Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe


  • John SorensonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_158-1


Related Topics

Monkeys, Wildlife, Animals


With the development of new technologies and in the context of colonialism and imperialism, early modern Europeans became less isolated. As they came into contact with other societies, they elaborated new philosophical and scientific ideas to investigate and explain social and cultural differences. This applies equally as much to the nonhuman societies they encountered.

Consideration of ideas about apes, those nonhuman animals closest to ourselves, presents a suggestive beginning for investigations of ideas about other types of nonhuman animals.

Thinking About Apes in Early Modern Europe

The term ape includes bonobos, chimpanzees, gibbons, gorillas, humans, and orangutans. In Africa and Asia, various human societies living near nonhuman apes developed practical knowledge and culturally specific ideas about them, but these animals were unknown to Europeans until the early modern period. Although a few early Greek and Roman travelers may have seen chimpanzees or gorillas, most references to apes concerned those animals we now classify as monkeys. Ancient writers remarked on their similarity to humans and depictions of these animals functioned to provide moral lessons about human behavior. Christian texts portrayed nonhuman primates as agents of Satan, and throughout the medieval period, they were linked with sin, foolishness, and excessive concern for material pleasures. Of course, these representations of nonhuman primates were played out in the context of broader attitudes toward other animals and nature in general, as well as a background of stories about various mythical beings, such as satyrs and cynocephali, that combined the forms of humans and other animals. Domination of nature was glorified in a narrative that placed humans at the pinnacle of creation and put all other beings at our disposal.

As various nonhuman primates began to appear more frequently in Europe as performing animals, they came to be seen as more amusing than devilish, but they continued to serve as vehicles to convey messages about humans. In art and literature, monkeys and apes have consistently served as symbols of human foolishness, greed, malice, and vanity. Nature was considered as the condition from which civilized humans must distance themselves and nonhuman primates served as particularly potent signifiers of what was primitive and uncivilized, as their troubling resemblance to humans presented a danger to the elevated status that we claimed for ourselves.

With the spread of European colonialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans encountered a variety of new species, including the great apes, and traders brought home specimens. Regardless of the variations among these animals, they were generally identified by the interchangeable terms orangutan or homo sylvestris. The former term was adopted from the Malay language spoken in parts of Southeast Asia, where it referred to the animals we know by that name today. However, seventeenth-century Europeans used it more widely, to identify apes from Africa as well, such as bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas. The term homo sylvestris referred to legendary half-human animals who lived deep in the woods of Europe. Both terms conveyed ideas of danger, wildness, and uncontrolled sexuality. The sexuality of nonhuman apes excited considerable interest, and many of those who produced early studies of these animals included reports on the propensity of orangutans to rape human females. Some considered sexual relations between humans and other apes as an explanation for the existence of what they considered to be distinct races of humans.

Lack of clear terminology persisted until well into the eighteenth century, with the name “orangutan” signifying various animals in different areas. In 1614 and 1625, English clergyman Samuel Purchas recounted the experiences of Andrew Battell, a sailor taken prisoner by the Portuguese in Angola, who described two kinds of “monsters,” named Pongo and Engeco, later thought to be gorillas and chimpanzees, respectively. In 1641, Dr. Nicholas Tulp of Amsterdam published his famous engraving of an ape (either a chimpanzee or orangutan) in his Observationum medicae libri tres. In 1658, Jacob de Bondt produced a description of a female orangutan he had seen in Java. In 1699, English anatomist Edward Tyson published the first scientific description of an ape, based on his dissection of a chimpanzee or bonobo, in his Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. In this important work of comparative anatomy, Tyson noted the similarities and differences between these various beings. Whereas ancient and medieval writers had identified apes with mythical creatures such as satyrs and used them to convey moral lessons, Tyson’s study was significant in its effort to examine empirical facts. However, while Tyson recognized the close anatomical relation between humans and other apes, he still sought to maintain the idea of fundamental difference and human exceptionalism, proposing a link between language and bipedalism as the key factor (Smith 2005, 2007). Debates about language abilities of apes and other nonhuman animals have continued up to the present, complicated by the fact of different definitions of language (Louden 2009; Sankey 2010).

Not surprisingly, the physical resemblance between humans and other apes inspired much speculation about similarity and difference. In the context of seventeenth-century debates about the relation of humans to other animals, Rene Descartes asserted that nonhuman animals lacked the complex inner life and soul that distinguished humans, that they did not possess powers of reason and reflection, and that essentially they were machines without minds. This view was challenged at the time (Preece 2007); nevertheless, it has continued to provide a convenient legitimization for exploitation of other animals up to the present. In his eighteenth-century binomial taxonomic system, the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus identified morphological similarities between humans and other apes. Although he distinguished between humans and apes in the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1735), in later editions, the division became less clear, and he placed them together in the same genus, Primates. This was a controversial classification that challenged the idea that humans were a unique creation. Other taxonomists such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach attempted to defend humans against what he considered such a degrading association and created a separate order for them. Many continue to be disturbed and insulted by the idea of our own animal nature; efforts to defend human uniqueness have persisted, and despite widespread scientific consensus on our evolutionary associations with, and similarity to, other primates, these controversies have not disappeared from contemporary society.

Some better understanding of differences among nonhuman apes developed in the eighteenth century, while the question of the relationship between humans and other apes became an important issue for intellectuals and a focus of public debate. Blumenbach drew a distinction between chimpanzees and orangutans. The French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was able to examine a live chimpanzee and a gibbon and concluded that these represented two species of orangutans, although he only recognized later that chimpanzees and orangutans were different species. In his enormous Natural History, Buffon suggested some quasi-evolutionary ideas and discussed similarities between humans and nonhuman apes but rejected the idea of a common ancestry and also criticized the Linnaean system that placed humans and other primates in the same group. Buffon maintained that the similarities between humans and other apes were merely physical ones and that humans were distinguished from these animals by their possession of a soul. In contrast, James Burnett (Lord Monboddo) argued that orangutans should be recognized as members of our species and that they were rational beings who were capable of speech but had not invented language. Similarly, Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau speculated in his 1755 work, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, that orangutans were not animals but humans who lived in their natural state: solitary, without language, property, inequality, or warfare. In the twentieth century, ethological studies demonstrated that while male orangutans are among the more solitary of the nonhuman apes, they are not completely so and social units do exist, particularly in the form of mother-child bonds, associations of females, and loose communities with dominant males. Social skills and traditions, such as communication, nest-building, and tool use, are passed down among these communities, indicating that Rousseau’s ideas about a natural state of human existence were based on mistaken information about these animals.

In 1779, based on dissections of several young orangutans from Borneo, Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper published his conclusions that these constituted a distinct species separate from African apes. Camper’s dissections of their vocal tracts also demonstrated that orangutans are physically incapable of human speech, in contrast to what some had speculated. Camper complained about visual representations of orangutans created by Tyson, Buffon, and others that depicted the animals walking erect, often using a walking stick, charging that this was a misleading exaggeration of their similarities to humans and an effort to humiliate humans’ dignity. Like Blumenbach, Camper emphasized the significance of bipedalism as an indication of human uniqueness and perfection, a clear indication that humans stood apart from animals, as designed by a supernatural creator. Similarly, Camper insisted on language as unique to humans, rejecting the claims made by Lord Monboddo that apes could learn to speak, as well as the widely circulated assertion that orangutans did not do so in order that they not be forced to work. Buffon and Blumenbach also maintained that speech was a unique human characteristic and that other apes could not speak because they did not have the capacity to treason.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientific understanding of chimpanzees, gibbons, and orangutans as separate species was established, but it was only in 1847 that American missionary Dr. Thomas Savage identified the skull of a gorilla in Gabon as a new species and bonobos were not identified scientifically until the early twentieth century. Growing knowledge about nonhuman apes contributed to debates about religious doctrine and the demarcation of humans from other animals, as well as ideas about racial classification of humans and controversies that have continued right up to the present day for some, despite scientific consensus about evolutionary concepts. Physical similarities between humans and other apes encouraged eighteenth-century writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Monboddo to speculate that they were members of the same species and prompted debates about language and human nature. Ideas about the relationship of humans to other apes were readily incorporated into speculations about physical diversity among humans themselves. Suggestions that some groups of humans might be more closely related to nonhuman apes were used in the development of theories about the existence of human races. At the same time as Europeans plundered other parts of the world, they readily deployed ideas about nonhuman apes to justify their conquests and to provide legitimization for racism and slavery.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyBrock UniversitySt. CatharinesCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • Justin E.H. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Département Histoire et Philosophie des SciencesUniversité Paris DiderotParisFrance