The Victorian Search for Gorillas, Evolution, and Humanness

i heart literati

du Chaillu hunts gorilla

In 1857, less than two years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, Richard Owen delivered a lecture about gorillas. As Europe’s preeminent zoologist / public intellectual—a Carl Sagan of the Victorian era—Owen’s opinion carried a lot of weight. And in his opinion, the brains of man and gorilla differed so greatly that the two species could not be linked by “transmutation” (evolution). In other words: humans did not descend from apes, and the brain was the anatomical bulwark that separated man from beast. It was an argument for human exceptionalism and against Darwinian evolution.

Owen was wrong, but his idea is emblematic of a larger conflict. A paradigm-shifting concept—evolution by natural selection—was meeting a profoundly hierarchical society obsessed with quantifying distinctions in race, class, gender, culture, and ability. The gorilla was right in the middle, and what followed was Victorian England’s “gorilla wars.”

• • •

When Owen delivered his…

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The weight of dead symbols

The Accidental Mathematician

The photos in this post are mine, from my visit to Poland in late May and early June. The full set, annotated and viewable as a slideshow, is available here. I have provided English-language links where I could, but much of the information I used is only available in Polish. I marked those links with an asterisk, to save you a click if you do not speak the language.

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The Polish-Soviet Friendship (officially, Brothership-in-Arms) Monument in Legnica was built in 1951*. It stands in the Słowiański Square, right in the city center. Two soldiers, one Polish and one Soviet, shake hands while a little girl held by the Pole embraces both of them. Poland, invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union acting in agreement, then devastated in the conflict between them, occupied and plundered by both even as its soldiers fought on every front they could find, finally…

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The “F-Word”: Why Social Politeness is Transparent

etherealnoire

fat girls

(Left to Right: Alyson Hannigan [Date Movie, 2006], Philomena Kwao, Essie Golden, Tess Holliday)

For the typical size 18 girl like myself, the summer months bring along the ever complicated dilemma: wear longer clothes that cover up “problem areas” but threaten to cause heat stroke, or throw caution to the wind and go for the shorts and tank top that show every jiggle and bump. Up until my senior year of high school, skirts and shorts were out of the question. The last thing I wanted was for everyone to see the bits of me that made me the most insecure about myself. It was a question of comfort. At least clothes left everything to the imagination; I would rather burn under the summer sun to please others than show everyone my chubby arms and legs.

And that’s when it hit me. It’s not like my body was a secret…

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Collaborating With a 6-Year Old

busy mockingbird

A few years have gone by since I collaborated with our then 4-year old…  And on occasion, people will ask me if we could do more.

outer face

Sometimes we still do.  It’s more of a casual thing.  I’ll toss her a page and say, “here are a few heads if you feel like sketching,” usually when she’s bored or looking for something to do.

Sometimes they turn out okay, and I try new things with them, making little pendants or doodles.  But mostly, it’s just a fun little pasttime.sometimes we do

On occasion, she still adds a body to a face I’ve done, and it turns out pretty well…

sometimes-zissou

For the most part, though, to be honest:  the main reason we don’t always collaborate is that she’s busy doing her own thing!  She’s FIERCELY creative.  She throws herself into her art desk and is consumed with scissors, staples, and tape, making…

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On being a one trick historian

The Trickster Prince

2014-12-16 13.13.37

It’s happening again.

I read the diary written by Gwen Wells in which she records her courtship and marriage, the minutiae of life at work and play, the tumultuous final months of the Great War, and her experience of becoming seriously ill with influenza. A colleague tells me that Jack Neave – professional bohemian, Soho ‘character,’ and proprietor of the notorious Caravan Club when police raided it in 1934 –appears in a file in the archives of the National Council for Civil Liberties. I realize that the burglar Mark Benney transformed himself from a confessing ex-crook into a published sociologist who landed himself a teaching job at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Confronted by each of these individuals, I find myself struggling with the inexorable urge to write a book about them.

Ordinarily none of this would have bothered me, but I have read Joanne Bailey’s wonderful blog about…

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9 Sure-fire Tips to Expand Your Mind!

Sit Back and Starve

Life is too short to be content with commonplace ideas and philosophies society bombards us with. What use is being called Homo sapiens, “the thinking man,” if we refrain from using every bit of time we have left to enhance our meditating faculties? So in the interest of the purely rational mind and for the sake of posterity, we have compiled a list of intellectual tasks and mental exercises you can perform to expand your mind:

1. Start reading serious books. — Stephen Hawking didn’t become Stephen Hawking by reading Spider-Man, and Ayn Rand didn’t come up with Objectivism by immersing herself in sleazy romance novels! Chuck out every non-serious, fun, and emotional book or reading material you have in your shelves and start collecting those leather-bound tome-like ones without any pictures. If the font is smaller than size 8, that’s a good sign you’re in the right direction. Burn…

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Some Thoughts on Same-Sex Marriage. It’s Not All Rainbows and Unicorns.

Pamela Helberg

I have some things to say that are not going to be very popular, Dear Reader. Seems to be a trend lately, but I’ve got to be true to myself. Here’s the deal. Yesterday morning when my running buddy texted me asking if I’d seen the SCOTUS ruling yet, my heart sank a little. Not because I don’t believe we need equality. I totally believe we do. I’m just not sure marriage is the best means to that end.

So, while I’m happy that so many people I know are happy, I’ve not rainbowed my Facebook picture. I probably won’t. And here’s why: I’m a failure at gay marriage. As I type this blog, my same-sex marriage is dissolving its way through the Whatcom County Court system. My wife and I (for technically we still are married) were together 15 years. We got legally married in December 2013, and our…

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