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Apes as Human

Entry updated 2 October 2023. Tagged: Theme.


The heading for this entry should be seen as a rough short-hand designation for a subject whose nature is diffuse and has changed constantly over the centuries; in the second edition of this encyclopedia (1993) our remit for this entry – then entitled Apes and Cavemen (in the Human World) – was perhaps excessively broad, though we did not then (nor do we now) focus on quasi-imaginary creatures, variously described as monkeys or apes, who proliferate in Western literature from the time of Plato, and who normally serve as rhetorical markers whose main function is to signal humanity's superior condition. In the second edition by "cavemen" we meant to designate proto-human races, including Neanderthals, though without taking a particular stand in the debate on the evolutionary tree (or grove); for examples of evolution in reverse, see Devolution. We no longer focus in current versions of this entry on Neanderthals or other "cavemen" in their natural habitat, which lies in the distant past (for which see Anthropology; Origin of Man; Prehistoric SF), though individual tales referred to here may dramatize outdated (and sometimes outworn) understandings of Neanderthals. Insofar as we deal here with Neanderthals and other early real or imagined hominins, we are not much concerned with what in the third decade of the twenty-first century has become a flood of discoveries which may be speculative but are not fictions; we are primarily concerned with works of imagination about survivals into historical times: Neanderthals thawed out of ice-floes (see Sleeper Awakes; Suspended Animation); or survivors in lost garden enclaves of our fallen world (like Bigfoot, the Yeti and other legendary humanoid creatures, who are also relevant to the discussion), some of them immortal (see Immortality). In the present, twenty-first century version of the entry, the general rubric "apes" is generally meant to apply to the great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans; though monkeys sometimes feature in relevant tales.

The main focus here is therefore on the complex history of "apes" (henceforth without quotes) in Fantastika. Apes appear in Western literature from at least the time of Plato, by far the most common instances of the topos – as Jess Nevins suggests in "Apes in Literature" (2013) (for full citation see further reading below) – representing the ape as essentially evil and sexually dangerous, a point of view consistent with Christian doctrine, but not of central interest to the history of Proto SF. All the same, this outsourcing of evil away from humanity, which the modern imagination tends to find disreputable, survived until well into the twentieth century, for the most part latterly in Pulp literature, where ape-monsters proliferated. In the centuries before 1800, Satires were less frequently found, though some texts did come close to Proto SF. An example is The Hermit: Or, the ­Unparalled [sic] Sufferings and Surprising Adventures of Mr. Philip Quarll, an Englishman: Who was lately discovered by Mr. Dorrington a Bristol Merchant [for full title see author entry] (1727) by Peter Longueville, a Parody of Daniel Defoe's The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner (1719) in which the protagonist is adopted by a Friday-like ape.

For there to have evolved a sustained imaginative interest in, and use for, apes as observers or mirrors of the human condition (without Homo-sapiens-compliant moat-defensive anathemata directed at the messengers), two conditions were probably necessary. The first is obvious: the human condition itself must have become an issue for discourse. Though the pre-eighteenth-century literatures of the world are full of animal doubles, Monsters and prodigies, the degree of kinship to us of these creations has nothing to do with any attempt to define Homo sapiens as a species; and, in the absence of any sense that we are a species distinct as a species (but not by essence) from other species, there is in traditional literatures a lack of cognitive bite in most attempts to distinguish between Homo sapiens and our fellow beings on the planet – except, as noted, in the form of religious discourse designed to present the natural world's non-human fauna as attaining reality primarily through the attention we may pay to them – a form of attention fatally abstract to modern eyes, and incessantly derogatory about the non-human. It is because he is a cusp figure, a Janus monster half cartoon-exemplar and half tortured soul, that the Caliban of William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) – who reappears as a kind of ape in Mrs Caliban (1982) by Rachel Ingalls – is so terribly difficult to reduce to a stereotype.

The second necessary circumstance was of course Time, or Progress. Moderns instinctively think of beasts and monsters as being prior. For there to have been an eighteenth-century Primitivist vision of the Noble Savage there must have been a sense that we had advanced – or retreated – from some earlier state. So it is no surprise that the first apes-as-human texts of direct interest to an sf reader are probably two works by a Primitivist philosopher, James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799), whose Of the Origin and Progress of Language (1773-1792) and Ancient Metaphysics (1779-1799) contrast humanity's corrupt nature with that of the pacific orang-utan, a vegetarian flautist who may not have learned to speak but who was otherwise capable of human attainments. Monboddo's orang-utan was a potent and poignant figure, and soon entered fiction in Melincourt, or Sir Oran Haut-ton (1817) by Thomas Love Peacock, where Oran Haut-ton saves a young maiden from rape, enters Parliament, and gazes wisely upon the human spectacle. Charles Pougens's slightly later tale, Jocko: anecdote détachée des Lettres inédites sur l'instinct des animaux ["Jocko: Anecdote Extracted from Unpublished Letters on Animal Instinct"] (1824; trans Georges T Dodds as "Jocko" in The Missing Link and Other Tales of Ape-Men, anth 2010), more directly connects the innocence of the orang-utan Jocko to the doctrine of the Noble Savage espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778); this tale, along with other French-language stories of interest, like Émile Dodillon's Hemo (1886; trans Georges T Dodds in The Missing Link and Other Tales of Ape-Men, anth 2010), have now been conveniently assembled [for full citation see further reading below].

But Jocko is not a Satire; and Peacock's instinct to pay less attention to the intrinsic nature of his ape, and to follow his incursion into human society in order to reflect satirically upon civilization, proved more immediately useful. To the same ultimately satirical end, The Monikins (1835) by James Fenimore Cooper features several captured specimens of an articulate monkey civilization who come from an Antarctic Lost World; they relate closely to that form of the Fantastic Voyage satire brought into focus by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735), where the Yahoos are described in terms close to those applied to apes. The intelligent race of monkeys discovered in Léon Gozlan's Les Emotions de Polydore Marasquin (1857; trans anon as The Man Among the Monkeys: Or, Ninety Days in Apeland 1873; vt The Emotions of Polydore Marasquin 1888; vt Monkey Island 1888) also serve to hold up the mirror. The use of apes or Yahoos or houyhnhnms as exemplary inhabitants of a Utopia or Dystopia represents a very different – and ultimately more significant – tradition than the use of apes as illustrative examples embedded into our own human world, early examples of which are in any case hard to find: until well past 1850, therefore, an ape-as-human will typically either be discovered in a distant enclave or ideal society, or the ape-as-human will be making a visit to civilization. Only later will the enclave become a Zoo.

After the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), the apes-as-human topos became, of course, far more loaded, a lightning rod for the expression of and discharge of deep anxieties about the nature and destiny of the human race. Indeed, it would not be until Darwin that the apes-as-human topic became sufficiently ambiguous or threatening to warrant widespread imaginative use; but his impact was immediate, the term Missing Link appearing in 1862 or even earlier to point out the gap between apes and humans. For at least a century after 1859, although satirical texts remain moderately easy to discover – they often feature apes as innocent Candide-like observers of our corrupt mores, or as funhouse mirrors of humanity to whom we respond with horror – apes most frequently featured in texts dealing in one way or another with the implications of Evolution (see also Linguistics), with clusters of apes-as-human imagery deeply infecting the vast propagandist literature extolling exploration, adventure, survival, and the conquest of Lost Worlds and new (First World Sf has sometimes been identified with this literature), whose primary purpose was to justify Western civilization's near-conquest of the entire globe (see Economics; Imperialism). We will not here anatomize nineteenth and early twentieth-century "Boys' Own" stories; but it can be plausibly suggested that apes-as-human imagery pervades the form, and that almost without exception all races but the white are treated as essentially sub-human: as being literally closer to the apes.

Though the ape in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (April 1841 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine) is no more than a trained animal, the anxieties Poe exposed in this great tale of detection were prophetic. In such a tale, the satire inherent in the use of apes in any human context becomes uncannily intimate. As the years passed, the existential angst of which Poe was a paradigm exemplar, married to the ominous insights afforded by the theory of evolution, worked to create a wide-spread sense that humans and other primates – as well as the Neanderthals whose existence soon entered public consciousness – could threaten to seem members of one family: at which the observer conspicuously becomes one with the observed. Apes-as-human could now be seen as literal parodies of our species (and the reverse); in an uncomfortably intimate sense, they could represent the brother or sister we locked in the cellar for their protection, or to prevent them from shaming us. The terror Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) felt whenever he envisioned the East (which he never in fact saw, but whose imagined inhabitants clearly represented a psychopathic self-image) turned into opium nightmares of being surrounded by apes. Mr Hyde, in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), may not be a literal ape-as-human, but he surely fulfils the symbolic function of the brother-within-the-skin whom it is death to recognize. A perfectly understandable dis-ease therefore afflicted late-nineteenth-century versions of the theme, from the frivolousness of Bill Nye's "Personal Experiences in Monkey Language" (August 1894 Pall Mall Magazine) to the pathos and parodic horrificness of the animal victims of H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). Further examples (out of many) include Haydon Perry's "The Upper Hand" in Contraptions (anth 1895), where apes evolve sufficiently to communicate with Mars and Don Mark Lemon's "The Gorilla" (October 1905 All-Story).

The twentieth century saw a flourishing, and a routinization, of the apes-as-human tale, though it never attained the popularity of its close cousin, the enfant-sauvage-as-Noble-Savage genre, which sanitized and tamed Rousseau's confrontational thesis, and which featured intensely readable wish-fulfilment tales like Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli stories – almost all of which appear in The Jungle Book (coll 1894) and The Second Jungle Book (coll 1895) – and the Tarzan books of Edgar Rice Burroughs (from 1914), though "Tarzan's First Love" (September 1916 Blue Book Magazine) comes close to marrying the two modes. Apes-as-human (sometimes inadequately distinguished from various hominins) appeared, variously emblematic, sometimes subjected to the dubious privilege of having surgical Uplift imposed upon them, in Frank Challice Constable's The Curse of Intellect (1895); in Philip Verrill Mighels's The Crystal Sceptre (1901; cut 1906), where they are specifically described as "Missing Links"; in Dwala: A Romance (1904) by George Calderon, whose protagonist is a "Missing Link"; in James Elroy Flecker's The Last Generation (1908 chap); in Gaston Leroux's Balaoo (1912; trans 1913); in "Once Upon a Time" (in The Universe and the Mayonnaise and Other Stories for Children, coll 1914) by T Brailsford Robertson (1884-1930), depicts the fate of a prehistoric colony of intelligent "Anthropoid Apes" when a "Homo" child is born amongst them; in Max Brand's "That Receding Brow" (15 February 1919 All-Story); in Clement Fezandié's "The Secret of the Talking Ape" (July 1923 Science and Invention); in Robert E Howard's Red Shadows (August 1928 Weird Tales; 2010 chap), though here perhaps only slantingly; in Erle Stanley Gardner's "Monkey Eyes" (27 July 1929 Argosy); in Sean M'Guire's Beast or Man? (1930), where their defense of their Africa home is sympathetically presented; in "Mogglesby" (June 1930 Adventure) by T S Stribling; in John Collier's brilliant His Monkey Wife (1930); in an evolutionary pas-de-deux with the Second Men in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930); in G E Trevelyan's Appius and Virginia (1932), in which an infant orangutan is taught to speak; in Alder Martin-Magog's Man or Ape? (1933); in Royal Dixon's The Ape of Heaven (1936); in Clark Ashton Smith's "The Maze of Maâl Dweb" (October 1938 Weird Tales); in "The Ape Who Lost His Tale" by V S Pritchett (1900-1997) in New Writing: New Series: 1 (anth 1938) edited by John Lehmann; in L Sprague de Camp's "The Gnarly Man" (June 1939 Unknown); in Thor Swan's Furfooze (1939); in Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (November 1939-March 1940 Harper's Magazine as "After Many a Summer"; 1939; vt After Many a Summer 1939) (see also Devolution); in Justin Atholl's The Grey Beast (1944 chap); in David V Reed's The Whispering Gorilla (May 1940, February 1943 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1950); in Hackenfeller's Ape (1953) by Brigid Brophy; in Lord Dunsany's "Which Way?" (in Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey coll 1954); in David Severn's The Future Took Us (1957); in Philip José Farmer's "The Alley Man" (June 1959 F&SF), and in the same author's "After King Kong Fell" (in Omega, anth 1973, ed Roger Elwood); in Robert Nathan's The Mallott Diaries (1965); in Gene Wolfe's "Tarzan of the Grapes" (June 1972 F&SF), whose eponym is humanoid but not perhaps human; and elsewhere. Towards the end of this sequence, something of a new note could be perhaps detected – in de Camp's fine tale, or in Stephen Gilbert's Monkeyface (1948) – a lessening of the sense of latent or explicit menace, perhaps because the process of evolution no longer seemed quite so insulting to the race which was inflicting World War Two upon itself and upon its cousins. But, in general, ironies or horror or condescension governed the presentation of the theme. A late example of the man-ape or Missing Link as a troubling Monster in a colonial setting is Avram Davidson's elaborately mannered "There Beneath the Silky-Trees and Whelmed in Deeper Gulphs Than Me" (in Other Worlds 2, anth 1980, ed Roy Torgeson).

In recent decades, without overriding these previous thematic concerns, apes and their abilities – either posited scientifically or, more loosely, through various sf strategies – are now frequently used to contextualize the human species within para-human frames, and/or to illuminate our troubled relationship to each other within an uneasy frame of justified exploitation (see Slavery) and to the planet (see Climate Change; Ecology; Exogamy; Gaia). It is possible to detect two very broad tendencies in the later twentieth century. Articulate and wise apes-as-humans (Candide figures, some of whom have become street-smart) can be used, as in Roger Price's J.G., the Upright Ape (1960), to present, more or less straightforwardly, a satiric vision of the contemporary world; other examples would be The Right Honourable Chimpanzee (1978) by David St George and Der junge Lord ["The Young Lord"] (1965), an opera by Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) based on "Der Affe als Mensch" ["The Ape as Man", variously translated] (1827) by Wilhelm Hauff [for Hauff see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. However, work of this sort tends not to be created by anyone deeply immersed in sf, where the concept now tends to be treated with troubled complexity; the ironic distance has been lost in the ongoing wave of species anxiety. No longer is it sufficient merely to posit an articulate cousin who looks us in the eyes: the contemporary sf writer is much more interested in the moral and speculative consequences (see Genetic Engineering; Uplift) of our capacity actually to implement the process of transformation. Stories like Joseph H Delaney's "Brainchild" (June 1982 Analog), Leigh Kennedy's "Her Furry Face" (mid-December 1983 Asimov's), Judith Moffett's "Surviving" (June 1986 F&SF) and Pat Murphy's Rachel in Love (April 1987 Asimov's; 1992 chap) are dark fables of that transformation, the last three importing a Feminist agenda through metaphorical identifications of primates caged in Zoos and women.

Further tales with similar burdens include Deutsche Suite (1972; trans Arnold Pomerans as German Suite 1979) by Herbert Rosendorfer, Experiment at Proto (1973; vt The Proto Papers 1974) by Philip Oakes, Ian McEwan's "Reflections of a Kept Ape" (November 1978 The New Review), Paddy Chayefsky's Altered States (1978), Michael Crichton's Congo (1980), Maureen Duffy's Gor Saga (1981), Stephen Gallagher's Chimera (1982), Douglas Orgill's and John Gribbin's Brother Esau (1982), Bernard Malamud's God's Grace (1982), Peter van Greenaway's Manrissa Man (1982), Michael Stewart's Monkey Shines (1983), about the genetic transformation of a monkey (the film version is discussed below), and the same author's less sophisticated Birthright (1990), about the exploitation of a Neanderthal survival, Michael Bishop's Ancient of Days (1985), L Neil Smith's North American Confederacy series (1986-1988) (intermittently), Justin Leiber's Beyond Humanity (1987), Peter Dickinson's Eva (1988), Harry Turtledove's A Different Flesh (fixup 1988), Ardath Mayhar's and Ron Fortier's Monkey Station (1989), Isaac Asimov's and Robert Silverberg's Child of Time (1991), Daniel Quinn's Turner Fellowship Award-winning novel, Ishmael (1992), whose searching simplicity of idiom returns us all the way back to Peacock, The Duchess's Dragonfly (1993) by Niall Duthie (1947-    ), Monkey's Uncle (1994) by Jenni Diski (1947-2016), Lionel Davidson's Kolymsky Heights (1994), Ape House (2010) by Sara Gruen (1969-    ), whose analysis of bonobo signing as genuine language comes close to the horizon of expectations of the fantastic, Terence Hawkins's American Neolithic (2014) and T Coraghessan Boyle's Talk to Me (2021), which features a talking chimpanzee and interspecies Sex.

Generally less seriously, perhaps, the Cinema has always been fond of the theme, at least since the introduction of the ape-as-innocent-in-the-human-world softened the ape-as-monster topos in King Kong (1933) and again in Mighty Joe Young (1949). One aspect of the theme perhaps more nakedly apparent in films than in books is the religious subtext of ape/caveman/Yeti/Bigfoot as, even if savage and dangerous, untainted by the Fall of Man. Such innocents discovered by a corrupt humanity, and usually envisaged sentimentally, are the Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon survivors in The Neanderthal Man (1953) – here a modern human subjected to DevolutionTrog (1970), Schlock (1973) – a Parody of TrogIceman (1984) and Encino Man (1992); the Yeti in Half Human (1955; vt Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman) – especially the original Japanese version – The Abominable Snowman (1957; vt The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas US) – scripted by Nigel Kneale; and the Bigfoot in the television series Bigfoot and Wildboy (1977-1979), many low-budget films and one rather good big-budget film, Harry and the Hendersons (1987). Very much less interestingly, the half-human being may be treated simply as a routine Monster, like the Yeti in The Snow Creature (1954), Man Beast (1956) and Snowbeast (1977), or the never clearly seen Bigfoot of Creature from Black Lake (1976).

Something rather different seems to be happening in Dr Renault's Secret (1942; vt Buried Alive), based on the already-cited Balaoo, with its murderous Uplifted ape-man; in A Cold Night's Death (1975), in which experimental apes experiment on Scientists; in Link (1985), in which an experimental ape becomes homicidal; and in Monkey Shines (1988), based on Michael Stewart's 1983 novel, in which an experimental ape injected with human genetic material gets more lethal the more human it becomes. However, in all these films, although the apes are a source of horror, it is suggested that it is human contact that has infected them; only in Project X (1987) do the experimental apes remain decent, despite attempts by the military to teach them to fly nuclear bombers. It is also, indeed, an increase in Intelligence, catalysed by an alien monolith, that teaches the apemen of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) how to use Weapons. While most of these films show apes behaving like humans, a persistent subgenre going back to Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows humans becoming apes (see Devolution), a subgenre which become more common to the cinema than to written fiction. Such, with cod seriousness, is the theme of Altered States (1980) and, a great deal more amusingly, James Ivory's Savages (1972), in which primitive Mud People become human guests at a sophisticated country-house party only to revert again, and Howard Hawks's Monkey Business (1952), the only sf movie to star Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe.

In Planet of the Apes (1968) and its immediate sequels apes replace humans, initially to complex satirical effect, eventually – with ever increasing simplemindedness – as a metaphorical stick with which to beat people; however, because they are set deep into the future, these films escape the natural confines of this entry, as did L Sprague de Camp's and P Schuyler Miller's Genus Homo (March 1941 Super Science Stories; rev 1950) from an earlier generation, and as does David Brin's more recent Uplift sequence, notably The Uplift War (1987). Similarly, Robert Silverberg's At Winter's End (1988) and The Queen of Springtime (1989; vt The New Springtime 1990) place into the Far Future the revelation that the surviving inhabitants of Earth are in fact transformed primates. But none of us has survived in that world. The ape-as-human story, at its heart, is a tale of siblings, of the kind of intimacy that drives Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a late prequel to or alternate reboot of the original film, in which the relationship between Homo sapiens and its successor kin is, as is only fitting, close to incestuous. [JC/PN/DRL]

see also: Serge Voronoff.

further reading


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