Jeremy Rich uses the eccentric life of R. L. Garner (1848-1920)
to examine the commercial networks that brought the first apes to
America during the Progressive Era, a critical time in the
development of ideas about African wildlife, race, and
Garner was a self-taught zoologist and atheist from southwest
Virginia. Starting in 1892, he lived on and off in the French
colony of Gabon, studying primates and trying to engage U.S.
academics with his theories. Most prominently, Garner claimed that
he could teach apes to speak human languages and that he could
speak the languages of primates. Garner brought some of the first
live primates to America, launching a traveling demonstration in
which he claimed to communicate with a chimpanzee named Susie. He
was often mocked by the increasingly professionalized scientific
community, who were wary of his colorful escapades, such as his
ill-fated plan to make a New York City socialite the queen of
southern Gabon, and his efforts to convince Thomas Edison to
finance him in Africa.
Yet Garner did influence evolutionary debates, and as with many
of his era, race dominated his thinking. Garner's arguments-for
example, that chimpanzees were more loving than Africans, or that
colonialism constituted a threat to the separation of the
races-offer a fascinating perspective on the thinking and attitudes
of his times. Missing Links explores the impact of
colonialism on Africans, the complicated politics of buying and
selling primates, and the popularization of biological racism.
Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology
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