Alfred Russell Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, published in 1869, is a classic text in natural history and the theory of evolution. Amidst heroic hunting narratives and picturesque descriptions of local fauna and flora, stands out a curious episode in which Wallace describes adopting a baby orangutan, whose mother he had killed. Wallace, a British naturalist and collector, cultivated an affectionate relationship with the orphaned orangutan, often referring to her as his “baby.” This paper examines how the orangutan was transformed from being a moving target for museum display, to a beloved companion but also a scientific specimen. In this process, Wallace redesigned his colonial bungalow to a space that combined domestic settings with engineered nature-like environments, a familiar construction in later primate research. I use Wallace’s adoption episode to discuss how affect and care were interwoven into the exploitative relations of British naturalists and physiologists and the animals they studied. The account of Wallace’s idiosyncratic relationship with the orangutan is augmented with additional documentation of the close relationships of scientists with research animals, staged as familial kinship. The emergence of the “laboratory pet” demonstrates how the production of knowledge, the sharing of households, and human-animal emotional ties were interwoven in early biomedical research.
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The name orangutan probably came to English through the Dutch, although the compound was not the Malay term for the animal (see, "orangutan, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press. www.oed.com. Accessed 27 November 2019).
Wallace published this version anonymously (Smith et al. 2010, p. 167).
Wallace referred to the baby orangutan as "it” in his official publications and used “her” and “it” interchangeably in the letter to his family. In this paper, I refer to the orangutan as “she” unless quoting Wallace.
Europeans’ encounters with new materials in the colonial context not only changed Western science, but they also raised epistemological questions (Shmuely 2019).
The controversy about the association of humans with nonhuman primates was no less heated on the Continent. Spiritualists and materialists at the Paris Société d’Anthropologie debated whether man belongs to the same order as the apes (Blanckaert 1995).
Letter to George Robert Waterhouse, 8 May 1855, Natural History Museum Digital Archive, Wallace Letters Online, WCP781.953. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/scientific-resources/collections/library-collections/wallace-letters-online/index.html. Accessed 2 September 2018, hereafter cited as “Wallace Letters.” Today three species of orangutans are identified under the genus Pongo: the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), which was announced in 2017. The Bornean orangutan is composed of three sub-species: Northwest Bornean orangutan, Northeast Bornean orangutan, and Central Bornean orangutan.
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The specimen of the baby orangutan is apparently lost (George Beccaloni, personal communication, 2019). The World Museum in Liverpool holds a dry skin of another juvenile orangutan hunted by Wallace. I am grateful to Lord Cranbrook, George Beccaloni, and John James Wilson for their advice and guidance in my search for the specimen.
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I am grateful for the hospitality of Dagmar Schäfer and Department III at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. For comments on early drafts I thank Daniel Mann, Omer Michaelis, Tamar Novick, Lisa Onaga, Martina Schlünder, Skuli Sigurdsson, and Mariaana Szczygielska. I appreciate the careful reading and excellent comments by anonymous reviewers. Special thanks to Rebecca J. H. Woods, Sarah S. Richardson, and Harriet Ritvo.
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Shmuely, S. Alfred Wallace’s Baby Orangutan: Game, Pet, Specimen. J Hist Biol 53, 321–343 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-020-09611-8
- Laboratory animal
- Natural history