Human Biology

Human biology

Integral to 16th and 17th century trends of compiling compendiums and thesauruses were the production of books on human biology and anatomy. Anatomical atlases, like Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) and William Cowper’s Myotomia (1694), listed the known elements of the human body as they were being discovered by early surgeons. They featured elaborate illustrations and often witty labels. A break from that tradition was the Microkosmographia, a heavily illustrated book that drew together contemporary medical knowledge. By the 19th century, studies in comparative zoology and geology had started to change the perception of where humans fit into the great chain of being.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, frontispiece

Darwin’s studies of different animals around the world spurred in him a new view on how certain species thrived over others, and how they came into existence. His Descent of Man was the first mention of the word ‘evolution’. The world was offering up evidence of a much longer existence than the Bible presented, with humans now recognised as an order of primate, closely related to other apes.

Charles Darwin 1809-1882
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life
London: John Murray, 1859

This is the first issue of the first edition of one of the most important scientific books ever produced. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed that the diversity of animal life could all be traced back to now-extinct ancestral species, and that natural selection accounted for how these new species developed. The first issue of the book is identified by an account of the swimming black bear on page 184, in which Darwin speculated on the possibility of land animals evolving into aquatic species.

Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man, frontispiece

Featured Item

Charles Darwin 1809-1882
The Descent of Man: and selection in relation to sex. 2 volumes
London: John Murray, 1871

Twelve years after Charles Darwin presented his ideas of natural selection to the public in On the Origin of Species (1859), he released The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. This work, issued in two volumes, served to make Darwin’s ideas more accessible and contains the first mention of the word ‘evolution’ on page two.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin sought to directly address questions on the origins of the human species, which he had actively avoided in earlier writings:

The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.

Over the course of the two volumes, Darwin presents for the first time his argument for our relation to primate ancestors. These ideas were met with strong opposition by more traditional scientists and religious leaders, contributing to the so-called ‘crisis of faith’ of the Victorian era. Ultimately, however, Darwin revolutionised scientific thinking on the origins of humankind.

The Library’s copy of The Descent of Man is from the collection of Sir John Monash, with his signature on the title page of each volume. Monash’s signature is accompanied by the date June 1914, which was only two months before the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. During the war, Monash would become Australia’s most prominent military commander.

William Cowper's The anatomy of humane bodies, illustration

William Cowper 1666-1709
The anatomy of humane bodies. 2nd edition
Leyden: Printed for Joh. Arn. Langerak, 1737

William Cowper’s The anatomy of humane bodies was instrumental in changing standard approaches to the study of anatomy in 17th and 18th centuries. This second edition was revised by C. B. Albinus (1696-1752). The material for the book, in particular the art plates painted by Gérard de Lairesse, were originally commissioned by the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo. The debate that followed regarding Cowper’s plagiarism also gives insight into changing standards around intellectual property rights.

Helkiah Crooke, Andre Du Laurens and Kaspar Bauhid's Mikrokosmographia, frontispiece

Helkiah Crooke 1576-1648, Andre Du Laurens 1558-1809 and Kaspar Bauhid 1580-1624
Mikrokosmographia: A description of the body of man. Together with the controversies thereto belonging. Collected and translated out of all the best authors of anatomy, especially out of Gasper Bauhinus and Andreas Laurentius. 2nd edition
London: Printed at London for Thomas and Richard Cotes, 1631

The first edition of Mikrokosmographia was published in 1615. A compendium or textbook of anatomy, the book was banned by the Church for the elaborate engravings of sexual organs. Despite this, Mikrokosmographia was a great commercial success, in part due to the illustrations, but also because it was written in English. Crooke, however, was criticised for plagiarism, or at least for failing to present any original work.
From the collection of the Australian Medical Association.

Human Biology