Alfred Wallace’s Baby Orangutan: Game, Pet, Specimen

Abstract

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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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    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).

  2. 2.

    Wallace published this version anonymously (Smith et al. 2010, p. 167).

  3. 3.

    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.

  4. 4.

    Europeans’ encounters with new materials in the colonial context not only changed Western science, but they also raised epistemological questions (Shmuely 2019).

  5. 5.

    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).

  6. 6.

    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.

  7. 7.

    Letter to Henry Walter Bates, 30 April 1856, WCP364, Wallace Letters.

  8. 8.

    John van Wyhe provides a vivid portrayal of the life in Sarawak during Wallace’s time there (2013, p. 97).

  9. 9.

    Letter to Samuel Stevens, 12 May 1856, WCP1702.1584, Wallace Letters. .

  10. 10.

    On travel writing in the specific context of Singapore during the high colonial era, see Ling (2003).

  11. 11.

    Letter to George Robert Waterhouse, 8 May 1855, WCP781.953, Wallace Letters.

  12. 12.

    Letter to Samuel Stevens, 12 May 1856, WCP1702.1584, Wallace Letters.

  13. 13.

    Letter to George Robert Waterhouse, 8 May 1855, WCP781.953, Wallace Letters.

  14. 14.

    Biographer Michael Shermer argued that Wallace expressed egalitarian attitudes in relation to race and civilization (2011, pp. 221–222). In contrast, van Wyhe contends that Wallace’s views were racist and typical of the time (2014, pp. 31–33).

  15. 15.

    The image was drawn by James Davis Cooper, who also executed engravings for Charles Darwin (Van Wyhe 2014, p. 24). Images of a female orangutan and the magnificent bird of paradise were printed on the title pages of the first and second volumes of the Malay Archipelago (Wallace 1869).

  16. 16.

    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.

  17. 17.

    "Pet, n.2 and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press. www.oed.com. Accessed 27 November 2019.

  18. 18.

    Waller Chloroform Balance, The Physiological Society's Photographic Collection, SA/PHY/Z/4/9/1-68, Wellcome Collection, London.

  19. 19.

    Augustus Desire Waller in his Laboratory, The Physiological Society's Photographic Collection, SA/PHY/Z/4/9/1-68, Wellcome Collection, London.

  20. 20.

    House of Commons, Vol. 7, 8 July 1909, Column 1411. Hansard Online. https://hansard.parliament.uk/. Accessed 2 September 2018.

  21. 21.

    Memorial to the Rt. Hon. The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Unanimously Approved at a Meeting Held March 18, 1884. Together with a Memorandum Appended Hereunto by the Council of the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research, SA/RDS/A/3, Wellcome Collection, London; hereafter cited as: Memorandum.

  22. 22.

    Memorandum, p. 8.

  23. 23.

    Vivisection: Dr. Poore's Report of Inspection of Registered Places in 1895, HO 144/383/B19846A, p. 13, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK; hereafter cited as: Inspection of Registered Places.

  24. 24.

    Inspection of Registered Places, p. 14.

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Acknowledgements

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

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Keywords

  • Animal
  • Experiment
  • Care
  • Hunting
  • Laboratory animal
  • Natural history
  • Pet
  • Primates
  • Science
  • Wallace