(7 Feb 1812 - 9 Jun 1870)
OUR NEAREST RELATION.
from All Year Round (1859)
Author unknown - no credit given
Published by Charles Dickens
[p.112] MEN cannot help feeling a little ashamed of their cousin-german the Ape. His close yet grotesque and clumsy semblance of the human form is accompanied by no gleams of higher instinct. Our humble friend the dog, our patient fellow-labourer the horse, are nearer to us in this respect. The magnanimous and sagacious elephant, doomed though he be to all-fours, is godlike compared with this spitefully ferocious creature. Strangely enough, too, the most repulsive and ferocious of all apekind—the recently discovered Gorilla—is, the comparative anatomist assures us, nearest to us of all: the most closely allied in structure to the human form.
Recently discovered to science, we should have said, for rumours of the existence of such a creature reach us from the lips of more than one observant Old Traveller, but were regarded by Cuvier as confused versions of species already known. A very interesting probable allusion has been disinterred from the Voyage of Hanno, the early Carthaginian navigator:
On the third day, having sailed from thence, passing the streams of fire, we came to a bay called the Horn of the South. In the recess there was an island like the first, having a lake, and in this there was another island full of wild men. But much the greater part of them were women with hairy bodies, [p.113] whom the interpreters called “Gorillas.” But, pursuing them, we were not able to take the men; they all escaped, being able to climb the precipices, and defended themselves with pieces of rock. But three women (females), who bit and scratched those who led them, were not willing to follow. However, having killed them, we flayed them, and conveyed the skins to Carthage; for we did not sail any further, as provisions began to fail.
In 1847, Professor Owen received a letter from Dr. Savage, a church missionary at Gaboon, a richly-wooded tract in the western part of Africa, enclosing sketches of the cranium of an ape, which he described as much larger than the chimpanzee, ferocious in its habits, and dreaded by the negro natives more than they dread the lion or any other wild beast of the forest. Since that period, the entire skeleton, and also the carcase, preserved in spirits (hideous spectacle to unscientific eyes), have come to the hands of the savans of Europe, among whom they have proved bones of contention: some assigning the new species a rank above, some below, the chimpanzee. When we shall have drawn our ugly friend’s likeness, we shall be better able to indicate the points of difference and of resemblance which have made the doctors differ.
The gorilla is of the average height of man, five feet six inches; his brain case is low and narrow, and, as the fore part of the skull is high, and there is a very prominent ridge above the eyes, the top of the head is perfectly flat, and the brow, with its thick integument, forms a “scowling pent-house over the eyes.” Couple with this a deep lead-coloured skin, much wrinkled, a prominent jaw with the canine teeth (in the males) of huge size, a receding chin; and we have an exaggeration of the lowest and most forbidding type of human physiognomy. The neck is short; the head pokes forward. The relative proportions of the body and limbs are nearer those of man, yet they are of more ungainly aspect than in any other of the brute kind. Long, shapeless arms, thick and muscular, with scarce any diminution of size deserving the name of wrist (for at the smallest they are fourteen inches round, while a strong man’s wrist is not above eight); a wide, thick hand the palm long, and the fingers short, swollen and gouty-looking; capacious chest; broad shoulders; legs also thick and shapeless, destitute of calf, and very muscular, yet short; a hand-like foot with a thumb to it, “of huge dimensions and portentous power of grasp.” No wonder the lion skulks before this monster, and even the elephant is baffled by his malicious cunning activity, and strength. The teeth indicate a vegetable diet, but the repast is sometimes varied with eggs, or a brood of young birds. The chief reason of his enmity to the elephant appears to be: not that it ever intentionally injures him, but merely, that it shares his taste for certain favourite fruits. And when, from his watch-tower in the upper branches of a tree, he perceives the elephant helping himself to these delicacies, he steals along the bough, and, striking its sensitive proboscis a violent blow with the club with which he is almost always armed, drives off the startled giant, trumpeting shrilly with rage and pain.
Towards the negroes, the gorilla seems to cherish an implacable hatred; he attacks them quite unprovoked. If a party of blacks approach unconsciously within range of a tree haunted by one of these wood-demons—swinging rapidly down to the lower branches, he clutches, with his thumbed foot, at the nearest of them; his green eyes flash with rage, his hair stands on end, and the skin above the eyes, drawn rapidly up and down, gives him a fiendish scowl. Sometimes, during their excursions in quest of ivory, in those gloomy forests, the natives will first discover the proximity of a gorilla by the sudden mysterious disappearance of one of their companions. The brute, angling for him with his horrible foot dropped from a tree while his strong arms grasp it firmly, stretches down his huge hind-hand, seizes the hapless wretch by the throat, draws him up into the boughs, and, as soon as his struggles have ceased, drops him down, a strangled corpse.
A tree is the gorilla’s sleeping-place by night, his pleasant abode by day, and his castle of defence. If surprised as he waddles along, leaning on his club, instantly he betakes him to all-fours, applying the back part of the bent knuckles of his fore-hands to the ground, and makes his way rapidly, with an oblique, swinging kind of gallop, to the nearest tree. From that coigne of vantage he awaits his foe, should the latter be hardy, or foolhardy, enough, to pursue. No full-grown gorilla has ever been taken alive. A bold negro, the leader of an elephant-hunting expedition, was offered a hundred dollars for a live gorilla. “If you gave me the weight of yonder hill in gold, I could not do it,” he said.
Nevertheless, he has his good qualities—in a domestic point of view; he is an amiable and exemplary husband and father, watching over his young family with affectionate solicitude, and exerting in their defence his utmost strength and ferocity. At the close of the rice harvest, the period when the gorillas approach nearest the abodes of man, a family group may sometimes be observed, the parents sitting on a branch, leaning against the trunk, as they munch their fruit, while the young innocents sport around, leaping and swinging from branch to branch, with hoots or harsh cries of boisterous mirth. The mothers show that devotion to their young in times of danger, which is the most universal of instincts. “A French natural history collector” (we are quoting, as before, from Professor Owen’s memoir on the Gorilla, read to the Royal Institution in February, 1859) “accompanying a party of the Gaboon negroes into the gorilla woods, surprised a female with two young ones on a large boabdad” (the monkey bread-fruit-tree) “which stood some distance from the nearest clump. She descended the tree with her youngest clinging to her neck, and made off rapidly on all fours to the forest, and escaped. The deserted young one, on seeing the approach of the men, began to utter piercing [p.114] cries; the mother having disposed of one infant, returned to the rescue of the other, but before she could descend with it, her retreat was cut off. Seeing one of the negroes level his musket at her, she, clasping her young with one arm, waved the other, as if deprecating the shot. The ball passed through her heart, and she fell with her young one clinging to her. It was a male, and survived the voyage to Havre, where it died on arriving.”
The Gorilla constructs himself a snug hammock out of the long, tough, slender stems of parasitic plants, and lines it with the broad dried fronds of palms, or with long grass—a sort of bed surely not to be despised, swung in the leafy branches of a tree. By day, he sits on a bough, leaning his back against the trunk, owing to which habit elderly gorillas become rather bald in those regions. Sometimes, when walking without a stick, he clasps his hands across the back of his head, thus instinctively counterbalancing its forward projection. The natives of Gaboon always speak of the gorilla in terms which imply a belief in his close kinship to themselves. But they have a very low opinion of his intelligence. They say that during the rainy season he builds a house without a roof, and that he will come down and warm himself at the fires left by them in their hunting expeditions; but has not the wit to throw on more wood out of the surrounding abundance to keep it burning, “the stupid old man.” Mimic though he be, he cannot even catch the trick of human articulation so well as the parrot or the raven. The negroes aver that he buries his dead by heaping leaves and loose earth over the body.
Wherein does the gorilla differ from the previously known anthropoid, or man-like, tailless apes? Of these there are three distinct genera: the gibbon, or long-armed ape, the orang-outang, and the chimpanzee. It is a peculiarity of the quadrumana (or monkey and ape tribe generally) that the brain is very precociously developed. Hence, when they are young, with small milk-teeth, fully developed brain, and globular-shaped cranium, they look, comparatively speaking, quite promising characters. But, in the large apes, the orang and the chimpanzee, maturity brings a vast access of physical force, without any corresponding enlargement of the brain, which becomes masked and overlaid by the prominence of the brute attributes. The jaws expand to receive the great tusk-like teeth; and then, to work such massive jaws, comes a large addition of fleshy fibres to the muscles, and for these great muscles an increased surface of attachment in the corresponding bones. Hence the physiognomy becomes more brutish, and less human, in maturity. Hence, too, the small species of monkeys and apes, in whom this development of physical force does not take place, are far milder and more intelligent-looking than the more highly organised orang and chimpanzee when full grown; though these latter have absolutely a larger amount of brain, and several other modifications of the bony structure which bring them in reality, as we have said, nearest to man. Hence, too, it was that Cuvier, who had seen none but young specimens, much exaggerated the nearness of this approach in his Règne Animal. The gorilla surpasses the orang and chimpanzee in this peculiarity; and it is the lowering ferocity of his countenance produced by immense jaws and teeth, the bony prominence over the eyes, and the relative insignificance of the brain, which have induced some naturalists to rank him below the previously known species of chimpanzee.
He has other claims to precedence, besides this cogent one of more brain and a more convoluted brain. The distinctive characteristic of the order, that which supplies it the name, quadrumana, is, as we all know, the having hands instead of feet—four hands. And in the comparative anatomist’s eyes, the most characteristic peculiarity of man’s structure is the great toe; it is mainly this which enables him to walk erect, which constitutes the great difference between a foot and a hand, and entitles him, sole genus of his order, sole species of his genus, to his zoological appellation bimana, or two-handed. In the gorilla, the thumb of the hind hand is more like a great toe than it is, either in the orang-outang or chimpanzee: it is thicker and stronger. The heel also, makes a more decided backward projection, and in the fore-hand, that important member, the thumb, is better developed. A disproportionate length of arm gives, as we notice in the deformed, a singularly awkward and ungainly aspect to the figure. This is a familiar attribute of all monkey-kind, and one which, in its gradual diminution, marks the gradual rise in the scale of organisation. In the gibbons, or long-armed apes, these members hang down to the feet, so that the whole palm can be applied to the ground without the trunk being bent. In the orang, they reach the ankle; in the chimpanzee, below the knee; in the gorilla, a little short of the knee; while in man, below the middle of the thigh.
There are other advances of structure interesting to the anatomist, and all tending to support the gorilla’s claims to the topmost place. Now and then we come across a human face in which the bony framework of the eye is almost circular, with a repulsive, cunning, monkey-like look. This, though universal, is one of the ugliest characteristics of the monkey. The gorilla, however, is exempt from this particular detail of ugliness; the bony setting of the eye is squarish, as in most men.
Again and again it strikes the fancy— strikes deeper than the fancy—that the honey-making, architectural bee, low down in the scale of life, with its insignificant head, its little boneless body, and gauzy wing, is our type of industry and skill: while this apex in the pyramid of the brute creation, this near approach to the human form, what can it do? The great hands have no skill but to clutch and strangle; the complex brain is kindled by no divine spark; there, amid the unwholesome [p.115] luxuriance of a tropical forest, the creature can do nothing but pass its life in fierce sullen isolation—eat, drink, and die?