The Brain of Man and Apes

Medical Times and Gazette (October 1862)

The Royal School of Mines, Jermyn-street
October 14, 1862.

Sir, – I do not purpose to trouble you with any discussion of the paper, purporting to be a report of Professor Owen's statements at the late meeting of the British Association, which headed the last number of the Medical Times; but lest your readers may suppose (to use the phraseology of the writer of that article) "that my silence gives consent" to any part of that unparalleled document, I will request you to be go good as to allow me to state my reasons for thinking that, on this occasion, if "speech is silvern, silence is golden."

In the year 1857, Professor Owen submitted to the Linnæan Society a paper "On the Characters, Principles of Division, and Primary Groups of the Class Mammalia," which was printed in the Society's Journal, and contains the following passage: – "In man, the brain presents an ascensive step in development, higher and more strongly marked than that by which the preceding sub-class was distinguished from the one below it. Not only do the cerebral hemispheres overlap the olfactory lobes and cerebellum, but they extend in advance of the one and further back than the other. Their posterior development is so marked, that anatomists have assigned to that part the character of a third lobe; it is peculiar to the genus Homo, and equally peculiar is the posterior horn of the lateral ventricle and the 'hippocampus minor' which characterize the hind lobe of each hemisphere."–Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnæen Society, Vol. ii, p. 19.

As the essay in which this passage stands had no less ambitious an aim than the remodelling of the classification of the mammalia, its author might be supposed to have written under a sense of peculiar responsibility, and to have tested, with especial care, the statements he ventured to promulgate. And even if this be expecting too much, hastiness, or want of opportunity for due deliberation, cannot now be pleaded in extenuation of any shortcomings; for the propositions cited were repeated two years afterwards in the Reade Lecture, delivered before so grave a body as the University of Cambridge in 1859.

When the assertions which I have italicised in the above extract, first came under my notice, I was not a little astonished at so flat a contradiction of the doctrines current among well-informed anatomists; but, not unnaturally imagining that the deliberate statements of a responsible person must have some foundation in fact, I deemed it my duty to investigate the subject anew before the time at which it would be my business to lecture thereupon came round. The result of my inquiries was to prove that Mr. Owen's three assertions, that "the third lobe, the posterior horn of the lateral ventricle, and the hippocampus minor," are "peculiar to the genus Homo," are contrary to the plainest facts. I communicated this conclusion to the students of my class; and then, having no desire to embark in a controversy which could not redound to the honour of British science, whatever its issue, I turned to more congenial occupations.

The time speedily arrived, however, when a persistence in this reticence would have involved me in an unworthy paltering with truth.

At the meeting of the British Association at Oxford, in 1860, Professor Owen repeated these assertions in my presence, and, of course, I immediately gave them a direct and unqualified contradiction, pledging myself to justify that unusual procedure elsewhere. I redeemed that pledge by publishing, in the January number of the Natural History Review for 1861, an article wherein the truth of the three following propositions was fully demonstrated (l. c. p. 71):–

"1. That the third lobe is neither peculiar to, nor characteristic of, man, seeing that it exists in all the higher quadrumana.

"2. That the posterior cornu of the lateral ventricle is neither peculiar to, nor characteristic, of man, inasmuch as it also exists in the higher quadrumana.

"3. That the hippocampus minor is neither peculiar to, nor characteristic of, man, as it is found in certain of the higher quadrumana."

From this time forth the untenability of his position ought to have been as apparent to Professor Owen as to everyone else; but, so far from retracting the grave errors into which he had fallen, or, as the smallest of concessions to justice, holding his peace about them, Professor Owen has persisted in and reiterated them, first, before the Royal Institution, and in the Athenæum; afterwards, in the Annals of Natural History (June, 1861); and again, at the meeting of the British Association at Manchester last year.

If this were a question of opinion, Sir, or a question of interpretation of parts or of terms,–were it even a question of observation in which the testimony of my own senses alone was pitted against that of another person, I should adopt a very different tone in discussing this matter. I should, in all humility, admit the likelihood of having myself erred in judgment, failed in knowledge, or been blinded by prejudice.

But no one pretends now, that the controversy is one of terms or of opinions. Novel and devoid of authority as some of Professor Owen's proposed definitions may have been, they might be accepted without changing the great features of the case. Hence, though special investigations into these matters have been undertaken during the last two years by Dr. Allen Thomson, by Dr. Rolleston, by Mr. Marshall, and by Mr. Flower, all, as you are aware, anatomists of repute in this country, and by Professors Schroeder Van der Kolk, and Vrolik (whom Professor Owen incautiously tried to press into his own service) on the Continent, all these able and conscientious observers have with one accord testified to the accuracy of my statements, and to the utter baselessness of the assertions of Professor Owen. Even the venerable Rudolph Wagner, whom no man will accuse of progressionist proclivities, has raised his voice on the same side; while not a single anatomist, great or small, has supported Professor Owen.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that scientific differences should be settled by universal suffrage, but I do conceive that solid proofs must be met by something more than empty and unsupported assertions. Yet during the two years through which this preposterous controversy has dragged its weary length, Professor Owen has not ventured to bring forward a single preparation in support of his often-repeated assertions.

The case stands thus, therefore:–Not only are the statements made by me in consonance with the doctrines of the best older authorities, and with those of all recent investigators, but I am quite ready to demonstrate them on the first monkey that comes to hand; while Professor Owen's assertions are not only in diametrical opposition to both old and new authorities, but he has not produced, and, I will add, cannot produce, a single preparation which justifies them.

I am, etc.

Thomas Henry Huxley, F.R.S.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University