Mr. Darwin & the Defrauded Gorilla

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Mr. Bergh to the Rescue



THE DEFRAUDED GORILLA: "That Man wants to claim my Pedigree. He says he is one of my Descendants."



MR. BERGH: "Now, Mr. Darwin, how could you insult him so?"


This cartoon was published in Harper's Weekly in 1871, the year Darwin's The Descent of Man was first published. The "Mr. Bergh" being referred to is Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. As for the gorilla, the great ape prominently featured in political cartoons and satire as the public was fascinated with them, and some naturalists placed them closer to humans than chimpanzees. (Although they had been known to be real creatures since 1847, it wasn't until Paul du Chaillu brought specimens of gorillas back to England in 1861 that the popularity of the ape really took off.)

Not everyone was so sure just how closely the gorilla was related to Homo sapiens, though, especially since chimpanzees seemed to be equally good candidates. In Man's Place in Nature, for instance, T.H. Huxley used the gorilla to exemplify the similarities between great apes and our species, but this was primarily due to the popularity of the gorilla at the time. Indeed, Huxley remained agnostic as to whether chimpanzees or gorillas were closer to us, a question that would not concretely be resolved until the molecular studies of the late 20th century (i.e. King's 1973 dissertation "Protein polymorphisms in chimpanzee and human evolution," Sibley & Ahlquist's "The phylogeny of hominoid primates, as indicated by DNA-DNA hybridization" published in 1984).

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That's a fascinating cartoon. I have a question, though: Is it intended to be a 'pro'-evolution or 'anti'-evolution cartoon, or neither? I'm guessing 'anti', but if one assumes enough sarcasm it could go either way...

Looks to me like a reversal of the more typical "none of my ancestors were monkeys!" I think that puts it firmly in the Cheeky Cartoonist camp instead of either of the evolution camps.

As pough said, I don't think this one falls either into a pro-evolution or anti-evolution category (even the more famous "Lion of the Season" cartoon from Punch is more commentary about people's reactions than advocating one stance or another). If anything, this cartoon is poking fun at Bergh for defending the poor, "defrauded" gorilla.

Presently I'm trying to find out more about the popularity of apes in popular Victorian culture, both in connection to Darwin and also (unfortunately) in connection to despised groups of people like the Irish. There are many cartoons, but historical reviews that put them in context are difficult to find. As far as this cartoon goes, though, I think it's just supposed to be funny because is reversing the common reaction of people to Darwin's idea. Rather than a person saying "I'm not a monkey," we have the gorilla upset that Darwin wants to claim what the gorilla probably feels is a unique "Pedigree."

Thanks for the responses, guys. It makes sense that this is just a cartoon designed to tease everyone rather than take a side.

One of the things I love about studying the history of scientific discoveries is that one finds a lot of complicated ideas and points of view that have been "glossed over" by history. I'm sure views on evolution fit into a broader spectrum of opinions than simply "pro" and "con".

Given a political spin that was, no doubt, as prevalent then as it is now, I wonder, if at the time, the fellow the gorilla was referring to and standing behind Darwin, was someone who the cartoonist wanted to impale for political advantage.

Anyone know who the guy might have been?

By turkeyfish (not verified) on 07 May 2008 #permalink

TurkeyFish; The gentleman scolding Darwin in the cartoon is Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA. As I said in my previous comment, if the cartoon had any partisan meaning it was probably to make fun of Bergh's appeals for the humane treatment of animals (particularly an end to vivisection), although the publication of The Descent of Man probably inspired the cartoon in the first place.

Sibley & Ahlquist's "The phylogeny of hominoid primates, as indicated by DNA-DNA hybridization" published in 1984

As the title says, though, this is a phenetic work, not a phylogenetic one.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 08 May 2008 #permalink