In the lives of historical figures, a single event, action, belief, or product is often taken as being emblematic of the entire individual. Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Marie Curie developed the theory of radioactivity, and – my personal favorite from years of rote memorization in American history courses – Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Entire lives are crunched down into easily-remembered factoids that typically obscure more than they illuminate. The legacy of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins – arguably the first great paleo-artist – has suffered the same fate.
Hawkins’ most celebrated contributions to art and science were his monstrous dinosaurs. Modeled after the scientific ideas of British anatomist Richard Owen – who advised Hawkins – the grotesque, life-size sculptures were unveiled in 1854 as part of the renovated Crystal Palace grounds at Sydenham Hill, South London. They still stand there today – prehistoric gargoyles which present an image of dinosaurs that has mercifully gone extinct thanks to ongoing scientific research. Nevertheless, a visit to the Crystal Palace dinosaurs is a must for any paleontologist visiting the area. They are preserved snapshots from a time when naturalists were only just beginning to pull back the curtain on prehistoric life; a time when all that we knew of dinosaurs was based on a handful of teeth and a few scraps of ancient bone.
The notoriety of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs led to other projects. Hawkins was commissioned to create restorations of North American dinosaurs for New York’s Paleozoic Museum – a project that was literally scrapped as a result of Tammany Hall corruption – and he also had the honor of being the first artist to reconstruct an entire dinosaur skeleton on the basis of the incomplete remains of Hadrosaurus found in southwestern New Jersey. Hawkins acted as the chief artistic interpreter for the paleontologists who were beginning to piece together the story of life during Deep Time, but, even as those scientists began to uncover evolution’s grand pattern, Hawkins clung to an older vision of life’s history in which the stamp of Providence was everywhere apparent.
Hawkins outlined his view of life in a brief note preceding his artistic reference book A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame, published in 1860. “In addressing the art student through the medium of his eyes, by presenting to him pictures in lieu of words,” Hawkins wrote, “my desire is to impress him with a strong sense of the unity of design and oneness of plan upon which all animals are constructed.” Rather than being an indication of a common origin, though, Hawkins highlighted certain skeletal similarities to highlight his belief “that one primary pattern was created and fixed by the Almighty Architect in the beginning, and persistently adhered to through all time to the present day.” There was a blessed plan behind life, “designed in foreknowledge by omniscient wisdom.”
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection had been published just one month before Hawkins compiled the artwork for his artistic reference. Though the controversial book contained almost no mention of human evolution, everyone understood that the evolutionary ideas Darwin applied to the rest of nature held true for us, too, and Hawkins was among those disturbed by our familial connection to gorillas and other primates. His discomfort is easy to spot in his drawings.
Each plate of Hawkins’ 1860 book compared the human skeleton – in part or as a whole – to the osseous anatomy of another familiar organism, such as a dog, a horse, or an elephant. In the plate featuring a skeletal rider on a horse denuded of flesh, for example, Hawkins also included a side-by-side osteological comparison of the legs of both horse and rider. The point was to focus the viewer’s attention on the similarities between the organisms, but there was one case in which Hawkins affirmed a substantial difference between the subjects. In the last plate Hawkins compared the hand of a gorilla – knuckles flat to the ground – to the outstretched hand of a human not unlike that of Adam in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Hawkins was laying it on thick. Not only were the dexterous hands of humans anatomically different from those of gorillas, but the drawing implied a spiritual aspect of ourselves missing from the brutish apes.
Hawkins even slid in a bit of snark in an earlier description of a plate depicting a human, a gorilla, and a bear. In a slight to Darwinians, Hawkins wrote “The figures of the Gorilla and Bear will show that the much-talked-of resemblance of the Gorilla to Man is not so close as the teaching of zoological affinities would lead the prejudiced observer to expect.” Only unobservant idiots could fail to see how far our form departed from that of the gorilla. “[N]umerous distinctions between Man and the Gorilla are so evident that I leave the perception of them to the student,” Hawkins explained, though, leaving nothing to chance, he went on to call attention to “the elongated jaws, the tiger-like teeth, the small brain-case (as compared with Man, see Plate X),” and other features. Only the blind could ignore all the differences, and Hawkins concluded his book with the hope that students “will believe that, however frequently he may have seen some eccentric acquaintance transform Man into a Monkey, he must leave it to the transcendental Anatomists to develop (if they can) a Monkey into a Man.”
But Hawkins wasn’t through yet. His knowledge of anatomy and skill at bringing prehistoric creatures to life made him a very popular lecturer. Fossil creatures would seemingly come to life right before the eyes of his audiences thanks to his artistic prowess. Hawkins may have used the opportunity to snipe of the evolutionists of his day.
Sometime after the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man in 1871, Hawkins created a pair of paintings titled “Physiographical Illustration of Darwin’s Descent of Man.” The images have been reprinted in All in the Bones – a two-part biography of Hawkins written by Valerie Bramwell and Robert Peck. In the first a man takes on the appearance of Dionysus – the Greek god of partyin’ hard – and carouses with a drunken bear before an assembly of monkeys and apes. (In a bit of detestable Victorian racism, a black man is also counted among the throng of what Hawkins considered “lower” primates.) The names Darwin and Wallace are spelled out in twigs at the borders. Then, in a key to the first painting, Hawkins drew the skeletons of each of the party’s participants to further underscore just how foolish the human was to think of the other creatures as his brethren. Only “the subjugation of man’s reason by intoxication”, Hawkins wrote in a caption, could lead us to believe that we had any relationship to such beings, and Peck has speculated that these drawings may have been used to create lantern slides for the artist’s popular lectures.
Hawkins rejected the idea of evolution in its Darwinian formulation, but was he a creationist? By today’s standards the answer would seem to be yes, but the arguments Hawkins espoused closely followed those of a different 19th century evolutionist – Richard Owen. Brilliant, cantankerous, and even a bit under-handed, Owen has wrongly been cast as a creationist villain whose religious zeal spurred him to oppose Darwin, yet Owen had publicly considered the idea that creatures might change over the course of history a decade before On the Origin of Species was published.
Owen laid out his circuitous reasoning in 1849’s On the Nature of Limbs. Though diverse and seemingly disparate, all vertebrates were based upon a common body plan – the vertebrate Archetype. Only relatively slight degree of anatomical tinkering was needed to transform the simple, bony tube that was the vertebrate Archetype into something as magnificent as a human. What drove such change was another matter. Owen speculated about forces inside organisms that might drive them to change but did not formulate a simple and explicit mechanism needed to carry out the transformations. Still, transmutation most likely occurred as a result of natural agencies, and Owen concluded:
To what natural laws or secondary causes the orderly succession and progression of such organic phaenomena may have been committed we are as yet ignorant. But if, without derogation of the Divine power, we may conceive the existence of such ministers, and personify them by the term “Nature,” we learn from the past history of our globe that she has advanced with slow and stately steps, guided by the archetypal light, amidst the wreck of worlds, from the first embodiment of the Vertebrate idea under its old Ichthyic vestment, until it became arrayed in the glorious garb of the Human form.
Owen was an evolutionist, albeit of a different sort. His emphasis on internal causes left the door open for divine involvement – the seemingly heretical idea of evolution did not have to undercut our special spiritual place in the universe. Perhaps Hawkins followed his friend’s lead. Hawkins, like Owen, was disgusted by the implications of Darwinian evolution, and the artist’s suggestion that various forms had been drawn from a single primordial plan was clearly cribbed from Owen. This should not be surprising. The two had collaborated closely on the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, after all.
Hawkins may very well have been an evolutionist after Owen – one who preferred a guided or regulated process of stately becoming that maintained the natural and social order – but I have not yet been able to find any definite evidence of this view. Hawkins was vehemently anti-Darwinian, but was he an anti-evolutionist? Did he perceive any genetic connections between the prehistoric animals he restored and modern creatures, or were the fossil beasts simply snapshots from an orderly and pre-ordained history? At this moment, I cannot say, but Hawkins’ hope for a divine influence in nature certainly changes my perception of the prehistoric monsters he brought back to life.
[Originally posted June 28, 2011]
Top Image: Plate I, featuring the skeletons of a gorilla, a bear, and a human, from B.W. Hawkins’ A Comparative View of the Human and Animal Frame (1860).