Thursday, June 4, 2009

Darwin, the "Missing Link" and raucous students

There has been much talk in the blogosphere about the hyping up of Darwinius as a "missing link" (summarised here by Carl Zimmer). And Harry Gee has been delving into the history of the term, as has Carl's brother Ben

On reading all this, my curiosity was piqued as to whether Darwin ever used the term "missing link"....?

A few minutes searching on Darwin Online and on the Darwin Correspondence Project reveals that he did not. But interestingly, the term does feature in several letters written to Darwin, but not always in the sense of an intermediate between humans and apes:
  • Librarian Mary Boole wrote to Darwin in Dec 1866: "I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links,—not to say the missing link,—between the facts of Science & the promises of religion." 
  • In a letter dated 12 July 1871, Otto Kratz sent Darwin photographs of very hairy Burmese natives and suggested that they may be the "missing link".
  • Geologist  Frederic William Harmer quotes an opponent of Darwin, Frederick Bateman of Norwich in 1872: "I was unwise enough to reply to the latter, that a theory was not disproved by a mere objection being urged against it, & also to attempt to explain that an argument which he rested great weight upon, viz. the non production of the missing link, was valueless, owing to the imperfection of the geological record"
  •  In 1877, one of Darwin's shipmates on the Beagle, Arthur Mellersh writes to ask Darwin whether "the missing link" been found in New Guinea, as he read in the newspaper.
  • Also in 1877 comes perhaps the first sinister racist use of the term in  a letter from W. B. Bowles, who tells Darwin he 'believes "missing link" between higher mammals and man consists of a race of "speaking monkeys" – akin to Africans – who pollute blood of better race and impede civilisation'.
A search on Darwin Online also pulls up an interesting use of the term in recollections of Darwin  collecting an honorary LLD degree from the University of Cambridge in 1877. The first is from John Neville Keynes, the economist father of John Maynard Keynes:
"The honorary degree of LLD was conferred upon Darwin in the Senate House amidst a scene of some disorder. The building was crammed, floor and galleries, the undergraduates being chiefly in the galleries; and it was of course an occasion on wh. undegraduate wit felt bound to distinguish itself. The chief pleasantry consisted of a monkey swung across by strings from gallery to gallery, which monkey was in the course of the proceedings to have been changed into a man. Before however this desirable consummation was reached, the representative of the original ancestor, (than whom he was less fortunate), was seized by one of the proctors, & thus prevented from fulfilling his high destiny. The perpetrators of the joke were very wrath, & vented their fury chiefly in groans for Humphreys, the most unpopular of the proctors. He was also made the butt of such remarks as this, Would Dr. Darwin kindly afford us some information regarding the ancestors of Mr. Humphreys? — a sally which took amazingly. Sandys, the public orator, introduced Darwin, according to custom, in a rather long Latin oration, wh. was delivered amidst a ceaseless fire of interruptions, (chiefly feeble), from the wittiest of the undergraduates. Sandys (I imagine inadvertently) made use of the word apes, & then the cheering was enormous. Darwin bore himself in a rather trying position with remarkable dignity; but I heard afterwards that his hand shook so much while he was signing the registry, that his signature was scarcely legible. Another emblem swung from the galleries was a large ring of iron, adorned with ribbons, supposed to represent the missing link. It was ultimately swung down into the lap of one of the lady visitors, who pluckily cut it down and appropriated it, amidst tremendous applause. I afterwards found that this courageous lady was Miss Borchardt."
A second account of the same event is recorded in a letter from Emma Darwin to her son William

CAMBRIDGE, Sunday mg., Nov. 17th, 1877.


It was a great disappointment your not coming yesterday to witness the honours to F., and so I will tell you all about it.

Bessy and I and the two youngest brothers went first to the Senate House and got in by a side door, and a most striking sight it was. The gallery crammed to overflowing with undergraduates, and the floor crammed too with undergraduates climbing on the statues and standing up in the windows. There seemed to be periodical cheering in answer to jokes which sounded deafening; but when F. came in, in his red cloak, ushered in by some authorities, it was perfectly deafening for some minutes. I thought he would be overcome, but he was quite stout and smiling and sat for a considerable time waiting for the Vice-Chancellor. The time was filled up with shouts and jokes, and groans for an unpopular Proctor, Mr ———, which were quite awful, and he looked up at them with a stern angry face, which was very bad policy. 

We had been watching some cords stretched across from one gallery to another wondering what was to happen, but were not surprised to see a monkey dangling down which caused shouts and jokes about our ancestors, etc. A Proctor was foolish enough to go up to capture it and at last it disappeared I don't know how. Then came a sort of ring tied with ribbons which we conjectured to be the "Missing Link." At last the Vice-Chancellor appeared, more bowing and hand-shaking, and then F. was marched down the aisle behind two men with silver maces, and the unfortunate Public Orator came and stood by him and got thro' his very tedious harangue as he could, constantly interrupted by the most unmannerly shouts and jeers; and when he had continued what seemed an enormous time, some one called out in a cheerful tone "Thank you kindly." At last he got to the end with admirable nerve and temper, and then they all marched back to the Vice-Chancellor in scarlet and white fur, and F. joined his hands and did not kneel but the Vice-Chancellor put his hands outside and said a few Latin words, and then it was over, and everybody came up and shook hands."

It's nice to see that students at Cambridge were just as raucous back then as they are today!