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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Posts Tagged ‘Du Chaillu’

Race, Sex & The Trials of a Young Explorer

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 14, 2011

Here’s the latest column in my series for The New York Times, based on my book The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth:

In 1859, Paul Du Chaillu, a young explorer of French origin and adopted American nationality, wandered out of the jungle after a four-year expedition in Gabon.  He brought with him complete specimens of 20 gorillas, an animal almost unknown outside West Africa.  The gorilla’s resemblance to humans astonished many people, especially after Darwin published On the Origin of Species later that year.  The politician Edwin M. Stanton was soon calling Abraham Lincoln “the original gorilla” and joking that Du Chaillu was a fool to have gone to Africa for what he could as easily have found in Springfield, Ill.

But the more common way to deal with our resemblance to monkeys and apes then was to fob it off onto other ethnic groups — typically black people, or sometimes the Irish.  A few white scientists even purported to find physiological evidence, in the configuration of the skull, for classifying other races as separate species, not quite as far removed as Caucasians from our primate cousins.  This undercurrent of scientific racism would play out to devastating effect in Du Chaillu’s own life.

When Du Chaillu arrived in London for the 1861 publication of his book, “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa,” he became the most celebrated figure of the season, and then, overnight, the most notorious.  He was, by all accounts, a charismatic presence, about 30 years old, with a thick moustache, a prominent brow, and bright, flashing eyes.  He also had a gift for colorful lectures about hunting fierce animals and befriending cannibals.

But scientists were soon ripping him to bits in the British press, saying that he exaggerated his own adventures and gave too little credit to other explorers, including some he plagiarized.  Many of these complaints seem to have been valid.  In particular, Du Chaillu’s depiction of the gorilla as a ferocious monster — “some hellish dream creature” — grossly distorted the image of these generally placid animals.  (His stories were still around decades later serving as raw material for the Hollywood legend of King Kong.)

The ferocity of the attack on Du Chaillu that spring and summer of 1861 went well beyond ordinary academic bickering. Each week for more than a month, John E. Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum, sent a lengthy letter to The Athenaeum magazine denouncing Du Chaillu.  Other critics eagerly piled on. Newly professional scientists may simply have wanted to distance themselves from the taint of amateurism.  That seems to have been one reason Gray made a minor career out of disparaging field naturalists.  Darwin, who rarely spoke ill of anyone, would later call him an “old malignant fool” for it.  The attack on Du Chaillu was also a way for Gray to undercut his rival (and boss) at the British Museum, the anatomist Richard Owen, one of Du Chaillu’s sponsors in London.

But as I was researching my book The Species Seekers, I kept coming across hints of an uglier motive for the attack on Du Chaillu, based on Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Social Status, Species Classification, The Primate File, The Species Seekers | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »