Missing Links: Embodiments of Evolution in Late Nineteenth-Century American Culture
In my work I am examining the concept of “the missing link” in American popular and scientific culture in the years 1880 to 1925. In this era before Darwin’s theories gained wide acceptance, debates about evolution and the place of humans in the natural world assumed diverse cultural embodiments. Paleontologists hunted the fossil of the missing link Pithecanthropus erectus in Java. P.T. Barnum and other circus proprietors displayed humans of ambiguous appearance, like William Henry Johnson, an African American performer better known as Zip the Pinhead, and Krao Farini, “the Monkey Girl” from Thailand. Meanwhile in the Central Park Zoo, a charismatic, Liberian chimpanzee named Mr. Crowley led spectators to contemplate the fine line dividing people from other primates.
Public fascination with evolutionary theory and missing links coincided with the virulent Jim Crow era, unprecedented mass immigration, and the rise of eugenics. While on one hand, evolution had the potential to flatten biological hierarchies, it also fueled Social Darwinist thought and could appear to support racialized, colonialist ideas regarding human origins and development. Often transnational figures from tropical regions, missing links could represent a degenerate, unassimilable “Other” to white Americans. But by definition, the people, animals, and fossils referred to as missing links held an ambivalent position in the evolution scheme and were understood to exist in a typological grey area. They could provoke anxiety about cultural atavism — or they could humble observers by blurring the differences between all life-forms. At core, debates about evolution and missing links boiled down to a single question: What did it mean to be human?
A study of missing link discourse also reveals the porous boundary between popular entertainment and the scientific establishment in this time period. Missing link specimens traveled between academic collections and sideshows. In their journals and papers, scientists debated missing link figures just as writers did in the popular press.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may be considered a transitional time, as theologically-tinged ideas about man’s exalted place in the cosmos mingled with the leveling Darwinian scheme. The philosophical ambivalence embodied in missing links ultimately settled when biologists accepted evolution, and the binaries of scientific/spiritual and academic/popular hardened. (My periodization ends with the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the drawing of stark battle lines.) A focus on missing links returns us to the moment of uncertainty, enabling us to better understand and de-essentialize cultural dichotomies that remain with us today.