The confusion that characterized the 19th century in regards to man’s place on the evolutionary scale was a result of the theologically derived notions of man’s superiority and of the existing anxieties regarding other races, that were qualified as something other than humans.
Two intellectual revolutions are central to the contemporary understanding of man’s place in nature: the first was the Copernican revolution which displaced man from its central place in the Universe, and the second was Darwin’s Origin of Species (3). As Lewin further explains, even though biologists agreed that humans were part of the animalia kingdom, they nevertheless placed them on a superior position (3). What was different was that now, the Western society was prepared to perceive their superiority as a result of evolution, rather than, a result of God’s intervention (Lewin 3). However, as both Lewin and Ritvo argue, this revelation determined two different directions in the perceived relation to apes. While some scholars tried to distance themselves from apes, by finding an alternative alliance in dogs (Ritvo 849), others began to exaggerate the closeness, by teaching apes how to act as humans (Ritvo 849) and by tracing beastly characteristics in men that did not behave according to the norms. (Ritvo 849, Lewin 4).
One consequence of this revolution was also the accentuation of racism. Westerners now found an explanation as to why whites seemed more ‘advanced’ than other races, such as African Negroes or aboriginals (Lewin 4, 6). By imagining an entirely different evolutionary path for whites, and by placing other races closer to ‘beasts’, the sense of white superiority was reinforced.
Lewin, Roger. Human Evolution: An Illustrated Edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 5th ed. 2009. Print.
Ritvo, Harriet. Animal Consciousness: some Historical Perspective. American Zoology. 40, (2000):847-852.