The discovery of the lesula, (Cercopithecus lomamiensis) a species of monkey previously unknown to scientists, has led to a number of articles highlighting the similarities between the soulful, large-eyed gaze of the monkey and numerous famous faces of art and pop culture; the Guardian blog compared the monkey to a figure from a Rembrandt painting, while the CNN blog likens it to actor Jake Gyllenhall . We at the Darwin Project were reminded immediately of Darwin’s desire to draw connections between animal and human features, especially in his work Expression of the emotions (1872).
Darwin’s fascination with simians began early. In 1838, as a young man recently returned from his voyage around the world, Darwin went several times to the gardens of the Zoological Society, where he took notes on the human-like traits of the orang-utan Jenny. He wrote about her to his sister Susan, describing how she “kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child.— She then looked very sulky …, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded, & then got the apple, with which she jumped into an arm chair & began eating it, with the most contented countenance imaginable.—“ (letter to Susan Darwin, 1 April 1838)
Decades later, when Darwin published Expression, he devoted a whole section to the emotional responses of monkeys and apes. After saying that the different races of man express their emotions and sensations with remarkable uniformity throughout the world, Darwin wrote: “Some of the expressive actions of monkeys are interesting in another way, namely from being closely analogous to those of man” (Expression, p. 131). He describes interactions between humans and monkeys in a way that conveys his fascination and affection for them, often comparing them to human children, for example: “If a young chimpanzee be tickled—and the armpits are particularly sensitive to tickling, as in the case of our children,—“; Darwin, of course, was himself a doting father as well as a keen observer. They monkeys and apes in captivity in London gave Darwin ample opportunity for observing their behaviour.
Darwin’s observations of monkeys were nested in a larger study of similarities of behaviour between humans and animals. Simians served his purposes particularly well because of their physiological similarities with humans; in particular the facial characteristics that lends itself to easy anthropomorphization. He also relied heavily on domestic animals, such as dogs, which he was able to spend even more time observing, and with whom he had a close personal affinity.
It is worth noting, however, that not everyone was as scientific in their observations of monkeys as Darwin himself; in 1868 the zoologist Edward Blyth sent Darwin a set of observations that , like the CNN article, culminated in a comparison with a contemporary personality: the particular monkey he was describing presented “the most ludicrous caricature imaginable of H.M. the King of Prussia” – a figure easily as familiar in the nineteenth century as any celebrity is in the twenty-first.