Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

By John Holmes | Go to book overview

5
Humanity’s Place in Nature

‘THE EXACT CENTRE’, OR JUST ANOTHER AFRICAN APE?

In 1863, Darwin’s friend and ally T. H. Huxley published a short book entitled Man’s Place in Nature. In the aftermath of the Origin of Species Huxley had challenged Richard Owen, the doyen of British palaeontologists, over the biological classification of humanity. Following the French school of comparative anatomy founded by Georges Cuvier, Owen and other leading biologists classified human beings as a distinct mammalian order. Humans comprised the two-handed Bimanes, while the other primates were all members of the four-handed Quadrumana. This taxonomy cemented the judgement that, in the words of T. R. Jones, then Professor of Natural History and Comparative Anatomy at King’s College, London, ‘placed above the brute creation, Man forms the culminating point of the great scheme of Nature here below, while his intellectual superiority, and, much more, his immortal destiny, ally him closely with higher and unseen existences’ (1865: 445).

Huxley countered that, because we are closer to the apes in our physiology than they are to other primates, we ought to be classified merely as a distinct family within the same order, not as an order apart (1893–4: VII, 145). Huxley’s aim was to restore an older taxonomy, devised by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century, but with a Darwinian twist. We were not only ‘in substance and in structure, one with the brutes’, but almost certainly born of them too (ibid.: 155). Darwin himself was inclined to push these conclusions further. As Huxley vacillated between classifying humanity as a family or a sub-order, Darwin mooted that we should perhaps be thought of as only a sub-family ([1871] 2004: 179). Biologists still dispute how far Huxley’s conclusions should be taken: whether humans and the extinct hominids deserve a family of their own, or whether it is more appropriate to think of ourselves as just another lineage of chimpanzees. Either way, since Huxley we have remained firmly ensconced within the order Primates.

This debate over human classification is not mere scholasticism, however. It is symbolic of how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the natural

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Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Preface x
  • 1- Poetry in the Age of Darwin 1
  • 2- Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’ 37
  • 3- God 75
  • 4- Death 102
  • 5- Humanity’s Place in Nature 130
  • 6- Humans and Other Animals 154
  • 7- Love and Sex 185
  • 8- On Balance 226
  • Conclusion 260
  • Bibliography 263
  • Index 283
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