Date of Thesis


Thesis Type

Honors Thesis (Bucknell Access Only)

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts

First Advisor

John Hunter

Second Advisor

Peter Judge


For as far back as human history can be traced, mankind has questioned what it means to be human. One of the most common approaches throughout Western culture's intellectual tradition in attempts to answering this question has been to compare humans with or against other animals. I argue that it was not until Charles Darwin's publication of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) that Western culture was forced to seriously consider human identity in relation to the human/ nonhuman primate line. Since no thinker prior to Charles Darwin had caused such an identity crisis in Western thought, this interdisciplinary analysis of the history of how the human/ nonhuman primate line has been understood focuses on the reciprocal relationship of popular culture and scientific representations from 1871 to the Human Genome Consortium in 2000. Focusing on the concept coined as the "Darwin-Müller debate," representations of the human/ nonhuman primate line are traced through themes of language, intelligence, and claims of variation throughout the popular texts: Descent of Man, The Jungle Books (1894), Tarzan of the Apes (1914), and Planet of the Apes (1963). Additional themes such as the nature versus nurture debate and other comparative phenotypic attributes commonly used for comparison between man and apes are also analyzed. Such popular culture representations are compared with related or influential scientific research during the respective time period of each text to shed light on the reciprocal nature of Western intellectual tradition, popular notions of the human/ nonhuman primate line, and the development of the field of primatology. Ultimately this thesis shows that the Darwin-Müller debate is indeterminable, and such a lack of resolution makes man uncomfortable. Man's unsettled response and desire for self-knowledge further facilitates a continued search for answers to human identity. As the Human Genome Project has led to the rise of new debates, and primate research has become less anthropocentric over time, the mysteries of man's future have become more concerning than the questions of our past. The human/ nonhuman primate line is reduced to a 1% difference, and new debates have begun to overshadow the Darwin-Müller debate. In conclusion, I argue that human identity is best represented through the metaphor of evolution: both have an unknown beginning, both have an indeterminable future with no definite end, and like a species under the influence of evolution, what it means to be human is a constant, indeterminable process of change.