For over 300 years, our species has recognized the similarities between ourselves and other primates, particularly apes. For most of that time scholars in the West have attempted to keep our species cordoned off from our relatives, either through the static hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being or the possession of particular traits (from a hippocampus minor in the brain to a soul). Evolutionary theory, however, required researchers to look for similarities instead of stark differences. Which apes were our closest relatives?
It has only been recently that the two living species of chimpanzee have been shown to be our nearest living relations. Before the advent of genetic testing, it seemed to be a toss-up between chimpanzees and gorillas, even though our proximity to the African apes was generally acknowledged. During the late 19th century, however, there appears to have been a preference for using gorillas to illustrate our ape ancestry, and this has much to do with the popularity of these animals during that time.
Among the apes, orangutans and chimpanzees were among the first to be scientifically described, particularly during the 17th century. Gorillas, however, remained creatures of myth and legend through the middle of the 19th century, even after they received scientific description. Gorillas had received a scientific label and their anatomy described, but the public perception of what they were like was still heavily influenced by folklore.
Many of the legends, like the ability of gorillas to build houses in the woods, turned out to be false, but during the 1860’s explorer Paul du Chaillu fueled the public fascination with the animals with his stories from Africa. In his account of his travels, he describes a male gorilla charging and trying to drive the hunters off;
His eyes began to flash fiercer fire as we stood motionless on the defensive, and the crest of short hair which stands on his forehead began to twitch rapidly up and down, while his powerful fangs were shewn as he again sent forth a thunderous roar. And now truly he reminded me of nothing but some hellish dream-creature — a being of that hideous order, half-man, half-beast, which we find pictured by old artists in some representations of the infernal regions. He advanced a few steps — then stopped to utter that hideous roar again — advanced again, and finally stopped when at a distance of about six yards from us. And here, just as he began another of his roars, beating his breast in rage, we fired and killed him.
With a groan which had something terribly human in it, and yet was full of brutishness, he fell forward on his face. The body shook convulsively for a few minutes, the limbs moved about in a struggling way, and then all was quiet…
Touring with skeletons and skins of gorillas, he recounted such confrontations with the savage beasts. Even though inconsistencies with du Chaillu’s stories were pointed out and a controversy ensued, there is little doubt that gorillas were a popular hit, and this interested influenced science communication.
In T.H. Huxley’s popular pamphlet Evidences as to Man’s Place in Nature, for instance, the gorilla is the representative ape that illustrates our own evolution. They were popular enough that his audience was more likely to be familiar with them than any other kind of ape. Still, Huxley made sure to state that we did not evolve from a gorilla, and the chimpanzee was just as good a candidate for our nearest living relative. It was simply a matter of popularity that led him to favor the gorilla.
Huxley was often cautious in describing evolutionary transitions, and he discriminated between linear types (actual ancestors and descendants) and intercalary types (creatures that represent the form of a transitional creature). Not everyone was so cautious. Popular critics of evolution found it more profitable to confuse audiences about evolutionary hypotheses than to explain them correctly. In an 1897 article on anthropology in The American Practitioner, T.B. Greenly wrote;
If man was evolved from the gorilla a million years ago, according to Darwinism we should have long since evolved a higher species than man. This should have been the case unless evolution was supervised by a supreme power, and man was to be the acme of evolvement.
Others made reference to a human origin from gorillas, as well, but only in passing. This is the case in books like A History of England and the British Empire and Helena Blavatsky’s spiritualist treatise The Secret Doctrine. It was a quick and easy way to typically juxtapose evolution and creationism, even if it ended up causing more confusion than understanding.
I am certain that there is a lot more that could be dug up about the entrance of gorillas onto the public stage during the 19th century. They were certainly useful to some evolutionists in explaining our relationship to the rest of nature, but they were popular beyond the scientific realm. The fact that they were so much like us was both enthralling and repulsive, and they were made all the more mysterious by hyperbolic tales of adventures explorers told when they returned from Africa.
Eventually the myth of gorillas as violent brutes was dispelled. As late as the 1920’s, those who encountered the gorillas in the wild found that du Chaillu’s accounts, while containing a modicum of truth, were vastly overblown. Gorillas were not demonic beasts, but close relatives that required our protection to survive.
[Images from Adventures in the Great Forest of Equatorial Africa (1890) 1; Gorilla skulls, 2; Gorilla skeleton, 3; Frontispiece, depicting a gorilla that has killed a hunter]
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