Primate Colonies and the Extraction of Value

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A controversial landmark in science studies, Donna Haraway's Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science was first published by Routledge in 1989 and reissued by Verso in 1992. 

"How," Haraway asks at the book's opening, "are love, power, and science intertwined in the constructions of nature in the late twentieth century?" 

What may count as nature for late industrial people? What forms does love of nature take in particular historical contexts? For whom and at what cost? In what specific places, out which social and intellectual histories, and with what tools is nature constructed as an object of intellectual and erotic desire? How do the terrible marks of gender and race enable and constrain love and knowledge in particular cultural traditions, including the modern natural sciences? Who may contest for what the body of nature will be? These questions guide my history of the modern sciences and popular cultures emerging from accounts of the bodies and lives of monkeys and apes.


Taking primatology as a "storytelling craft," Haraway reconstructs the history of studies of primate behavior in the United States through a series of interlinking essays in cultural studies, the history of science, and feminist analysis. In the essay below, from the book's first section — "Monkeys and Monopoly Capitalism: Primatalogy Before World War II" — Haraway locates the discipline's foundation in a larger process of colonial extraction. 



Detail from Fig 2.2 in Primate Visions: "A Monkey-College to Make Chimpanzees Human," from International Feature Service Inc., 1924. Robert M. Yerkes Papers. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. 

Before the Second World War, non-human primates were already the subject of international western interest, with research stations and conservation areas fostered by France, Belgium, Russia, Germany, and the United States. Literally and figuratively, primate studies were a colonial affair, in which knowledge of the living and dead bodies of monkeys and apes was part of the system of unequal exchange of extractive colonialism. Primate bodies grounded the discourses that rested on a flow of value from the lands where monkeys and apes lived to the lands where they were exhibited and textualized. Nonhuman primates were a fundamental part of the apparatus of colonial medicine. Part of the ideological framework justifying this directed flow of knowledge was the great chain of being structuring western imperial imaginations; apes especially were located in a potent place on that chain.

In 1924, the French established “Pastoria,” a colonial outpost of the Institut Pasteur at Kindia in French Guinea. They also maintained animals at Tunis, as well as a laboratory colony, or "Singerie,” in Paris. The French colonial ideology of the civilizing mission fueled the press releases' lively and racist imagination of what went on behind laboratory walls. The international colonial press heralded “Pastoria” with stories of impending “civilizing” experiments on chimpanzees in an effort to determine the limits of their mental capacity. The Chicago Tribune Ocean Times boldly announced, “French to Establish Model Village as Training Grounds for Apes in which Civilizing Experiments Will Be Carried Out. Native Women as Nurses and Guides.” Race, sex, and animality were simultaneously constituted in the primate order. In 1924 the International Feature Service, Inc., of Great Britain provided a story about plans for “A Monkey College to Make Chimpanzees Human.” The bright chimps and orangs (captured on another continent) would be assigned to the monkey college, while the less-gifted apes and all the monkeys would be assigned to serum experiments in tropical medicine. The College, alleged the international colonial news service, would provide native women as nurses, but European teachers trained in human child psychology. The confusion about whether “native women” would be merely servants to the young animals, or also their guides or teachers, suggests the boundary confusion at the nether regions of the great chain of being. There, the bodies marked by race, sex, and species luxuriated in the tropical colonial endeavors that joined black, female, and animal in fantasy and in enforced social labor.

The inflamed imagination of the press envisioned hundreds of ape students shepherded across the border between human and animal. But Director Calmette's remarks had been far more formal and measured. Photographs of the chimpanzee quarters at Kindia revealed a stony, barred prison, an architecture which was typical for the period of primate culture in the metropolis, as well as the colonies (Yerkes and Yerkes 1929: 596). The animals at Kindia were mostly subjects in the study of tropical medicine, a far more crucial link in the chain of factors sustaining western survival in the tropics than chimpanzee genius.

The Germans had their simian outpost in the Canary Islands, on Tenerife. Belgium established the first colonial national park in the Belgian Congo, to protect the mountain gorilla and to ground international research efforts. Before World War II, the United States had two off-shore sites with wild or free-ranging primate colonies, the Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone, later administered by the Smithsonian Institution, and Cayo Santiago, attached to the University of Puerto Rico and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Studies of wild monkeys as vectors for tropical diseases were carried out by Herbert Clark from the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Tropical Medicine in Panama. Those expeditions also included behavioral observations and collecting for anatomical series.

The Russians housed a small domestic Colony at the Zoological Laboratory at the Darwinian Museum in Moscow, where Nadia Kohts conducted her elegant observations of chimpanzee mental capacities. The Soviet Union established a permanent primate research station at Sukhumi in 1924. From the 1890s, provision of rhesus monkeys for medical research was made at the St. Petersberg Institute of Experimental Medicine; and in North America, Robert Yerkes established the Yale Laboratories primarily for psychobiological research, with the chimpanzee breeding station located in Florida to be as close to the tropics as possible in the continental United States. George Washington Corner and Carl Hartman established the first U.S. physiological laboratory housing nonhuman primates, in the Embryology Department of the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore, in order to provide animals for their study of reproductive physiology, especially the primate menstrual cycle.

Expressing typical beliefs about the matrix of his studies, Hartman argued that anthropology was the study of the human family tree, phylogeny, while gynecology was the study of human reproduction. From a laboratory which produced basic knowledge of human and animal reproductive physiology in the years of rapid discovery in endocrinology, Hartman (1932) situated his work in evolutionary comparative terms, grounded on the one end by anthropology as evolutionary kinship and on the other end by gynecology as experimental medicine. It is this kind of tying of technical and mythic strands that weaves the scientific objects of knowledge called race and sex.

Despite some efforts at animal husbandry, most of the laboratory colonies were not self-sufficient breeding stations, much less an adequate source of research animals for sale to other laboratories, as demand for the animals expanded. The primate animal trade is a critical and unexamined part of the history of primatology from the start. Perhaps the most successful early breeding colony of macaques used for reproductive physiological research was under the direction and personal care of Gertrude van Wagenen, in the Department of Obstetrics at Yale University Medical School from the 1930s. Van Wagenen was one of the very few women primate researchers before the 1950s.

The importance of monkeys to tropical disease research and to reproductive and nervous physiology accounted for the modest scientific commitments, underwritten by western governments and philanthropic foundations, to understand these animals. Beginning in the late 1800s primates appeared sporadically in medical research on human diseases, e.g., those of Metchnikoff on syphillis and Landsteiner on polio. Maurice Wakeman's famous studies on yellow fever were conducted in the bodies of Nigerian yellow monkeys. For many years before Pastoria was established, Metchnikoff had importuned the French government to fund a primate research resource. Monkeys began to appear in neurophysiological experiments in the second half of the nineteenth century, and small numbers were kept in various institutions for the purpose. But the “standardized” research monkey, a position occupied principally by the rhesus monkey in the latter half of the twentieth century, had not yet put in its historical appearance on the primate stage.

The perceived relevance of monkeys and apes to questions of human evolution was another major basis of primate investigation. Physical anthropologists, who were also often medical men, studied comparative anatomy and phylogeny. Several key English-speaking figures in this aspect of primate studies in the early twentieth century were born in the white settler colonies of the British empire (Solly Zuckerman, Raymond Dart) or were Euro-American men whose writing was fundamental to the constitution of race at the heart of primate physical anthropology (E.A. Hooton, W. Gregory, Carleton Coon, H.F. Osborn, and Ales Hrdlicka). Until the middle of the twentieth century, European production of comparative physical anthropology far exceeded North American.

In the United States before mid-century, primatology was also a psychobiological discipline. The tie to medicine and to social interventions, considered as a social therapeutics, grounded primate studies both technically and ideologically. Close ties linked psychobiology both to neural and reproductive biology and to psychiatric and anthropological theories and practices. For example, G.V. Hamilton, who had studied with Robert Yerkes at Harvard and with the psychiatrist Adolph Meyer at the Phipps Clinic at the Johns Hopkins, had a private collection of primates at his estate at Montecito, California. Both a comparative psychologist and psychopathologist, Hamilton studied the phylogeny of mental disorders, especially those tied to sex and learning, inscribed in gonad and brain, the mirror twins of the biological body. Hamilton was also concerned with the biomedical characterization of homosexuality. His studies on captive and free-ranging primates on his estate were a substantial part of the scientific foundation for the belief that primate females exist in a nearly constant state of sexual “receptivity.” That belief fell hard in post-war behavioral and ecological investigations, despite cogent criticism. The belief was from the beginning crucial to the scientific construction of “the family” and its defining function of the cultural regulation of biological resource. Ordered by marriage, the heterosexual pair bond grounded the human nuclear family, and so averted sexual chaos. The phylogenesis of psychopathology of the sexual function was a major concern.

Often emphasizing fauna native to particular national Colonial possessions, zoological parks in western cities were foci of primate exhibition. For example, Copenhagen, London, Dusseldorf, Paris, Rotterdam, and Berlin all opened new ape or monkey houses between 1900 and 1930. Less often, the zoological collections were utilized for quasi-systematic behavioral study; and occasional eccentrics made fascinating observations of wild primates, such as those by the Afrikaans-speaking naturalist, Eugene Marais.

Private collections complemented the zoological gardens. Perhaps the most spectacular was Mme. Abreu's in Havana, where the first chimpanzee born in captivity in the western hemisphere appeared in 1915. Yerkes's stunning description of Abreu's estate and practices with her animals is a perfect portrait of the intersecting construction of nonhuman primates as pets, surrogate children, endangered species, research animals, colonial subjects, and wild animals. In all these aspects, Abreu's animals were, in Yerkes's words, “almost human.” The more orthodox human children, distressed by the depletion of their patrimony through the upkeep of their illegitimate kin, dispersed the collection as soon as possible after their mother's death. Yerkes got several of the animals for his new research colony.

Intricately connected with Yerkes's scientific networks, Clarence Ray Carpenter was another father of primatology; the field is crowded with origins and with contenders for the paternal function. The spatial distributions (read by sociometry) and behavioral interactions of “undisturbed” animals (read as the semiotics of signal exchanges mediating social bonds) were the text of his practice. Carpenter's filmic techniques were shaped by his belief in unmediated direct vision of the natural animal in its natural setting. Simple and powerful field techniques, such as the census copied from ornithology, allowed him to construct the elements for the production of his principle natural-technical object: the whole animal in the whole social group. Carpenter believed that each primate species had a typical grouping pattern explained by the socionomics of sex, i.e., by the principles of sexual efficiencies. The socionomic sex ratio grounded social cooperation, the balanced resolution of the potentially disruptive forces of sex, dominance, and aggression.

But before World War II, with the crucial exception of the naturalistic field studies of Carpenter and the minor exceptions of Bingham (1932) and Nissen (1931), primatology was overwhelmingly a laboratory and museum-based affair. As subjects of science, living monkeys and apes were in labs and public or private collections, and dead ones were in cabinets and dioramas in universities and museums. Expeditions to the "wild” were made primarily to collect animals for circuses, the pet trade, medical research, zoos, or museums, and only incidentally to record the lives of the animals in their own worlds. In its ethnographic dimensions for animals and scientists, "the field,” later to become such a potent scene of primatology, was only dimly discerned in the first half of the twentieth century.

From John Fulton's Physiology Department at the Yale Medical School, Theodore Ruch (1941) compiled a comprehensive bibliography on the primates, beginning with ancient texts and concluding in 1940. The newcomer status of North American contributions in all categories and the international character of primate literature stand out. Ten pages of extremely inhomogeneous entries cover the period before 1800; only the twentieth-century scientific bibliographer could have assembled these texts into a common book. There follow 201 pages for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, comprising 4090 entries. Anatomy, Physiology, and Pharmacology account for 3299 of them. Pathology was reserved for a planned second volume. Phylogeny accounts for only 92 entries. Experimental Psychobiology, itself medically allied, was covered in 288 entries. Comprising 333 publications, Observational Psychobiology is also a very miscellaneous category from late-twentieth-century points of view. It included hunting and travel narratives, a zoo keeper's observations of captive primates' fear of snakes, accounts of home-reared chimpanzees in suburban New York, an English translation of a German nature lover's account of the marvelous animals in the Roman Zoo, expanding the genre of German Italian travel literature, and Carpenter's severely positivist howler monkey monograph (1934).

The defamiliarizing power of this bibliography matches Foucault's use of Borges's “‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’”

in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) etcetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.’ In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend . . . as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. (Foucault 1971; italics in original)


What is it about the animals we call primates that holds together all the authors of Ruch's compendium? What is the implicit question that made the prodigious labor of assembling that list make sense to its sponsor, the Yale Medical Library? Ruch's book introduced the word primatology and called those who studied these animals primatologists, a term he set off with quotation marks. In the introduction, J.F. Fulton notes the relative paucity of "primatological" literature — a mere 5000 titles compared to the lavish 50,000 catalogued for studies of fishes before 1914. Humans eat fish; we watch primates, and build from them cultural-, racial-, and gender-specific models for spiritual and bodily ills. In 1758, the order Primates was new; at the halfway mark of the twentieth century, the discursive order of "primatology” was christened.