The Metaphysics of Apes: Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary
The Metaphysics of Apes, first published in 2005, traces the discovery and interpretation of the human-like great apes and the ape-like earliest ancestors of present-day humans. It shows how, from the days of Linnaeus to recent research, the sacred and taboo-ridden animal-human boundary was time and again challenged and adjusted. The unique dignity of humans, a central idea and value in the West, was, and to some extent still is, centrally on the minds of taxonomists, ethnologists, primatologists, and archaeologists. It has guided their research to a considerable extent. The basic presupposition was that humans are not entirely part of nature but, as symbolizing minds and as moral persons, transcend nature. This book was the first to offer an anthropological analysis of the burgeoning anthropological disciplines in terms of their own cultural taboos and philosophical preconceptions.
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Raymond Corbey's The Metaphysics of Apes deserves to become a classic for its intellectual acuity and its disciplinary breadth. This is a profoundly significant anthropological disquisition in that it asks questions so central to questions of the human condition, and its purported uniqueness. Corbey provides a comprehensive review of the various ways in which ideas about apes have implicitly and explicitly contributed to a variety of Euro-American anthropological discourses. As an indication, these include; the formative understandings and misunderstandings deriving from the earliest dissections of 'orang-outang' bodies, in which we learn how the anatomical work of Tulp and Tyson gave rise to profound metaphysical musings; the tensions between taxonomy and Christian theology; the apishness or otherwise of our hominid ancestors as discovered and theoretically reconstructed by paleoanthropologists and archaeoplogists; and the dispute between sociobiologists and cultural anthropologists, with their divergent pre-theoretical commitments. Corbey's text is both intelligible and engaging, and seductive for its historical and epistemological approach to the question of the human in philosophy, biology, and anthropology. Corbey gives us cause to recall not just the fluid boundary between humans and (other) primates, but also the similarly shared motivations of disparate disciplines. This book shall definitely feature strongly in the bibliographies for my anthropological teaching.