Adrian Desmond

Published On


Page Range

pp. 201–222


  • English

Print Length

22 pages

7. Monkey-Man

The Bristol Lecture 1833

  • Adrian Desmond (author)
Saull’s two-hour geology lecture, delivered to reformers in riot-torn Bristol in August 1833, was the only one to be reported verbatim in the Owenite and atheist press. This was undoubtedly his stock talk, and designed to be mentally liberating for the marginal men. It fully justified Anglican claims that his socialist geology was outraging Revelation. He started by debunking Scriptural myths supporting the tithe-rich clergy’s authority, as inimical to rational morality and “political elevation”. Replacing them were to be the “immutable truths” of deep-time geology, and a naturalistic account of life’s advancement. This ascent was powered by progressive ecological conditions caused by planetary oscillations, as Sir Richard Phillips had argued. While atheists and socialists routinely claimed, following Holbach, that mankind was “generated by nature”, Saull’s account of how this came about was to cause shock waves. He replaced the old-fashioned steady-state views of nature with a picture of fossil life as an ascending gradation of species. Out went Phillips’ all-at-once production of the entire fauna, as Saull turned the fossil sequence into an evolving lineage. The last, and “most singular of animals, ‘man’,” finally emerged out of the monkey tribe. Mankind had been produced by changed ecological conditions. Robert Owen’s mantra that bettering cultural conditions would generate a more perfect society was being stamped onto nature. Saull’s sources for his ideas are discussed, as are the ultra-radical True Sun’s political squibs on the French transformist Lamarck. Saull’s subsequent discussion of mankind’s rise from savagery is traced to Humphry Davy’s dream sequence in Consolations in Travel.


Adrian Desmond


Adrian Desmond was educated at University College London and Harvard University, where he was Stephen Jay Gould's first history of science PhD student. He has two MSc's, one in history of science, another in vertebrate palaeontology, and a PhD for his work on radical Victorian evolutionists. For twenty years he was an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. He is the multi-award-winning author of nine books, which include: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs, Archetypes and Ancestors: Palaeontology in Victorian London 1850-1875, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Darwin, Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (with James Moore)