If you are looking for a book that deals with one particular issue (gorillas and evolution) that took place in one narrow moment of time, then this book is as good as any. It is melodramatic in places, but that serves the storytelling. It’s a good read, as people say.
I have only one major complaint. This book continues a myth that we have become very fond of: The discovery of gorillas combined with Darwin’s theory of evolution started a great new debate about the origins of man. Not only did it not start a new debate, I don’t think we can even say it reignited an old one. The “old” debate had never gone away. Before gorillas, it was orangutans and baboons. Europeans had long expressed a fear that we might be descended from apes or monkeys.
When Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) offered his evolutionary speculations in the 1790s, the poet Coleridge accused him of promoting a theology of the orangutan to replace Genesis. Something similar happened to Robert Chambers in the 1840s when scientists attacked him for trying to improve the human race with descent from baboons. Chambers boldly argued (fifteen years before Darwin’s “Origin”) that all human beings sprung from one stock. He stressed that the scientific evidence supported this. Ironically, neither Erasmus Darwin nor Chambers were all that interested in descent from apes. Their big pitch was for development from marine life. “Life has, as it were, crept out of the sea upon the land,” as Chambers wrote. In response to his books, Benjamin Disraeli wrote a very funny satire of the idea of humans coming from fish. It is hilarious, regardless of your beliefs about evolution.
There is a lot more evidence that a heated debate over human ancestry was going on before gorillas and “Origin of Species”. Monte Reel never mentions any of this. Erasmus Darwin does not appear at all and Robert Chambers is mentioned once with an inaccurate summary of his theory. Also not discussed is the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who made a very precise stab in 1809 at how human beings might have evolved from apes (and one that most evolutionists today would find essentially correct). All this was in the wind well before the 1850s.
One other irony: Darwin did not think that descent from apes was all that interesting or controversial; that is, not in comparison to another problem. His main concern was our close relation to human savages, the “uncivilized”. The hairy monkey ancestor was nothing. At the end of The Descent of Man, he tells us how horrified he still was that we could be related to savages. It was something he never quite got over. And it has a lot to do with racism.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer