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.
While the idea that human women could be the object of desire for male monkeys was not novel in the 1870s, it remained shocking. Contemporary accounts contained in works of natural history often verged on the sensational: George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the famed eighteenth-century French naturalist and author of the sixteen volume Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-88), noted evidence collected by Dutch explorers that orangutans “are passionate for women; who are never safe in passing in the forest, where they find themselves all of a sudden attacked and violated by these monkeys.” The Italian naturalist, Odoardo Beccari, recounted in Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo (1904), a memoir of his 1865 expedition to Indonesia, that the Dyak people of Borneo “tell many a tale about women being carried off by orang-utans” although he hesitated to accept their interpretation of the sexual motives of these apes:
No doubt the thing in itself is possible, for an adult male Mayas is certainly strong enough to carry off a woman. But that this actually happens, and happens, moreover, from sexual reasons, is an assertion which only deserves to be left as the subject of a romance to some Dyak novelist of the future.
It’s likely that Darwin would have agreed with Beccari’s view of the proper place for discussing cross-species sexual attraction. Certainly, the slightly salacious undertone to this kind of anecdote struck the wrong note for the conscientious Darwin, who was all too aware of how his own work could be interpreted. But the question of sexual attraction across species was, and remains, a problematic one for reasons that go beyond ideas about propriety. People remain both fascinated and disturbed by the idea: the continued appeal of the classic narrative of King Kong, which originally appeared in 1933, attests to powerfully troubling notion of attraction across species, and particularly, the vulnerability of human women to male apes.
Within the context of 19th-century debate over evolution, de Saporta’s view on Descent suggests that Darwin’s audience was willing to accept a common ancestry for human beings and other apes, in some cases only as long as this was not too close a descent. With something as intimate as sexual attraction, and all the emotional and affective attachments it called up for Victorians (as indeed it calls up for readers today), the issue raised by de Saporta hit uncomfortably close to home. In the realm of sexual attraction, it was perhaps best to allow the great apes as un-human a nature as was humanly possible.
Sources and further reading:
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray, 1871.
Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray, 1872.
George Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du cabinet du roy… Paris: L’Imprimerie royale. 1749-1788.
Odoardo Beccari, Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo: Travels and Researches of a Naturalist in Sarawak. Trans. Enrico H. Giglioli. London: A. Constable & co., 1904.
Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Carel van Schaik. Among Orangutans: Red Apes and the Rise of Human Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004.