Gorilla Wars: Evolution, Humanness, and the Victorian Obsession with Primates

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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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