Chris Herzfeld



Petite Histoire des Grands Singes

Chris Herzfeld

Editions du Seuil









From Antiquity until now, from the discovery of the gorilla to the observation of primates as tool-users and culture-relayers, this fascinating history of relationships between humans and great apes opens a window on the extraordinary behaviors and uncommon plasticity of bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. In addition, it is the first book on the history of primatology in the french language. This well documented book explores questions connected to this long shared history, with skill and seriousness. The assertion of the human’s singularity, and of his drastic separation from the apes, expresses the fear of a regression to bestiality. Where does this separation come from and what are the scientific arguments that successively nourished it? How were primates built up as objects of science and experimentation, in a pretext to argue about races and women? How did the great apes become partners for humans, like the painting-apes or the talking-apes, during the 1950s and 1960s? What is the role of women in the field of primatology? Why did the famous paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey choose women such as Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey, rather then men, for long-term field studies in Africa? The reader will find all the answers at these questions in this book, as well as a philosophical perspective on these themes.







1. Wild Men, Simians, and Hybrids. The Disturbing Strangeness of the Same

2. When the Ape Becomes a Skull. Colonial Expansion, Collection of Natural History, and Classification

3. Apes as 'Guinea Pigs". Primates in Experimental Research

4. Astrochimps, Painting Apes, and Talking Apes. Apes Who Consider Themselves To Be Humans

5. Sociality, Traditions, and Cultures among Apes. When the Dividing Line Between Humans and Apes Is Becoming Blurred

6. Women and Apes. Sex, Gender, and Primatology











A Short Story of the Great Apes is the first history of primatology in French. This work examines the ways western societies have perceived bonobos (Pan paniscus), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) and orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), and have interacted with them, according to the time periods and contexts. Humans have always felt drawn to apes and monkeys, fascinated by the similarities they share. At the same time, they felt a strong revulsion toward them, due to the close resemblances that blurred the nature-culture divide and the conceptual boundary between humans and other animals. However, the growing knowledge about great apes, linked to the emerging sensitivity of western populations toward animals, has progressively led to an emphasis on the similarities instead of the differences between humans and primates, making the boundary increasingly elusive.     



Chapter 1   Wild Men, Simians, and Hybrids. The Disturbing Strangeness of the Same


From Antiquity, the first encounters between humans and primates were marked by a true fascination with apes’ incredible capacity to imitate humans. Apes also were subjects of repulsion and took the form, for example, of the image of the devil in the Middle Ages. After being described by travelers that had participated in the great expeditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, anthropoid primates were introduced to Europe. They appeared strangely similar to humans, both with their physical aspects and their behaviors. Were apes humans, animals, or hybrid beings? Scholars during the Renaissance dissected them in order to get closer to finding answers to that question. Men of science from the 18th century tried to gather the slim knowledge available on the only known species at that time: the chimpanzee and the orangutan. However, mythological creatures of the Elders,-satyrs, hybrids, pygmies, and wild men,-are strongly represented in studies of anthropoid apes. Another obsession marked those researches: the compulsive will to identify criteria that distinguished humans and apes, to prove the singularity of Man and his place in the universe. 



Chapter 2   When the Ape Becomes a Skull Colonial Expansion, Collection of Natural History, and Classification


In the 19th century, a period of time when zoology was revived by Darwinian theories, chimpanzees and orangutans started to arrive in greater numbers in Europe. They were displayed in zoos, acclimatization gardens, and in menageries such as Empress Josephine’s, the spouse of Napoleon. However, skeletons continued to be what scholars studied the most. The great apes then experienced a strange destiny. They were essentially represented by just one part of their body,-the skull,-and were instrumentalized by the crowning discipline of the end of the century, craniology. This was the discipline that opportunistically legitimized the hierarchy of races in this time of colonial expansion. Gorillas and bonobos were now scientifically described by one skull found in the field for the gorilla, while the bonobo was described by a study of multiple skulls that were preserved in the collections of a Belgian colonial museum. The questions of identification, denomination, and classification then became omnipresent in the practices of natural history museums.      



Chapter 3   Apes as 'Guinea Pigs'. Primates in Experimental Research


In the middle of the 19th century, chimpanzees were brought to Western societies in large numbers. They experienced different forms of captivity: urban zoos, laboratory animal houses, and circuses. Their common characteristics with humans made them particularly attractive to medical research. They also became study subjects in zoos, notably by Darwin and his pupil, Romanes, in London. At the beginning of the 20th century, W. Köhler tested the cognition of chimpanzees and their aptitude to use tools. However, it was under the efforts of R. M. Yerkes, researcher at Yale University, that research on intelligence and the linguistic capabilities of the great apes began to evolve. The future dean of North American primatology, Yerkes, built the first laboratory of magnitude at Orange Park, Florida, the Anthropoid Experiment Station. Great apes were also requested by the behaviorist school, as were rats and pigeons. After World War II, primatology emerged as a discipline of its own and experienced impressive growth. Its themes and research domains began to diversify: conscience, genetics, sociobiology, ethology, theory of the spirit, mirror recognition, conscience of the self, social competencies, and mathematical capacities.  However, these subjects were always tested from the perspective of comparison with humans. The rupture between humans and their close cousins were therefore confirmed.



Chapter 4 Astrochimps, Painting Apes, and Talking Apes. Apes Who Consider Themselves to Be Human   


At the beginning of the 20th century, the gorillas were presented as incarnating bestiality and ferocity. This image was portrayed through popular fiction such as the movie "King Kong". However, the gorilla John Daniel lived, without causing harm, in the house of a family in London. Chimpanzees experienced more visibility with the general public than gorillas due to their arrival in greater number to Europe. Some were welcomed in American homes, such as the female Meshie, brought back from Africa by Henry C. Raven of the American Museum of Natural History. The exceptional abilities of imitation of these primates were exploited by zoo directors and, later on, by movies and commercials. Several forms of familiarity began evolving with the general public. In the 1950's primates greatly manifested their taste for artistic painting, notably during experiments led by zoologist and artist Desmond Morris. In the context of the Cold War, the chimpanzees abilities were exploited in space programs in order to deploy humans in the first space launches. In January 1961, the chimpanzee Ham was the first hominid, before humans, to travel in space and return alive. At that time, American scientists began integrating some representantives of the four species of great apes into human families, in order to push forward their learning of language. The apes were not only able to communicate with their instructors, but they were also capable of appropriating some fragments of the human "ethos", manifesting different forms of what I would call "becoming-human". "Becoming-human" showed the extent of their behavioral plasticity and the extraordinary flexibility of their habits. These fascinating behaviors highlighted additional knowledge about what it means to be an ape and to be pushed to experience what we previously denied them: emotions, ingenuity, empathy, modesty, a sens of aesthetic, and certain forms of morality.



Chapter 5 Sociality, Traditions, and Cultures Among Apes. When the Boundary Between Humans and Apes is Becoming Blurred. 


Aside from the generally unreliable testimonies from travelers, scientists of the beginning of the 20th century had little information regarding the ways of primates in their natural environment. Partial observations had been led by collectors and hunters in the field, notably Paul Du Chaillu, Richard Burton, and Carl Akeley. A few scientists ventured into the bush: Richard Garner at the end of the 19th century, then Eugène Marais, and, under the guidance of Robert Yerkes, Harold Bingham and Henry Nissen. However, everything still remained to be done: methods, measures, research tools. The first prolonged and accurate field studies on non-anthropoid apes started with the American scientist Carpenter in the 1930’s, still under the authority of Yerkes. Furthermore, Japanese researchers observed the macaques of the Koshima peninsula and their “cleaning” of sweet potatoes around 1950. They introduced the notion of cultural transmission in monkey communities. They were also among the first researchers to organize long-term field studies in Africa. Around the same time, the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey initiated field studies as well. These studies were conducted by Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (gorillas), and Biruté Galdikas (orangutans). These long-term research projects allowed the study of the lifestyles and social organizations of these primates in their natural environments. This revealed genealogies and life stories of apes who were constantly redefining their social links and demonstrating technical competencies. Stimulated by a highly publicized quest to understand humanity’s origins, in particular by National Geographic, these studies radically changed the perceptions of the great apes, notably by reevaluating attributes previously considered to be possessed only by humans: the use of tools, the education of young ones, warlike behaviors, non-genetic intergenerational transmission, and forms of culture. Comparing the data, primatologists put forward evidence of “cultural traditions” differing from one group to another. The cultural behaviors and the degree of freedom manifested by the great apes questions, once more, the boundary erected between humans and other animals. Moreover, geneticists confirm the continuity between humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos with at least 98% of genes held in common between the three species. 



Chapter 6 Women and Apes. Sex, Gender, and Primatology


The last chapter focuses on the women who were involved in studies on primates, as well as the scientific and metaphoric themes that have linked women and great apes since the end of the 19th century. The first women that encountered apes "in situ" were explorers (Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Alexine Tinne, Florence von Sass-Baker, May French Seldon, Mary Kingsley). Among them figure the Americans Osa Johnson (wife of the adventurer Martin E. Johnson) as well Delia and Mary Jobe Akeley, the two successive spouses of the great collector and taxidermist of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Carl Akeley (designer, among others, of the Hall of African Mammals). It was anthropologists that then started to further knowledge in the field of primatology (Frances Burton, Phyllis Dolhinow, Jane Beckman Lancaster, Suzanne Ripley). They were succeeded by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas during their long-term research in Africa. The reason why these three women became involved in these studies originated from a specificity of thought typically considered "feminine" : patience, empathy, altruism, absence of career ambition, and not, in the first place, their qualities as scientists or aventurers. The observations of several female researchers have disclaimed the numerous gendered prejudices projected on apes : maternal instinct, the image of the 'good mother', qualities allegedly feminine or masculine, dominance readily considered masculine, technical competence and tool use specifically thought to be used by males, virile hunter characters. While they have not necessarily worked on anthropoid apes, several scientists have played major roles in the study of primates by introducing new perspectives or unusual methods of observation, or by playing key roles, for instance, on the conservation plans for certain species, notably Alison Richard, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Jo Thompson, Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, Adrienne Zihlman, and Satsue Mito. Jeanne Altmann, Alison Jolly, Thelma Rowell, Barbara Smuts, Shirley Strum, and Linda Fedigan have reconsidered questions of dominance and hierarchy, as well as ones linked to sexual selection and antagonistic behaviors, that are particularly visible and impressive, and that had previously been studied to the detriment of behaviors that are more discret, but just as effective: the aptitude of cooperating and creating ties, for example. In the laboratories, women are not forgotten, either. Among the most famous ones, we must mention the Russian psychologist Nadia Ladygina-Kohts, pioneer in psychology studies comparing humans and chimpanzees; Gertrude Van Wagenen, physiology specialist of ape reproduction; Elisabetta Visalbherghi, cognition specialist; and women involved in the research on the linguistic capabilities of the great apes: Deborah Fouts, Francine Patterson, Lyn Miles, and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.





What does this brief history of the relationship between humans and anthropoid primates unveil? It reveals above all, in a striking manner, the density of our similarities, while constantly remembering the specificities linked to each species and the impossibility of deepening some of these resemblances. The difficulty concerning the great apes, these close cousins, is to think about both the continuities and discontinuities, the openings and the limits, without hierarchizing them. We define ourselves by our differences as much as our similarities. By showing their deep interest in our worlds, objects, our know-hows and our habits, while surprising us through their extraordinary plasticity, inventive minds, and fascinating us by their ability to imitate us, the great apes force us to consider them differently, as well as review our obligations and responsibilities toward them. Their attachment toward us, their captivating behaviors, their sophisticated sociality, their aesthetic sense, their empathy, their emotional life, and their technical competencies set them above simple observations or scientific data: they testify to a sensitivity and surge of life shared, to a common world and a common opening up to the world.       









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