Darwin's own family stimulated his interest in the continuity between human and animal behaviour, making him the first "evolutionary psychologist"by Matt Ridley / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
the first great ape to reach Britain and survive for any length of time was a chimpanzee called Tommy, who was exhibited in London Zoo in 1835 before he died of tuberculosis. He was replaced in 1837 by an orang-utan called Jenny. She died in 1839 but was replaced by another, also called Jenny.
These apes caused a small sensation. Queen Victoria, who saw the second Jenny, typified the reaction of horrified fascination. Jenny, she wrote, was “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human.” It was disconcerting that an animal could look and behave so like a human. It posed uncomfortable questions about the distinction between people and animals, reason and instinct.
Charles Darwin visited the first Jenny in early 1838, less than two years after returning from the voyage of the Beagle. A few weeks later, he wrote in his notebook, “Let man visit the ouran-outang in domestication… see its intelligence… Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work… More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.” This was 20 years before he unveiled the theory of natural selection. It was several months before he had his main insight into the struggle for existence after reading Malthus’s essay on population.
To most people, Darwin is synonymous with animals and plants. To explain natural selection, he called on pigeons, Galapagos finches and orchids. While procrastinating over the publication of natural selection, he spent eight years studying barnacles. His last book is called, sensationally, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms. This was the epitome of an unworldly, reclusive naturalist.
The fact that he also dethroned man from his place atop the natural world by establishing the fact of evolution seems almost incidental to his natural history. In The Origin of Species, he famously confined himself to a single gnomic sentence about his own species: “Much light will be shed on the origin of man and his history.” He left it to Thomas Huxley to argue with bishops about being descended from monkeys.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom. But far from being just a naturalist, Darwin was an obsessive observer of human beings. Instead of coming to overturn human exceptionalism via the study of animals, Darwin did almost the opposite. He started with human nature, concluded that it was different from animal nature only in degree, not in kind, and from there…