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Monstrous Perfectibility: Ape-Human Transformations in Hobbes, Bulwer, Tyson

  • Susan Wiseman

Abstract

What is an ape? This question troubled the natural philosophers of the Enlightenment just as much as the early modern mythographers because the ape was where the border between the human and its others was both maintained and dissolved. The work of Edward Tyson, the late seventeenth-century anatomist, in dissecting and analysing a ‘Pygmie … much resembling Man’ enables us to investigate the qualities attributed to the ape — qualities which brought it, despite empiricism’s best efforts, dangerously close to the human. These include the ape’s mythic dimensions, and its perceived transformability. In the epochs before the ‘taxonomic and therefore political … ordering [of] differences’ — what Donna Haraway calls ‘simian orientalism‘ — fantasies around the ape informed both scientific and socio-political writing.2 What — if anything — held apart ape and human?

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Human Relation Comparative Anatomy Mere Animal Simian Orientalism 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Edward Tyson, Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris or the Anatomy of a Pygmie (London, 1699) p. 1.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, race, and nature in the World of Modern Science (1989), (Reprinted, London: Verso, 1992), pp. 10, 11.Google Scholar
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    See Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), e.g. p. 42.Google Scholar
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    Exemplary in situating natural history in relation to other histories is N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C. Spary, Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 3–12.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    While the different ways apes were imagined can be put in terms of contrast and development, as Londa Schiebinger succinctly puts it, ‘Were these the degenerate sons of Adam and Noah (as Augustine had taught)? Or were they ‘natural man’, fully human but devoid of civilisation (as Rousseau and Monboddo would conclude years later)?’ They can also be considered in terms of overlapping attitudes in which one opinion, rather than being hermetically distinct, is informed by images, implications, and ideas linked to other, apparently opposite, ideas. Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Sexual Politics and the Making of Modern Science (London: Pandora, 1993), p. 75.Google Scholar
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    Edward Topsell, A Historie of Foure Footed Beastes (1607), pp. 3, 4. Thanks to Erica Fudge for this reference and for discussion of this section.Google Scholar
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    Thierry Lenain, Monkey Painting, First pub. Paris, 1990 trans. Caroline Beamish (London: Reaktion, 1997), p. 31. Lenain’s fascinating study of the search for the ‘origin’ of human art in monkey painting attests to the sustained coexistence of fantasy and scientific speculation on the monkey — human borderline.Google Scholar
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    ‘The Archangel Michael’, reproduced in Bob Claessens and Jeanne Rousseau, Our Bruegel (Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 1969) illustration opp. p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Nicolai Tulpi Observationum Medicarum Libri Tres (Amsterdam, 1641), pp. 275, 279.Google Scholar
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    When John Strype wrote his continuation of John Stow’s Survey of the cities of London and Westminster (London, 1720), Tyson provided his own description of Bethlehem. He quotes from a Spital Sermon, p. 197.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, F. J. Cole, A History of Comparative Anatomy: From Aristotle to the Eighteenth Century (London: Macmillan, 1949), pp. 198–221.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Middlesex: Penguin, 1968, reprint 1986), Introduction, p. 81.Google Scholar
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    Howard Caygill, Art of Judgement (Blackwell, 1989) p. 19; Leviathan, p. 82. As Caygill argues, the work of art does not for Hobbes imply a ‘unification of diversity’ but an illusion of unity (p. 19).Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis, ‘Man Transformed; or, the Artificial Changeling Historically Presented,’ (London, 1654). For another recent commentary on Bulwer see The Body in Parts, ed. David Hillman and Carla Mazzio (New York and London: Routledge, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies (Routledge: London, 1987), pp. 8–11.Google Scholar
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    Hobbes’s influence is obvious enough; Bulwer, too was influential and was used by William Hogarth in the rejected passages of his work on beauty. See William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, Joseph Burke (ed.), (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1955), pp. 173–4 ‘disgustefull and sometimes cruel methods of moulding and forcing the human form out of its natural figure and collour, many of his Instanes remain to this day,’ p. 173. See also Plates 1 and 2 which may use Bulwer’s frontispiece.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Love Peacock, Melincourt (London: 1817), p. 82–3. Melincourt uses Sir Oran Outan in political satire; sir Oran Outan ‘caught very young in the woods’ has been protected by Mr Forester who has bought him a baronetcy, thereby ‘ensuring him the respect of society, which always attends on rank and fortune’, p. 80.Google Scholar
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    Alexander Pope, Miscellanies, vol. 3 (London, 1736), p. 94.Google Scholar
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    As has been noted, the idea of transformation implied here, coming close to that of evolution, also paved the way for apes to be considered degenerate men. See Robert Wokler, ‘Anthropology and Conjectural History,’ in Christopher Fox, Roy Porter and Robert Wokler (eds), Inventing, p. 36.Google Scholar
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    Wokler, ‘The Enlightenment Science of Politics’, in Fox, Porter and Wokler (eds), Inventing, pp. 323–340, p. 336.Google Scholar
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    See Count de Buffon, Natural History, (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1780), 8 vols, p. 39 et seq. where, as Peacock notes in Melincourt, the expulsion of the ape from the category of the human is done in terms which imply readmission; see e.g. pp. 39–76, 40, 41.Google Scholar
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    Jean Jacques Rousseau, ‘Notes’ to Second Discourse in The First and Second Discourses, edited and translated by Victor Gourevitch (New York and London: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 219, see p. 149, pp. 214–20.Google Scholar
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    Second Discourse, translated Gourevitch, ‘Notes’ p. 220. In arguing, too, that the invention of language, specifically speech, was caused by the passions, Rousseau emphasised the proximity of human and animal. See Jean Jacques Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages translated by Gourevitch, p. 245.Google Scholar
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    See Emma Spary, ‘Political, natural and bodily economies’, in Cultures of Natural History N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary (eds), pp. 178–196; especially pp. 179, 193.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Wiseman

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