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Alpha: the Figure in the Cage

Juliet MacDonald


Drawing is sometimes referred to as a definitively human activity. In this article, drawings by nonhuman animals, particularly primates, are discussed as evidence that the activity is not essentially or exclusively human. In particular the research focuses on one chimpanzee, Alpha, whose drawings were the subject of an experiment in Gestalt psychology published in 1951. The article traces her early life as the first chimpanzee to be born as part of a breeding program established by Robert Yerkes, whose scientific project has been critically examined by Donna Haraway (1989; 1991). Alpha was cared for in the home of two scientists in infancy but later moved to an enclosure with other chimpanzees. Alpha’s desire to draw is shown to have developed in the context of both human contact and physical captivity. Subsequent citations of the drawing experiment with Alpha are discussed as evidence that drawings by nonhuman primates have provoked academic interest, although commentators are cautious in attributing significance to them. The continuing potential of Alpha’s drawings to generate discussion and challenge anthropocentric assumptions is suggested as the disruptive legacy of this particular laboratory animal within the process of knowledge production.


Drawing, chimpanzee, psychology, gesture, Yerkes, Haraway, laboratory, animal, painting, primate

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/rela-2014-002-macd

Copyright (©) 2018 Juliet MacDonald – Editorial format and Graphical layout: copyright (©) LED Edizioni Universitarie

Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (04/05/2012 n. 211)
Online ISSN 2280-9643 - Print ISSN 2283-3196

Executive Editor: Francesco Allegri
Associate Editor: Matteo Andreozzi 
Review Editors: Sofia Bonicalzi - Eleonora Adorni
Editorial Board:
Ralph R. Acampora - Carol J. Adams - Vilma Baricalla - Luisella Battaglia - Rod Bennison - Matthew R. Calarco - Piergiorgio Donatelli - William Grove-Fanning - Serenella Iovino - Luigi Lombardi Vallauri - Christoph Lumer - Joel MacClellan - Dario Martinelli - Roberto Marchesini - Alma Massaro - Barbara Muraca - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo

© 2001 LED Edizioni Universitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto