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Jenny: the ape who inspired Darwin

Take a look at this face:

Orangutan

A young orangutan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

She’s adorable, no doubt about it. But do you also see, in this orangutan, something incredibly, uncannily human?

You’re not alone. Orangutans are one of our closest relatives (or even our closest, according to these two renegade biologists), so it’s difficult not to see a bit of ourselves in those wide, intelligent eyes. Indeed, an orangutan named Jenny once gave Charles Darwin a revelation along those very lines!

So who was Jenny? Between 1837 and 1839, she called the London Zoo her home. One of the zoo’s foremost attractions, she was an inquisitive young orangutan with a playful temperament. She often wore a girl’s dress to amuse visitors, and was taught to sup her food with a spoon. In March 1838, Jenny received a visit from the young Charles Darwin, who was still fresh from his five-year journey aboard the HMS Beagle.

Darwin was fascinated by Jenny. He played with her, and intently studied her facial expressions. He showed her a small mirror to gauge her reaction, an experiment he later repeated with own infant children. He saw what countless others had missed: there was human-ness in there. It was a tipping-point for Darwin, a sudden revelation about his own origins. In his private notebooks (easily accessible online, if you’re feeling particularly historical), he wrote:

Let man visit Ourang-outang in domestication, hear [its] expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken [to], as if it understood every word said — see its affection to those it knows, — see its passion & rage, sulkiness & very extreme of despair… and then let him dare to boast of his proud preeminence. […] Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe truer to consider him created from animals.

This was all written in 1838, twenty years before Darwin released his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. Until then, he kept his views about evolution largely to himself, feeling that to admit such beliefs would be “like confessing a murder.”

But Jenny had already planted the seeds of truth in his mind, an understanding that humans and apes had emerged from the same roots. An orangutan had just changed the course of science forever.

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