The Descent of Man – Day 37 of 151

Professor Owen, relying chiefly on the structure of the brain, has divided the mammalian series into four sub-classes. One of these he devotes to man; in another he places both the marsupials and the Monotremata; so that he makes man as distinct from all other mammals as are these two latter groups conjoined. This view has not been accepted, as far as I am aware, by any naturalist capable of forming an independent judgment, and therefore need not here be further considered.

We can understand why a classification founded on any single character or organ–even an organ so wonderfully complex and important as the brain–or on the high development of the mental faculties, is almost sure to prove unsatisfactory. This principle has indeed been tried with hymenopterous insects; but when thus classed by their habits or instincts, the arrangement proved thoroughly artificial. (3. Westwood, ‘Modern Classification of Insects,’ vol. ii. 1840, p. 87.) Classifications may, of course, be based on any character whatever, as on size, colour, or the element inhabited; but naturalists have long felt a profound conviction that there is a natural system. This system, it is now generally admitted, must be, as far as possible, genealogical in arrangement,–that is, the co-descendants of the same form must be kept together in one group, apart from the co-descendants of any other form; but if the parent-forms are related, so will be their descendants, and the two groups together will form a larger group. The amount of difference between the several groups–that is the amount of modification which each has undergone–is expressed by such terms as genera, families, orders, and classes. As we have no record of the lines of descent, the pedigree can be discovered only by observing the degrees of resemblance between the beings which are to be classed. For this object numerous points of resemblance are of much more importance than the amount of similarity or dissimilarity in a few points. If two languages were found to resemble each other in a multitude of words and points of construction, they would be universally recognised as having sprung from a common source, notwithstanding that they differed greatly in some few words or points of construction. But with organic beings the points of resemblance must not consist of adaptations to similar habits of life: two animals may, for instance, have had their whole frames modified for living in the water, and yet they will not be brought any nearer to each other in the natural system. Hence we can see how it is that resemblances in several unimportant structures, in useless and rudimentary organs, or not now functionally active, or in an embryological condition, are by far the most serviceable for classification; for they can hardly be due to adaptations within a late period; and thus they reveal the old lines of descent or of true affinity.

We can further see why a great amount of modification in some one character ought not to lead us to separate widely any two organisms. A part which already differs much from the same part in other allied forms has already, according to the theory of evolution, varied much; consequently it would (as long as the organism remained exposed to the same exciting conditions) be liable to further variations of the same kind; and these, if beneficial, would be preserved, and thus be continually augmented. In many cases the continued development of a part, for instance, of the beak of a bird, or of the teeth of a mammal, would not aid the species in gaining its food, or for any other object; but with man we can see no definite limit to the continued development of the brain and mental faculties, as far as advantage is concerned. Therefore in determining the position of man in the natural or genealogical system, the extreme development of his brain ought not to outweigh a multitude of resemblances in other less important or quite unimportant points.

The greater number of naturalists who have taken into consideration the whole structure of man, including his mental faculties, have followed Blumenbach and Cuvier, and have placed man in a separate Order, under the title of the Bimana, and therefore on an equality with the orders of the Quadrumana, Carnivora, etc. Recently many of our best naturalists have recurred to the view first propounded by Linnaeus, so remarkable for his sagacity, and have placed man in the same Order with the Quadrumana, under the title of the Primates. The justice of this conclusion will be admitted: for in the first place, we must bear in mind the comparative insignificance for classification of the great development of the brain in man, and that the strongly-marked differences between the skulls of man and the Quadrumana (lately insisted upon by Bischoff, Aeby, and others) apparently follow from their differently developed brains. In the second place, we must remember that nearly all the other and more important differences between man and the Quadrumana are manifestly adaptive in their nature, and relate chiefly to the erect position of man; such as the structure of his hand, foot, and pelvis, the curvature of his spine, and the position of his head. The family of Seals offers a good illustration of the small importance of adaptive characters for classification. These animals differ from all other Carnivora in the form of their bodies and in the structure of their limbs, far more than does man from the higher apes; yet in most systems, from that of Cuvier to the most recent one by Mr. Flower (4. ‘Proceedings Zoological Society,’ 1863, p. 4.), seals are ranked as a mere family in the Order of the Carnivora. If man had not been his own classifier, he would never have thought of founding a separate order for his own reception.

It would be beyond my limits, and quite beyond my knowledge, even to name the innumerable points of structure in which man agrees with the other Primates. Our great anatomist and philosopher, Prof. Huxley, has fully discussed this subject (5. ‘Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature,’ 1863, p. 70, et passim.), and concludes that man in all parts of his organization differs less from the higher apes, than these do from the lower members of the same group. Consequently there “is no justification for placing man in a distinct order.”

In an early part of this work I brought forward various facts, shewing how closely man agrees in constitution with the higher mammals; and this agreement must depend on our close similarity in minute structure and chemical composition. I gave, as instances, our liability to the same diseases, and to the attacks of allied parasites; our tastes in common for the same stimulants, and the similar effects produced by them, as well as by various drugs, and other such facts.

As small unimportant points of resemblance between man and the Quadrumana are not commonly noticed in systematic works, and as, when numerous, they clearly reveal our relationship, I will specify a few such points. The relative position of our features is manifestly the same; and the various emotions are displayed by nearly similar movements of the muscles and skin, chiefly above the eyebrows and round the mouth. Some few expressions are, indeed, almost the same, as in the weeping of certain kinds of monkeys and in the laughing noise made by others, during which the corners of the mouth are drawn backwards, and the lower eyelids wrinkled. The external ears are curiously alike. In man the nose is much more prominent than in most monkeys; but we may trace the commencement of an aquiline curvature in the nose of the Hoolock Gibbon; and this in the Semnopithecus nasica is carried to a ridiculous extreme.

The faces of many monkeys are ornamented with beards, whiskers, or moustaches. The hair on the head grows to a great length in some species of Semnopithecus (6. Isidore Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, ‘Hist. Nat. Gen.’ tom. ii. 1859, p. 217.); and in the Bonnet monkey (Macacus radiatus) it radiates from a point on the crown, with a parting down the middle. It is commonly said that the forehead gives to man his noble and intellectual appearance; but the thick hair on the head of the Bonnet monkey terminates downwards abruptly, and is succeeded by hair so short and fine that at a little distance the forehead, with the exception of the eyebrows, appears quite naked. It has been erroneously asserted that eyebrows are not present in any monkey. In the species just named the degree of nakedness of the forehead differs in different individuals; and Eschricht states (7. ‘Uber die Richtung der Haare,’ etc., Muller’s ‘Archiv fur Anat. und Phys.’ 1837, s. 51.) that in our children the limit between the hairy scalp and the naked forehead is sometimes not well defined; so that here we seem to have a trifling case of reversion to a progenitor, in whom the forehead had not as yet become quite naked.

It is well known that the hair on our arms tends to converge from above and below to a point at the elbow. This curious arrangement, so unlike that in most of the lower mammals, is common to the gorilla, chimpanzee, orang, some species of Hylobates, and even to some few American monkeys. But in Hylobates agilis the hair on the fore-arm is directed downwards or towards the wrist in the ordinary manner; and in H. lar it is nearly erect, with only a very slight forward inclination; so that in this latter species it is in a transitional state. It can hardly be doubted that with most mammals the thickness of the hair on the back and its direction, is adapted to throw off the rain; even the transverse hairs on the fore-legs of a dog may serve for this end when he is coiled up asleep. Mr. Wallace, who has carefully studied the habits of the orang, remarks that the convergence of the hair towards the elbow on the arms of the orang may be explained as serving to throw off the rain, for this animal during rainy weather sits with its arms bent, and with the hands clasped round a branch or over its head. According to Livingstone, the gorilla also “sits in pelting rain with his hands over his head.” (8. Quoted by Reade, ‘The African Sketch Book,’ vol i. 1873, p. 152.) If the above explanation is correct, as seems probable, the direction of the hair on our own arms offers a curious record of our former state; for no one supposes that it is now of any use in throwing off the rain; nor, in our present erect condition, is it properly directed for this purpose.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)