Saturday, April 12, 2008

A brief review of Huxley's "Man's Place in Nature"

I read this book as part of the Decades Challenge. I've always admired Thomas Huxley simply by reputation as "Darwin's bulldog", and especially for his response to Bishop Wilberforce who asked him if he was related to apes on his Mothers or his Father's side. Huxley responded basically that if he had a choice of being related to an ape or a man who was an idiot like Wilberforce, he would gladly choose the ape. Huxley did state it much more eloquently, however. And his writing was eloquent in this book in a Victorian kind of way. The book was written in 1863 and did have the long, run-on sentences characteristic of Victorian science writing. The book basically reviewed what was known at the time about chimps, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons, discussed anatomical similarities between man and apes, and then discussed some of the "newly" discovered fossil homininds of the day, notably the Neandertals. I found it all interesting, but especially the part where Huxley dismantled Richard Owen's claim that only humans had a hippocampus minor (brains structure related to memory formation). Huxley knew better, but Owen was obstinate. Huxley's evidence was overwhelming and time has proved him to be correct and Owen to be incorrect. Huxley wrote a new preface for this book in the early 1890s and he admitted that much of the information was out of date. It certainly is today, but for those interested in the history of evolutionary thought, Huxley is a very important and interesting character, and this is a very enjoyable read.

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