Man and beast - In brief

Reproduced with permission from John van Wyhe ed., The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
Reproduced with permission from John van Wyhe ed., The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
Jane Goodall with an orphan chimpanzee at the Tchimpounga sanctuary © Jane Goodall Institute/ Michael Neugebauer/www.janegoodall.org
Jane Goodall with an orphan chimpanzee at the Tchimpounga sanctuary © Jane Goodall Institute/ Michael Neugebauer/www.janegoodall.org
Dian Fossey. © The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Dian Fossey. © The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Birute Galdikas. © Orangutan Foundation International
Birute Galdikas. © Orangutan Foundation International

The complete Darwin for all

The works of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) first began to be placed online in 2002, at the initiative of Cambridge University (UK). In 2006, this first pilot site was followed by darwin-online. org.uk that recorded millions of hits within the first 48 hours of its launch. This ‘virtualisation' of Darwin's entire body of work (publications, letters and unpublished writings, drawings, photographs, etc.) means that it is now possible to download 50 000 pages of text and 150 000 illustrations. The first draft of The Origin of Species, dated 1840 (20 years before publication), can be consulted as well as six different editions of the work. This represents a major effort to make Darwin's thinking accessible to the general public and is particularly timely given the recent upsurge in creationist ideas. The Institut Charles Darwin International (ICDI) website also provides - in five languages and with easy navigation - extensive information on this scientist whose bicentenary will be celebrated in 2009, designated ‘Darwin year'. The Institut director Patrick Tort will publish L'effet Darwin - sélection naturelle et naissance de la civilisation (The Darwin effect - natural selection and the birth of civilization) (éd.du Seuil, Paris) on the same occasion.

Leakey's three angels

Palaeontologist Louis Leakey convinced all his family to devote themselves to this speciality. He is no doubt best known for having launched his ‘three angels' as symbols of female ethology in the late 1960s. Dian Fossey studied gorillas in Rwanda, Jane Goodall chimpanzees in Tanzania and Biruté Galdikas orang-utans in Borneo. They lived among these primates, adapting to them, even adopting them, and observing them at great length in order to understand them. Biruté's son, Binti Paul, grew up with orangutans as his friends. Jane Goodall observed for the first time a chimpanzee using a tool - a stick enabling it to trap and then eat termites. She continues her work to this day and has received many honours - including being appointed UN Messenger for Peace. Dian Fossey, who was murdered in 1985, was buried in "her" gorilla cemetery. All three have written about and defended the cause of the great apes threatened by deforestation and poaching, setting up foundations to protect them. But first and foremost they are renowned as researchers, carrying out innovative work in the long term.

In the past, scientists studied primates for a few months and concentrated on the hierarchy of authority within the group. Thanks to the ‘angels', this vision has changed. The patience of the observer has been rewarded with new insights into concepts such as alliances and friendship. These have also been observed in other animal societies, such as those of elephants, dolphins and certain species of birds.

Stepping outside of duality

Nature/culture, human/animal, wild/domestic... Western culture finds reassurance in opposition. Yet increasingly observations and research on the great apes are calling into question this divide between human and non-human. Philosopher and science historian Chris Herzfeld (Centre Koyré- EHESS & MNHN, Paris) and historian Patricia Van Schuylenbergh (Royal Museum for Central Africa, BE) are engaged in research on the development of collective representations of differences between humans and nonhumans. They do not see relations between humans and the primates in terms of a vertical hierarchy, but rather in terms of an interpenetration and circularity between their worlds. "When they are close to humans," they explain, "the primates acquire certain practices and abilities, experimenting with them in their own way and transforming them in accordance with their needs.

Humans are in turn influenced by the way monkeys relate to the world and their extraordinary capacity to acquire abilities that one would assume to be very remote from their usual knowhow. However, this is only the case of certain great apes raised in sanctuaries or zoos where they live in close proximity to humans". Although perceptions of the great apes have undeniably evolved in the west over recent decades, the dualist view has not yet been laid to rest. For that there is a need to "create a vocabulary that lies outside the categorical oppositional system and to increase our awareness of our blinkered thinking in terms of divisions that, for too long, we have allowed to cut us off from the world". In other words, we must continue along the path of Darwin and think of the human as part of the living world as a whole.


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