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The Species Seekers Quiz: Discovering the Golden Monkey

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 10, 2010

Who discovered the golden monkey?

1. Henri Milne-Edwards

2. Alfred Russell Wallace

3. Patrick Manson

4. Pére Armand David

And the answer is

Pére Armand David


The golden monkey was familiar to Europeans from images in Chinese paintings and porcelains, but according to David’s translator Helen M. Fox, it was “so odd that it was thought to be an imaginary animal.” It had a small bluish-white face surrounded by a fringe of flame red hair, and whereas all other known primates were tropical, these lichen-eating monkeys lived, David wrote, “in trees in the highest mountains, now white with snow.” The golden monkey became Rhinopithecus roxellana. The French naturalist Henri Milne-Edwards chose the species name to commemorate the Ukrainian wife of an Ottoman Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, because monkey and wife both had distinctive up-turned noses. To some, the discovery and naming of these species may seem like an act of cultural appropriation. But read why that’s not entirely so, in The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.
UPDATE:  This item has been attracting a lot of readers lately, so I have re-opened the comments function.  Please feel free to get out your flame-thrower and fire away.  Richard Conniff


4 Responses to “The Species Seekers Quiz: Discovering the Golden Monkey”

  1. hanmeng said

    The answer to the question who “discovered” it is actually the Chinese. Père David observed it and introduced it (and many other animals) to the West and into the Western zoological system.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Hanmeng. It’s certainly true that local people often knew species, sometimes in great detail, long before scientific explorers arrived to describe them and thus get credit for the discovery. But the key to scientific discovery is making that knowledge available to others, by giving the species a place in standard Linnaean taxonomy and publishing a detailed description in a scientific journal. That’s how scientists from China and the rest of the world now universally discover species. Historian Fa-Ti Fan recounts the exploitative practices of early naturalists in China, but also acknowledges, “the Chinese did not have a discipline, a system of knowledge, or even a coherent scholarly tradition equivalent to Western notions of ‘natural history,’ ‘botany,’ or ‘zoology.’” Phrases for the study of plants, zhiwu xue, and natural history, bowu xue, only appeared as mid-nineteenth century translations of Western concepts.


    Conniff, R. 2010. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. NY: Norton

    Fan, F. 2004. British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  3. Lucy said

    @Hanmeng, I agree. There’s more than a little bit of ethnocentrism here.

    According to the logic put forth, it would seem that the white man who classified the giant panda also was the first one to discover the giant panda.

    This is rather reminiscent of the person who decided to copyright the “Happy Birthday” song years after the song was created.

    Therefore, the lesson here kiddies, is that he who does the paperwork first is the “discoverer.”

  4. For a more complete perspective on this topic, check out both the column I wrote for The New York Times, “Heroes or Imperialist Dogs,” and also the reader comments:

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