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Missing links: Of myths, monkeys and men

31 July 2006

How Darwinian words, Darwinian plots and Darwinian myths necessarily inform our understanding of the world and our place within it

In her study of evolutionary narratives Darwin’s Plots, Gillian Beer claims that a hermeneutic and epistemic paradigm shift attended the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, that we now live in a post-Darwinian age, and that ‘it is impossible, in our culture, to live a life which is not charged with Darwinian assumptions, patterns for apprehending experience, [and] ways of perceiving relationships’.

Darwinian words, Darwinian plots and Darwinian myths, it seems, now necessarily inform our understanding of the world and our place within it; the ways in which we construct our histories and genealogies; the ways in which we comprehend and constitute our identities; the ways in which we think about our relationships with each other and with (other) animals.  But evolutionary narratives and patterns also inform the way we think about Darwinian theories and stories of evolution themselves – the evolution over time of myths about man’s relation to apes and monkeys, and the evolution of myth into science.

The first recorded dissection of a chimpanzee demonstrated the animal’s remarkably ‘human’ anatomy

In 1699, at the first recorded dissection of a chimpanzee, Edward Tyson demonstrated the animal’s remarkably ‘human’ anatomy and recognised the chimp as anatomically closer to man than to (other) monkeys.  The influence of Tyson’s early scientific endeavours upon the development of Darwin’s theories are widely recognised, and historians of science acknowledge Tyson’s groundbreaking work on monkeys as a key phase in the ‘evolution’ of evolutionary science.  Less well known, however, is Tyson’s ‘scientific’ interest in classical mythology.

In the same year that Tyson conducted his first famous dissection of a chimpanzee and noted its ‘human’ anatomy, he also published the findings of his research into other ‘anthropomorphic’ creatures in a work intriguingly and elaborately titled: Orang-outang, sive, Homo sylvestris, or, The anatomy of a pygmie compared with that of a monkey, an ape, and a man: to which is added, A philological essay concerning the pygmies, the cynocephali, the satyrs, and sphinges of the ancients : wherein it will appear that they are all either apes or monkeys, and not men, as formerly pretended.  In received evolutionary narratives, (retrospectively) configured to describe the development of evolutionary science, Tyson’s work on the anthropomorphic creatures of classical mythology is ignored. Yet this ‘scientific’ treatment of myth represents an important ‘missing link’ in the evolution of Darwinian theory.

Lamarck explicitly observed the potential for the evolution of a creature such as man from monkeys and apes

As important as Tyson’s work on myths, monkeys, and men was at the turn of the eighteenth century, the relation between man and monkey (or, rather ape) had yet to be explicitly historicised – an essential phase in the evolutionary process of this new science. Although Diderot claimed as early as the 1750s that species might mutate and evolve through time, the idea that man might be considered one such species would not be considered seriously for another sixty years and would not gain scientific currency for another century.

In his Zoological Philosophy of 1809, however, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck explicitly observed the potential for the evolution of a creature such as man from monkeys and apes ‘after a long succession of generations’. Carefully formulating his hypothesis as a speculative ‘what if’ story rather than a specific aetiology or genealogy, Lamarck nevertheless draws a clear line of potential descent between man and monkey. What is more, Lamarck’s theory is presented in the traditional framework of an aetiology or ‘just-so’ story.

Like Aesop, Ovid or Kipling, Lamarck shows how necessity and custom are the catalysts for change.  Indeed, we might compare Lamarck’s evolutionary ‘just so’ story of the monkey’s metamorphosis into man, with Ovid's ‘just so’ story of the Cercopes and the metamorphosis of men into monkeys (Metamorphoses 14.91-94).  In Ovid, as in Lamarck, habit and custom provide the catalysts for transformation – such as habitual trickery or walking upright – and a particular mode of repeated behaviour results in change. The only significant difference in the pattern of the two accounts is the length of time attributed to the metamorphosis of man to monkey or monkey to man.

Darwin’s early narratives invited immediate ridicule as being the stuff of myth and fairytale

Drawing directly upon Lamarck’s work, in 1859 Darwin published his Origin of Species, detailing the theory of evolution effected through radical anatomical change taking place gradually within species over generations.  However, some of Darwin’s early narratives invited immediate ridicule from his detractors – as being the stuff of myth and fairytale. Indeed, it is not hard to see why.

Attempting to explain how a bear-like animal accustomed to swimming in water with its mouth open to catch insects might eventually evolve the characteristics of another large mammal such as the whale, Darwin suggested that (Origin 215):

… if the supply of insects were constant, and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.

Critics were quick to seize upon the mythic elements of this narrative, wondering what other ‘animals’ might be produced by this fantastical-seeming evolutionary process, with one British periodical of the time suggesting that ‘centaurs, dryads, and hamadryads … (and perhaps) mermaids once [also] filled our seas’.

The discursive and narratological ‘anatomy’ of the new science of evolution and the old myths of transformation, then, reveal a kinship between the two that is analogous to the anatomical and genetic kinship between man and monkey described in accounts of evolutionary theory.  Although Darwinian patterns of comprehension stand out in popular narratives about the perceived development of ancient Greek myth into science and philosophy, evolutionary theory invites us to think about the evolution of myth into science differently – emphasising continuity in and through change.

Critics were quick to seize upon the mythic elements of Darwin’s narrative

The discursive activity of describing mutation, transformation, adaptation, and development requires a particular kind of historicising narrative – one which looks backwards to the past even as it traces the teleological trajectory of forward movement and progress.  Darwin’s evolutionary theory necessarily effects the same kind of narrative, emphasising origins and roots, sources and beginnings: man descends from monkey, monkey from mollusc, mollusc from amoeba – and the new science of evolution from the old myths of metamorphosis.

Dr Genevieve Liveley/Department of Classics and Ancient History

This is an edited version of a talk given at the 4th Marks Conference, Myth and the New Science which took place at the University of Bristol in July 2006.

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