Who's the ape who drew its own cage?
March 16, 2007 5:30 PM   Subscribe

The tale: an ape in a zoo is taught how to draw. The first thing it draws is the bars of its cage. I've heard this story a couple of times (often in connection with Vladimir Nabokov), but can't find any information about the original experiment. Did this actually happen? Is it just a fable? Did Nabokov get Punk'd? Who was this ape and where can I find out more?
posted by Greg Nog to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not familliar with this story, but my primates prof, Anne Zeller (see also) did a fair amount of research on drawing in all of the great ape species. She said she could easily walk into a room filled with primate drawings and be able to tell whether a chimp, human, gorilla, or orangutan had done any individual picture.

Anyway, from what I remember of the research, it seems unlikely that an ape would draw something so clearly representational as a cage. There were distinct patterns and colours that different kinds of apes used (and iirc humans were the only ones who used circles), but if you think of the drawing of a human 3-year-old, the (other) ape species drew at a similar level of "skill" (which is sort of a misleading comparison, but useful for imagining the pics).

Anyway, it's not clear to me based on a quick search if she's published on this work, but if you have access to a university library system, you could probably get much better info than my vague memories of long ago primates classes, either from her writing or one of her movies.
posted by carmen at 5:52 PM on March 16, 2007


If you don't mind me skipping the sensationalist claim, the type of research that is most widely accepted to reflect self-recognition in animals is the the so-called Mirror Test, most recently shown in Asian elephants and the Bottlenose Dolphin (links go to original research). The underlying cognitive theory is Theory of Mind. I've found an accessible lecture that you may enjoy watching.
posted by reflection at 5:58 PM on March 16, 2007


If you want the popular version, Wikipedia says the article and drawing are lost. Relevant bit pasted for the lazy:

In the afterword, Nabokov wrote that "the initial shiver of inspiration" for Lolita "was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.” Neither the article nor the drawing has been recovered.

[EOQ]

Or -- and far more likely to my mind -- the author John Robert Colombo thinks the story is a "mini fiction" (halfway down the page). Pasting relevant bits again:

"Last year I published a book called Worlds in Small. It is an anthology of "mini fictions"...teensy-weensy stories or literary effects ...not one of which amounts to more than fifty words.....

"First Drawing" / Vladimir Nabokov
...a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed bars of the poor creature's cage.
37 words. "Perhaps Nabokov misremembered a photograph that appeared in the newspapers that year: a chimpanzee at the London zoo with a paintbrush in its hand." So suggested Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990). For the passage above, Boyd sourced the Anglo-Russian novelist's letter to Mark Vishnyak, 30 Sept. 1939; his collection Strong Opinions (1973); and his diary for 3 Dec. 1969. Yet Nabokov is reacting to a newsstory about a chimp that drew lines if not bars.

[EOQ]
posted by mdevore at 7:39 PM on March 16, 2007


Nabokov had to have been making this up. Setting aside the fact that non-human primates don't paint anything this representational, the story itself it's just far too Nabokovian to be true. It's still a good story, though.
posted by alms at 8:34 PM on March 16, 2007


The Wikipedia quote mdevore pasted in is problematic in that it operates on the assumption the newspaper article and image ever existed; more specifically, it should probably read that they've never been discovered. I can't give a citation off the top of my head, but I've read a good amount of stuff on his work, and I'm fairly sure nobody's ever come up with any real evidence of them, much less an actual clipping.

It's also worth noting that this is not the only time Nabokov has used a roughly similar theme(see the note on 311/2 in The Annotated Lolita). Nor is it even the first time the Jardin des Plantes has turned up; it's alluded to in either Invitation to a Beheading, or Ada, maybe both; I can't remember right now.

Either way, there are more important questions surrounding the origin of Lolita.
posted by Su at 1:47 AM on March 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


Nabokov had to have been making this up. Setting aside the fact that non-human primates don't paint anything this representational, the story itself it's just far too Nabokovian to be true. It's still a good story, though.

What he said.
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on March 17, 2007


Congo? Picasso hung a Congo on his wall.

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posted by shoesfullofdust at 8:44 AM on March 18, 2007


From Style as Matter, published July this year:
The newspapers for those years have been combed and recombed and the article has not been found. The most definitively annotated edition of Nabokov's works in any language is (at present) the German critical edition of Dieter Zimmer. In Zimmer's exhaustive note to this passage in Nabokov's afterword, he lists the various researches undertaken by himself and others to find any such article in the newspapers of those years. Zimmer notes that the celebrated zoologist Desmond Morris published an exhaustive list of all known experiments conducted with primates involving drawing or sign making and that nothing resembling Nabokov's ape is to be found anywhere therein. More recently, Dmitri Nabokov noted that he knew nothing of the article's whereabouts and confirmed that neither himself nor anyone else had to his knowledge ever seen it.
posted by Su at 11:29 AM on October 28, 2007


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