which to work and a pattern not in conflict with his view. Later paleontology would be wrangled into evolutionary science by Huxley (even though Owen’s archetypal program more closely fit Darwin’s theory until Huxley’s phylogenetic conversion by Ernst Haeckel’s Morphologie) and others but in 1859 the best Darwin could do was illustrate that it did not rule out evolution by natural selection.

The public was not wholly unfamiliar with evolution when On the Origin of Species was published, either. In 1844 an anonymously-published book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation appeared, becoming a runaway hit despite being denounced by nearly every figure of scientific or religious authority (some, like geologist Adam Sedgwick, being a bit of both). For the pious it presented an “atheistic” philosophy, even if clothed in appeals to a Creator. If miraculous events could be explained by natural law, they feared, then the heart is ripped out of Christian doctrine. No matter that the author (later found to be the publisher Robert Chambers) wanted “as little vexatious collision as possible with existing beliefs, whether philosophical or religious”; he was regarded as either ignorant or being deceitful in his efforts not to offend. Further, the notion of evolution was tied to that of revolution, the disadvantaged getting the idea that they could change their station in life (thought to be set by God) and overthrowing those in power. This social implication haunted discussions of evolution and made it both dangerous and distasteful.

Naturalists were not friends of Vestiges, either. The book offered no evolutionary mechanism and appeared to be based upon discarded or tenuous evidence. Spontaneous generation, leaps in the evolutionary progression (like Lyell’s later notion of a human being born to ape parents), and other defeated ideas plagued the work. It was a vulgar document based upon only the most speculative evidence. Still, the public loved it and despite the consternation it caused it made evolution a topic serious enough for discussion.

The religious landscape of England was changing as well, liberal theologies that questioned the historical accuracy of Genesis and the possibility of divine miracles gaining a foothold as the super-conservative Tory party lost its grip politically and socially. The more liberal (yet still fairly conservative) Whig party was on the rise, along with it religious groups like the Dissenters that loathed the political control of religion. Into the uncomfortable shifts of social change entered the innocuously-titled Essays and Reviews (or more formally Recent Inquiries in Theology, by Eminent English Churchmen; Being “Essays and Reviews”).

Essays and Reviews was a “dangerous” book, one that placed Anglican heroes like William Paley directly in its sights. In the introduction to the second American Edition F.H. Hedge wrote that the Church of England wallowed in “indifference to all theological inquiry,” illustrating “her barrenness of all theological learning.” Christian theology needed to be revitalized, particularly during a time when science and religion were increasingly coming into conflict, and Essays and Reviews was an attempt to save Christianity from the overstuffed Anglicans. An essay on “The Mosaic Cosmogony” by C.W. Goodwin is particularly relevant to the discussion here. Although debates over the position and movement of the earth caused irritation among churches of past centuries there is no reason not to accept the best available scientific explanation, Goodwin argues. The centrality and immovability of the earth is not part of any central doctrine of faith; who cares if whoever wrote “The world is established, it cannot be moved,” was ignorant of cosmological science?

For Goodwin the Genesis narrative provided some sort of “physical truth” but could not be regarded as accurate based upon what had come to be known about the universe from the power of logic God provided our species. In areas of conflict where the evidence is so clearly on the side of science revelation must yield;

It would have been well if theologians had made up their minds to accept frankly the principle, that those things for the discovery of which man has faculties specially provided are not fit objects of a divine revelation. Had this been unhesitatingly done, either the definition and idea of divine revelation must have been modified, and the possibility of an admixture of error have been allowed, or such parts of the Hebrew writings as were found to be repugnant to fact must have been pronounced to form no part of revelation.

Such notions were heretical to the bastions of the conservative church. Anticipating the battle-cry of modern creationists they declared that if part of the Bible could be doubted then the entire book might as well be thrown on the ash heap, an utterly unthinkable option. In the quickly dispatched Replies to “Essays and Reviews” G. Rorison takes Goodwin to task for taking speculation for truth. The Bible is the only book of Authority, Rorison exclaims, and good science supports it while bad science hopelessly gropes in the dark. Another book culled from articles appearing in the Morning Post, The “Essays and Reviews” Examined, also came to the defense of the miraculous. Much like Replies this book defended the authority of the sacred Christian book as The Truth. If science says nature contradicts Scripture then there is a problem with science, not the Bible or nature.

Such was the theological turmoil into which On the Origin of Species was dropped, T.H. Huxley and other X Club members later using the language of warfare to color the debates (even though Huxley set himself apart with the new term “agnostic” rather than ally himself with staunch atheists). Even though Darwin avoided discussing human origins in his abstract it was clear that what went for bacteria and pigeons went for our species, as well, and the African exploits of Paul du Chaillu only turned up the heat. Although the first obtained the first specimens of gorillas to be described in 1847 du Chaillu brought back even more specimens to England in 1861. Fact and fiction intermingled as the public stood in fascination of such a brutish creature with such a familiar physiognomy, the popularity of the gorilla leading Huxley to place it closer to humans than even chimpanzees in his hit pamphlet Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (although he did admit that scientists had not yet resolved which of the African apes was our nearest relation). The hypothetical “Eohomo” proved elusive but there were enough correlations between humans, apes, and a somewhat enigmatic Neanderthal skullcap to support the idea that humans had evolved from unknown ape ancestors.

The importance and impact of On the Origin of Species cannot be understood by only tracing the history of that one work. It was something synthetic that nearly everyone could grasp, seasoned naturalist and laborer alike, a book that synthesized acquired evidence and made predictions about what might yet be discovered. This is not what is presented to the public, however. We feel obliged to tip our hats to Darwin (offering little more than a wink to Wallace) but we simultaneously under- and over-estimate his accomplishments in the name of brevity and simplicity. The longer we pretend that the history of science is irrelevant to science education the longer it will be so, and I hope that the history-steeped events of 2009 will stir a desire to celebrate history rather than keep recycling textbook material.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *