The missionary and the gorilla

Mary Evans Picture Library

Mary Evans Picture Library

An 1861 cartoon from the British magazine Punch satirizes Irish nationalists as less than human. View full image

Uneasy questions about human origins had arisen with the description of each new primate species at least since 1699, when the London physician Edward Tyson dissected one of the first chimpanzees to arrive in England. In a dedicatory epistle to his aristocratic patron, Tyson cushioned the full impact of his findings, noting merely the similitude "between the lowest Rank of Men, and the highest kind of animals." But with the gorilla, the disturbing questions about our relationship to other primates burst forth into furious public debate, often driven by powerful undercurrents of class and race.

The racism was evident from the start. In his section of the 1847 paper announcing the gorilla to the outside world, Wyman wrote that any anatomist "who will take the trouble to compare the skeletons of the Negro and Orang, cannot fail to be struck at sight with the wide gap which separates them." But then he added, "Negro and Orang do afford the points where man and the brute... most nearly approach each other." Like Tyson, Wyman was perhaps trying to minimize the similarity between gorillas and humans by deflecting it onto "men of the lowest rank." But other, more polemical, writers used that sort of thinking to justify keeping blacks as slaves. In England, in a curious twist on progressive thinking, some intellectuals accepted that humans had descended from apes, but argued that blacks and whites had descended from different species. Likewise, the humor magazine Punch turned Irish nationalists into "Mr. O'Rangoutang" and "Mr. G. O'Rilla," rendering them, in the words of historian Adrian Desmond, "fit to be shot down."

For Richard Owen, the gorilla would become the chief weapon in a bizarre war against evolutionary thinking, particularly after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Despite his own lower-middle-class background, Owen had risen to the top of London society, with a powerful position at the British Museum, a residence provided by the Queen, and the privilege of lecturing to the royal children on zoology. The establishment turned to him, as the nation's leading anatomist, to defend the status quo. (The unruly mob was all too gleefully aware that evolutionary ideas put lords and lower classes on roughly equal footing, as apes one or two steps removed.) Owen dutifully argued for a divine "archetypal light" guiding the development of species. He proposed that humans belonged to a separate sub-class from all other mammals, the Archencephala, or "ruling brains." We differed from the gorillas and other apes, he announced, on the basis of three brain structures found only in humans.

Unfortunately for Owen, Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog," would make a public sport out of demonstrating how Owen had fabricated or distorted his evidence, and even contradicted his own research, in making this argument. Huxley set out "to nail . . . that mendacious humbug . . . like a kite to the barn door." The opportunity came at an 1860 meeting in Oxford, where Huxley rose after Owen had finished speaking and categorically demolished the fiction "that the difference between the brain of the gorilla and man was so great." The gorilla thus set the terms for the clash two days later between Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, at which Wilberforce sarcastically "begged to know was it through his grandfather or his grandmother" that Huxley "claimed descent from a monkey?" Huxley's reply concluded with the famous remark that he "was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth."

The public loved it, and they loved the gorilla, too, particularly after the explorer Paul du Chaillu arrived on the scene, full of adventure stories from Africa and bearing the preserved specimens of complete adult gorillas. The gorilla became a creature not just of serious scientific discussion but also of sideshows and tabloid newspapers. A "gorilla ballet" went thumping across the London stage, and in parlors around Europe and the United States, amateur pianists performed a "Gorilla Quadrille" (in which the gorilla was a "darkie" with all the grotesque "doo-dah" stereotypes).

The two men who had started it all stayed apart from the fray, possibly out of dismay or even horror. Savage's African writings, with their respectful reliance on local knowledge, suggest that he would have had no part in the racial misuse of the gorilla. Nor did his discovery seem to cause him any religious doubt. For others, the gorilla would come to threaten the central place of humanity in a divinely ordained universe almost as profoundly as had the realization that the sun did not revolve around the Earth. But not, apparently, for Savage, who returned to his calling as a clergyman. He helped raise four children by his third wife and served as a pastor in Mississippi, Maryland, and finally Rhinecliff, New York, where he died at the age of 76. His tombstone there describes him as a "pioneer missionary" and makes no reference to his medical or scientific work. Wyman meanwhile became a quiet advocate of Darwinian theory, but continued with his anatomical work and left others to make the case in public. At his death, the poet James Russell Lowell eulogized Wyman in a sonnet that might have applied to either man: "simple, modest, manly, true, / Safe from the Many, honored by the Few."

No one knows what happened to two of the four gorilla skulls Savage brought home in 1847. In his letter to Wyman, he had asked that they be set aside for J. L. Wilson, his host in Gabon. So perhaps they are gathering dust even now as curios in some family member's home. Recently, in the course of preparing a catalog, a Harvard zoologist searched for them at natural history museums around the East Coast, including Yale's Peabody Museum, without success.

The other two skulls, male and female, are stored now on a bed of white polyethylene foam, in a metal drawer in a climate-controlled room at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. They are the holotype specimens, the models by which the species is defined for scientists everywhere. The female skull has been cut in half, from front to back, as if Wyman at some point went looking to see even the vaguest cranial evidence for the brain differences Owen kept going on about.

The male skull is largely intact, glowering and a little forlorn, with the collection number neatly inked by Wyman on the zygomatic arch. The surface of the skull is mottled with black flecks, and polished with handling, as if the hunter has just pulled it out of his kit bag after a long journey. The canine tooth on the upper left side is thick as a finger. But just as Savage had feared in that feverish summer of 1847, the right canine tooth is still missing.

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