Alpha: The Figure in the Cage

Juliet Macdonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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, indicating that her desire to draw 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. With reference to Birke, Bryld and Lykke (2004), the continuing potential of Alpha’s drawings to generate discussion and disrupt anthropocentric assumptions is suggested as a sign of the agency of this particular laboratory animal within the process of knowledge production.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-43
Number of pages17
JournalRelations: Beyond Anthropocentrism
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 22 Nov 2014


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