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Darwin Correspondence Project

4.58 'Simian, savage' . . . drawings

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An anonymous satire in the Darwin archive has been descriptively titled ‘Simian, savage and savant’. Darwin on the right, elegantly dressed and carrying a top hat, represents the acme of civilisation. The central, nearly naked, figure represents man in a state of savagery; his wild expression, heavy musculature, huge ears and long hooked nails give him a demonic appearance. He points to the creature on the left, an ape taking on semi-human characteristics. The image thus represents, like so many, Darwin’s theory of human descent from an ape-like ancestor through intermediate stages of physical and cultural development. However, the savage’s pointing gesture also seems to hint at the possibility of human degeneration to an animal state.  

Two similarly conceived satires on Darwinian ideas are known only from faded photographs in the Darwin archive, apparently taken from drawings; they lack any dating, identification or clear attribution, but one is signed ‘JM del’. It is very similar to ‘Simian, savage and savant’ in concept. However, its pair in a sense reverses the perception of humanity’s moral relation to simian ancestors. Here an ancient semi-ape reclines peacefully among greenery. A naked woman approaches with a sheet reading ‘Descent of MAN’, and behind her we can see human history unfolding in violence – a Roman soldier and, further along, another aggressive figure – perhaps a warring medieval chieftain.    


  • physical location Darwin archive, Cambridge University Library 

  • accession or collection numbers DAR 140.4.24 and 140.4.27-8 

  • copyright holder Syndics of Cambridge University Library 

  • originator(s) of images unknown; one of the wash drawings is signed at bottom right by the draughtsman, ‘JM del.’ 

  • date of creation unknown 

  • medium and material ‘Simian, savage and savant’ is an etching. The two satires known only from photographs were apparently tonal drawings.  


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