Posts Tagged ‘Descent’

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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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.


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