Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
The Origin of Man and of Civilisation1
(S237: 1874)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A book review of two works (St. George Mivart's Man and Apes, and Albert J. Mott's "On the Origin of Savage Life") that appeared in the 17 January 1874 issue of The Academy. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S237.htm


    [[p. 66]] Mr. Mivart's work consists of a short, clear, and popular description of the various groups of apes, monkeys, and lemurs, with a somewhat detailed account of the various points, both of external and internal anatomy, in which they agree with, or differ from, the human organisation. The author is so well known for his careful study of the anatomy of many of these animals, that the general reader cannot have a more trustworthy guide to the facts of this somewhat complex but very important subject. The most interesting part of the work is that in which the general results are summed up, and conclusions drawn. It is shown that most of the anatomical peculiarities of the human body are to be found reproduced, more or less closely, in the apes; but that while the larger proportion of these are to be met with among the higher or anthropoid forms, a considerable number only occur in the lower, and some in the very lowest, groups. Even among the highest, there is a most perplexing conflict of evidence as to which species most nearly approaches man; each in turn presenting human and non-human characters in an almost equal degree. On carefully weighing these, however, the conclusion is arrived at with some confidence that the gorilla, so far from being the most human, is the least so of the anthropoid apes; and that this high position must be given to the orang, chiefly on account of the greater complexity and more human character of its brain, although in some important features of its skeleton it diverges more from man than does any of its immediate allies.

    The widely scattered points of affinity between man and the apes are well indicated in the following passage:--

    "If man and the orang are diverging descendants of a creature with certain cerebral characters, then that remote ancestor must also have had the wrist of the chimpanzee, the voice of a long-armed ape, the blade-bone of the gorilla, the chin of the siamang, the skull-dome of an American ape, the ischium of a slender loris, the whiskers and beard of a saki, the liver and stomach of the gibbons, and the number of other characters before detailed, in which the various several forms of higher or lower primates respectively approximate to man."

    Mr. Mivart argues that such a creature would be an homunculus and that to suppose the existence of such a creature is begging the question, and is as difficult to conceive as the existence of man himself; and he goes on to argue that all these cross affinities cannot be accounted for on the theory of "natural selection." However this may be, it seems very clear that these deep-seated and divergent relations and differences do plainly indicate that the common ancestor of man and the higher apes must have originated at a very remote epoch, far earlier in fact than that of the common ancestor of the existing anthropoids. This throws us back indefinitely into the past, and renders it quite unnecessary, on grounds of zoological probability, to place any limits to the possible antiquity of man--a point of some importance when we come to discuss Mr. Mott's paper.

    The copious illustrations of the various species of apes and of their anatomical peculiarities add greatly to the value of this little work, and render it a valuable book of reference for all who take an interest in the discussion as to the origin and antiquity of our race.

    The "Address," which forms the second heading of this article, is one which deserves more attention than it is likely to receive; and we trust that the author will develop it more fully and bring it more prominently before the public. It is quite refreshing to meet with an author, who, while opposing the greatest scientific authorities of the day, can hold his ground with so much tenacity, and discuss his subject with so much skill and in so philosophical a spirit as effectually to resuscitate a theory which it was thought had been finally disposed of. Mr. Mott here challenges the doctrine, almost universally held by modern anthropologists, that we have positive evidence of a time when the whole earth was in a state of barbarism and that all existing civilisation has been developed out of that pre-existing savagery. He maintains, on the contrary, that

    "Our most distant glimpses are still of a world peopled as now with men both civilised and savage,"

and that the facts known to us

    "Give us at present no information as to any previous state of human existence, or concerning the origin or first appearance of men."

    The main facts to which he appeals in support of his views are those furnished by the sculptured remains on Easter Island, and the prehistoric mounds (with their contents) on the North American continent. In the case of Easter Island, he argues against the possibility of these remains having been produced by the indigenes of so small an island without constant and regular communication with some much larger country; because, if the population were very small, it could not possibly have effected works so gigantic; if larger (the island not being as big as Jersey) the struggle for existence must have become too severe, for labour and thought and skill to be expended on them. But regular communication with a larger population implies [[p. 67]] the power of navigating a wide expanse of ocean, and therefore a high civilisation. All this is argued with a force and completeness which cannot be given in a mere outline; and the author considers that it demonstrates the former existence, either in the Pacific islands or on the continent of South America, of a race far more civilised than any of which we have direct knowledge.

    In the case of North America the evidence is perhaps stronger, and must be given a little more fully. The great mounds which are scattered all over the continent, and which are of unknown antiquity, furnish two kinds of evidence that they were the production of a civilised race. In the first place, they contain numerous works of art, chiefly sculptured pipe-bowls; but these are of so high an order, and so very far superior to the works of all the existing Indian races, that they are alone proofs of a considerable degree of civilisation. In the second place--and this seems much the most important point--the mounds themselves are often in exact geometrical forms, although of enormous size. One is an exact square, though enclosing an area of twenty-seven acres; another an exact circle, containing forty acres; others are octagons and ovals. These have been carefully surveyed, and no error of figure can be found in them. Few who have not tried know how difficult a thing it is to lay down anything like an exact square on a moderately large scale; and when the sides are over a thousand feet long, as in some of the mounds, it cannot be done without accurate measures and instruments, and a considerable knowledge of geometrical rules. This implies a culture altogether different from that of any existing savages, or even of any people not highly civilised; and, as Mr. Mott well remarks, the desire to make these figures true, far beyond any limit of inaccuracy that on such a scale could be detected by the eye, is a stronger proof of habitual skill and of high mental culture than even the power to arrive at such accuracy. Yet in spite of this most unanswerable evidence of civilisation, our archæologists have come to the conclusion that these mound-builders were savages of a somewhat higher type than those which still inhabit the American continent--but yet savages. They found this conclusion mainly on the absence of certain works of art, which they consider civilised people would necessarily have produced. But our author argues that

    "We often entirely misread the past by supposing that the outward signs of civilisation must always be the same, and must be such as are found among ourselves."

    This is a pregnant remark, and furnishes an answer to some of the most powerful arguments of the opposite school. It has been held, for instance, to be almost a certainty that the stone age of Europe was one of universal savagery, because, if civilised races had then existed, they must, it is said, have left records of their existence in more or less artistic pottery, if in nothing else. But this argument implies that before pottery was invented or metals discovered, civilised man could not have existed. Surely this is illogical. Civilisation is a state of mental progress, and may have manifested itself in various ways at various stages of the earth's history. As our author well says:

     "Nations who leave behind them the thoughts of Confucius or Zoroaster, the language of the Vedas, the buildings of Egypt, or the sculptures of Nineveh, have been our equals in all human qualities and powers; and to think of them as our inferiors, because under different circumstances they used their time and their talents in different ways, is to set the work above the workman, and to make civilisation an inventory of goods and chattels, and not a standard measure of the human mind."

    The knowledge of mathematics, of astronomy, and of mechanics, implied by the minute accuracy of the proportions, levels, angles and orientation of the Great Pyramid, is so marvellous, that Professor Piazzi Smyth believes that its builder must have been supernaturally inspired. Mr. Mott, on the other hand, takes it as a proof that at that remote epoch the Egyptians were already a highly civilised people; and he argues that it is a very significant fact that in so many cases existing low or savage races can be proved to have been preceded at the very dawn of history by races which possessed all the essential attributes of civilisation. A number of collateral issues are equally well argued by Mr. Mott in his very thoughtful "Address;" and, although we may not be prepared to accept all his conclusions, we must admit that he has shown good reason for rejecting the belief that we can trace back the history of the world to a period when all then existing races were savages, or that we have any record of the steps by which civilisation first arose.

    It is a good thing even for old and thoroughly well-founded beliefs to be occasionally called in question: that those which are newer and less firmly established should be so attacked, is essential to the cause of truth; and, whatever may be their opinions as to the force of Mr. Mott's arguments, all his readers must admit that he has shown consummate ability in his exposition of views opposed to those of almost the whole scientific world.


Note Appearing in the Original Work

    1. Man and Apes: an Exposition of Structural Resemblances and Differences bearing upon Questions of Affinity and Origin. By St. George Mivart, F.R.S., V.P.Z.S. (London: Hardwicke, 1873.)
    On the Origin of Savage Life: Opening Address read before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, October 6th, 1873. By Albert J. Mott, President. [[on p. 66]]


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