Led On Line
Presentazione - About us
Novita' - What's new
Lededizioni Home Page Ricerca - Search
Catalogo - Catalogue
Per contattarci - Contacts
Per gli Autori - For the Authors
Statistiche - Statistics
Cookie Policy
Privacy Policy

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

Full Text:



Birke, Lynda, Mette Bryld, and Nina Lykke. 2004. "Animal Performances: An Exploration of Intersections between Feminist Science Studies and Studies of Human/Animal Relationships." Feminist Theory 5 (2): 167-183. doi: 10.1177/1464700104045406.

Boysen, Sarah T., Gary G. Berntson, and James Prentice. 1987. "Simian scribbles: a reappraisal of drawing in the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)." Journal of Comparative Psychology 101 (1): 82-89.

Brewster, Joan M., and Ronald K. Siegel. 1976. "Reinforced drawing in Macaca mulatta." Journal of Human Evolution 5 (4): 345-346, IN5, 347.

Calarco, Matthew. 2008. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cartmill, E. A., and R. W. Byrne. 2010. "Semantics of primate gestures: intentional meanings of orangutan gestures." Animal Cognition 13 (6): 793-804. doi: 10.1007/s10071-010-0328-7.

Derrida, Jacques. 2002. "The animal that therefore I am (more to follow)." Critical Inquiry 28 (2): 369-418.

Dewsbury, Donald A. 1994. "The comparative psychology of Paul Schiller." Psychological Record 44 (3): 326.

Dexter, Emma. 2005. Vitamin D : new perspectives in drawing. London; New York: Phaidon.

Genty, E., T. Breuer, C. Hobaiter, and R. W. Byrne. 2009. "Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality and possible origins." Animal Cognition 12 (3): 527-46. doi: 10.1007/s10071-009-0213-4.

Gesell, Arnold. 1925. The mental growth of the pre-school child : a psychological outline of normal development from birth to the sixth year, including a system of developmental diagnosis. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Gucwa, David, and James Ehmann. 1985. To whom it may concern : an investigation of the art of elephants. New York: Norton.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature. London: Free Association.

Haraway, Donna J. 1989. Primate visions: gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. New York: Routledge.

Hearst, Eliot. 1991. "Psychology and Nothing." American Scientist 79 (5): 432-443.

Hobaiter, C., and R. W. Byrne. 2011. "The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee." Animal Cognition 14 (5): 745-67. doi: 10.1007/s10071-011-0409-2.

Hothersall, David. 1990. History of psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jacobsen, Carlyle F., Marion M. Jacobsen, and Joseph G. Yoshioka. 1932. Development of an infant chimpanzee during her first year. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Ladygina-Kohts, Nadezhda N., and Frans de Waal. 2002. Infant Chimpanzee and Human Child : A Classic 1935 Comparative Study of Ape Emotions and Intelligence: Oxford University Press, USA.

MacDonald, Juliet. 2012. Alpha #4 : Scheme for a Drawing Experiment. Cheltenham, UK: MEANTIME.

MacDonald, Juliet. 2013. "Alpha: Biography of a Prototype." [unpublished (in draft)].

Margoshes, Adam, and Sheldon Litt. 1966. "Creativity in Art: A Bioenergetic Approach." Journal of Humanistic Psychology 6 (2): 148-155.

Morris, Desmond. 1962. The biology of art : a study of the picture-making behaviour of the great apes and its relationship to human art. London: Methuen.

Schiller, Claire H. 1957. Instinctive Behavior: the development of a modern concept. New York: International Universities Press.

Schiller, Paul H. 1951. "Figural preferences in the drawings of a chimpanzee." Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology no. 44 (2): 101-111.

Silver, Harry R. 1979. "Ethnoart." Annual Review of Anthropology 8: 267-307. doi: 10.2307/2155621.

Smith, D. A. 1973. "Systematic study of chimpanzee drawing." J Comp Physiol Psychol 82 (3): 406-414.

Tanaka, Masayuki, Masaki Tomonaga, and Tetsuro Matsuzawa. 2003. "Finger drawing by infant chimpanzees [Pan troglodytes]." Animal Cognition 6 (4): 245-251.

Tanner, Joanne E., Francine G. Patterson, and Richard W Byrne. 2006. "The Development of Spontaneous Gestures in Zoo-living Gorillas and Sign-taught Gorillas: From Action and Location to Object Representation." The Journal of Developmental Processes 1 (Fall): 69-102.

The Gorilla Foundation. 2013. "KokoMart: Gorrilla Art." KokoMart. Last modified 26 March 2013. http://www.koko.org/friends/kokomart_art.html.

Tyler, Tom. 2012. Ciferae : a bestiary in five fingers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Yerkes, Robert M. 1943. Chimpanzees; a laboratory colony. New Haven: Yale university press; London, H. Milford, Oxford university press.

Zeller, Anne. 2007. "‘What's in a picture?’ A comparison of drawings by apes and children." Semiotica 2007 (166): 181-214. doi: 10.1515/SEM.2007.056.

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

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 - Rod Bennison - Matthew R. Calarco - Piergiorgio Donatelli - William Grove-Fanning - Serenella Iovino - Joel MacClellan - Dario Martinelli - Roberto Marchesini - Alma Massaro - Barbara Muraca - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo