Friday, January 30, 2015

Charles Darwin and “The Monkey’s Uncle”

My father was a confirmed believer in evolution, often referring to “our ancestors the fish.” By contrast my father-in-law found the idea of a primate ancestor thoroughly disgusting and rejected it, unwilling to believe he descended from “a monkey’s uncle.”  We have a son who is an evolutionary biologist.  Because evolution is a frequent topic of conversation in our household, it seems appropriate to devote a post to Charles Darwin, shown above, whose 206th birthday the world celebrates on February 12.

Although Darwin was a thoughtful, serious scientist who made a monumental breakthrough in human thinking,  his revolutionary ideas were often ridiculed by skeptics and, at the time, made the subject of satirical cartoons and other illustrations.  In many cases, the monkey was at the center of such lampoons.  Darwin himself frequently was depicted as a monkey by cartoonists and illustrators.  

Because, through horrific circumstances, a French satirical magazine has been much in the news of late, I thought it appropriate to begin with a picture of Darwin as a monkey that appeared in 19th Century French publication “La Petite Lune” (The Little Moon).  It shows the scientist as a monkey wearing shorts, a tail over one hairy arm, hanging from a tree labeled “Tree of Science.”  It is believed that this image by artist Andre’ Gill was published about 1871, not long after Darwin had published a major work, “The Descent of Man.”

In that book, Darwin had argued that humans and monkeys share a common ancestors, a conclusion that many found hard to swallow.  The cartoon left portrays Darwin as a monkey, again with his human head.  He is shown holding up a mirror to a monkey sitting next to him and apparently showing the animal how much they look alike.  Appearing in Figaro’s London Sketch Book of Celebrities in 1874, the caricature was accompanied by two quotations from Shakespeare:  “This is the ape of form,” from Love’s Labor Lost and “Some four or five descents since…” from All’s Well That Ends Well.  Some have seen this as particularly demeaning to Darwin on the grounds that the monkey should be showing the mirror to the scientist, not the other way around.

The next cartoon at left is in the same vein,  Darwin’s head on a monkey body, apparently researching the large and protruding bustle on a tall woman whom he seems to be addressing.  While the message conveyed there is somewhat cloudy, the intent once again is ridicule the British biologist and his theories of human evolution.  Although the cartoons shown above have shown him with more or less human hands and feet, the image right has endowed him with chimpanzee-like digits.  Note that he appears to be grasping in one paw, a scroll.  This is apparently a reference to his writings on the “descent of man.”
Earlier, after the publication of “Origin of Species” by Darwin in 1859 and more particularly an article entitled, “Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observation of their Habits,”  Punch, the satirical London magazine, in 1882 published on its cover a cartoon that depicts the scientist as ancient sage watching as worms evolved into lizards, lizards into monkeys,  monkeys into sprites and cavemen, culminating in the figure of a British dandy.  Even though the figure of Darwin himself is human and not monkey, the purpose of Linley Tambourine’s cartoon clearly is to ridicule his theory of evolution.
A satire on Darwin could be made into a cartoon puzzle.  Shown here is a picture that contains no fewer than 13 animals in a illustration that accompanied an advertisement for British manufacturer of  boots and shoes. Call the “Monkey’s Tea Party,” the viewer is challenged to find a portrait of Darwin amidst the tumult.  It is not hard.  He can be found upside down on the right center of the picture.  

Spoofing Darwin could be put to mercantile purposes beyond the boot trade in England.  Merchant’s Gargling Oil, sold as fit for man and beast, found a natural foil in Darwin and his theories.   Its Victorian trade card shows a gorilla-like beast pouring the gargling oil on his leg while intoning a quatrain:   “If I am Darwin’s grandpa, It follows, don’t you see, That what is going for man and beast, Is doubly good for me.”  I say old chap, devilishly clever advertising, don’t you think?”
The final cartoon here is a satire on the satires.  It was penned by Chris Madden, a cartoonist whose work is frequently found in the pages of Philosophy Now magazine.  He has copied almost exactly the image of Darwin shown above, put him into tree and added a second figure behind asking “What about me?”  The other man-monkey would appear to be Alfred Russel Wallace, the British scientist who jointly deserves credit with Darwin for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection.  Wallace did not face the same level of ridicule as the elder scientist.

We cannot be sure what Darwin’s responses were to these images in his lifetime, but from the perspective of our times we know that the last laugh truly is from the scientist, not his detractors.  Although some elements of his theories of the origins of humankind have been challenged, shown to be flawed, or corrected,  Charles Darwin (with Wallace) were on the right track and he deserves to be ranked among the great thinkers of historical time.


  1. Wow. Awesome article. Please do more articles like this in the future. Very informational and knowledgeable. I will expect more from you in the future. For now i will just bookmark your page and surely I'm gonna come back later to read more. Thank you to the writer!


  2. Nice collection of Darwin humor. If you are interested in a possible connection between Darwinism and the expression, "I'm a Monkey's Uncle," you may enjoy this piece:

  3. Dear Peter: Sorry to be so long in answering. Missed your comments earlier. Thanks for pointing me to the other piece. Jack