Graham Joyner Interview
The 'Australia Gorilla': An Insoluble Problem
Sunday 28 December 2003
Did the 'Australian Gorilla' really exist? Throughout much of the 19th century there were reports of some unknown animal called the 'Australian Gorilla' or 'Yahoo'. These reports were largely ignored by the scientists of the day. Retired public servant and historian Graham Joyner from Canberra takes another look at the story and comes up with some interesting ideas.
Graham Joyner: Throughout much of the 19th century, reports of some unknown animal called the ‘Australian gorilla’ or ‘yahoo’ regularly emerged from the south-east corner of Australia, but were largely ignored by scientists of the day. On the two occasions when the existence of the animal did become the object of scientific attention, the real issues were marginalised.
In recent years the matter has been subjected to renewed debate, yet it is still poorly understood. Indeed, some years ago an academic acquaintance of mine with an interest in the matter told me of a revealing remark made to him by a scientist at The Australian Museum. The remark to my friend was along the lines that ‘Surely you at least understand that there have never been gorillas in Australia.’
Now it would be impossible to quarrel with this point of view. Australia is a land of marsupials while the gorilla is a placental animal which, except for a few in zoos, is found only in Africa. And similarly for the other large apes. Yet, paradoxically, I am going to suggest we might reasonably entertain the hypothesis that there have been ‘Australian gorillas’. How is this possible?
Another, more famous, paradox may throw light on this one. Since its introduction to Europeans in the late 18th century, the platypus has been an almost endless source of wonder. Umberto Eco, Professor of Semiotics at Bologna, has recently brought together various theoretical considerations to explain the amazement generated in scientific circles by this strange animal. In his book ‘Kant and the Platypus’, Eco asks what would Kant have made of the platypus?, although Eco might have chosen any number of other Australian animals to make his point.
Kant was, of course, the 18th century German philosopher who would never have seen a platypus but who gave us what he called a ‘Copernican revolution’ in our conventional view of the world, whereby the world conforms to the mind rather than the mind being merely receptive to the world.
As part of this transcendental approach, Kant introduced a number of so-called categories of the understanding, but also saw the need for what he called the schema, a notion intermediate between the categories and the object perceived. The schema is supposed to permit the formation of the object perceived in the mind. Without it, Kant believed, objects could not be comprehended by the mind at all.
In talking about Kant and the platypus, Eco is leading up to a more general question: how do we construct the schema of an object which was previously completely unknown to us? Or, more simply, how do you conceptualise something totally new? Whatever the answer in terms of critical philosophy, it is clear that we often react to an unknown phenomenon by seeking that scrap of content in our minds that seems to account for the new fact. In other words, the unknown is often seen in terms of the known.
Apart from the platypus, Eco gives two examples of this process. The first concerns Marco Polo and the rhinoceros. It seems that Polo had never seen the rhinoceros but already possessed the notion of the unicorn. He therefore decided that the rhinoceros must be that fabulous beast, although a strange example of the species in being large and black rather than slender and white. Eco also speculates on what Montezuma might have made of reports about the conquistadors’ horses, which his Aztec informants had perceived to be large deer.
Another example of this peculiar form of blindness comes from astronomy. In 1610 Galileo announced that he observed the planet Saturn in triplet form. He thought that two smaller bodies, or ‘stars’, accompanied the planet on either side (although on a later occasion these had inexplicably vanished). It seems that Galileo lacked the ability to conceptualise planetary rings, which were not identified as such for almost half a century.
These and many examples like them support the theory that discovery, even the discovery of discrete objects by direct observation, can often be a complex and protracted process. More significantly they suggest that the mind can impose a pattern on the world and that empiricism, the doctrine that what we perceive corresponds to the external world, doesn’t always work.
Taking all this into account, let us now try to imagine the real possibility that some large animal continued to exist, unknown to science, in areas of south-east Australia up to the beginning of the 20th century. How would it have first appeared to early European visitors and what might the Aborigines have had to say about it?
It is probable that any such large animal, seen only briefly and intermittently by European settlers on the fringes of society would, in the manner discussed, have been identified with something already present in the minds of its observers. And if it stood upright on two legs or climbed trees, what more suitable model than one of the better known apes, either the orang-utan or, from the 1860s onwards, the gorilla?
And here we have resolved the paradox mentioned earlier. There could be no gorillas in Australia but it was quite possible for an ‘Australian gorilla’, whatever that might be, to make an appearance. This expression was, after all, just a name, though one which, without the simultaneous appearance of the creature itself, was sure to be misunderstood.
Similarly, someone knowing nothing of the Tasmanian tiger might object that such an animal could not exist because there were no tigers in Tasmania.
Incidentally, use of the orang-utan as a model for the ‘Australian gorilla’ is particularly interesting. The Adult orang-utan may first have been seen in England around the end of the 18th century. By the early 19th century there is documentary evidence that this animal, or something very like it, was being exhibited in English menageries under the name ‘yahoo’, the brutish creature invented by Dean Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. This could well account for the appearance of the name ‘yahoo’ in Australia from the 1830s onwards to describe the creature later called the ‘Australian gorilla’.
Names sit uneasily upon objects they represent. In cases of something totally new, a name may be borrowed from a conventional form but, unless naming is matched with perception, there is nothing to link the one with the other. Later, if the name was always obscure and if the animal no longer appears in our visual frame of reference, the entire concept, both name and object, may become problematic. Such at least was the fate of the name ‘yahoo’ and the unknown creature to which it referred.
A further difficulty arises where more than one language is involved. Different languages can categorise the world in different ways so that it is not always possible to match a word in one language with that in another. For example, it seems that the French word ‘jaune’ does not correspond exactly to the English ‘yellow’. And the Greek ‘logos’ is famously of wider application than the English ‘word’.
In the case of the so-called ‘Australian gorilla’, linguistic and cultural differences between Europeans and the Aborigines would have represented an almost insurmountable barrier to understanding. No linguistic representation of the concept by the Aborigines could be expected to fit readily into the categories employed by European minds.
However, there are indications that the Aboriginal word ‘dulugal’ from the Dharawahal and Dhurga languages represents, among other concepts, the animal referred to as the ‘Australian gorilla’. Not surprisingly perhaps, linguists have made rather a mess of this identification and their efforts are further hampered by the fact that the standard treatment of ‘dulugal’ relies on relatively recent oral sources while managing to overlook every relevant historical citation.
Returning to the attitude of science, someone who ought to have known better once suggested to me that acknowledgement of the possible of an ‘Australian gorilla’ is rather like belief in the existence of God. But right at the heart of the present matter lies a series of what are supposed to be observations.
In other words, we are dealing not with metaphysics but with data of an empirical nature, which may be true or false, but the truth of which can be determined by scientific means. In fact evidence for the ‘Australian gorilla’ is based on testing of observations using a correlative method.
This involves comparison of physical characteristics, such as shape, distinctive markings, dual gait, possession of nails or claws and tree climbing ability, from descriptions given in independent accounts. An actual example of this process follows shortly.
Meanwhile, another reason for the indifference of zoologists then as now, lies in a peculiarity of zoological method. That is, zoologists normally require a body.
The most famous example of this is a fictional one. At the climax of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel ‘The Lost World’ the central character presents a sceptical audience with various pieces of evidence for the continued existence of prehistoric life on an isolated South American plateau, but all are rejected. He then asks, ‘You would require to see the thing itself?’ and is told, ‘Undoubtedly’. Whereupon a pterodactyl is released from a packing case and pandemonium ensues.
This doctrine of the primacy of the physical specimen is still a matter of faith among zoologists. The former Director of the Australian Museum has written of another disputed entity: ‘Once physical evidence is found (by this I mean a body…) then the issue would gain some standing.’
So there it is. Nothing but the animal itself will do. There are, however, a number of problems with this all or nothing approach. First, it is without any basis in empirical theory. Next, there is no equivalent demand in other branches of science, such as physics or astronomy. Again, it makes nonsense of the concept of evidence, since to demand the thing itself means that no evidence at all may be admitted. Finally, it is not in accord with what actually happens in many cases of discovery, which often follow a broken, meandering path where the object itself is only gradually revealed.
Perhaps as a consequence of their preoccupation with specimens, zoologists can often be found explaining away awkward pieces of information, while avoiding all linguistic and philosophical issues and misdirecting anything with an indigenous content to a box labelled ‘Aboriginal myth’.
In conclusion, let us consider the following vignette from the last occasion on which the case of the ‘Australian gorilla’ came under scientific scrutiny.
In October 1912 the poet and cattle farmer, Sydney Wheeler Jephcott found some tracks near Bombala which he believed to be those of an unknown animal. The print of the fore foot resembled, but differed from, that of a human hand. Jephcott made casts of the tracks, which he sent with a covering note to Edgeworth David, then Professor of Geology at Sydney University. David, after the examining the casts, pronounced them fakes.
It is easy to imagine the scene. David, who is always being sent unusual objects to identify, reads Jephcott’s letter then picks up one of the casts. The eminent geologist frowns as he ponder the object before him. After a while he smiles and shakes his head. It is only a human hand after all. The prints have been manufactured by some third party.
David’s examination, cursory as it was, invoked the following defence from a contemporary naturalist. Science is really enlightenment, he explained, it is never dogmatic. It is merely a question of evidence. Produce contrary evidence and science will modify its view accordingly.
The trouble with this idealistic view of science is that, for various reasons, it is not true. As is well known, established theories are seldom challenged by contrary evidence until a competing theory has overwhelming support. More to the point, evidence may also be overlooked because confrontation with novelty can compel the mind to search for an image with which it is already familiar.
And this is what evidently happened here. After the manner of Galileo and the rings of Saturn, David lacked the concept of the ‘Australian gorilla’ and would have had to resort to construction of some conventional mental image to account for the unfamiliar object before him. And what better than the image of the human hand already provided by Jephcott?
In hindsight, this misconception might have been avoided. Unknown to both men, there existed a precedent which provided support for Jephcott’s hypothesis. The unknown creature killed near Braidwood nearly 20 years earlier possessed fore feet described as ‘shaped like a man’s hands with the palm precisely similar and toes which had a close resemblance to fingers with overgrown nails’.
In other words, the only other detailed description of the ‘Australian gorilla’s fore feet neatly confirmed Jephcott’s description of the cast that David had rejected.
As it is, David here represents not enlightenment, but enlightenment’s antithesis: authority. His action exemplifies what the late Stephen Jay Gould, on his essay on the lynxes, aptly called ‘the authoritarian form of the empiricist myth’. Perhaps the real enlightenment figure is Jephcott, who is seen as informed, determined, courageous and relatively unburdened by preconception.
Finally, I referred in the title of this talk to the matter as ‘insoluble’, not because there was no problem, or because no solution presented itself, but because there seems to be no will to solve it. It would be interesting to know whether that can change almost a century after the matter was last debated in public.
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