Shira Shmuely publishes article on “Alfred Wallace’s Baby Orangutan: Game, Pet, Specimen”

Shira Shmuely, postdoctoral fellow at Tel Aviv University (Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas), published an article, “Alfred Wallace’s Baby Orangutan: Game, Pet, Specimen,” in Journal of the History of Biology.

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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