Before the Primates: Metamorphoses, Miscegenation, and Speciesism, 1550-1750


LAC Burkhardt




For residence at the Department of English at the University of California, Los Angeles during academic year 2019-2020


How has the Enlightenment “discovery” of great apes eclipsed prior concepts of humans and animals? While simians intrigue early moderns, they believe other creatures pose stronger challenges to human exceptionalism. Elephants have reason; pigs evince a disturbingly human-like internal anatomy; honeybees cooperate better than citizens; horses embody enviable nobility. Drawing on each creature’s natural history, tales of metamorphosis adapting Plutarch, the locus classicus for anti-anthropocentrism, challenge philosophies of human uniqueness from the sixteenth to early eighteenth century. Subsequently, these metamorphoses are supplanted by human-ape miscegenation tales, which inaugurate modern speciesism, sexism, and racism. Reevaluating humanist and Enlightenment legacies is urgent for a multispecies future.