The cerebral structure of man and apes

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A succinct history of the controversy respecting
the cerebral structure of man and the apes

Up to the year 1857 all anatomists of authority, who had occupied themselves with the cerebral structure of the Apes – Cuvier, Tiedemann, Sandifort, Vrolik, Isidore G. St. Hilaire, Schroeder van der Kolk, Gratiolet – were agreed that the brain of the Apes possesses a POSTERIOR LOBE.

Tiedemann, in 1825, figured and acknowledged in the text of his 'Icones' the existence of the POSTERIOR CORNU of the lateral ventricle in the Apes (Icones p54). Cuvier (Lecons, T iii p103) says, "the anterior or lateral ventricles possess a digital cavity [posterior cornu] only in Man and the Apes... its presence depends on that of the posterior lobes."

Schroeder van der Kolk and Vrolik, and Gratiolet, had also figured and described the posterior cornu in various Apes. As to the HIPPOCAMPUS MINOR, Tiedemann had erroneously asserted its absence in the Apes; but Schroeder van der Kolk and Vrolik had pointed out the existence of what they considered a rudimentary one in the Chimpanzee, and Gratiolet had expressly affirmed its existence in these animals. Such was the state of our information on these subjects in the year 1856.

In the year 1857, however, Professor Owen, either in ignorance of these well-known facts or else unjustifiably suppressing them, submitted to the Linnaean Society a paper On the characters, principles of division, and primary groups of the Class Mammalia, which was printed in the Society's Journal, and contains the following passage: "In Man, the brain presents an ascensive step in development, higher and more strongly marked than that by which the preceding sub-class was distinguished from the one below it. Not only do the cerebral hemispheres overlap and the olfactory lobes and cerebellum, but they extend in advance of the one and further back than the other. The posterior development is so marked, that anatomists have assigned to that part the character of a third lobe; it is peculiar to the genus Homo, and equally peculiar is the posterior horn of the lateral ventricle and the 'hippocampus minor,' which characterise the hind lobe of each hemisphere." Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnaean Society Vol ii p19.

As the essay in which this passage stands had no less ambitious an aim than the remodelling of the classification of the Mammalia, its author might be supposed to have written under a sense of peculiar responsibility, and to have tested, with especial care, the statements he ventured to promulgate. And even if this be expecting too much, hastiness, or want of opportunity for due deliberation, cannot now be pleaded in extenuation of any shortcomings; for the propositions cited were repeated two years afterwards in the Reade Lecture, delivered before so grave a body as the University of Cambridge, in 1859.

When the assertions, which I have italicised in the above extract, first came under my notice, I was not a little astonished at so flat a contradiction of the doctrines current among well-indormed anatomists; but, not unnaturally imagining that the deliberate statements of a responsible person must have some foundation in fact, I deemed it my duty to investigate the subject anew before the time at which it would be my business to lecture thereupon came round. The result of my inquiries was to prove that Mr. Owen's three assertions, that "the third lobe, the posterior horn of the lateral ventricle, and the hippocampus minor," are "pecular to the genus Homo," are contrary to the plainest facts. I communicated this conclusion to the students of my class; and then, having no desire to embark in a controversy which could not redound to the honour of British science, whatever its issue, I turned to more congenial occupations.

The time speedily arrived, however, when a persistence in this reticence would have involved me in an unworthy paltering with truth. At the meeting of the British Association at Oxford, in 1860, Professor Owen repeated these assertions in my presence, and, of course, I immediately gave them a direct and unqualified contradiction, pledging myself to justify that unusual procedure elsewhere. I redeemed that pledge by publishing, in the January number of the Natural History Review for 1861, an article wherein the truth of the three following propositions was fully demonstrated (loc cit p71):

1. That the third lobe is neither peculiar to, nor characteristic of, man, seeing that it exists in all the higher quadrumana.
2. That the posterior cornu of the lateral ventricle is neither peculiar to, nor characteristic of, man, inasmuch as it also exists in the higher quadrumana.
3. That the 'hippocampus minor' is neither pecular to, nor characteristic of, man, as it is found in certain of the higher quadrumana.

Furthermore, this paper contains the following paragraph (p76): "And lastly, Schroeder van der Kolk and Vrolik (op cit p271), though they particularly note that "the lateral ventricle is distinguished from that of Man by the very defective proportions of the posterior cornu, wherein only a stripe is visible as an indication of the hippocampus minor;" yet the Figure 4, in their second Plate, shows that this posterior cornu is a perfectly distinct and unmistakeable structure, quite as large as it often is in Man. It is the more remarkable that Professor Owen should have overlooked the explicit statement and figure of these authors, as it is quite obvious, on comparison of the figures, that his woodcut of the brain of a Chimpanzee (loc cit p19) is a reduced copy of the second figure of Messrs. Schroeder van der Kolk and Vrolik's first Plate.
As M. Gratiolet (loc cit p18), however, is careful to remark, "unfortunately the brain which they have taken as a model was greatly altered (profondement affaisse), whence the general form of the brain is given in these plates in a manner which is altogether incorrect." Indeed, it is perfectly obvious, from a comparison of a section of the skull of the Chimpanzee with these figures, that such is the case; and it is greatly to be regretted that so inadequate a figure should have been taken as a typical representation of the Chimpanzee's brain.

From this time forth, the untenability of his position might have been as apparent to Professor Owen as it was to every one else; but, so far from retracting the grave errors into which he had fallen, Professor Owen has persisted in and reiterated them; first, in a lecture delivered before the Royal Institution on the 19th of March, 1861, which is admitted to have been accurately reproduced in the Athenaeum for the 23rd of the same month, in a letter addressed by Professor Owen to that journal on the 30th of March. The Athenaeum report was accompanied by a diagram purporting to represent a Gorilla's brain, but in reality so extraordinary a misrepresentation, that Professor Owen substantially, though not explicitly, withdraws it in the letter in question. In amending this error, however, Professor Owen fell into another of much graver import, as his communication concludes with the following paragraph: "For the true proportion in which the cerebrum covers the cerebellum in the highest Apes, reference should be made to the figure of the undissected brain of the Chimpanzee in my Reade's Lecture On the classification etc. of the Mammalia, p25, 1859."
It would not be credible, if it were not unfortunately true, that this figure, to which the trusting public is referred, without a word of qualification, "for the true proportion in which the cerebrum covers the cerebellum in the highest Apes," is exactly that unacknowledged copy of Schroeder van der Kolk and Vrolik's figure whose utter inaccuracy had been pointed out years before by Gratiolet, and had been brought to Professor Owen's knowledge by myself in the passage of my article in the Natural History Review above quoted.
I drew public attention to this circumstance again in my reply to Professor Owen, published in the 'Athenaeum' for April 13th, 1861; but the exploded figure was reproduced once more by Professor Owen, without the slightest allusion to its inaccuracy, in the Annals of Natural History for June 1861!

This proved too much for the patience of the original authors of the figure, Messrs. Schroeder van der Kolk and Vrolik, who, in a note addressed to the Academy of Amsterdam, of which they were members, declared themselves to be, though decided opponents of all forms of the doctrine of progressive development, above all things, lovers of truth: and that, therefore, at whatever risk of seeming to lend support to views which they disliked, they felt it their duty to take the first opportunity of publicly repudiating Professor Owen's misuse of their authority.
In this note they frankly admitted the justice of the criticisms of M. Gratiolet, quoted above, and they illustrated, by new and careful figures, the posterior lobe, the posterior cornu, and the hippocampus minor of the Orang. Furthermore, having demonstrated the parts, at one of the sittings of the Academy, they add, "la présence des parties contestees y a été universellement reconnue par les anatomistes présents à la séance. Le seul doute qui soit resté se rapporte au pes Hippocampi minor.... A l'état frais l'indice du petit pied d'Hippocampe était plus prononcé que maintenant."

Professor Owen repeated his erroneous assertions at the meeting of the British Association in 1861, and again, without any obvious necessity, and without adducing a single new fact or new argument, or being able in any way to meet the crushing evidence from original dissections of numerous Apes' brains, which had in the meanwhile been brought forward by Prof. Rolleston,*F.R.S., Mr. Marshall,** F.R.S., Mr. Flower,*** Mr. Turner,**** and myself,***** revived the subject at the Cambridge meeting of the same body in 1862. Not content with the tolerably vigorous repudiation which these unprecedented proceedings met with in Section D, Professor Owen sanctioned the publication of a version of his own statements, accompanied by a strange misrepresentation of mine (as may be seen by comparison of The Times report of the discussion), in the Medical Times for October 11th, 1862. I subjoin the conclusion of my reply in the same journal for October 25th.
"If this were a question of opinion, or a question of interpretation of parts or of terms—were it even a question of observation in which the testimony of my own senses alone was pitted against that of another person—I should adopt a very different tone in discussing this matter. I should, in all humility, admit the likelihood of having myself erred in judgment, failed in knowledge, or been blinded by prejudice.
"But no one pretends now, that the controversy is one of the terms or of opinions. Novel and devoid of authority as some of Professor Owen's proposed definitions may have been, they might be accepted without changing the great features of the case. Hence though special investigations into these matters have been undertaken during the last two years by Dr. Allen Thomson, by Dr. Rolleston, by Mr. Marshall, and by Mr. Flower, all, as you are aware, anatomists of repute in thiscountry, and by Professors Schroeder Van der Kolk, and Vrolik (whom Professor Owen incautiously tried to press into his own service) on the continent, all these able and conscientious observers have with one accord testified to the accuracy of my statements, and to the utter baselessness of the assertions of Professor Owen. Even the venerable Rudolph Wagner, whom no man will accuse of progressionist proclivities, has raised his voice on the same side; while not a single anatomist, great or small, has supported Professor Owen.
"Now, I do not mean to suggest that scientific differences should be settled by universal suffrage, but I do conceive that solid proofs must be met by something more than empty and unsupported assertions. Yet during the two years through which this preposterous controversy has dragged its weary length, Professor Owen has not ventured to bring forward a single preparation in support of his often-repeated assertions.

"The case stands thus, therefore: Not only are the statements made by me in consonance with the doctrines of the best older authorities, and with those of all recent investigators, but I am quite ready to demonstrate them on the first monkey that comes to hand; while Professor Owen's assertions are not only in diametrical opposition to both old and new authorities, but he has not produced, and, I will add, cannot produce, a single preparation which justifies them."
I now leave this subject, for the present. For the credit of my calling I should be glad to be, hereafter, for ever silent upon it. But, unfortunately, this is a matter upon which, after all that has occurred, no mistake or confusion of terms is possible; and in affirming that the posterior lobe, the posterior cornu, and the hippocampus minor exist in certain Apes, I am stating either that which is true, or that which I must know to be false. The question has thus become one of personal veracity. For myself, I will accept no other issue than this, grave as it is, to the present controversy.

[Footnotes] * On the affinities of the brain of the Orang. Nat. Hist. Review, April, 1861.
** On the brain of a young Chimpanzee. Ibid., July, 1861.
*** On the posterior lobes of the Cerebrum of the Quadrumana. Philosophical Transactions, 1862.
**** On the anatomical relations of the surfaces of the Tentorium to the Cerebrum and Cerebellum in Man and the lower mammals. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1862.
***** On the brain of Ateles. Proceedings of Zoological Society, 1861.