In recent posts, we’ve explored the implications of cross-species sexual attraction, and the perception of language as a measure of distinction between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. The question of what separates our species from other animals, and whether language is indeed a mark of distinction, continues to fascinate, intrigue and trouble today, just as it did in the 1870s. These two issues–of cross-species selection and language acquisition–came together following the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man in 1871 in the search for the so-called “missing link” in human evolution.
As a famous figure in the debates surrounding human evolution, Darwin could be something of a lightning rod for eccentric thinkers with their own ideas about his theories. The idea of a “missing link” compelled one such enthusiast to write to him about the possible origins of humankind. Having read an “exposition of the ‘Darwinian theory’” that posited the missing link as an extinct “race of ‘Speechless Men,’” an American banker living in Paris by the name of William B. Bowles suggested to Darwin that, in fact, the “missing link” was neither speechless nor extinct. Rather, the “missing links” in human evolution were “Speaking Monkies,” and Bowles was bold enough to suggest that he thought he could “point out this missing race, show where and how it lives.”
Like Gaston de Saporta, who wrote to Darwin about (among other things) male simians’ sexual attraction to female humans, Bowles had read widely in the travel literature of the nineteenth century and believed that “cohabitation” between human women and “monkey tribes”—“by rape probably”—took place where human populations lived in close proximity to other apes. “In this way,” Bowles suggested, “the blood & nature of the monkey may have been introduced into that of mankind and in this way we may account for the existence of ‘Speaking Monkeys’ among us—and—the ‘Missing Link.'” And if interspecies sex was the mechanism by which the “missing link” arose, this hybrid human-monkey category’s ability to speak was, for Bowles, significant, as it allowed these creatures to move through human society unnoticed:
Is it not within our daily experience to meet men and women—so called—who are cruel, selfish, licentious and imitative, having all or a portion of these monkey attributes—and no other qualifications to distinguish them from the mon[k]ey tribe, except the power of speech. And how much does that say?— Simply that they communicate their wants to each other by means of a different set of articulate sounds from those used by their true progenitors, the monkey tribes:— thoughts they have none; of course.
For Bowles, connecting sex and language was a way to explain the similarities between human beings and great apes. The ideas that he laid out in his letter to Darwin seem to suggest that language was inherited, but unique to humans. Without “intermingling…their impure and animal blood” with our own species, no simians–hybrid or otherwise–could acquire complex language.
Whether or not language could be found in other animals was of the utmost importance in the late nineteenth century. It bore on the legitimacy of evolutionary theory, and on the idea of humankind’s privileged place in nature–the very privilege that the ideas contained in Descent of Man threatened to revoke. Darwin debated this point in his correspondence with several of the top experts in the study of languages, but he always put human language firmly on the same continuum as the instinctual calls of animals. “He who is fully convinced, as I am,” he wrote in reply to Friedrich Max Müller, a leading linguist of the day,
that man is descended from some lower animal, is almost forced to believe a priori that articulate language has been developed from inarticulate cries[.]
Perhaps some common ground can be found between Bowles and Darwin in their willingness to put human language in the same frame as the instinctual communications of animals, but for Darwin, the cross-species reproduction on which Bowles’s admittedly eccentric theory rested was simply impossible.
For his part, no sooner had he penned his ideas to Darwin than Bowles began to have second thoughts. In a short note written a day later, which accompanied his longer disquisition on “Speaking Monkeys,” Bowles expressed uncertainty over the ideas he had put forth to Darwin:
Now that the letter is written…I hesitated to send it, as altho’ I pass for a man of good common sense, I cant make up my mind whether what I have written is sense or nonsense.”
Whether it was, in fact, sense or nonsense, the search for the “missing link” would continue for years to come, drawing notice from both the fringes and the centres of scientific inquiry, as much a captivating and perturbing question for modern audiences as it was for Darwin’s contemporaries.
Sources and further reading:
Jeannette Eileen Jones. “Simians, Negroes, and the “Missing Link”: Evolutionary Discourses and Transatlantic Debates on “The Negro Question.”” In Darwin in Atlantic Cultures: Evolutionary Visions of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Edited by Jeannette Eileen Jones and Patrick B. Sharp. New York & London: Routledge, 2010.
Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. “Primate Communication and Human Language: Continuities and Discontinuities.” In Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals. Edited by Peter M. Kappeler and Joan B. Silk. London & New York: Springer, 2010.
Paul du Chaillu. Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa; with accounts of the manners and customs of the people, and of the chase of the gorilla, the crocodile, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus, and other animals. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1861.