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Book Summary

An extraordinary adventure tale of a young man who emerged from the jungles of Africa with evidence of a mysterious, still-mythical beast-the gorilla-only to stumble straight into the center of the biggest debate of the day: Darwin's theory of evolution

PAUL DU CHAILLU wasn't an established Victorian explorer but rather a naive young man determined to gain entrance into the elite halls of science and to have the adventure of a lifetime. His expedition into a region labeled at the time only as "terra incognita" was woefully under-equipped, but when Du Chaillu marched into this equatorial wilderness in 1856, he wanted to bag a beast that, according to legend, was nothing short of a monster.

The stories that he and his crew of natives collected inside the jungle stretched the imagination. They spoke of miasmal swamps and deadly serpents, fierce cannibals and ritual sacrifices, of Du Chaillu being honored as a holy "spirit" by a tribal king. But none of this could rival his encounters with the forest's most legendary beast. After three years in the wilds of what is now Gabon, Du Chaillu had faced the gorilla and had lived to tell about it.

Back in London, Charles Darwin was finishing On the Origin of Species, which would become a hugely explosive book, one on which our understanding of mankind still pivots. Debate was already raging among scientists and Britain's intelligentsia: Was it possible that humans evolved? When Du Chaillu resurfaced in London, his gorillas immediately grabbed hold of the public's imagination and became a touchstone in the debate for both the scientific and religious establishments.

Du Chaillu became an instant celebrity and a sensation around the world. His adventures inspired Victorian luminaries such as Charles Dickens and Sir Richard Burton, while his gorillas found their way into popular culture in the form of cartoons, songs, and plays. But Du Chaillu wasn't always comfortable with the broader implications his gorillas inspired. These specimens intersected with and influenced the latest brand of religious fundamentalism and became entangled in America's Civil War propaganda. The gorillas also didn't escape Britain's more insidious undercurrent of racism, which would soon play out to devastating effect in Du Chaillu's own life.

Then the whispers about Du Chaillu began, challenging his credibility and his own personal story. These inquiries fueled another far-flung quest-this time for his personal honor-driving the young explorer back to Africa as the ideological battles of the times continued unabated.

Grand in scope, rich in detail, and propulsively readable, Between Man and Beast combines Du Chaillu's amazing journey with the epic tale of a world hovering on the sharp edge of transformation.