Greg Radick, 2000. “Language, Brain Function, and Human Origins in the Victorian Debates over Evolution.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 31: 55-75.

In The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin set his theoretical sights on the diverse powers of the human mind, including the power that, for Darwin, was `justly considered as one of the chief distinctions between man and the lower animals’: the ability to use language. How did this uniquely human `half-art and half-instinct’ arise? According to Darwin, the exercise of an instinct for imitation, still present in humans and their near evolutionary kin, led the progenitors of modern humans to speak the first words. Sounds imitative of natural objects and events became words for those objects and events. When these words brought an advantage in the struggle for survival, as when the utterance of a sound associated with a predator warned the group of imminent danger, then natural selection acted to preserve and accumulate these new words, along with the creatures able to speak and understand the words. Similarly, sounds imitative of `man’s own instinctive cries’ became words for the emotions expressed in those cries. When these words brought an advantage in the struggle for mates, as when the utterance of a sound associated with love or rage made for more successful courtship, then sexual selection acted to preserve and accumulate these new words and word-users. And while language grew thus through imitation, natural selection and sexual selection, the brain and the vocal organs of language-users became, through use, ever better at thinking and speaking. Because such effects of use were heritable, argued Darwin, these language-induced refinements of body and mind were transmitted to future generations, where more use brought further refinements. And so, gradually, articulate language came into being (Darwin, 1871, vol. 1, pp. 53–6, 105–6, quotes on pp. 53, 56; vol. 2, pp. 330–7).1

Shortly after the Descent was published, one of its many readers, the Norwich physician Frederic Bateman (Fig. 1), sent a copy of his own recent book On Aphasia(1870) to Darwin. Bateman’s book was the first in English devoted, in the words of its subtitle, to `the loss of speech, and the localisation of the faculty of articulate language’ (Bateman, 1870). Along with the book Bateman sent a letter summarising his findings and what he took to be their relevance to Darwin’s theory of human descent (Bateman, 1871).2 There was little evidence, wrote Bateman, that loss of speech occurred because of lesions to the region of the brain identified by his friend Professor Broca as the seat of articulate language. In light of the investigations documented in the book, Bateman continued, `I am tempted to ask whether there be any cerebral centre for Speech and whether Speech may not be an attribute, the comprehension of which is beyond the limits of our finite minds?’ Furthermore,

. . . this has an important bearing upon the great question you are so laboriously working out, for if the faculty of speech can be traced to no material centre, does it not offer an objection to the belief that man has been developed from some lower form? Does it not tend to prove that the possession of this `attribute’ is one great barrier between man and animals[?] (Bateman, 1871)

Six years later Bateman elaborated these queries about language, human origins, the functional organisation of the brain, and the relations between matter and mind into a book, Darwinism Tested by Language (Bateman, 1877).


Fig. 1. Sir Frederic Bateman (1824–1904). From `Sir Frederic Bateman’, 1904, p. 413. Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Here I aim to explore the origins, development and demise of Bateman’s case against evolution. I begin with a brief survey of the debate on language and the brain up to the 1860s. This debate was most active in Paris, and it was there that Bateman, as a medical student and later as a working physician, learned at first hand about the claims of Broca and others. After describing Bateman’s own contributions to research on aphasia and localisation, I turn briefly to Darwin’s earlier reading on language and the brain, before showing how Darwin pressed Bateman’s book into evolutionary service. I go on to show how Bateman’s quarrel with localisation and evolution became increasingly public, and how his work as consulting physician to the Eastern Counties’ Asylum for Idiots at Colchester became entangled in this quarrel. I argue in conclusion that Bateman’s challenge was less answered than absorbed, in large part because his central claim—that there is no single seat of speech in the human brain—came to be accepted among students of brain function as just what the theory of evolution predicted.

1. From Gall to Broca

Controversy over language and the brain in the first half of the nineteenth century centred on the claims of the Viennese anatomist Franz Joseph Gall in Gall’s adopted home of Paris. If, as was widely believed, the brain was the organ of mind, and if an organ such as the liver had the functions it did in virtue of its internal structure and the needs of the body as a whole, then what, asked Gall, were the functions of the brain? Rejecting the established classification of the mind into abstract sub-faculties of the understanding (memory, intelligence, imagination and so on), Gall looked for functions of the brain which, like the functions of the liver, made sense in view of what creatures needed in order to thrive. In place of the single faculty, memory, Gall postulated different kinds of memory, serving different needs. The first faculty he identified was related to language: the faculty of verbal memory. To discover where in the brain one of these new functional faculties was located, Gall generally looked for a correlation between an unusually robust expression of a faculty and an unusually prominent bump on the skull, inferring that this faculty had its seat in a cerebral sub-organ just behind the bump. He was sceptical about the value of studying damaged brains to learn about brain function, and savagely critical of those who inflicted such damage on purpose, `the mutilators’ whose `cruel experiments, when they are made on animals of an order comparatively low, are hardly ever conclusive for man’ (Gall, 1835, quotes from vol. 3, pp. 97–9, cited in Young, 1990, 63, 70). In the end, Gall settled on twenty-seven sets of bumps, faculties and organs, nineteen of which humans shared with other creatures.3

Chief among the Parisian mutilators of the day was Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens. As a Cartesian dualist, Flourens found Gall’s claims about mind and brain to be metaphysically suspect. But it was as a physiologist, in particular as a pioneer of the use of ablation in investigations of the nervous system, that Flourens criticised those views most effectively. To investigate brain function, Flourens cut out regions of the brains of living creatures (principally birds) and observed the consequences on their behaviour. Thus he claimed to show that the cerebral hemispheres played no role whatsoever in producing motion; that the strictly intellectual functions of the hemispheres were merely aspects of a single general faculty of understanding; and that these aspects of the understanding were so distributed that each point on the cerebral surface was functionally equivalent to all other points. In a book against the phrenology which grew up around Gall’s doctrines, Flourens upheld the unity of the organ of mind as evidence of the unity of the soul and the separation of mind from matter (Flourens, 1842, Flourens, 1846).4

Based at the Académie des Sciences, Flourens and his research enjoyed great prestige in scientific Paris. Nevertheless, Gall’s localisation hypothesis remained under active discussion between the 1820s and 1860s, largely though the efforts of Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud and his studies of language and its disturbance due to diseases and injuries of the brain. Bouillaud had studied localisation with Gall himself, and helped found the Société Phrénologique. He nevertheless abandoned the study of bumps for the study of lesions—natural and induced—to show that the hemispheres were indeed involved in motion, and that, `[i]n particular, the movements of the organs of speech are regulated by a special cerebral centre, distinct and independent . . . situated in the anterior lobes of the brain’ (Bouillaud, 1825, quote on p. 44, cited in Head, 1926, vol. 1, p. 13, and Young, ibid., pp. 137–8).5

Between Gall’s precise but poorly supported localisation of language, and Bouillaud’s imprecise but better supported localisation, there took place a much more thorough mapping of the convolutions of the hemispheres (Clarke and Dewhurst, ibid., ch. 11). In early 1861, during a debate at the recently-founded Société d’Anthropologie, the surgeon and professor of medicine Pierre Paul Broca (founder of the society) presented evidence in support of Bouillaud and the localisers. One of Broca’s patients had died after an illness that had destroyed his powers of speech without destroying his powers of thought. Broca inferred from the pattern of damage to the brain tissue and from the clinical history of this `aphemic’ patient that the lesion had begun near the posterior end of the third convolution of the frontal lobe. Broca proposed that here was `the seat of the faculty of articulate language’. The next few years saw celebrated debates at the Société Anatomique and the Académie de Médecine on the truth of Broca’s claim. As the clinical and pathological data accumulated, Broca began to argue for localisation of the language faculty not merely in a single set of convolutions—the two hemispheres being symmetrical in their convolutions—but in the left member of that set. Gall and his followers had argued that, while the regions within a hemisphere had different functions, the hemispheres themselves were symmetrical, so that the same functions were represented in the same regions in each hemisphere. Broca was doing away with functional symmetry as well as functional equivalence. He tended nevertheless to describe the faculty of articulate language in terms congenial to Flourens’ doctrine that neither hemisphere was involved in movement. Broca’s `aphasic’ patients (as they came to be known) were diagnosed as having forgotten how to articulate certain words or certain parts of words, without loss of other intellectual and motor powers. With Broca’s entry into the sixty-year-old debate, the localisation hypothesis began to attract the attention of men of science and medicine from around the world—including Frederic Bateman.6

2. Bateman, language and brain function

Born in Norwich in 1824, Bateman first studied medicine in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. He continued his education in London, then Paris, and then Aberdeen, where he became a doctor of medicine in 1850. His time in the hospitals of Flourens’ Paris in the mid-1840s was the beginning of what would be a strong and lifelong connection with French science. (His first book, published in 1849, was a translation of a French essay on the treatment of cholera [Auziaz-Turenne, 1849]). His education completed, Bateman moved back to Norwich, where he became house surgeon to the hospital and set up in general practice. In the early 1860s he returned briefly to Paris, and was soon caught up in the excitement over Broca’s claims. A junior colleague later recalled how he `frequently saw [Bateman] in the wards of the Hôtel-Dieu, La Charité, and other hospitals, and noted at the time the zeal and energy with which he followed the practice and teachings of the men who had contributed to raise the Parisian school to the then zenith of its fame’. Bateman took a particular interest in the work of Armand Trousseau, Professor at the Hôtel-Dieu, and one of Broca’s most formidable critics. Back in Norwich, Bateman gave up his general practice to become, in 1864, physician to the city hospital, where he presided for the next thirty-one years. In 1865 he saw his first aphasic patient in Norwich. William Sainty was fifty-one, a waterman, who had suddenly and without any other impairment lost his ability to say more than `Oh dear! Oh dear!’ Bateman wrote up the Sainty case for the Lancet, and, beginning with Trousseau’s lectures, entered into a thorough review of the literature on aphasia, the results of which he published as six articles in the Journal of Mental Science from January 1868. (These articles in turn became the six chapters of On Aphasia.)7

In August of that year, Norwich hosted the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. At Bateman’s invitation, Broca agreed to address the biological section on aphasia and the localisation of articulate language (Broca, 1868, cited in Schiller, 1979, pp. 203–4). Sharing the bill was the London physician John Hughlings Jackson, already well known for his studies of the nervous system and its disorders, including aphasia. The Lancet looked forward to `the opportunity of immediately comparing the best English and the best French views on the pathology of this remarkable disease’ (`M. Broca at Norwich’, 1868). The session did not disappoint. Broca mounted a spirited defence of his localisation of language in the third frontal convolution of the left hemisphere (Bateman, 1870, p. 99). But the Lancet nevertheless detected a general turning away from `that coarse and mechanical view of the function of speech which regarded it as a small and separate portion of the brain’ (`[The Norwich discussion . . .]’, 1868, quote on p. 386). This turning away from Broca was at the same time a turning towards Jackson. At Norwich, Jackson insisted on the complex nature of language, and the weakness of inferences made about language and brain function from lesion-induced aphasia. He reported cases where the ability to form propositions and the ability to swear had been affected separately. He also pointed out how often aphasia did not occur in isolation from other intellectual and motor impairments (`[The Norwich discussion . . .]’, ibid.; see also Jackson, 1868, `Reports of Societies’, 1868, and Young, ibid., p. 206).

In the general discussion that followed, Bateman sided with Jackson. Of the twenty-seven cases of speech disruption Bateman had examined, a mere five, he reported, confirmed Broca’s localisation of the language faculty. Indeed, five cases showed no brain lesion whatsoever (`Reports of Societies’, ibid.; see also Schiller, 1979, pp. 203–4). But others spoke up in defence of Broca. Among the most formidable of Broca’s allies was the German anatomist Carl Vogt. Distinguished for his scientific work, notorious for his materialism and socialism, the Geneva-based Vogt joined fellow Darwinians Joseph Hooker, Alfred Russel Wallace, John Tyndall and Thomas Henry Huxley in arguing the transmutationist case in religiously conservative Norwich that summer (Ellegård, 1990, pp. 81–3; Desmond and Moore, 1991, pp. 559–60).8 In support of Broca, Vogt offered his observation that in apes a distinct third frontal convolution in the left hemisphere was, as the Lancet emphasised, `entirely absent‘ ([`The Norwich discussion . . .]’, ibid., quote on p. 387). Around this time or shortly thereafter Bateman received a letter from Vogt describing his findings and their significance in more detail. Bateman quoted at length from the letter in the final chapter of On Aphasia, commenting that `these views of Professor Vogt are not very generally known in this country, and I need hardly allude to the extremely important bearing they have upon the issues in question’. Wrote Vogt:

. . . In Man, the third frontal convolution is extraordinarily developed . . . [while] in the Ape . . . the third frontal convolution is but slightly developed . . . To show the bearing all this has upon the seat of speech, I would refer to the Microcephali who do not speak—they learn to repeat certain words like parrots, but they have no articulate language. Now, the Microcephali have the same conformation of the third frontal convolution and of the central folds as Apes—they are Apes as far as the anterior portion of their brain is concerned, and especially as far as regards the environs of the fissure of Sylvius [i.e. the region of the third frontal convolution]. Thus, Man speaks; Apes and Microcephali do not speak; certain observations have been recorded which seem to place language in the part which is developed in man and contracted in the Microcephali and the Ape; comparative anatomy, therefore comes in aid of M. Broca’s doctrine. (Bateman, 1870, p. 169)

In his book Bateman presented a broad sampling of the literature on aphasia and related topics, along with a historical overview, detailed reports of the cases he had observed at first hand, and tips on diagnosis and treatment (Bateman, 1870, chs. 1–3, pp. 130–60). He concluded that none of the specific proposals for a language centre in the brain (Fig. 2) had passed empirical muster, and doubted whether such a centre would ever be found (Bateman, 1870, ch. 6). There was, after all, more than one form of language; more than one form of language impairment; more than one area of the brain where damage induced such impairment; and more causes of such impairment than just brain damage (Bateman, 1870, chs. 4, 5). Perhaps, Bateman suggested, investigators of aphasia should attend less to gross structural damage than to subtle changes in the brain’s thermal or chemical or electrical state (Bateman, 1870, pp. 174–7). On Bateman’s view, however, whatever the state-of-affairs in the aphasic brain, or in the healthy brain, there would nevertheless remain the problem of specifying just what the faculty of speech or articulate language is, and the possibility that this problem, like the problem of the soul, defeated the limited reach of human understanding (Bateman, 1870, pp. 173–4, 178).


Fig. 2. The left hemisphere of the brain. Engraving of a cast sent to Bateman by Broca. From Bateman, 1877, p. 127. Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

3. Darwin, language and brain function

`The intimate connection’, wrote Darwin in the Descent, `between the brain, as it is now developed in us, and the faculty of speech, is well shown by those curious cases of brain-disease, in which speech is specially affected, as when the power to remember substantives is lost, whilst other words can be correctly used’ (Darwin, 1871, vol. 1, p. 58).9 Was it this appeal to the evidence of aphasia that provoked Bateman’s letter of disagreement in 1871? For Darwin, lesion-induced loss of nouns showed that language was rooted in the brain, and therefore could have evolved in tandem with the brain. As for the connections between language, apes, microcephali and Broca’s region, Darwin was probably acquainted with Vogt’s views well before Bateman introduced them more widely. In 1867 Darwin had received from Vogt a copy of his just-published Mémoire sur les Microcéphales ou Hommes-Singes. Summarising the work for Darwin, Vogt wrote: `I arrive at the conclusion that this abnormal conformation [of the brains of microcephalous idiots] is an atavism which leads back towards the point of separation of the two stocks, men and apes—but that this point of separation is no longer represented in the present scheme of things’ (Vogt, 1867a).10 In his argument on the origins of language Darwin drew on the Mémoire for evidence of `the strong tendency of our nearest allies, the monkeys, in microcephalous idiots, and in the barbarous races of mankind, to imitate whatever they hear’ (Darwin, 1871, pp. 56–7; citing Vogt, 1867b, p. 169). Just after the cited passage in the Mémoire was an entire section devoted to `articulate language’ (Vogt, 1867b, pp. 171–86). Discussing the case of a highly-intelligent woman whose power of speech was diminished after an apoplectic attack, Vogt commented:

If I am not mistaken, it is precisely [the] faculty of combination [of sounds, letters and signs into words] which, following the admirable work of M. Broca, resides in the posterior part of the left superciliary formation. The observations in which certain words and certain categories have been conserved shows even, in my opinion, that this faculty possesses so to speak its store which can be destroyed entirely or in part. Now, if I compare with these facts the language of animals, it seems to me that the apes [and] the microcephalous do not speak because the faculty of combination and the store of the third convolution is missing in them. (Vogt, 1867b, pp. 181–2)

So Bateman probably bore old news when he wrote to Darwin, of the relevant passage in On Aphasia, `you will see that Carl Vogt’s dissections on the ape tend to support the theory of my friend Professor Broca’ (Bateman, 1871).Did Darwin believe the highly developed third frontal convolution to be the anatomical and evolutionary seat of speech? On the specific claim for the third frontal convolution Darwin was silent. But on the more general claim that some part of the brain was devoted to speech, there is evidence of agreement. The evidence comes from Darwin’s marginal notes on two works. The first is the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte, published in 1868, the year after Vogt’s memoir. In Haeckel’s book Darwin read of the arguments of the philologist August Schleicher, Haeckel’s friend and colleague at the University of Jena. For Schleicher, language was a natural phenomenon that had evolved gradually along with the brain and speech organs (Schleicher, 1983). Introducing Schleicher’s arguments, Haeckel wrote: `The origin of human language must, more than anything else, have had an enabling and transforming influence upon the mental life of Man, and consequently upon his brain’ (Haeckel, 1876, vol. 2, p. 301; Haeckel, 1868, p. 509). In a note on the sentence Darwin scribbled: `Remember a special part of the brain for speech’ (Di Gregorio, 1990, p. 359/360).11 Darwin made a similar comment in the margins of an 1871 paper by the philologist W. D. Whitney. `Organ for Language in the Brain; but this may be a result’—a result, that is, of the increased demands placed on the evolving brain by evolving speech, as opposed to the view (supported by Whitney) that the human brain was fully-formed before humans spoke the first words (Whitney, 1871, p. 50).

Apart from the suggestion that Darwin was wrong about evolution, Bateman’s letter was highly complimentary. How right of Darwin to insist there was more to language than speech! Bateman singled out for praise Darwin’s conjecture that in the distant past `“we might have used our fingers as efficient instruments”’ (from Darwin, 1871, vol. 1, p. 58). Bateman himself had once observed just such a `language of signs‘, he reported. He referred Darwin to the pages of On Aphasiadescribing an extreme form of `pantomimic language’, made up entirely of mimicked or echoed sounds and gestures, to which an aphasic woman Bateman had seen in La Salpêtrière had been reduced (Bateman, 1871; see Bateman, 1870, pp. 110–1). To judge by Darwin’s annotations and by his later use of On Aphasia—no doubt to Bateman’s chagrin—in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals(1872) and in the second edition of the Descent (1874), Darwin was indeed most interested in Bateman’s clinical reports.12 In the Expression Darwin cited the pantomimic case as further evidence for the existence of a human instinct for imitation—an instinct which, Darwin argued, had helped to build inarticulate as well as articulate language:

It is perhaps worth consideration whether movements at first used only by one or a few individuals to express a certain state of mind may not sometimes have spread to others, and ultimately have become universal, through the powers of conscious and unconscious imitation. That there exists in man a strong tendency to imitation, independently of the conscious will, is certain. This is exhibited in the most extraordinary manner in certain brain diseases, especially at the commencement of inflammatory softening of the brain, and has been called the `echo sign’. Patients thus affected imitate, without understanding, every absurd gesture which is made, and every word which is uttered near them, even in a foreign language. (Darwin, 1872, pp. 356–7)

In the second edition of the Descent Darwin again referred to the Parisian pantomime, to much the same end (Darwin, 1874, p. 88). He also embellished the old sentence on aphasia and the brain to take account of Bateman’s greater variety of cases in which `substantives’ were lost with brain disease or trauma (Darwin, 1874, p. 88). By the time this second edition appeared, however, Bateman had turned his tentative and private queries about the bearing of the evidence of aphasia on the truth of evolution into bold and public statements.

4. Bateman versus Darwin

In March 1872 Bateman read a paper before the Victoria Institute in London on `Darwinism Tested by Recent Research in Language’ (Bateman, 1874). The Institute had been founded several years before for the purpose of defending Scripture from the predations of `pseudo-science’ (`Scientia Scientiarum’, 1867, p. 5), and Bateman insisted that his call for scepticism about evolution was motivated not by religious convictions but by respect for the evidence.13 Neither human dignity nor belief in a Creator was threatened by the theory of evolution, Bateman argued (Bateman, 1874, pp. 74–6). Nevertheless, on his view, the evidence of language showed the theory to be false. This evidence was of two sorts. The first sort was the evidence for language as a difference of kind between humans and other species. Here Bateman criticised Darwin’s account of imitation. As Bateman saw it, the point about the Parisian pantomime was that her power of imitation was entirely separate from her power of speech. Furthermore, though parrots and monkeys had been imitating away for millennia, they had yet to evolve anything like language (Bateman, 1874, pp. 78–81).

The second sort of evidence was the evidence against a speech centre in the human brain. `I have shown, and on the most indisputable authority’, Bateman told his audience, `that persons could talk when the presumed seat of speech was invaded by an enormous tumour, completely disorganized by disease, or destroyed by a pistol-shot!’ (Bateman, 1874, p. 89). The relevance of these conclusions, outlined in Bateman’s letter to Darwin a year before, was now spelled out in full. Bateman argued as follows. The case for an evolutionary origin of language depended on a structural analogy between the human brain and the ape brain. Suppose the third frontal convolution were indeed the seat of speech. Then the more rudimentary version of the structure in the ape brain might reasonably be considered the seat of a more rudimentary version of speech. Out of these rudiments of brain and therefore speech in the ape could well have evolved their more elaborate human counterparts. However, concluded Bateman, as the third frontal convolution `has not been proved to be the seat of speech in man, the Darwinian argument from analogy falls to the ground, and speech remains a barrier the brute is not destined to pass . . . . whilst the common belief in the Mosaic account of the origin of man is strengthened’ (Bateman, 1874, pp. 78–9, 87–91, quotes on pp. 88, 91). So localisation and evolution fell together, and with them materialism, for, as Bateman had hinted in his aphasia treatise, the immaterial faculty of language was not the same thing as its material instruments in the brain (Bateman, 1874, pp. 89–90).

Back from the metropolis, Bateman published a letter in the Eastern Daily Press of East Anglia summarising his paper to the Victoria Institute. Thus began a much-discussed public controversy that lasted into the summer.14 One of Bateman’s letters-page opponents argued that articulate language was not even a universal human feature, let alone a difference of kind between humans and animals. Bateman conceded that if there were indeed humans without language the theory of evolution would be strengthened. But there were no confirmed reports of such humans (Bateman, 1874, pp. 92–3). Darwin’s own encounters with supposedly language-less Fuegians (capable only of hen-like clucking) turned out, on inspection of the relevant passages in the Beagle Narrative, to show that Fuegians did possess the faculty of speech, albeit little developed. Thus they were able to learn English, as had the Fuegians aboard the Beagle. `Bring a Fuegian to England, and give him time, and he will talk’, wrote Bateman. `Put a monkey under training for any number of years, and he will never evince the slightest capacity for the acquisition of language’ (Bateman, 1874, p. 93).15

Other participants in the debates over human evolution were beginning to make use of the new research on aphasia. The anti-Darwinian Oxford philologist Friedrich Max Müller, in his 1873 lectures before the Royal Institution on `Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language’, appealed to Jackson’s work to support a distinction between emotional language (which humans shared with other creatures) and rational language (which humans alone enjoyed). For Müller, the existence of this divide counted against an evolutionary origin for rational language, hence for humankind (Müller, 1996, pp. 193–6).16 For Darwin, however, the evidence of aphasia pointed in precisely the opposite direction. It showed that rationality and language were separate phenomena, and thus need not have emerged together in a single catastrophic leap. `Persons with aphasia are certainly intelligent’, Darwin scrawled on his copy of Müller’s `Lectures’, `& yet they cannot utter any words, the vocal organs being still perfect, & if rational thought depended absolutely on language, how can they be intelligent?’ (Müller, 1873, back fly-leaf). Reviewing Müller’s `Lectures’ and Darwin’s chapter on mental powers in the Descent, an anonymous commentator in the October 1874 Westminster Review countered Müller’s claims about aphasia and evolution with the recent experiments of the physiologist David Ferrier at the West Riding Lunatic Asylum:

Now Professor Ferrier, following up the researches of Hitzig and Fritsch, has recently been experimenting on the brains of various animals, and on that of the monkey among others, and `the part’, he tells us, `that appeared to be connected with the opening of the mouth and the movement of the tongue was homologous with the part affected in man in cases of aphasia‘. This must surely be admitted . . . as at least a very curious coincidence, easily explicable, indeed, on the evolution theory, but not easily on any other. A certain intimate connexion between the organs of speech and a particular portion of the brain appears to be essential to man’s use of rational language. In the course of evolution, therefore, such a connexion would need to be established before rational language could be acquired; and this very intermediate stage, where the connexion exists, although the further acquisition of speech has not yet been attained, is now presented to us in the monkey, a creature of all animals, beyond contradiction, in general appearance and physical conditions, most closely similar to ourselves. ([Anonymous], 1996, p. 273)

In 1877 Bateman intervened in this debate once more, arguing his aphasia-based case at book-length in Darwinism Tested by Language. As before, the `Darwinism’ tested was not so much Darwin’s claim about how species evolve but the more general claim that species evolve. Against this general claim Bateman adduced several of the stock objections: the fossil record showed little or no gradual change; present-day creatures still fitted old Aristotle’s descriptions; and so on (Bateman, 1877, chs. 1–3). `The evolutionists’, wrote Bateman, `deal largely in the subjunctive mood,—the may and the might—and on purely hypothetical premises, they attempt to found conclusive arguments’ (Bateman, 1877, p. 200). But at the centre of his case remained the earlier argument on language, apes, brains, matter and mind (Bateman, 1877, chs. 4–7). Although Darwinism Tested by Language carried an admiring preface from the Dean of Norwich, Bateman again protested against the accusation of `using Scripture to refute Darwinism’, insisting that his was a strictly scientific case against evolution and its corollaries, localisation and materialism (Bateman, 1877, p. 135).

A few years later, Bateman attempted to shore up that case with the results he obtained in the course of his work at the Eastern Counties’ Asylum for Idiots in Colchester (Fig. 3).17 The Colchester asylum was one of five such rural institutions established in the middle of the nineteenth century for the `training’ of the mentally deficient (Porter, 1997, pp. 506–7; Gladstone, 1996, esp. pp. 137–42).18Bateman judged the asylum received less than its share of charitable funds, due to widespread misunderstanding of the nature of idiocy and the prospects for its treatment. To correct this misunderstanding, and solicit funds for the institution, he lectured to philanthropic audiences on his work at the asylum. An address he gave in Norwich in January 1882 was subsequently published as a small pamphlet, The Idiot: His Place in Creation and His Claims on Society (Bateman, 1882, pp. 1–12).19Here Bateman argued that the key to improving the unfortunate estate of the idiots was to be found among the conclusions of his earlier inquiry into language, evolution and the brain (to which he referred his readers): one had to take care `not to confound the instrument with the person who possesses those organs [i.e. that instrument]’ (Bateman, 1882, p. 34). Trapped within the damaged bodies gathered at the asylum were souls no different from those of the physically more fortunate. Bodies and brains were one thing, souls and speech another. On Bateman’s view, there was no other explanation for the successes of the training regime at the asylum (Bateman, 1882, p. 35). The `sociable, affectionate, and happy’ Colchester idiots were thus incontrovertible proof of the true relation of matter to mind (Bateman, 1882, p. 42).20


Fig. 3. The Colchester asylum, where Bateman worked as consulting physician. From Bateman, 1882, p. 2. Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

5. From Broca to Jackson

There is no record of Darwin’s reply to Bateman’s 1871 letter, and no comments on Bateman’s argument or its subsequent development in other correspondence or notes. But in 1888, six years after Darwin’s death, Darwin’s second-in-command in the defence of mental evolution struck back. In his Mental Evolution in Man (1888), the physiologist and psychologist George John Romanes commented:

Since Dr. Bateman wrote, a new era has arisen in the localization of cerebral functions; so that, if there were any soundness in his argument, one would now be in a position immensely to strengthen `the Darwinian analogy’ [between ape brains and human brains]; seeing that physiologists now habitually utilize the brains of monkeys for the purpose of analogically localizing the `motor centres’ in the brain of man. In other words, `the Darwinian analogy’ has been found to extend in physiological, as well as anatomical detail, throughout the entire area of the cortex. (Romanes, 1888, p. 135)

As Romanes reported, a new era had indeed arisen in the localisation of cerebral functions since Bateman read his paper at the Victoria Institute in the early 1870s. The Westminster reviewer heralded the new era’s first experimental achievements, the discovery of sensorimotor centres in the cortex via electrical stimulation of animal brains by the physiologists Gustav Fritsch, Eduard Hitzig and David Ferrier. But the Darwinian analogy between human brains and ape brains had not so much been vindicated in the new era as transformed. Darwin’s evolutionism was tied to a picture of the brain that derived from Gall: a mosaic of well-demarcated cerebral seats for the different mental faculties. When Bateman attacked the theory of evolution, he argued that it predicted the existence of such a seat for the faculty of articulate language—`a special part of the brain for speech’, as Darwin wrote in his note on Haeckel-Schleicher, and as Darwin’s ally Vogt argued publicly.21 If no such seat existed, Bateman reasoned, then no ape-like ancestor to humans could have carried in its brain the precursor to the seat. On Bateman’s showing, there was no seat of speech in humans, hence no grounds for believing the human brain had an evolutionary origin. Pointing to the evidence of clinical pathology, Bateman charged the theory of evolution with making a false prediction. Pointing to the evidence of comparative anatomy, Vogt answered that the prediction had been successful after all.

It was John Hughlings Jackson’s distinction to reject the terms of this debate. At Norwich, Jackson urged a principle of cerebral localisation owing less to Darwin than to that other great Victorian theorist of evolution, Herbert Spencer. On the Spencerian–Jacksonian view, what were localised were not faculties but impressions and movements. Like the spinal cord out of which it had evolved, the brain, cortex and all, was but a machine for associating and coordinating sensorimotor impulses. It followed that the `language faculty’ in an evolved brain just was the cells and fibres representing the movements of speech (Jackson, 1958, vol. 1, pp. 39, 50–1, cited in Young, ibid., pp. 206–7). It did not follow, however, that these cells and fibres were packaged up in a single speech centre. On the contrary. Because the muscle groups needed for speech (for motor control of the lips, tongue and so forth) were needed for other, and evolutionarily more basic, activities, speech centres were effectively distributed all over the brain. Thus, as Jackson argued at Norwich, `speech resides in each part of the brain’, and yet `there are points—probably in Broca’s convolution—where the most immediate processes are specially represented’ (Jackson, 1868, p. 12). For Jackson, this motor view of speech explained why damage to Broca’s convolution often brought not only speech impairment but paralysis on the right side of the body. And the brain-wide distribution of speech centres explained why such damage did not disrupt speech completely, why, as Jackson reported at Norwich, Broca’s aphasics often swore even though they could not put sentences together. Jackson later argued that the stubborn persistence of oaths and other emotionally-charged expressions even revealed something of the evolutionary origins of language: the more highly evolved and more fragile sensorimotor centres of the left hemisphere (the intellectual, voluntary, `proposition’ regions of the speech circuit) when damaged lost control over the less highly evolved and more robust sensorimotor centres of the right hemisphere (the emotional, involuntary, `oath’ regions of the circuit).22

In effect, Jackson traded Darwin’s faculty-and-seat evolutionism for Spencer’s sensorimotor evolutionism, and thereby saved the clinical phenomena of aphasia on evolutionary terms. The analogy between ape brains and human brains was now a Spencerian analogy, and the theory of evolution predicted just what Bateman had found: the absence of a single seat of speech in the human brain. Throughout the 1870s the new sensorimotor approach moved from strength to strength, so that, by the late 1880s, as Romanes observed, it had swept the field (Young, ibid., chs. 6–9; but cf. Star, 1989, chs. 5, 6). There was still plenty to disagree about within the new framework. Was language more of a sensory or a motor process? What exactly was happening in Broca’s region—and, from 1874, in Wernicke’s region, linked to sensory as opposed to motor aphasia? Did apes and microcephali have well-developed or poorly-developed versions of these regions? Such questions excited much debate and research.23 But that debate and research was conducted within a larger consensus about how the human brain had come into being and how it ought to be studied. Evolutionism had entered into the core of the science of brain function, whose investigators now busied themselves mapping the sensorimotor constitution of the human brain. Monkeys and electricity became the tools of the trade—tools it made sense to use only so far as the human brain had indeed evolved.24

As the new regime took hold, Bateman’s views on the brain continued to attract attention and even admiration, if little allegiance.25 A revised and vastly expanded edition of his aphasia treatise (1890) was awarded a major prize from the Académie de Médecine. In 1892 he was knighted (`Sir Frederic Bateman’, ibid.). Meanwhile, the appropriation of his work for the evolutionary cause, begun by Darwin himself, continued apace. Consider, in closing, the American philologist and psychologist E. P. Evans’ 1891 Atlantic Monthly article on `Speech as a Barrier Between Man and Beast’. For Evans, the phenomena of aphasia showed what a permeable thing this barrier was. Surveying a number of striking cases, Evans at one point considered a case from Bateman’s treatise, recorded by Trousseau. A professor was reading one evening when suddenly he found himself unable to comprehend his text. Alarmed, he rang for his servant. When the professor tried to explain his predicament, he found himself unable to talk, though still able to control his tongue and vocal organs. When the servant brought paper and pen, the professor found himself unable to write, though still able to use his hands. When at last a physician arrived, the professor rolled up his sleeve and pointed to his arm. All took this to be a sign of the professor’s wish to be bled, which he promptly was. Right away the professor was able to manage a few words; and twelve hours later was fully recovered from the episode. But, for Evans, the significance of this case could be seen only by the light of another. He continued:

An orang-outang that had once been bled on account of illness, not feeling well some time afterwards, went from one person to another, and, pointing to the vein in his arm, signified plainly enough that he wished the operation to be repeated. In this instance, the orang, not being endowed with articulate speech owing to the rudimentary condition of a convolution of the brain, expressed his ideas just as the Frenchman did, who had been temporarily deprived of the faculty of articulate speech owing to the suspension of function of the same convolution of the brain. The process of reasoning was identical in both cases. The idea of receovery from sickness was associated with the act of venesection as the result of experience. In short, the man reverted for the time being to the condition of the monkey. How then should it be deemed a thing impossible for him to have risen out of such a condition? (Evans, 1891, p. 311)


I am grateful to Jon Hodge, Simon Schaffer, Jim Moore, Robert Richards, Samuel Greenblatt, Heini Hakosalo, Anthony Batty Shaw, Deborah Thom, Nick Jardine, Marina Frasca-Spada, Nick Hopwood, Stephen Jacyna and Tom Anderson for helpful discussion and comments on earlier drafts. Paul White, Anna Mayer and Nick Gill provided expert help with Darwin’s letters and marginalia. For permission to draw on unpublished materials I thank the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine Library.



1 On Darwin’s theory of the evolutionary origins of language, see Alter (1998, ch. 4), Richards (forthcoming), Richards (1987, ch. 5, esp. pp. 200–6), Beer (1996)and Leopold (1990).
2 The Descent of Man was published in late February 1871. See Freeman (1977, p. 129). Although the date on Bateman’s letter is 31 March 1870, I venture that this date was written by mistake, and that the correct date of the letter is 31 March 1871. Two pieces of evidence in particular point towards the later date. First, Bateman quotes from the Descent in his letter (`I see in the 2nd chapter of your 1st volume, you call attention to the fact that “we might have used our fingers as efficient instruments”’—cf. Darwin, 1871, vol. 1, p. 58). Second, Bateman’s own book carries a preface dated May 1870—after the date on the letter enclosed with the book. The only evidence possibly favouring 31 March 1870 rather than 31 March 1871 as the date of Bateman’s letter is Darwin’s reference to On Aphasia in his marginal comments on another letter, dated 11 March 1871, from the Shakespeare scholar John Jeremiah, Jr. (Jeremiah, 1871). But this annotation (`see Bateman Aphasia on Imitation p 110′) is itself undated. It was probably scribbled onto the Jeremiah letter some weeks or months after the letter arrived.
3 On Gall see Young (ibid., ch. 1), Clarke and Dewhurst (1972, ch. 10), Clarke and Jacyna (1987, pp. 220–44), Finger (1994, pp. 32–6, 374–5) and Eling (1994, pp. 1–27), which includes a translation of an early letter of Gall’s about his approach to brain function. Gall distinguished the faculty of verbal memory (in organ 14) from the faculty of spoken language (in organ 15). Both faculties were common to humans and animals. See Gall (ibid., vol. 5, pp. 7–46).
4 On Flourens see Young (ibid., pp. 54–74), Clarke and Jacyna (ibid., pp. 244–302) and Finger (ibid., pp. 35–6).
5 On Bouillaud see Young (ibid., ch. 4), Harrington (1987, pp. 36–7), Schiller (1979, pp. 171–5), Clarke and Jacyna (ibid., pp. 302–7) and Finger (ibid., pp. 37, 375–7).
6 Broca’s key papers are reprinted in translation in Eling (ibid., pp. 29-58). On Broca and the debates around his localisation work, see Young (ibid., ch. 4), Schiller (ibid., ch. 10), Harrington (ibid., ch. 2) and Finger (ibid., pp. 37–8, 377–9).
7 On Bateman see `Sir Frederic Bateman’ (1904, quote on p. 414). On Trousseau, see Harrington (ibid., pp. 47–8, 55–7) and Finger (ibid., p. 392). On the Sainty case, see Bateman (1865)and Bateman (1870, pp. 65–73).
8 On Vogt see Tort (1996), Pilet (1976)and, for disparaging commentary on Vogt’s performance at the Norwich meeting, [Mivart] (1874, p. 45). The importance of the doctrine of localisation within the new physical anthropology of Vogt, Broca and their English supporter James Hunt has been little noted. In an 1868 article on the localisation of the language faculty, Hunt wrote: `Should the mental faculties be localised in different parts of the brain, and should the practical physiognomist be able to discern their relative sites, then, and not till then, shall we become free from the assumptions of the past and present ages, and have a solid foundation, on which we may confidently base a real science of man’ (Hunt, 1868, p. 333). See also Hovelacque (1877, ch. 2).
9 Here Darwin cited the Edinburgh physician John Abercrombie’s Inquiries Concerning the Intellectual Powers (see Abercrombie, 1838, p. 150). In a famous marginal note in Abercrombie’s Inquiries, Darwin wrote: `By Materialism, I mean, merely the intimate connection of kind of thought, with form of brain.—like, kind of attraction with nature of element.’ Di Gregorio (1990, p. 1/2). On this note, see Gruber (1974, p. 104).
10 In a letter dated 7 August [1867], Darwin thanked Vogt for his memoir. On atavisms and evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century, see Gould (1977, chs. 4, 5). Vogt wrote introductions to the French editions of Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication and The Descent of Man. On Darwin’s use of Vogt’s work, see Tort (1996, p. 4488).
11 On Darwin’s reading of Haeckel and Schleicher, see Richards (forthcoming). Other authors whom Darwin read on language and the brain include Huxley and Wallace. See Huxley (1862, vol. 6, pp. 154–5), Huxley (1863, pp. 102–3) and Wallace (1870, esp. pp. 332–7). On Huxley, language and the brain, see Blitz (1992, p. 36). On Darwin’s response to Huxley’s views, see Alter (1998, p. 105).
12 For Darwin’s marginalia on On Aphasia, see Di Gregorio (ibid., p. 35/36).
13 On the Victoria Institute, see Moore (1979, p. 53).
14 Bateman directed readers to the `Man Versus Ape’ controversy in the Eastern Daily Press between 27 March and 13 July 1872. Bateman (1877, pp. 148–51). On the discussion aroused by Bateman’s paper see Romanes (1888, p. 134).
15 The English-speaking triumphs of the Fuegians were recorded by the Beagle captain Robert Fitz-Roy in Fitz-Roy (1839, vol. 2, pp. 2, 121, 189). At one point the Norwich geologist F. W. Harmer entered the fray to defend Darwin generally against the charge—not made by Bateman himself—that no intermediate form or `missing link’ had been found in the lamentably incomplete geological record. See Harmer’s letter to Darwin (Harmer, 1871).
16 In his lecture at the Victoria Institute, Bateman had cited Müller on behalf of the view that language was a difference in kind between man and brute (Bateman, 1874, p. 81). Müller in turn referred readers of his lectures to `Dr. Bateman’s book on Aphasia’ for fuller treatment of the topic. Like Bateman, Müller emphasised that there was nothing about aphasic phenomena which showed mind to be a function of the brain: `I shall not be suspected, I hope, of admitting that the brain, or any part of the brain, secretes rational language, as the liver secretes bile’ (Müller, 1996, p. 196).
17 It seems that Bateman became consulting physician to the asylum in the early 1870s. His position with the asylum is listed after his name on the title page of the 1877 Darwinism book, but not on that of the 1870 Aphasia book.
18 Founded around 1850 as Essex Hall, the institution in Colchester became the Eastern Counties’ Asylum in 1859. It is remembered today chiefly because Lionel Penrose conducted an important inquiry into the causes of mental deficiency among the Colchester population in the 1930s. See Kevles (1985, ch. 10).
19 A revised and expanded second edition was published in 1897.
20 L. S. Jacyna has argued that asylum doctors during the mid-Victorian period backed physicalist theories of the relation between matter and mind because professional interests were thereby served. See Jacyna (1982). But Bateman made his (apparently frequent) pitches on behalf of the Colchester asylum by arguing the case for dualism.
21 Romanes argued that the Darwinian needed only that there be some kind of cerebral seat for language, however large or diffuse (Romanes, 1888, p. 135). It seems that Vogt held a roughly similar view. Bateman reported that in Vogt’s letter on apes, microcephali and Broca’s region, Vogt `express[ed] a doubt about whether we shall ever be able satisfactorily to assign “the divers functions” which compose language, to special parts of the brain, until we have a physiological analysis of articulate language, similar to that which Helmholtz has given of sight and hearing’ (Bateman, 1870, p. 169).
22 Many of Jackson’s writings on evolution and speech are collected in Jackson (1958, vol. 2, pp. 3–205). On Jackson see Greenblatt, 1965, Greenblatt, 1970, Greenblatt, 1977, Young (ibid., ch. 6), Harrington (ibid., ch. 7) and Critchley and Critchley (1998).
23 For contemporary summaries of research on Broca’s region in ape and microcephalous brains see Hale (1886, pp. 309–10) and MacNamara (1908, ch. 10). In his review of Richard Garner’s 1892 book on `the speech of monkeys’, the American ethnologist Horatio Hale argued that Garner’s upcoming trip to Africa, where he planned to record the utterances of gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild, was worthwhile if only for the light it would throw on the role of Broca’s region in the evolutionary origin of language. Hale (1892, p. 382). See also Schiller (1979, pp. 270–1).
24 On the investigation of human evolution generally in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Bowler (1987).
25 The American neurologist William A. Hammond wrote a critical review of Bateman’s Darwinism book for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Hammond, 1877). Hammond later gave a talk defending Darwinism against Bateman at the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons (Hammond, 1878). For discussion of Hammond and Bateman, see Blustein (1991, pp. 143–4). As compendia of the literature on aphasia, Bateman’s books have proved useful to investigators from his own day to the present. See e.g. Freud (1953, p. 41) and Rosenfield (1988, pp. 28–9).


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