Gorillas and Darwin?

22 February, 2009

Museum Victoria's gorilla specimens - a male, a female and a juvenile.
Museum Victoria's gorilla specimens - a male, a female and a juvenile.
Image: Benjamin Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: The Melbourne Museum has some gorillas in a case next to the display about Charles Darwin. Why are they significant and what do they have to do with Charles Darwin?

Answer: The gorilla case on display in Melbourne Museum’s Darwin to DNA exhibition is a highly significant collection item and is considered to be one of Museum Victoria’s treasures.

The case contains three Western Lowland Gorillas, Gorilla gorilla gorilla – a male, a female and a juvenile. They were collected in Equatorial Western Africa in the late 1850’s by the famous naturalist and explorer M. Paul du Chaillu. These gorillas are particularly significant because they were amongst the first specimens of this species ever to be collected. In fact, Paul du Chaillu was the first non-African to confirm the existence of the species and bring specimens back to the western world. He may even have been the first white man to ever see one.

The gorillas on display at Melbourne Museum were purchased in 1865 for the National Museum of Victoria by the founding director Professor Frederick McCoy. The acquisition was not long after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Professor McCoy, held strong Creationist beliefs and used the gorilla display as a catalyst to fuel debate about evolution and the common ancestry of humans and apes.

McCoy wanted to show that gorillas looked nothing like humans and therefore any suggestion that the two species had a common ancestor was absurd. McCoy is reported to have remarked that …no man, even in the most sceptical age, had ever been so ignorant, foolish or wicked as to suggest that life was given by any other means than Divine Power. (McCoy, Unsourced newspaper article).

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his book On the Origin of Species. Visit the Melbourne Museum’s special temporary exhibition Five things about Charles Darwin to learn more about this remarkable man and why his influential book has never been out of print.

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