In this paper, Silvia Sebastiani will discuss how Europe’s trade of apes, slaves and goods tested the boundaries of humanity during the Enlightenment. She will look at scientific, political and legal debates raised by the introduction, dissection and public exposition of the so called ‘orangutan’ in European metropoles, paying specific attention to the British context: how does the ‘orangutan’ contribute to our understanding of Enlightenment ‘science of man’? In what ways has it been used to conceptualize humanity? Eighteenth-century physicians, natural historians, geographers, lawyers, or merchants, while reframing the borders between humans and apes, also contributed to increase the distance between the ‘savage’ and the ‘civilized’ peoples: whereas the human/animal divide lowered, the divide between human ‘races’ increased and crystallized.
Silvia Sebastiani is “maître de conférences” (associate professor) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. She obtained her PhD at the European University Institute with a thesis on race and gender in the Scottish Enlightenment. Her book The Scottish Enlightenment. Race, Gender and the Limits of Progress (2013) was awarded the Istvan Hont prize for the best book in intellectual history of the year. In 2017-2018 she stayed at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Her current research is about Enlightenment debates on slavery and the boundaries between man and apes in the context of empire.
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