The Descent of Man – Day 39 of 151

On the Birthplace and Antiquity of Man

We are naturally led to enquire, where was the birthplace of man at that stage of descent when our progenitors diverged from the Catarrhine stock? The fact that they belonged to this stock clearly shews that they inhabited the Old World; but not Australia nor any oceanic island, as we may infer from the laws of geographical distribution. In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere. But it is useless to speculate on this subject; for two or three anthropomorphous apes, one the Dryopithecus (17. Dr. C. Forsyth Major, ‘Sur les Singes fossiles trouves en Italie:’ ‘Soc. Ital. des Sc. Nat.’ tom. xv. 1872.) of Lartet, nearly as large as a man, and closely allied to Hylobates, existed in Europe during the Miocene age; and since so remote a period the earth has certainly undergone many great revolutions, and there has been ample time for migration on the largest scale.

At the period and place, whenever and wherever it was, when man first lost his hairy covering, he probably inhabited a hot country; a circumstance favourable for the frugiferous diet on which, judging from analogy, he subsisted. We are far from knowing how long ago it was when man first diverged from the Catarrhine stock; but it may have occurred at an epoch as remote as the Eocene period; for that the higher apes had diverged from the lower apes as early as the Upper Miocene period is shewn by the existence of the Dryopithecus. We are also quite ignorant at how rapid a rate organisms, whether high or low in the scale, may be modified under favourable circumstances; we know, however, that some have retained the same form during an enormous lapse of time. From what we see going on under domestication, we learn that some of the co-descendants of the same species may be not at all, some a little, and some greatly changed, all within the same period. Thus it may have been with man, who has undergone a great amount of modification in certain characters in comparison with the higher apes.

The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form; but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, from general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution. Breaks often occur in all parts of the series, some being wide, sharp and defined, others less so in various degrees; as between the orang and its nearest allies–between the Tarsius and the other Lemuridae–between the elephant, and in a more striking manner between the Ornithorhynchus or Echidna, and all other mammals. But these breaks depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct. At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked (18. ‘Anthropological Review,’ April 1867, p. 236.), will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

With respect to the absence of fossil remains, serving to connect man with his ape-like progenitors, no one will lay much stress on this fact who reads Sir C. Lyell’s discussion (19. ‘Elements of Geology,’ 1865, pp. 583-585. ‘Antiquity of Man,’ 1863, p. 145.), where he shews that in all the vertebrate classes the discovery of fossil remains has been a very slow and fortuitous process. Nor should it be forgotten that those regions which are the most likely to afford remains connecting man with some extinct ape-like creature, have not as yet been searched by geologists.

Lower Stages in the Genealogy of Man

We have seen that man appears to have diverged from the Catarrhine or Old World division of the Simiadae, after these had diverged from the New World division. We will now endeavour to follow the remote traces of his genealogy, trusting principally to the mutual affinities between the various classes and orders, with some slight reference to the periods, as far as ascertained, of their successive appearance on the earth. The Lemuridae stand below and near to the Simiadae, and constitute a very distinct family of the primates, or, according to Haeckel and others, a distinct Order. This group is diversified and broken to an extraordinary degree, and includes many aberrant forms. It has, therefore, probably suffered much extinction. Most of the remnants survive on islands, such as Madagascar and the Malayan archipelago, where they have not been exposed to so severe a competition as they would have been on well-stocked continents. This group likewise presents many gradations, leading, as Huxley remarks (20. ‘Man’s Place in Nature,’ p. 105.), “insensibly from the crown and summit of the animal creation down to creatures from which there is but a step, as it seems, to the lowest, smallest, and least intelligent of the placental mammalia.” From these various considerations it is probable that the Simiadae were originally developed from the progenitors of the existing Lemuridae; and these in their turn from forms standing very low in the mammalian series.

The Marsupials stand in many important characters below the placental mammals. They appeared at an earlier geological period, and their range was formerly much more extensive than at present. Hence the Placentata are generally supposed to have been derived from the Implacentata or Marsupials; not, however, from forms closely resembling the existing Marsupials, but from their early progenitors. The Monotremata are plainly allied to the Marsupials, forming a third and still lower division in the great mammalian series. They are represented at the present day solely by the Ornithorhynchus and Echidna; and these two forms may be safely considered as relics of a much larger group, representatives of which have been preserved in Australia through some favourable concurrence of circumstances. The Monotremata are eminently interesting, as leading in several important points of structure towards the class of reptiles.

In attempting to trace the genealogy of the Mammalia, and therefore of man, lower down in the series, we become involved in greater and greater obscurity; but as a most capable judge, Mr. Parker, has remarked, we have good reason to believe, that no true bird or reptile intervenes in the direct line of descent. He who wishes to see what ingenuity and knowledge can effect, may consult Prof. Haeckel’s works. (21. Elaborate tables are given in his ‘Generelle Morphologie’ (B. ii. s. cliii. and s. 425); and with more especial reference to man in his ‘Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte,’ 1868. Prof. Huxley, in reviewing this latter work (‘The Academy,’ 1869, p. 42) says, that he considers the phylum or lines of descent of the Vertebrata to be admirably discussed by Haeckel, although he differs on some points. He expresses, also, his high estimate of the general tenor and spirit of the whole work.) I will content myself with a few general remarks. Every evolutionist will admit that the five great vertebrate classes, namely, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, are descended from some one prototype; for they have much in common, especially during their embryonic state. As the class of fishes is the most lowly organised, and appeared before the others, we may conclude that all the members of the vertebrate kingdom are derived from some fishlike animal. The belief that animals so distinct as a monkey, an elephant, a humming-bird, a snake, a frog, and a fish, etc., could all have sprung from the same parents, will appear monstrous to those who have not attended to the recent progress of natural history. For this belief implies the former existence of links binding closely together all these forms, now so utterly unlike.

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