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Darwin as slayer of werewolves

Brian Regal

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution certainly transformed the way we view life on Earth. Brian Regal (right) thinks it also had an impact on mythical creatures. Regal, a science historian at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, says that with the publication of On the Origin of Species, canine-man hybrids went out of fashion, making way for new beasts that embodied Darwin’s thinking: ape-men such as Bigfoot (a.k.a. Sasquatch) and the Yeti (a.k.a the Abominable Snowman). I spoke to Regal about how his study of the history of evolutionary theory led him to monsters and eventually to monster hunting.

Q: How did Darwin kill the werewolves?
B.R.: There were already writers in learned circles questioning the concept of the werewolf in the late 1500s. From an evolutionary point of view, the werewolf makes no sense. A half-human half-wolf/dog composite doesn’t work. An ape-man, however, a Bigfoot, makes sense because the ape-man idea is [at] the heart of human evolution. If you look at all the “wild man” stories in various cultures around the world, none of them mentions apes prior to the mid-19th century and the public debate brought on by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and T. H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature (1863). This was the key to my idea. The “wild man” and the “ape” did not join forces to become the ape-man until after Darwin.

Q: How do you think Darwin viewed werewolves, centaurs, and other half-man, half-animal creatures?
B.R.: I have checked Darwin’s correspondence and published works, and I have not found him [to] make any direct reference to werewolves. In a letter from Darwin to the naturalist G. R. Waterhouse, dated 3 or 17 December 1843, he does mention that he did not believe there can be half of one thing and half of another. He also called animal monsters “a nasty, curious subject” when addressing a new book he had read by the French naturalist Saint-Hilaire.

An illustration of a werewolf

Q: We often hear about people who have claimed to have seen Bigfoot, or the Yeti, or Sasquatch. Could they exist today?
 Peter Byrne, one of the grand old men of Bigfoot hunting, said it well. He said the way we will probably find out these creatures are real is when one of those giant 18-wheel logging trucks from the Pacific Northwest pulls into a roadside diner with a Bigfoot splattered all over the front grill. All my Bigfoot friends will get mad at this, but I think in the end they probably do not exist.

Q: You say that Darwin’s theory has caused us to shift our focus to ape-man hybrids. But recently in pop culture, creatures like Bigfoot seem to be replaced by the werewolf. For example, Harry Potter and Twilight, both blockbuster books and movies, have werewolves as major characters. Why do you think that is?
B.R.: We have to remember that monsters are deeply emotional creations. We tend not to react to them in a rational way, so there are many reasons for believing or not believing in them. While evolutionary theory helped do away with the werewolf [above, right] as a biological reality, it helped create Bigfoot as one. However, Bigfoot is, in some people’s eyes, more real. It has a certain amount of scientific support for its existence where the werewolf does not. It’s also less threatening.

Q: Well, it is a very intriguing idea. What sort of feedback have you received so far?
B.R.: It has run the gamut, from “That’s an interesting idea” to “How can you say Darwin killed the werewolves? I just saw Twilight, and they show werewolves!” So far, no one has called me crazy, though.

An illustration from a Boston almanac from 1785, the first illustration of a primate in North America (based on the work of Edward Tyson)

Q: How are you going to present your argument?
B.R.: I am using pictures of werewolves, apes, and Bigfoot to trace the visual transformation of the werewolf into Bigfoot. They come mostly from science books and medieval manuscripts. If you look at early drawings of apes, and then cavemen, they look disturbingly like werewolves. I also have an illustration from a Boston almanac from 1785. It’s the first illustration [right] of a primate in North America (based on the work of Edward Tyson), but it is astonishing as to how much it looks like a happy, smiling Sasquatch carrying a walking stick.

Q: If there’s someone who believes that the whole Darwin-werewolf-Bigfoot connection has no proof, what would you tell them?
B.R.: I would tell them that as a professional scholar, I looked at the evidence of the written record, saw patterns, made analogies, and came up with a hypothesis that I think is also supported by the visual record. Others might look at the exact same materials I did and come to a different conclusion or find something more interesting in it. That’s how the historical method works.

Brian Regal will present his thesis 5 July at the annual meeting of the British Society for the History of Science in Leicester, U.K.