Depictions of Primates in Fiction Pre- and Post-Origin of Species

Scott Legge
Anthropology, Macalester College
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Students are asked to choose two pieces of fiction that depict or describe interactions between humans and non-human primates. The main limiting factor in their choices is that one of the works should be pre-1859 and the other should be post-1859, representing works from before and after Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species. This module is meant as a starting point for a discussion of historic perceptions of the relationship between humans and the natural world and how those perceptions would have shaped reactions to Darwin's work.

The expected learning outcomes include placing the discussion of humanity's place in nature in historical context and providing the students with a comfortable and interesting starting place for the more theoretically challenging discussions to come.

Learning Goals

The primary concept goal is to expose students to a historical perspective of an idea that we may take for granted today. Namely, the relationship between humans and the rest of the primates. Whenever we discuss a theoretical perspective that may have been developed at an earlier point in time, it can be quite helpful to place it into the historical context in which it was introduced.

Through this module I expect students to develop an understanding of how a scientific theory may begin to change public perception of the relationship between humans and nature. In this case, some of the stories that they read post-Darwin will clearly be influenced by the changing face of primates with respect to humans. That is an excellent place to begin the discussion mentioned above.

The module and the course provide a multidisciplinary intersection between the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. This particular module allows us to discuss both the nature of the public's understanding of primates and their placement with respect to human culture, all through the lens of fiction.

Context for Use

This module is the first assignment in the course ANTH 394 Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. This is a junior/senior level course that places evolutionary theory in its historical and social context. Students read complete texts of major authors in the field including Darwin, Dawkins, and Gould, as well as primary works by social theorists who have used evolutionary theory to explain culture change. In addition, the course explores the intersection between religion and evolution, and how that shared space has changed in different regions of the world since the mid-19th century.

As a module, there are really no specific skills required. As you will see with the assessment portion of the module below, I use it as both a writing assignment and a discussion assignment. However, it is really meant as a starting point for a discussion that will continue throughout the semester.

This module really sets up the course. It demonstrates to the students that our relationship to the rest of the primates has been, and continues to be, a popular subject for depiction in non-scientific literature. It sets the stage for many of the later discussions regarding the response by the general public to Darwin's work. Since the vast majority of public perception of monkeys would have been shaped through popular literature rather than scientific literature in the mid-19th century, we must be cognizant of the types of stories they would have been exposed to.

Description and Teaching Materials

This module would really make a great starting point for a variety of courses. The students enjoyed using the stories, but I could also see using other resources, such as art. To that end, I have included a URL link to a page that has 100 different works of fiction related to primates as well as a reference to a wonderful book containing a variety of art that related to evolution from an exhibition commemorating 150 years since the publishing of "On the Origin of Species."

Teaching Notes and Tips

I created a Google Doc for the course where students were asked to fill in the bibliographic information for each of the stories that they chose. They were given 3 days to choose then a week to complete the assignment. One caveat that I gave the students with respect to their choice of stories from the web site was that it must be at least two pages in length (some of these stories can be quite brief). Since I had students choose the stories well in advance and fill in the Google Doc, I was able to make sure that I felt that the stories were appropriate for the assignment before they had really undertaken any work on them.


Assessment included a written piece of work (3-4 pages) that discussed the depiction of the primate in relation to humans for each of their stories as well as comparing the two pieces of work. Grading for this component was based upon how well they articulated the ideas in their own words.

Students also received credit toward their participation grade for the course through engaging in a seminar discussion with the rest of the class regarding their stories. This allowed us to compare and contrast the various stories from the two time periods.

References and Resources - This is a fascinating web page that includes 100 different works of fiction dating from 1830 to 1914. Each of them is in some way telling a story that includes monkeys or apes. The one caveat that I gave the students with respect to their choice of stories from this site was that it must be at least two pages in length (some of these stories can be quite brief).

Kort P., Hollein M., Schirn Kunsthalle F. 2009. Darwin: art and the search for origins. Wienand, Cologne. – This book accompanied an exhibition by the same name held at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Feb. 5-May 3, 2009 to comemorate the 150 years since the publication of "On the Origin of Species." It includes 150 illustrations of various types that were clearly influenced by Darwin's publication. While not specifically used as part of this module, I did bring this text to class during the discussion of the stories and we were able to incorporate it into the seminar. It was a fantastic visual example to supplement the written works that were under discussion.