In recent posts, we’ve explored the implications of cross-species sexual attraction, and the perception of language as a measure of distinction between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. The question of what separates our species from other animals, and whether language is indeed a mark of distinction, continues to fascinate, intrigue and trouble today, just as it did in the 1870s. These two issues–of cross-species selection and language acquisition–came together following the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man in 1871 in the search for the so-called “missing link” in human evolution.

As a famous figure in the debates surrounding human evolution, Darwin could be something of a lightning rod for eccentric thinkers with their own ideas about his theories. The idea of a “missing link” compelled one such enthusiast to write to him about the possible origins of humankind. Having read an “exposition of the ‘Darwinian theory’” that posited the missing link as an extinct “race of ‘Speechless Men,’” an American banker living in Paris by the name of William B. Bowles suggested to Darwin that, in fact, the “missing link” was neither speechless nor extinct. Rather, the “missing links” in human evolution were “Speaking Monkies,” and Bowles was bold enough to suggest that he thought he could “point out this missing race, show where and how it lives.” Continue Reading »

Hugo Rheinhold, "Ape with Skull", by Darwin Monkey

Hugo Rheinhold, "Ape with Skull", (Darwin Monkey)

A long-standing debate concerns whether humans are specialized for speech perception ; in the the second half of the nineteenth century, two of the primary figures in this debate were Charles Darwin and Friedrich Max Müller.

A distinguished scholar and one of the leading figures of Victorian cultural life, Müller stated that language was a “Rubicon” between man and brute. Müller specifically attacked the ideas Darwin had formulated about languages in the Descent of Man, where Darwin had rejected Müller’s ideas about Man’s special place in evolution. The difference of opinion led to a series of letters  between the two men of science.

The recent findings of an experiment published in the journal Current Biology could, however, prove to be further evidence that Darwin was right.

Some researchers argue that the capacity for language acquisition is demonstrated by the ability to understand synthetic speech, incomplete or distorted spoken words. Lisa Heimbauer and her colleagues Michael Beran and Michael Owren, from Georgia State University in Atlanta tested a chimpanzee, which had been raised by humans and spoken to as if she were human, to find out whether she too could recognise incomplete or distorted spoken words. The talented chimp, named Panzee, recognised degraded spoken words far more often than should have been the case by chance, providing evidence that our common ancestor would have had the ability to perceive speech.

So has the Rubicon been crossed?

Lisa A. Heimbauer, Michael J. Beran and Michael J. Owren, A Chimpanzee Recognizes Synthetic Speech with Significantly Reduced Acoustic Cues to Phonetic Content, Current Biology,  Available online 30 June 2011.
 Matt Walker Editor, BBC Nature, “Chimp recognises synthetic speech”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/14045206

The human-like qualities of great apes have always been a source of scientific and popular fascination, and no less in the Victorian period than in any other. Darwin himself, of course, marshalled similarities in physiology, behaviour and emotional expression between Homo sapiens and other simians over the course of his long career to support his views on evolution. This kind of evidence appeared in many of his publications, notably The Descent of Man and  The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  But were some parallels between human beings and other great apes too disquieting to use as scientific evidence?

Correspondence between Charles Darwin and Gaston de Saporta, a French paleobotanist, suggests that this may indeed be the case. In 1872, de Saporta wrote to Darwin after reading Descent of Man. In a long letter in which he both praised the work and expressed his opinion that Darwin may have argued for too close a common ancestry for man and monkey, de Saporta identified two key pieces of evidence which he believed showed most strongly the commonalities between humans and apes: dentition, which “seems to denote an exclusive link with the Monkeys of the old continent,” and “female menstruation and, as a corollary, the odour which makes women attractive to many monkeys.”

In his reply, Darwin graciously thanked de Saporta for “the trouble which you have taken in giving me your reflections on the origin of Man.” Promising to reflect on de Saporta’s comments, he nonetheless stood his ground:

I cannot at present give up my belief in the close relationship of Man, to the higher Simiate. I do not put much trust in any single character, even that of dentition; but I put the greatest faith in resemblances in many   parts of the whole organization, for I cannot believe that such resemblances can be due to any cause except close blood-relationship.

It’s no accident that Darwin did not acknowledge de Saporta’s point about menstruation or its corollary—the attractiveness of human women to other apes. Darwin’s difficulty negotiating this issue had much to do with norms of Victorian respectability, and what was or wasn’t appropriate for wider circulation beyond private correspondence or, for publication.

Punch cartoon, with reference to cross-species sexual attraction

From Punch 24 May 1873

Continue Reading »

On May, 19, 1868, an African explorer and unsuccessful novelist, William Winwoode Reade (1838–1875) offered to help Darwin, and started a correspondence and, arguably, a collaboration, that would last until Reade’s death.

After a first 1861 tour of West Africa, in which he paid particular attention to arguments then current about the character of gorillas and the existence of cannibalism, Reade had been associated with the Anthropological Society, which at the time mostly represented those who disagreed with Darwin’s theory and advocated the separate creation of the human races, and opposed the monogenist views of the Ethnological Society.


Nonetheless, Reade contacted Charles Darwin in 1868 to offer his services: his second expedition to Africa was conceived, at least in part, as a scientific venture. Darwin drew on this information in the Descent of Man. In turn, describing himself as a “disciple” of Darwin, Reade claimed inspiration from the Origin of Species (“your book – The Origin- has had considerable influence on my mind. If I read it earlier in life it might have completely changed the course of it – Winwood Reade to Charles Darwin, 31 January 1871) and sought Darwin’s advice on the passages about the origin of language which he intended to publish in the Martyrdom of Man. Reade’s reputation as a writer rests not on his novels, nor on his travel writing, but on that single work, first published in 1872. The Martyrdom was quoted as an essential book by HG Wells, George Orwell, and even the fictional Sherlock Holmes. People are sometimes surprised to find from his correspondence that Darwin worked so collaboratively, but this is just one of many examples drawn from his international network. The Darwin and Human Nature Project will be making some of the most significant of Reade’s letters available online ahead of their publication in the print edition of the Correspondence – a fascinating glimpse into the construction of Descent and into the warring

beginnings of two sciences, ethnology and anthropology, as understood by an avowed Darwinian free-thinker.

For more about William Winwood Reade, see

Felix Driver, Geography Militant, Cultures of Exploration and Empire, (Blackwell, 2001)

Felix Driver, ‘Reade, William Winwood (1838–1875)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, May 2009.


Dr White, from the Darwin Correspondence Project,  is speaking on Darwin and the evolution of sympathy at a workshop in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.

The event will focus on the moral and religious debates surrounding evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century and the implications of evolutionary theory for modern ethics and psychological models of the self.

Workshop in the History and Philosophy of Biology

Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine
and Department of Philosophy

Divinity Library, King’s College
University of Aberdeen

Saturday, May 21st 10:00-17:30

Robert J. Richards, (Chicago)
Darwin’s Principles of Divergence and Natural Selection: Why Fodor was Almost Right
Paul White (Cambridge)
Becoming an Animal: Darwin and the Evolution of Sympathy
Pietro Corsi (Oxford)
Idola Tribus: Lamarck, Politics and Religion in the Early Nineteenth Century
Kevin Brosnan (Cambridge)
Do the Evolutionary Origins of our Moral Beliefs Undermine Moral Knowledge?
Catherine Wilson (Aberdeen)
From Biological Selves to Psychological Selves
The workshop is free and open to all. Registration is required via a note to c.wilson@abdn.ac.uk

Image credit Tom Morgan Jones


Are humans inherently generous and sympathetic to others?

Is there such a thing as an “instinct for truth” ?

How do people around the world express their emotions?

All these questions are discussed in Darwin’s correspondence. Darwin also writes about the continuity in moral behaviour between humans and animals, evoked  the religious implications of his theory, and the wider significance of human progress in light of the eventual extinction of life on earth …

We have selected 10 letters,  written between 1830 and 1871, to give you a glimpse  of Darwin’s wide-ranging reflections on human nature

Discover what Darwin thought about animal behavior, the evolution of aesthetic taste and moral sensibility, the origin of the human races, and the implications of evolution for human progress … and let us know what your favourite letter is!

How can an English bishop and a French évêque help Darwin explain his theories about species and natural selection?

In the middle of the nineteenth century, linguists were concerned with establishing genetic relationships between the English language and cognates (words that have a common etymological origin) in various other Indo-European languages.

Hensleigh Wedgwood , Emma Darwin’s brother and Charles’ cousin was a philologist, barrister and original member of the Philological Society, which had been created in 1842. In 1857, while Wedgwood was preparing a dictionary of English etymology, he wrote to Darwin suggesting that the common origin of the French “chef” and the English “head” or “????” and “bishop” illustrated the parallels between extinct and transitional forms in language and palaeontology.

Hensleigh’s cousin must have appreciated the comparison, for he used the case of ‘bishop’ and evêque’ in a chapter about the difficulties presented by his theory in Natural selection, in order to show how apparently dissimilar animals could be derived from a common source, just like etymology could show words to be : “to one who knew no other language, dead or living, besides French & English, how absurd would the assertion seem, that evêque & bishop had both certainly descended from a common source, & could still be connected by intermediate links, with the extinct word episcopus.

Charles Darwin dropped the bishops, but used the analogy again in Origin, and eventually in the in the Descent of Man, where he wrote soberly that “the formation of different languages and of distinct species and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process are curiously the same.”