The spark of the great evolution debate
One can have the benefits of a first-class education these days and still be oblivious to the name and exploits of the Victorian-era explorer Paul Du Chaillu. He was the man who plunged into the jungles of Gabon, West Africa, in 1856 and, three years later, brought back—first to America, then to England—the skins and stories of a theretofore legendary creature: the gorilla. Those unfamiliar with the man would do well to pick up a copy of Between Man and Beast, Monte Reel’s new book about Du Chaillu’s life and adventures in pursuit of this fierce creature.
Returning from his travels the same year Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, Du Chaillu’s own origins were murky—and remain so today. He was probably born on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, the illegitimate son of a French father and a mixed-race mother. While still in his teens, he came under the care of an American missionary in Gabon, who taught him English and eventually helped him get a job teaching French at a seminary in New York. During his tenure there he wrote a series of newspaper articles about his time in Africa. The articles eventually attracted the attention of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which agreed to sponsor his 1856 expedition.
Du Chaillu’s written account of his travels—buttressed by the physical evidence supporting it—quickly became a bestseller in England and catapulted the author into the center of scientific and religious debates about man’s relationship, if any, to other primates. It also exposed his shortcomings as a scientific observer, deficiencies which he was determined to mend by leading a second expedition into the same harsh territory.
Although Du Chaillu’s checkered life story is the bedrock of this book, Reel builds upon it fascinating sketches of England’s leading intellectuals, explorers and freelance eccentrics of the day, detailing not only their personal achievements but their professional jealousies as well. And he has plenty of tales about how “gorilla mania” saturated English culture via the publicity attending Du Chaillu’s discoveries. Through it all, Du Chaillu stands as a sincere, endlessly curious but often naïve witness to the human folly that surrounds him.