Orangutans and/or Babies

Research takes you in the wildest directions. For example, in the course of doing research for my dissertation (which seems ages ago now), I stumbled across writings by a British and American naturalist who, separately, conducted orangutan-hunting-and-collecting expeditions in Borneo in the 19th century, and who also adopted orangutans in the course of doing so.

The British naturalist was Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with roughly the same theory as Darwin did regarding evolution, and whose letter to Darwin outlining the theory spurred Darwin to finally finish up and publish The Origin of Species. Wallace became increasingly quirky over the course of his life, and eventually became among other things, a devout Spiritualist and an impassioned crusader against vaccination. But in 1855, he was a promising young naturalist energetically engaged in collecting specimens of new species of flora and fauna in the Malay Archipelago. And that year, he adopted a baby orangutan whom he bathed, combed, and fed from a bottle. The circumstances leading to his adoption of the infant were somewhat disturbing: his main reason for coming to Borneo was to obtain specimens of orangutans, of which the mother of this infant was one. He described the incident in a letter home (which he included in his autobiography My Life):

I was out shooting in the jungle and saw something up a tree which I thought was a large monkey or orang-utan, so I fired at it, and down fell this little baby – in its mother’s arms.

It is a strange letter, as you can see, because it pretended that the mother and the baby were not orangutans…which they were, as became clear in the other written accounts Wallace produced about his orangutan daughter. Here is a drawing of her, which was included in his 1869 travel narrative The Malay Archipelago:


The non-orangutanness of orangutans became a feature of the other written accounts Wallace produced of his orangutan daughter as well. In the same letter quoted above, the infant was described as a “a dear little duck of a darling” and a “half-nigger,” and the mother was described as a “madwoman” and a “wild ‘woman of the woods.'” In another account written for Chambers’s Journal in 1856, he compared the orangutan baby with two human freak exhibits touring Europe at the time: two children supposedly belonging to the “Earthmen” tribe and two children dubbed the “Aztec Lilliputians” – advertised as among the last of their respective races. This is a photo of the Aztec Lilliputians, taken by Nicolaas Henneman in 1853. (The photo comes from the Christie’s website.)


William Temple Hornaday, the other naturalist whose accounts of orangutan hunting and adopting intrigued and troubled me, is actually more famous for being one of the earliest champions of wildlife conservation in the United States. He campaigned tirelessly to save to the American buffalo from being hunted to extinction. As a young naturalist, he made his own orangutan-hunting trip to Borneo in the 1870s as part of a larger collecting trip that also covered Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula. In his published account of the trip, entitled Two Years in the Jungle (1885), he wrote:

…I would not have exchanged the pleasures of that day, when we had those seven orangs to dissect, for a box at the opera the whole season through….When we finished there was a small mountain of orang flesh, a long row of ghastly, grinning skeletons, and big, red-haired skins enough to have carpeted a good-sized room.

Grisly, to say the least. Like Wallace, however, he adopted a baby orangutan – a male whom he dubbed “The Old Man,” who would dine with him at table, share his bed, and play with him.  Below is a drawing of the Old Man from Two Years in the Jungle:


Hornaday, like Wallace, also drew comparisons between the orangutans he encountered and various types of human beings. His “old man” he described mostly favorably: “His eyes were large, bright and full of intelligence, and he had a forehead like a philosopher.” However, at one point, Hornaday conducted an experiment on his baby, plopping him in water to see if he would swim, which he did not: “he only turned horizontally in the water and remained a foot below the surface, stiff and helpless.”

Funnily enough, this little experiment, which one might consider inhumane, wasn’t necessarily out of line with scientists’ attitudes towards babies at the time. Prompted by the conviction that the human infant functioned more like an animal than a human, and more like a member of a primitive human race than a more advanced one, and that studying its development could therefore yield insight into humanity’s evolutionary past, scientists began to take a keen interest in children. One Georges John Romanes developed a scale that mapped human infant development against corresponding levels of development reached by other forms of animal life: an infant at seven weeks was equivalent to a mollusk, at four months was equivalent to a reptile, and at fifteenth months was equivalent to an ape or a dog. Louis Robinson went so far as to subject sixty babies under a month old, half of whom were less than an hour old, to hanging from bars in order to test the extent of their physical similarity to apes and monkeys [1]. Here is a photo of Robinson’s experiments included with the entry, “Reflex Action (Physiological)”, in A Dictionary of Psychological Medicine (1892), edited by D.H. Tuke:


Other observations made by Hornaday about the likenesses between orangutans and human beings in Two Years in the Jungle include the following: 

Let such a one (if, indeed, one exists to-day) who is prejudiced against the Darwinian views, go to Borneo. Let him there watch from day to day this strangely human form in all its various phases of existence. Let liim see the orang climb, walk, build its nest, eat, drink, and fight like a human rough. Let him see the female suckle her young and carry it astride her hip precisely as do the coolie women of Hindostan.

The comparison to coolie women isn’t necessary a flattering one. Of “Hindoos,” Hornaday had low opinions: “No one is more cringing, fawning, and servile than the Indian low caste native when he is hungry, and no one is more arrogant, disobliging, and inhuman when he is well-fed and housed. I am not ashamed to say that I hate the “gentle Hindoo.”

Of course, Hornaday thought poorly of many specimens of humankind. A few decades later, in 1903, he wrote an article for a children’s magazine (St. Nicholas) on one of the zoo’s chimpanzees where he wryly noted that though Chico was “ugly and repulsive…in some respects he seemed more human than the Australian savages we read about. The Australian black fellows are quite as ugly and repulsive as Chico, but they can talk more, and have better thumbs; so they can be considered as on our side of the line.” Hornaday wrote at greater length on the superiority of certain animals to some humans in The Minds and Manners of Wild Animals (1922), observing that the human species varied greatly from the highest to lowest, and that “the mind and emotions of the lowest men parallel and dove-tail with those of the highest quadrupeds and birds.”

Throughout his life, Hornaday consistently demonstrated a remarkable inability to regard human beings as distinct from or innately higher than other forms of animal life. For example, in his Tales from Nature’s Wonderlands (1924)—a children’s book about animal wildlife—he placed a chapter on the Dyak people of Borneo between a chapter on “The Great Red Ape of Borneo” and “The Great Mountain Gorilla of East Africa.”

More infamously, however, this disregard for the distinction between animals and humans led Hornaday in his capacity as director of the New York Zoological Park to house and display an Congolese man named Ota Benga in the Primate House alongside a chimpanzee and an orangutan. In response to several black ministers’ complaints that the exhibit was degrading because it undermined the humanity of the black races, Hornaday pooh-poohed the accusations, stating when interviewed by the New York Times in September 1906 that he had intended the exhibitions to serve “purely as an ethnological exhibit…I am a believer in the Darwinian theory…but I hope my colored brethren will not take the absurd position that I am giving the exhibit to show the close analogy of the African savage to the apes. Benga is in the primate house because that was the most comfortable place we could find for him.” Here is a photo of Ota Benga and a chimpanzee that accompanied a piece entitled “The Story of Ota Benga, The Pygmy” in the July 1916 issue of the Zoological Society Bulletin


What I find most interesting about the orangutan hunting and adoption accounts written by Wallace and Hornaday is how the different kinds of human beings they chose to describe the orangutans they encountered betray so much about the uncertainties circulating in the larger western scientific intellectual community at the time regarding the “worth” and “quality” of these different kinds of human beings.
A more fully fleshed out version of these thoughts and observations will appear at some point in an article that has been accepted at Clio: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History. But it won’t have these really interesting illustrations and photos accompanying it. Where I work currently, I don’t have separate funds to pay for the inclusion of visuals along with my article (the prices aren’t excessively high, but they’re enough that I don’t want to pay for them out of my own pocket). And in any case, I thought that more people would probably get to enjoy them if I included them here. They’re all in the public domain, and all can be found in online scanned versions of the texts, which can be found in archive.org, or from the link to the Christie’s site I include above. Enjoy! Or be perturbed. Or more likely, experience both at once.

[1] The brief summary of the development of “baby science” is derived from Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine, 1830-1900 (New York: Oxford UP, 2010).


  1. […] that blog entry I posted a while ago about “Orangutans and/or Babies”? It was based on this […]

  2. It’s beautifully refreshing to see a post such as this one. Topics like this today are far more contested than they have ever been, and yet the knowledge we have, if even just of a purely genetic level, further and further proves our place among the animals on this globe. It is so difficult for someone such as myself, 42 years old, and a passionate follower of Mendel, Darwin and others, to find the words to state my understanding without likewise being ridiculed and shunned and, at the very worst, accused of being a racist. Yet, I view the races of people today no different than the “races” of butterflies, goldfish or snake. They are each incredible in their own right, and they each share something truly special with one another – threads invisible to the eye, present in every cell throughout their body. Threads that vary, but also threads that tie together each creature. My greatest wish is to be able to communicate my thoughts and feelings without invoking rage and persecution from others. their religion evokes no rage from me, so why does my “religion” anger them so? Could it be, deep down inside, they hear those tiny threads whispering to them that there’s a “thread” of truth to what I am saying? Thank you for this very well organized and unbiased post. I’m surprised I’m the first to have commented since you published this almost a year ago.

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