Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

  Open Access


This article surveys the European discovery and early ideas about orangutans followed by the contrasting experiences with these animals of the co-founders of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The first non-human great ape that both of them interacted with was the orangutan. They were both profoundly influenced by what they saw, but the contexts of their observations could hardly be more different. Darwin met orangutans in the Zoological Gardens in London while Wallace saw them in the wild in Borneo. In different ways these observations helped shape their views of human evolution and humanity’s place in nature. Their findings played a major role in shaping some of the key questions that were pursued in human evolutionary studies during the rest of the nineteenth century.


  • Orangutans;
  • Great apes;
  • Human evolution;
  • Charles Darwin;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace;
  • Anthropology
When citing this paper, please use the full journal title Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

1. Going the whole orang

In the nineteenth century contrasts and similarities in human cultures and physical appearances were habitually brought forward in the growing British anthropological and ethnographic literature supporting either a common or a separate origin of peoples around the world. They looked and behaved differently. The question was why? What had shaped human diversity and was there anything bridging the differences? Was it variation or separation? Looking for answers scholars systematically began historicizing humans in a naturalistic context. Consequently, a key challenge was to identify the link connecting the cultural and natural history of humans. Evolutionary theories eventually provided an acceptable framework for bringing things together. But already in the late eighteenth century scholars were looking for clues making the connection. In this context, primates—and in particular the great apes—played a central role. There were many questions as it was not clear who they were and how the relationship to humans should be interpreted.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) shared this interest. Despite the different parts of the world to which they travelled, the first living (non-human) great apes seen and studied by both Darwin and Wallace were orangutans. Darwin saw his orangutans in 1838 in the Zoological Gardens in London's Regent's Park. Wallace saw his in the jungles of west Borneo in 1855. But it was not just the vastly different contexts in which they observed their orangutans that distinguished what Darwin and Wallace took from their experiences with the orangutan.
Orangutans come only from the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Southeast Asia. These are now recognised as two separate subspecies (Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmaeus) and our closest living relatives after chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus) and gorillas (Gorilla beringei and Gorilla gorilla). 2
The geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875) wrote in 1859 that accepting evolution fully was to “go the whole orang.”3 This was a play on the expression to ‘go the whole hog.’ For Lyell going “the whole orang” with evolutionary thinking meant, most painfully of all, linking humans to animal ancestors.4 It meant that humans were not creations separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. To go the whole orang then, meant not just to treat humans scientifically but to go all the way to making them animals like all the rest. But why should it have been the whole orang? Why not go the whole baboon or the whole chimp? In order to understand that we need to take a closer look at the European history of primates and the deep cultural influence of apes and monkeys on the question of what makes us human. Appreciating how the innate connection between humans and primates builds on themes introduced through centuries of entangled cultural and natural history is crucial to identifying central themes of the human-animal boundary in nineteenth-century attempts to historicise humans. How special humans were, remained a question that was continuously negotiated by comparing humans and apes. Historically orangutans had become the generic term for African and Asian great apes. It was thus culturally highly significant when Darwin and Wallace each met a proper orangutan.