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A Tale of Exploration and Evolution

by Monte Reel

Pub Date: March 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-385-53422-2
Publisher: Doubleday

Former Washington Post reporter Reel (The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon, 2010) offers a fascinating sidelight on the perennial debate of man's origins.

In the decade before the publication of Darwin's On the Origins of Species, evolution was already a hotly debated topic. The naturalist Richard Owen, a contemporary of Darwin, was considered the foremost British anatomist of his day. A proponent of the theory of evolution, Owen believed that the Creation was not a one-time event as reported in the Bible, but a continuous process. However, he opposed the notion that man was kin to primates. He compared the skulls of primates and humans, on display at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, hoping to establish “taxonomical lines…between humans and apes.” Reel weaves together the fierce contentions about the theory of evolution among leading Victorian scientists and the story of young African explorer Paul Du Chaillu. In 1852, Du Chaillu (an African claiming to be of French descent) was educated by American missionaries in Gabon. He subsequently traveled to America, where he obtained funding for an expedition to hunt African gorillas. When he returned to the U.S. with their preserved remains, the Civil War had begun and the financial support he expected was withdrawn. In 1861, after writing a book about his exploits, Owen invited him to London. There, his book was published and he became an overnight celebrity, for a time overshadowing Darwin in the popular imagination. Ultimately, Du Chaillu was accused of embellishing his account.

A lively footnote to the debate between science and religion and the exploration of the African jungle in the Victorian era.