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Amanda Hodgson “Defining the Species”

Hodgson, Amanda 1999. Defining the Species: apes, savages and humans in scientific and literary writing of the 1860s. Journal of Victorian Culture 4(2): 228-251.

The scientific study of humankind – anthropology – was an emergent discipline in the 1860s. The Anthropological Society of London was founded in 1863 and defined its aims as follows: „to study Man in all his leading aspects, physical, mental, and historical; to investigate the laws of his origin and progress; to ascertain his place in nature and his relations to the inferior forms of life; and to attain these objects by patient investigation, careful induction, and the encouragement of all researches tending to establish a de facto science of man.” (230 – Prospectus of the Anthropological Society of London, 1)

The Athenaeum of 11 May 1861 carried a long review of du Chaillu’s book, in which it singled out for extensive quotation passages where du Chaillu recognised the strong and disturbing resemblance between humans and the gorillas he is hunting: „Suddenly I was startled by a strange, discordant, half human, devilish cry, and beheld four young gorillas running toward the deep forests. . . . I protest I felt almost like a murderer when I saw the gorillas this first time. As they ran – on their hind legs – they looked fearfully like hairy men; their heads down, their bodies inclined forward, their whole appearance like men running for their lives.” (231)

Reason, religion and morality: these are the things which no beast possesses, however similar to ours might be the physical structure of its brain. These are the things which will enable humankind to retain its sense of superiority over the animal kingdom – else we might, as the philologist Friedrich Max Müller put it, ‘not unreasonably feel somewhat uneasy at having the gorilla so close on our heels’. (235)

In the prevailing climate of doubt as to the existence of a dividing line between animals and
humankind, and with the further possibility that humankind itself might be made up of separate species, it is not surprising that there was also some confusion about the precise relationship between man-like apes and the ‘savages’ whose appearance and way of life seemed to Victorians so disturbingly alien from their own culture. Some, like Hunt, came to the conclusion that there were a number of significant analogies between apes and black humans. (238-239)

This blurring of the distinction between black humans and apes was not always, or merely, the result of unthinking racial distaste. It was important for mid-Victorians to define themselves with reference to an ‘other’ that was both bestial and savage, because they had to forge an identity that could cope with the newly historical perspective in which they had to view themselves. It was no longer possible simply to assert the superiority of European civilised humankind as if it were an obvious fact, when notions of creation were being challenged by the idea of a morally neutral evolution. (239)

However, if humans could be seen as coming at the end of a progressive line of development, at the head of the procession as Huxley’s skeletons imply, moral evolution could be linked, as it is in The Water-Babies, with physical evolution. But in order to do this, it was necessary to prove that modern human societies were ‘better’ than ancient ones. Hence the importance of the idea of the savage. (239)

[Edward] Tylor equates contemporary savages with early humankind, persistently describing them as standing to civilised cultures as children do to adults, and he recognises the logical monogenesist corollary: speaking of the apparent universality of gesture-language, he concludes that its prevalence ‘bears against the supposition that specific differences are traceable among the various races of man’. (240)

Tylor stresses his conviction that the different degrees of civilisation visible among different groups of people ‘are rather differences of development than of origin, rather of degree than of kind’.40 Yet it is their evolutionary and monogenesist standpoint which requires these anthropologists to represent savages as bestial. In his seminal work Primitiue Culture (1870) Tylor devotes chapters to language, religion and counting, clearly following the prescribed rules for defining civilised humankind against both savage and beast. (240)

If savages were remnants of prehistoric societies, and if humans were descended from ape-like ancestors, then savages were, logically, intermediaries between these apish ancestors and evolved humankind. To think otherwise would be to question progress. (241)

It is difficult for linear narrative in the past tense not to appear driven towards a goal, a conclusion, an end. The linearity of most Victorian prose fiction engaged (particularly when the narrative was serialised) with the contemporary ideology which identified process as progress, moralising the transformation described by science and thus rendering it palatable. I have tried to show how the anthropologists who saw prehistoric humans as savages were implicated in this procedure, and how The Water-Babies endorsed it. Poetry such as Browning’s, which struggles to evade narrative, may the more readily subvert the prevailing valorisation of change as progress – at least for as long as it takes to read the poem. (247)

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