Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

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


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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


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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.”

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19th century phrenology chart

According to the phrenological doctrine, as elaborated by Franz Joseph Gall, the shape of the skull reflects the `organs’ or faculties of the brain.

Phrenology attained considerable popularity in England: by 1832 there were 29 phrenological societies and an influential journal edited by George Combe.

Yet the theory is almost never mentioned by Darwin, who did not discuss it,  nor mentioned in any of the two editions of the Descent of Man the experiments which by then had demonstrated that some movements hitherto attributed to free will could be produced by localised electrical simulation of the brain – (although a section on the brain was added to the second edition in 1874).

Darwin’s early doubts about one of the most popular Nineteenth-century theories of nature  can be found in the correspondence: In 1830, a young Charles wrote to his cousin and friend William Darwin Fox  “I forgot to mention, I dined with Sir J. Mackintosh & had some talk with him about Phrenology, & he has entirely battered down the very little belief of it that I picked up at Osmaston.”

Darwin had spent three weeks with Fox at Osmaston Hall, the Fox Family’s home, in the summer of 1829.  Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832) was a philosopher and historian who had studied medicine at Edinburgh; he and Josiah Wedgwood of Maer married two of the Allen sisters, so there was connection by marriage between the families. Darwin wrote about fist meeting Mackintosh during one of his visits to Maer in 1827 and later referred to him as `the best converser I ever listened to’ (The autobiography of Charles Darwin, p. 55)


Charles’ letter to Fox is both interesting in showing how a popular subject such as phrenology could be “picked up” or not, by young minds, but also how easily a conversation was enough to “batter down” any belief in it !

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When does a hobby become a scientific subject ?

Thanks to Darwin’s correspondence, we can get an insight  into what  Darwin called “an uncommonly curious subject” and his very own “hobby-horse”.

Expression of emotions

The “uncommonly curious subject” was the expression of emotions in animals and humans; Darwin spent almost forty years thinking, taking notes and inquiring about it, gathering observations and anecdotes from the most remote places on earth as well as from his own domestic surroundings.

As early as the 1830s, Charles Darwin had begun to record and make observations on expressions, noting the behaviour of animals as well as humans. In another example of Victorian women involved in scientific observations and experiments, the soon-to-be-married Emma was also contributing to the project; months later, Darwin began recording the expressions and behaviour of his own children, starting with his “little animalcule of a son, William Erasmus by name”.


Over the following years, Darwin’s interest did not vanish, but he was being cautious about his research. In January 1860, he wrote to Charles Lyell: “On that subject I have collected a good many facts & speculated: but I do not suppose I shall ever publish”, although he had, only a few days earlier, proved his continuous interest by sending a first formal query about Fuegians and Patagonians to the missionary Thomas Bridges. In 1862, he informed the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker that: “Expression is one of my hobby-horses; I have got some funny notions on subject” ; a few years later, Darwin had resolved to send other circulars with questions similar to the 1862 questionnaire and was writing more confidently to William Bowman: “Expression in animals & men is at present a hobby of mine & I think I shall probably utilize my notes made during several years.”

In 1872, thirteen years after the Origin and Species and one year after the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin eventually published his work on the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  It was an immediate best-seller,  although the first edition was not exhausted during Darwin’s lifetime.  It remains, with the correspondence pertaining to it and as expressed by Paul Ekman in the  introduction to the third edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals “a most fascinating example of “Darwin’s attempts to obtain more systematic evidence on the question of universality”.

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Dr Sophie Defrance has been appointed research associate for the ‘Human Nature’ stream of the Darwin CorrespondenceProject.


Among the areas of interest for the ‘Darwin and Human Nature’ project are:

* The development of Darwin’s theory of human origins
* Ideas about human evolution during the second half of the nineteenth-century
* The relevance of Darwin with respect to racial theory, Empire, gender, and human biology
* The relationship between evolutionary theory, ethics and religion
* The concept of “human progress”
* The role of religion and culture in the foundations of moral behaviour

In extending his theory of evolution to humans, Darwin greatly expanded his network of correspondents, using letters to pursue a wide range of researches.  This blog offers the exciting chance to share in comments and observations made by Darwin and his many and varied correspondents.

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