A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature

By Marina Benjamin | Go to book overview
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The Gendered Ape: Early Representations of Primates in Europe

Londa Schiebinger

Of the Orangutan: It is a brute of a kind so singular, that man cannot behold it without contemplating himself

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Histoire naturelle

Europeans were puzzled when they first came face to face with anthropoid apes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The discovery of the great apes of Africa and Asia seemed to confirm the notion of a great "chain of being"--a hierarchy of creation reaching from God and the angels down through man to the lowliest worm. 1 Apes' shockingly human character emboldened naturalists to declare them the long- sought "missing link" between humans and animals. Were these degenerate sons of Adam and Noah, as Augustine had taught? Or were they "natural man," fully human but devoid of civilization, as Rousseau and Monboddo would conclude years later? Could apes through education become sufficiently cultured to take a seat in the British Parliament, as did the amiable (and fictional) Sir Oran Haut-ton in Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt? Were they human or beast?

Scholars have long been fascinated with the distinctions between apes and humans. An enormous and popular literature explores whether apes have the ability to walk erect, speak, reason, and create culture. Historians, focusing on how the early modern naturalists conceived the human/ape difference, have tended to explore similar issues. 2 As we shall see, however--and this has not been pointed out--naturalists' earliest chronicles and images of these our closest relatives were also highly gendered. Edward Tyson's "wild man" (actually a chimpanzee brought to London from Angola in 1699) was portrayed with a well-defined beard and walking stick to mark his sex.


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