Edward Tyson: the journey from mind to matter

Christine CHARVET
Center for Learning and Memory, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, Irvine, USA
ccharvet AT uci.edu

In seventeenth century England, apes were considered to be degenerate forms of men and were sometimes referred to as pygmies. Edward Tyson, (1650-1708) an English physician, initiated a change in this view. At the end of the seventeenth century, Tyson acquired a ‘pygmy’ from Angola, studied its behavior and compared its anatomy with that of a monkey and a man. He showed that this ‘pygmy,’ which we now know was a juvenile chimpanzee, was of a distinct species that closely resembled humans.

Tyson introduced the concept of gradation of species and thus discovered one of the main features of evolutionary theory. As was consistent with the widely accepted views of his time, Tyson believed that organisms were created according to God’s design, species were fixed in time and higher mental faculties were endowed by God rather than by the physical substance of the brain. Tyson never openly contradicted these assumptions.

However, he portrayed these assumptions as inconsistent with his study of the pygmy. There is evidence to suggest that Tyson questioned the dogma that human mental faculty was of immaterial origin. Furthermore, his human-like portrayal of the ‘pygmy’ influenced later naturalists’ views on primates and human evolution. Later naturalists’ study of Tyson’s work led them to openly question the assumptions that Tyson implicitly doubted and, thus, Tyson’s treatise planted the seeds necessary for the emergence of evolutionary thought.

Poster Session
Saturday, 23 June 2007, 9:30 - 10:30 am

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007