Bigfoot Encounters

Where Have All The Werewolves Gone?

Did the arrival of Darwin's theory of evolution put paid
to a widespread belief in half-human creatures?

By Brian Regal

March 2010 -- Fortean Times 259 --For most of recorded history, the half-man, half-wolf lycanthrope reigned supreme as the creature travellers most feared encountering in the woods and along dark roads at night. Numerous legends concerned werewolves – the awful deeds they committed, how to protect against them, how to kill them – and belief in their reality can be found in many cultures from ancient times to the present. But while the werewolf still holds a place in fiction and films, few people today actually fear meeting one in reality. Many individuals and groups actively search for cryptids, but there are no werewolf-hunting organisations. So – where have all the werewolves gone?

From the late 19th century on, anomal­ous primates like the Yeti, Sasquatch and Bigfoot nudged aside the wolfmen of old and stepped forward to occupy the niche of this fearsome man-like monster. But what accounts for this curious transformation?

A mythology as potent as that of the werewolf doesn’t disappear because of any single cause – if it ever does. Superstitions die hard, and a complex of ideas, cultural changes and other social elements helped put an end to the werewolf’s biological reality. One of those elements, the appearance of Darwinian evolution theory – centred on the idea of natural selection and descent through modification – in the mid-19th century, played a key role in pushing the werewolf out of the realm of the real. Paradoxically, while evolution helped do away with belief in one kind of monster, it helped give a form of scientific legitimacy to another. The evolution from werewolf to Bigfoot, though, did not happen quickly, but by transitional forms.

The werewolf can trace its lineage back at least to 2,000 BC. In the later Roman period, Pliny the Elder gave it a cousin amongst the monstrous races. The Cynocephali, or dog-headed men, didn’t have the supernatural accoutrements of the more fearsome werewolf. They weren’t shape-shifters, and could be both enemies and friends. In some versions of his story, St Christopher was a cynocephalus. Despite the widespread cultural acceptance of werewolves as a reality, by the late 1500s some European writers were questioning the concept. While belief in witches flourished with murderous abandon, views on werewolves had little consistency in learned circles, and though werewolves often found themselves associated with witches, no werewolf ‘craze’ ever developed. In fact, there are only a few werewolf trials on record. As the Enlightenment dawned, a debate ensued over whether demons could transmute a human into a werewolf. Philosophers and theologians wondered whether the human soul was capable of becoming genuinely bestial, and such theological reservations posed the same problems for werewolfery as evolution did two and a half centuries later. [1] It was during this period of scient­ific revolution that psychological, rather than physical, explanations for lycanthropy gained currency.

The slide towards oblivion already being experienced by werewolves took on added momentum in 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Evol­ution science played a complex role in the discussion of monsters, and monsters played a complex role in early discourse on evolution. Some who objected to evolution pointed to mermaids and other similar composite creatures and chuckled that belief in evolution meant belief in the poss­ibility of such childish and superstit­ious phantasms. Others argued that mermaids, the Minotaur and sea serpents were purely imaginary, so, in order to prove evol­ution, Darwin and his supp­orters would have to produce examples of such beasts; if none were forthcoming, then evolution must be a sham. Anti-transmutationists argued that the world should teem with such creatures if Darwin and his followers’ ideas had any merit. Some naturalists countered that evolution actually supp­orted the notion of mythical creatures like satyrs and sea serpents, offering plausible scientific explanations for legends from the past.

Others, though unwilling to accept mermaids, argued that even more wond­rous creatures existed as a result of evolution. Archaeopteryx, for example, no less fan­tastic than a hippogriff, existed in the fossil record. The dinosaurs and long-necked plesiosaurs bestrode the land and swam the seas just as majestically as anything from Greek mythology. [2] Most evolutionists, however, dismissed monsters as charming creatures of folklore and superstition, which Darwin had helped do away with. In 1865, Francis Buckland expressed the opinion that to “anyone with the slightest pretence to knowledge of natural history [a mermaid is] a decided make-up”. [3]

Evolutionary biologists felt proud that their work brought a deeper and more profound understanding of the workings of nature so that people would be less likely to believe in the existence of werewolves and other wonders. Charles Darwin himself made little mention of monsters in his work. When he did, he referred to hereditary mutations in plants rather than long-toothed, hairy killers. While he didn’t address the werewolf issue directly, circumstantially he dismissed the idea. In 1843, some years before the publication of the Origin, he wrote to fellow naturalist GR Waterhouse (1810–1888), who had just published an article on biological links. “I never understood,” Darwin wrote, “a half-way link, but merely one in a long series. I think you have done good service in pointing out how rare half-way-links are, if indeed they exist… one cannot have a simple species intermediate between two great families.” [4] In general, such attitudes, along with the view that dogs and primates followed two very different lines of descent, suggested they could in no way join together or one turn into the other. Natural historians had also shown that while various living organisms could change their shape or colour temporarily, when threatening or being threatened, for example, none could shape-shift in the manner attributed to werewolves.

The scientific method and evolutionary theory put such a stain on monsters that by the end of the century any attempt by naturalists to engage with them could be seen as an intellectual step backward – a problem which still haunts crypto­zoology today. In 1886, Cornell University physio­logist Simon Henry Gage believed monsters and mythical creatures had finally been put down. “Fairies are fled,” he wrote, “the genii banished the mermaid and the remora are captured.” [5] However, this heroic narrative of science triumphing over darkness and superstition is not quite as straightforward as it appears. Science caused one monster to whither, but another to flourish.

The first in a line of contenders for the werewolf’s position was the ‘ape’. Classical authors knew a number of monkeys, such as macaques and baboons, but presented them as physically ugly tricksters rather than monsters. The numerous wild men of monstrous race lore held similar positions, but had yet to be equated with apes. The problem with the primates arose from their physical appearance. A debate raged about whether apes could be counted human, part-human or not human at all. Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, thought the orang-utan of Asia an early form of human as yet uncorrupted by modern civilisation.

Europeans at first did not understand the various species of primates and tended to lump them together. The term ‘Orang-Outang’ covered any primate found in the tropical zones of the world. The Dutch anatomist Nicholas Tulp (1593–1674) first used the term in print in an article called “Homo Sylvestris, or Man of the Woods” as part of his larger Observationes Medicæ (1641). Tulp – subject of the famous Rembrandt painting – was able to see one of the first live primates brought to Europe, an ‘Orang-Outang’ (probably a chimpanzee) in a local menagerie. The first thorough scientific description of primate anatomy appeared in British anatomist Edward Tyson’s Anatomy of a Pygmie (1699). Working from a creature brought from Angola (probably a bonobo), but which had died before he acquired it, Tyson (1650–1708) included a number of exactingly rendered illustrations of the creat­ure’s musculature and skeleton in his book.

Part of Tyson’s reason for producing his work focused on his desire to dispel various mythical beliefs about creatures he felt were misidentifications of existing, non-monstrous, species. In this way, Tulp and Tyson’s work can be seen as an early cryptozoological enterprise: they strove to replace fictive creatures with genuine ones, to take the mythical and make it rational and scientific. Paradoxically, however, Tyson undermined his own efforts with the life rendering he included of his ‘Pygmie’ – never having seen the creature alive, he depicted it in a bipedal stance supporting itself on what is clearly a man’s walking stick. As a result, the image strikes the viewer as a hairy, beast-like human.

As the debate over the extent of the relationship between humans and apes continued, ‘apes’ in a generic form took on a sinister appearance as the dark and brutal other. Europeans and Americans equated them with people of colour rather than themselves. Monsters – in any culture that believes in them – take on analogous roles, usually depicting something felt to be unsavoury. In Euro-American culture, the ape became the focus for fears about race, gender, empire and all the malignant things lurking in the human psyche. Tyson’s use of the name Pygmie and his discuss­ion of mythical animals made a temporal connection between the Satyrs of class­ical myth, the Asian orang-utan, and the European Wild Man; all of them had been accused of assaulting humans, especially women, just as werewolves once had. The orang-utan in its Enlightenment era guise already had a long history amongst local people as The Man of the Woods – they saw it not as an ape or monster, but rather as another form of human. When Europeans encountered the animal they too, Rousseau and caricatures aside, saw it as neither human nor monster, but wholly ape.

Tyson also helped inaugurate the idea of the missing link by arguing that his Pygmie fell somewhere between apes and humans on the Great Chain of Being. He concluded that while humans and apes had super­ficial similarities they ultimately fell into different groups anatomically and metaphysic­ally. He did not want to upset Christ­ian sensibilities and so strove to separ­ate the two groups. Later, contemporaries like Swedish systematist Carolus Linnaeus tried to push the two back together again with varying levels of success. Naturalists of the 18th century, in their efforts to work out the relationship between apes and humans, still acted within a Christian worldview and not an evolutionary one, tending to believe in the fixity of species. This meant that not only the non-human primates, but also people of colour, occupied lower rungs on the ladder leading to God, with Europeans at the top, closest to the deity. Evolution assaulted this notion by making all men equal regardless of superficial differences, and by making them relatives, if not descendants, of the apes.

Eventually, more authentic knowledge of foreign lands and people did away with belief in the monstrous races. Greater scientific knowledge of primate anatomy made the monkeys less threatening as well, turning them back into their clownish image, resurrected from antiquity. These factors, along with a general move to ‘modernity’ in the broadest sense, saw a drop off in reports of werewolves. The werewolf’s position was threatened but not eliminated. It took a special new breed to unseat the lycanthrope. In the mid-19th century the formerly separate wild men and apes merged into a unified whole more potent than either separately: ‘Men-of-the-Woods’ from around the world took on the morphology of hairy, bipedal Ape-Men, who in turn joined with the next challenger to the werewolf’s old position: the caveman.

Unlike the werewolf, the ape man/cave man arose in part from the fossil record. When first found in Germany in 1856, Neanderthal Man caused a sensation and a debate as to how it should be classified – man, ape or other? Opposition, borne out of racial concerns, arose immediately to the idea of it as a human ancestor. As a result, in 1908 when French anthropologist Marcellin Boule (1861–1942) made the first major reconstruction of a Neanderthal based on the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton, he configured it as the classic cave man: a stoop-shouldered brute. A 1909 illustration based on Boule’s work appeared in the Illustrated London News showing the Neanderthal as a malignant ape-like monster as ferocious as, and looking disturbingly like, a werewolf. In 1866, German evolutionist Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) suggested the word Pithec­anthropus (Ape man) for the as yet undiscovered ‘missing link’ between humans and primates; in 1894 the Dutch anatomist Eugene Dubois used Haeckel’s term for the fossils he discovered in Java, which he felt fitted the part.

Starting off as bestial, dim-witted brutes, the Neanderthals experienced a reversal of fortune. No longer fiends to be feared, they transformed into 1960s-style flower children, in tune with their environment, to be admired and even emulated. Like the monstrous races and apes before them, the ape-man’s initial fearsomeness began to evaporate.

Human nature still needed a monster, though, and luckily one was available in the form of the anomalous primate. By the mid-20th century, the stage for Bigfoot, from a natural history point of view, was set. Stories of wild men did appear prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Spec­ies, but with a notable lack of ape-related accounts. Monster enthusiasts routinely point to Native American folklore as evid­ence of sasquatch prior to the arrival of Europeans, but these stories are consistent with wild man stories and don’t specific­ally mention anything expressly simian in nature as later Sasquatch and Bigfoot stor­ies do. Early European-American explorer tales of encounters also speak of strange creatures and wild men rather than apes. Indeed, researchers find themselves hard pressed to find any legends or myths with a linkage to ape-human hybrids or composites prior to the middle of the 19th century. Yeti stories can be traced back in Tibetan and Nepalese folklore to the 4th century BC, but again, they are wild man stories that do not necessarily speak of apes or monkeys. It’s not until the debate about the primate ancestry of humans that monstrous ape-men begin to roam the landscape.

Because of its supposed ability to shape-shift, the werewolf holds a unique place in monster lore and presents problems of classification for historians of science as well as cryptozoologists. The werewolf’s condition separates it from traditional composite monsters like sea serpents or mermaids, or even Bigfoot, who inhabit their forms permanently. The werewolf falls into the category of part-time, hybrid composite. It undergoes change through a vaguely supernatural process, discounting it as a genuine cryptid. Werewolves and anomalous primates do share characteristics beyond the superficial. Although Bigfoot is normally thought to be a pastoral animal, encounter stor­ies include some violent episodes. The Windigo of Canada, for example, has a reputation to give the loup-garou a run for its money, while some monster enthusiasts argue that Sasquatch is a shape-shifter.

While evolution theory does not prove a priori that Bigfoot exists — the majority of palæoanthropologists and primatologists discount the possibility – it does give tacit approval to the possibility that it could exist. All the academics who supported the existence of the Yeti, and later Sasquatch, beginning in the 1950s, specialised in these fields. Their approval was based less on any physical evidence, of which none acceptable to mainstream science existed, than on an evolutionary theoret­ical model. With Bigfoot and its kindred the story comes full circle. Science helped disprove the existence of monsters such as mermaids, hippogriffs and werewolves, but simultaneously allowed for the appearance of monsters like Bigfoot.

Admittedly, this thesis about the demise of the werewolf has its flaws. Darwin and evolution did not banish belief in werewolves completely. There are still places in the world that harbour werewolf and were-predator beliefs. Even in the US, sightings of the ‘Beast of Bray Road’ in Wisconsin have continued to be reported since the 1990s, with local people claiming that the creature behaves like a werewolf. On the other hand, not all believers in Bigfoot take evolutionary models into account: a surprising number of Sasquatch enthusiasts in North America self-identify as creationists.

What is certain, though, is that when it comes to creatures of supposed biological reality, the werewolf has been replaced by Bigfoot and his ilk, and that Darwinian evolutionary theory helped make the change possible.
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Uploaded Tuesday March 16, 2010

Author biography...

Brian Regal is Assistant Professor for the History of Science at Kean University,
New Jersey, USA. He is the author of Human Evolution: A Guide to the Debates
(2005), Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia (2009) and “Entering Dubious
Realms: Grover Krantz, Science and Sasquatch,” in Annals of Science (January,
2009). He is currently writing a history of monster hunting.


1 Nicole Jacques-Lefèvre: “Such an Impure, Cruel and Savage Beast”, in Katheryn A Edwards, ed: Werewolves, Witches and Wandering Spirits: Traditional Belief and Folklore in Early Modern Europe, Trueman State University Press, Kirksville, 2002; and Brian J Frost: The Essential Guide to Werewolf Literature, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2003.
2 For an excellent study of sea-serpents in discuss­ions of evolution see H Brink-Roby: “Siren canora: the mermaid and the mythical in late nineteenth-century science”, Archive of Natural History 35, April 2008, pp1–14.
3 Francis T Buckland: Curiosities of Natural History, Macmillan & Co., 1865, p134.
4 Charles Darwin to GR Waterhouse, 3 or 17 Dec 1843. Darwin Online, correspondence.
5 SH Gage: “Zoology as a Factor in Mental Culture,” Science 4, 1896, p209.


Going Ape For a Truer History of Science
Brian, this is a very good article concerning an area much overlooked by the mainstream.
My only - qualified - criticism is your failure to draw attention to the often febrile dispute over the nature of the original Neanderthal discovery: whether or not he was an ancient Mongolian warrior, a soldier from the Napoleonic era or/and an individual pathologically deformed by a disease like rickets, (but then I've noticed how over the years this side of the story's been gradually airbrushed away, leaving the impression the whole thing - just like Evolution - was instantly accepted by all TRUE scientists).

You possibly saw this as an interesting sidetrack to your main thesis, but to me it seems incredibly topical, given the remarkable similarity to the arguments that've emerged in the similarly febrile debate over the true nature of latest addition to the Wild Man family, the Hobbit of Flores.

Two points about your Tyson's Pygmie pic: 1) is it possible he gave the ape a stick because of forgotten reports by natives of such beings using sticks, reports which were being dismissed in modern times virtually right up until video evidence provided incontrovertible evidence; 2) does the term 'pygmie' refer to the ape as a whole, or just a particular part of him?

By eddyblog on 22 March, 2010, 11:32am
Excellent article! I never looked at the subject like that before. I've always been
fascinated by the man-ape thing but never really put it in any historical or
sociological perspective. Great read!

By jnpollock on 19 March, 2010, 1:20am
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