"Review of Man's Place"

The Athenæum (February 28, 1863)

Evidences as to Man's Place in Nature. By Thomas Henry Huxley. (Williams & Norgate.)

The 'Evidences as to Man's Place in Nature' may be regarded as a supplement to Sir C. Lyell's geological plea for the great antiquity of man. Again we have before us the Engis and the Neanderthal skulls, but more intelligibly sketched and more fully described. Again we have the Darwinian theory, but more positively espoused and more openly advocated. The present, indeed, is a small volume, and merely the substance of various lectures, yet, small as it is, it treats, as its author says, of "the question of questions for mankind–the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other–the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things."

As Sir C. Lyell's chief object is to remove man remotely back in the scale of geological time, so Prof. Huxley's aim is to degrade man deeply in the scale of animal existence. The one puts him back on the huge dial of time, the other puts him down in the grade of Nature. Man is no longer "a creature of yesterday," in the opinion of Lyell; man is no longer a distinct sub-class, in the view of Huxley. Man probably lived a hundred thousand years ago, according to Lyell; man probably had a hundred thousand apes for his ancestors, according to Huxley. If this author be right, poets must have been utterly wrong. They have sung of men as little lower than angels, while they ought to have sung of him as little lower than men.

Our readers know something of the much-disputed hippocampus minor, both from the contributions of Profs. Owen and Huxley to our columns, and from reports of the animated controversy about it at the late meeting of the British Association in Cambridge. At that scientific gathering, Profs. Owen and Huxley were as first and second wranglers; while the other wrangles applauded the cranial and cerebral contest. Sir C. Lyell has repeated the assault upon Prof. Owen, and in the book the same subject re-appears. To those whom it personally concerns we commit it, and simply advert to the special topic in hand. Whereas the wisest man of old gave this advice to the idle–"Go to the ant, thou sluggard," the wise men of this school give this advice to the idle–"Go to the gorilla, ye students." "Consider her ways," added Solomon; "Consider his skull," say the Simian physiologists. How fortunate, under such circumstances, that, as we could not all go to the gorilla, the gorilla has come to us!

It was a comforting opinion that we had, as men, a cerebral distinction, even though it was but a minor hippocampus; but we are assured by Prof. Huxley that "all the abundant and trustworthy evidence which we now possess leads to the conviction that, so far from the posterior lobe, the posterior cornu, and the hippocampus minor being structures peculiar to and characteristic of man, as they have been over and over again asserted to be, even after the publication of the clearest demonstration of the reverse, it is precisely these structures which are the most marked cerebral characters common to man with the apes. They are among the most distinctly Simian peculiarities which the human organism exhibits." Thus, then, it appears that while Owen and Huxley differ, apes and men do not. It is an unfortunate circumstance that the more we are developed from apes, the more we differ from each other. Two primordial men might be conceived of as quarreling about a bone, but never as disagreeing about a brain.

But, leaving the matter to learned anatomists, Prof. Huxley has now to attend to his onward pressing foes from other quarters:–

"On all sides I shall hear the cry–'We are men and women, not a mere better sort of apes, a little longer in the legs, more compact in the foot, and bigger in brain than your brutal chimpanzees and gorillas. The power of knowledge, the conscience of good and evil–the pitiful tenderness of human affections, raise us out of all real fellowship with the brutes, however closely they may seem to approximate us.' To this I can only reply that the exclamation would be most just and would have my own entire sympathy, if it were only relevant. But it is not I who seek to base man's dignity upon his great toe, or insinuate that we are lost if an ape has a hippocampus minor. On the contrary, I have done my best to sweep away this vanity. I have endeavoured to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation, wider than that between the animals which immediately succeed us in the scale, can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves; and I may add the expression of my belief that the attempt to draw a psychical distinction is equally futile, and that even the highest faculties of feeling and of intellect begin to germinate in lower forms of life."

That this close affinity to our "poor relations" is not acceptable or consoling doctrine to the common people, the Professor is well aware:–

"Brought face to face with these blurred copies of himself, the least thoughtful of men is conscious of a certain shock, due, perhaps, not so much to disgust at the aspect of what looks like an insulting caricature, as to the awakening of a sudden and profound mistrust of time-honoured theories and strongly-rooted prejudices regarding his own position in nature, and his relations to the under-world of life; while that which remains a dim suspicion for the unthinking becomes a vast argument, fraught with the deepest consequences, for all who are acquainted with the recent progress of the anatomical and physiological sciences."

Most people as they advance in life are apt to disown their poor relations; but our Professor takes an honest pride in parading them all before us in his frontispiece. Certainly, when thus brought skeleton to skeleton with "these blurred copies of himself," man may fairly feel a little shocked. Here is skeletonized Man lightly tripping forward, followed by skeletonized Gorilla, who is heavily bending downward; after whom come Messieurs Chimpanzee, Orang and Gibbon, all in their best bones, and with their best legs foremost. How man can be so gay with such a following of grim relatives, it is hard to conceive. Yet the whole train appear as gleesome as if they were going in procession to meet the Princess on her entrance into London, and to claim a not very agreeable kinship with her. Certainly, there is a difference in weight; for the Professor informs us that "a full-grown gorilla is probably pretty nearly twice as heavy as many an European woman"; but, possibly, "the pitiful tenderness of human affections" may have diminished our weight, and account for the difference between a princess and a chimpanzee. Most of us know what it is to "pine away" with love; and perhaps a love-struck gorilla might pine down to the weight of a healthy Yorkshire woman.

As to cerebral structure , "it is clear that man differs less from the chimpanzee or the orang, that these do even from the monkeys; and that the difference between the brains of the chimpanzee and of man is almost insignificant, when compared with that between the chimpanzee brain and that of a lemur." As to cerebral weight , "there is a very striking difference in absolute mass and weight between the lowest human brain and that of the highest ape. It may be doubted whether a healthy human adult brain ever weighed less than 31 or 32 ounces, or that the heaviest gorilla brain has exceeded 20 ounces." Yet, as we read in the next page, "the difference in weight of brain between the highest and the lowest men is far greater, both relatively and absolutely, than that between the lowest man and the highest ape"; and again, "regarded systematically, the cerebral difference of man and apes are not of more than generic value–his Family distinction resting chiefly on his dentition, his pelvis and his lower limbs. Thus, whatever system of organs be studied, the comparison of their modifications in the ape series leads to one and the same result–that the structural differences which separate man from the gorilla and the chimpanzee are not so great as those which separate the gorilla from the lower apes."

The critic who desires fairly and yet briefly to state the views of the author finds himself occasionally baffled. No sooner, for instance, has he cited the above apparently definite conclusion, than he finds it qualified by an assurance that the structural differences between man and the highest apes are not small or insignificant. "On the contrary," says the Professor, "let me take this opportunity of distinctly asserting that they are great and significant; that every bone of gorilla bears marks by which it might be distinguished from the corresponding bone of a man; and that in the present creation, at any rate, no intermediate link bridges over the gap between Homo and Troglodytes ."

Now, at least, we may imagine that we have grasped a definite difference: for if every bone differs, there is a general as well as wide distinction between man and the nearest ape. Yet the next sentence but one is this: "Remember, if you will, that there is no existing link between man and the gorilla; but do not forget that there is a no less sharp line of demarcation, a no less complete absence of any transitional form, between the gorilla and the orang, or the orang and the gibbon. I say, not less sharp, though it is somewhat narrower. The structural differences between man and the man-like apes certainly justify our regarding him as constituting a family apart from them; though, inasmuch as he differs less from them than they do from other families of the same order, there can be no justification for placing him in a distinct order."

It is to be hoped that the reader now clearly understands our Professor. There will be no difficulty in understanding his views on natural theology; for, after stating that he adopts Mr. Darwin's hypothesis, he adds: "But even leaving Mr. Darwin's views aside, the whole analogy of natural operations furnishes so complete and crushing an argument against the intervention of any but what are termed secondary causes in the production of all the phenomena of the universe, that in view of the intimate relations between man and the rest of the living world, and between the forces exerted by the latter and all other forces, I can see no excuse for doubting that all are co-ordinated terms of Nature's great progression, from the formless to the formed–from the inorganic to the organic–from blind force to conscious intellect and will."

This is honest though heterodox, and candid though heretical. "It would be unworthy cowardice," adds the Professor, "were I to ignore the repugnance with which the majority of my readers are likely to meet the conclusions to which the most careful and conscientious study I have been able to give to this matter has led me." As to those who revolt from a direct Simian descent, and especially those who are orthodox, our Professor thus comes down upon them with the slap of a gorilla's strong hand:–"Healthy humanity, finding itself hard pressed to escape from real sin and degradation, will leave the brooding over speculative pollution to the cynics and the 'righteous overmuch,' who, disagreeing in everything else, unite in blind insensibility to the nobleness of the visible world, and inability to appreciate the grandeur of the place man occupies therein." Many, indeed, may find it hard to assent to such teaching, and can scarcely admit with this teacher that "our reverence for the nobility of manhood will not be lessened by the knowledge that Man is, in substance and in structure, one with the brutes."

After all this, another look at the grim procession of skeletons in the frontispiece is rather discouraging. If the beholder can but conclude that he is one "in substance and structure" with those gibbering, grovelling apes behind man, then where is our pride of ancestry, our heraldic pomp, our vaunted nobility of descent? Any man can now mount armorial bearings in the shape of the long arms of the gibbon or the gorilla. These are our true "kings-at arms"; and sculptors, painters and poets have omitted the greatest of themes.

On the presumed antiquity of man, Prof. Huxley, as at first intimated, thinks with Sir C. Lyell, as the following will show:–

"The fossil remains of Man hitherto discovered do not seem to me to take us appreciably nearer to that lower pithecoid form, by the modification of which he has, probably, become what he is. And considering what is now known of the most ancient Races of men; seeing that they fashioned flint axes and flint knives, and bone skewers, of much the same pattern as those fabricated by the lowest savages of the present day, and that we have every reason to believe the habits and modes of living of such people to have remained the same from the time of the Mammoth and the tichorhine Rhinoceros till now, I do not know that this result is other than might be expected. Where, then, must we look for primæval Man? Was the oldest Homo sapiens pliocene or miocene, or yet more ancient? In still older strata do the fossilized bones of an Ape more anthropoid, or a man more pithecoid, than any yet known await the researches of some unborn palæontologist? Time will show. But, in the meanwhile, if any form of the doctrine of progressive development is correct, we must extend by long epochs the most liberal estimate that has yet been made of the antiquity of Man."

Those who like serious and scientific discussion will be glad to read what has been brought together in this publication. After all, assuredly, Man is best characterized by the psychical distinctions which, in such treatises as the present, are left wholly out of view or dismissed in a passing sentence. Conscience, remorse, ambition, sense of responsibility, improvableness of reason, immense advances in knowledge, self-cultivation, æsthetical sensibilities–these and other qualities of the Homo sapiens, not to speak of religious sentiments, broadly and plainly distinguish man from all the Simians and Troglodytes. Grant for a moment (what is manifestly inconsistent with the previous statement, that "the structural differences between man and the highest apes are great and significant"), that man is one in substance and structure with these creatures; grant even that their instincts simulate our reason in some remarkable instances; and when all is granted, the vast and varied differences just intimated remain as towering distinctions. To these is added that gift of articulate speech which, though mechanically organized, imparts supreme value to them all; which makes man a communicative being; which gives to a lecturer, such as Prof. Huxley, that power to instruct, amuse and illustrate, by which he is raised immeasurably above the cleverest ape that ever climbed a tree, or built a nest, or buried his dead companion under the dried leaves of an African forest.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University