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Monday, March 19, 2012

We Are All Apes

Richard Dawkins created a bit of a stir among the theists by claiming that he is an African ape.

Someone named Vasko Kohlmayer was partularly upset so he wrote up a "rebuttal" for the Moonie newspaper The Washington Times: Is Richard Dawkins an Ape?.

I don't much care about the opinions of theists like Vasko Kohlmayer because they have an obvious agenda. Scientific arguments are meaningless to them.

But I do care about the opinions of other scientists and philosophers. Jerry Coyne explains why we are apes and why it's not a good idea to say that people living in Oxford or Chicago are African apes [Washington Times denies that Richard Dawkins is an ape]. I agree with Jerry.

John Hawks disagrees [Humans aren't monkeys. We aren't apes, either.]. He claims that the term "ape" is not a legitimate phylogenetic term and therefore is doesn't have to refer to a monophyletic group.
Chimpanzees are apes. Gorillas are apes, as are bonobos, orangutans, and gibbons. We routinely differentiate the "great apes" from the "lesser apes", where the latter are gibbons and siamangs. Humans are not apes. Humans are hominoids, and all hominoids are anthropoids. So are Old World monkeys like baboons and New World monkeys like marmosets. All of us anthropoids. But humans aren't monkeys.
I don't agree with this distinction. There's nothing to be gained by saying that our closest relatives are apes but we aren't.

John Wilkins thinks we are apes [Are humans, apes, monkeys, primates, or hominoids?]. John argues like a philosopher but, in this case, he's right.
It is not possible to stem the tide of linguistic change, as the Académie Française has found out repeatedly. If experts can redefine terms influentially, then there is nothing wrong with that so long as it doesn’t confuse the experts. Using paraphyletic terms (that is, group names that denote what is left of the group once a subset has been removed) is a Very Bad Idea that hangs on in science, but it need not hang on in folk usage. And there’s nothing wrong with saying “humans are apes”, because, on the best construal of what those terms denote, they are.

Neil Shubin’s excellent book Your Inner Fish makes a similar point. Where once a “fish” was anything that lived in water (including swans, geese, alligators and crocodiles, whales, and water snakes), it came to mean a vertebrate that had gills and fins and scales. Shubin shows how the Gnathostomes (jawed fishes) includes land vertebrates, including mammals and ultimately us, as well. Language can change…

UPDATE: Brian Switek of Laepaps weighs in with: I’m an Ape, and I’m Also a Fish.


Denny said...

Coming off Larry’s post, “Should We Challenge the Beliefs of Our Students” where a student implied that she was “special” because God loves her, and where everyone from Sandwalk fans to Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins identify themselves as “nothing special, insignificant, and irrelevant”, plus the Richard Dawkins smack down of a bishop in “We Are All Apes” by implying that coming from an ape IS special, makes me consider the consequences of having to go back to all my grandchildren and tell them I was wrong. They are not special.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Dawkins was born in Nairobi, so I think his claim to being an "African" ape is a strong one. A gorilla born in Cameroon yet spending almost all his life in an American zoo is still a African ape, right?

Bryan said...

I don't agree with this distinction. There's nothing to be gained by saying that our closest relatives are apes but we aren't
Not to mention, its a stupid argument - as I understand it his critisim is that because 'ape' is an english (as compared to some magical scientific taxonomic) term it therefore cannot be correct. But the animals we include as apes do reflect - exactly - the taxonomic relationship. Its an equivalent term, and when speaking in english, is as accurate as the hawks-approved "hominoids".


Arek W. said...

Isn't that weird?
Science is saying, that humans are not special. And yet it's science which makes our lives better.
Religion claims that humans are special. And yet it's religion which treats humans like meat bags.

Your grandchildren are special. So do you and I and everybody. We are special for ourselves. Not for the Universe. And definitely not for someone, whose existence you cannot even demonstrate (read the Bible).

DK said...

A gorilla born in L.A. and spending its entire life there is *still* an African ape. The whole argument is silly. Some languages do have a word for "ape", others don't. Everyone can still tell Dawkins from gorilla regardless of whether one chooses to include humans into ape category or not.

John Hawks said...

Thanks for the discussion!

Bryan, my argument is that we are apes in precisely the same way that dolphins are fish.

steve oberski said...

The shock of actually telling the truth for once may be too much.

My advice is to continue telling them lies.

Go with your strengths.

Joe Felsenstein said...

Besides which, there are old, long-discarded phylogenies according to which the human lineage split off from that leading to all apes. But this idea, as dead as it is, took on a second wind because it gave biologists cover for saying that "we weren't descended from apes, but we and apes had a common ancestor". Which audiences found comforting. In giving semi-popular talks I have found that people are quite interested to hear what the phylogeny actually is. I ask them if they have heard people say that humans aren't descended from apes, and maybe 1/3 of everyone has heard this. (I say that we are apes, and the reason I know I'm an ape is that I'm descended from my mother and father, and they were apes.

There is a similar situation with respect to the word "monkey". I also tell them we (and all the other apes) are monkeys. Many biologists don't like to say that, and justify not saying it by defining "monkey" as Old World Monkeys. But ceboids from South America are also called monkeys, and if they are monkeys, so are we.

There's a similar situation concerning the term "missing link". Although it goes back way before Darwin, in Darwin's day what was said to be Missing was any fossil linking humans to (other) apes. That situation was remedied in 1891 (Homo erectus) and 1924 (Australopithecus). I ask my audiences if they know whether the missing link is still missing, and a lot of them think it might still be missing. So I tell them the missing link(s) have been found, a while ago. But many biologists seem determined to confuse the matter and make Missing Link stand for anything and everything, in which case it will be Missing forever.

steve oberski said...

The common ancestor that humans share with apes is much more recent than the dolphin/fish common ancestor.

Asura said...


Allan Miller said...


My children know they are relatives of apes, AND they know they are special. It's not an either/or. My daughter would quite like to be a kitten.

They don't live in fear of some Big Brother up in the sky judging their every move. They are happy, content and well-adjusted, despite being children of an atheist. How very contrary.

Anonymous said...

Aron Ra over on YouTube has actually put together a very persuasive and easy to understand case demonstrating that if the word "monkey" is actually going to mean anything scientific and not simply arbitrary, then yes, it has to include the great apes, and thus, of course, us. Essentially he argues that the word has to be synonymous with Simiiformes, and that every member of that group is a monkey.

It's pretty much a lead pipe cinch. "New World monkeys", Platyrrhinis separated from Catarrhinis before apes separated from what we now call Old World monkeys to differentiate them from apes. Apes are still classed with Old World monkeys as Catarrhini, but New World monkeys aren't. So to create a group that includes all Platyrrhinis but only SOME Catarrhinis is as arbitrary and biologically meaningless as creating a group that includes ALL your cousins but only one or two of your siblings as related, but not you. If we are more closely related to Old World monkeys than New World Monkeys are, how can they all be monkeys but not us? Obviously, that can't be. Humans are apes (Hominoids), and apes are monkeys (Simiiformes).

John Harshman said...

Francisco Ayala has a book called "Am I a Monkey", and the answer he gives is unfortunately "no, but you and monkeys have a common ancestor". Otherwise it isn't such a bad book

Joe Felsenstein said...

I think Francisco is still stuck in an evolutionary systematics position in which "monkey" is a grade and we (and our fellow apes) have since evolved out of that grade. I am not sure if he would make the same argument for "ape" but I suspect he would.

A few years ago I interviewed the late (and lamented) Morris Goodman, one of the great pioneers of molecular evolution. He was making one of his annual visits to Seattle, where his daughter lived. In 1962 Morris presented immunological distance evidence that humans, chimps, and gorillas were a clade. At that conference (the Wenner-Gren conference on physical anthropology) he argued that the classification system should recognize that clade and classify humans as apes. He got a lot of resistance there from Theodosius Dobzhanksy, George Gaylord Simpson, and Ernst Mayr on that. Francisco was working with Dobzhansky then, but I don't know whether he was at that meeting.

What I didn't realize until recently was that they were not resisting Morris's phylogeny, just the reclassification he wanted to do. They were defending the use of grades and the Mayr-Simpson evolutionary systematics approach, but they agreed that humans/chimps/gorillas were most likely a clade.

If people are interested in Morris's recollections of this, they are in a 30-minute recording of that 2010 interview -- I have posted it on my web site where you will find it here. Enjoy.

Chas Peterson said...

Your argument is more like: we are apes in precisely the same way that birds are dinosaurs.

(Because according to Dr. Moran, we, apes, birds and dinosaurs are all fish.)

I do take your point though, which is basically that vernacular terms for groups of organisms need not be re-defined just because they turn out to be para- or polyphyletic. My guess is that you're more concerned about 'ape' than 'dinosaur' though.

El PaleoFreak said...

Of course we are apes and monkeys, and we are also fish. And worms. And microbes.
And look: we are vertebrates and invertebrates at the same time!
Let's teach all this stuff to our kids. :oP

Anonymous said...

I don't need to have phylogeny and taxonomy thrown in. I'm told that humans closest relative is an ape and that human hominids are evolved from apes. If you cross a chihuahua and a wiener dog you get a chiwheenie or something... it's still a dog. In common language and for reference point most conversations are unaffected or unchanged by a reference to humans as apes rather than some more scientifically accurate reference. I'm quite happy to be an ape, no matter how evolved from our common ancestor I may be. I see commonalities between humans and apes. It makes no sense to me to demand they be considered different. In the same way that a chihuahua and an Akita are both dogs, We humans are apes. Hominid is a word that will get you funny looks if you use it most places... Homo .. what? I find some comfort in being an evolved ape. That link to our earlier selves explains much of the world to me. In matters of science it might be the case that more accuracy is necessary but in common language and its use Ape is a damn fine word, and it says what needs to be conveyed.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's just it; we aren't "fish". The word "fish" in English is actually used so broadly that it has no real scientific meaning (the term "fish" is paraphyletic and thus not a scientific term). Unquestionably we shared a common ancestor with animals that went on to also become salmons and sharks; a generalized water-dwelling vertebrate. But the branching event that leads to modern bony fish obviously doesn't lead to us.

Anonymous said...

"vernacular terms for groups of organisms need not be re-defined just because they turn out to be para- or polyphyletic"

All things being equal, I'd tend to agree.. they're just casual terms for grouping visually similar animals. The problem comes from people, especially creationists, taking that casual arbitrary use as the equivalent of a scientific one, and that's used to re-enforce the errant views of their flock and to confuse less-informed members of the general public into questioning the validity of scientific findings and lending support to taking Bronze Age fairy tales seriously. So I'm afraid we do have be the classroom nerd who raises his hand on matters like this. I don't mind that kids point to a particular bunch of animals in the zoo and call them "monkeys". I care that evangelists point to a particular bunch of animals making up their audience and insist they aren't and never were.

Anonymous said...

Not special? I don't know. So far as I can tell, we're the only animals to control and exploit abiotic energy, build cities, invent agriculture, form nation states and supranational organizations, get into space and go to the moon, establish our presence on and around other worlds, understand the nature of heredity and take some control of its expression, record and store information outside of our bodies, and even make up vast stories about imaginary beings in the sky. No one else so far does these things. But none of that is denial of the fact that we are apes, and primates, and mammals, and vertebrates, and animals. We're just the ones who do all those things. Call me biased, but I think that's special. And a lot a lot a LOT more special if we got here on our own against all odds instead of just being dropped down batteries-included by some capricious genie... ho hum.

Joe Felsenstein said...

... but if we call sharks and rays "fish" too, and call lungfishes and coelacanths "fish", then our common ancestor with "fish" would undoubtably also be a "fish".

John Hawks is right, the English word "fish" would still not be applied to us, and it is OK to have informal names for paraphyletic and polyphyletic groups, but we are descended from "fish". Cue Neil Shubin ...

And a systematist would say that we are surely members of the clade that includes Chondricthyes and Osteichthyes.

Denny said...

Arek said, “it's science which makes our lives better.” - For the present, Yes. But, ultimately for what purpose, what value? For materialists, do the words better and value and purpose have any meaning outside of a beating heart? All hearts will ultimately stop?

Arek said, “We are special for ourselves. Not for the Universe.” - Materialistically speaking, we and the universe are inseparable. And if we and everything about us is going to cease existing, what’s so special? One definition for the word “special” is, “designed for a particular purpose or occasion” Does this definition not apply to materialists and atheists?

Allan Miller said, “My children know they are relatives of apes, AND they know they are special.” - Abstractly thinking of ones-self as an ape relative is one thing. Running into the issues of life that have nothing to do with ancestry is another. When one becomes an adult and is confronted with the issues of life that bring the greatest tests of our dreams and hopes and expectations for the time we have on earth, having anatomical or genetic similarity to an ape will likely mean nothing. Where do materialists go then?

Allan Miller said, “They don't live in fear of some Big Brother up in the sky judging their every move.” - In the context that you present it, are you a Big Brother judging your children’s every move? I trust not. The fact that you view God that way means that you have an entirely erroneous and inadequate notion of God. An inadequate but more accurate notion would be the one you hold for yourself over your children.

If Arek and Allen were giving a presentation to a audience of thousands of people on the benefits of materialism, and you were not permitted to boost your points with negative portrayals of others’ beliefs, how would you answer my questions.

John Harshman said...

Yes it does. Perhaps you meant to say "the branching even that leads to modern ray-finned fish". That would work.

John Harshman said...

Joe, the word you're looking for is Gnathostomata.

The Thought Criminal said...

It's an insult to the apes.

Arek W. said...

Denny said:
If Arek and Allen were giving a presentation (...) how would you answer my questions.

Exactly in the same manner, excluding negative portrayals of others' beliefs of course.

I don't know what you don't understand. We are special for ourselves. Our very existence is special to us. The fact that we can think and feel. And we are going to die. And cease to exist. It's scary but that doesn't make our lives insignificant. Quite the contrary.

I don't want to make this comment long. Others already said something about that.

As for the science: I don't know if it will be making our lives better in the future. So far it works and probably will work.
But your Holy-"It predicted Big Bang"-"God loves us therefore he kills us"-bronze age Book not only doesn't work. It didn't work in the past and won't work in the future.

El PaleoFreak said...

That's the point, barefoot hiker: "fish", or "ape", or "monkey" are common words without strict scientific meaning, so you can't use them as synonyms of monophyletic taxa.

Allan Miller said...

The fact that you view God that way means that you have an entirely erroneous and inadequate notion of God.

I don't view God in any way, since I do not believe in him. The notion I portrayed is a very common one in many religions; I borrowed the concept from them. Who is to say what is an 'accurate and adequate' view of this entity? It is whatever suits your purpose. I'm not going to say things to my kids that I do not believe.

'Materialists' live happy and fulfilled lives. Incredible as it may seem. They are also as 'moral' as anyone else. They don't have to 'mean something' to [The Universe] to do this. But it helps if you mean something to someone.

Anonymous said...

"But, ultimately for what purpose, what value?"

He just told you: ultimately, to make our lives better. That's a goal in and of itself. Did you invest in your retirement so that you could enjoy it, or because you imagined it would somehow resonate down the halls of eternity and somehow rate with St. Peter at the Golden Gate? I'm going to guess you did it TO MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER, and that was enough of a reason to do it.

"Materialistically speaking, we and the universe are inseparable"

Denny, while being part of the universe, we obviously recognize a distinction in self as individual agency. If you don't understand the concept or would like to pretend you don't see the distinction, I invite you to wade neck deep into some portion of the Amazon teeming with piranhas and demonstrate your belief in your indivisible oneness with the material universe.

"Where do materialists go then?"

They muddle through like everyone else. They just don't take advice from imaginary friends or the proxies thereof.

"are you a Big Brother judging your children’s every move"

I doubt Allan purports to KNOW his children's every move. Does he judge those he is aware of? Of course; we judge everything all the time. It's part of being human to continually form value judgements. And I would imagine if he identifies behaviour in his children that either presently is or shows the potentially to eventually be problematic to the child, the family, or society, he ponders and effects a response in the hopes of correcting it. But, hey, Allan, do YOU threaten YOUR children with a banishment to torture--especially unending torture--for their behaviours you find troublesome? Or does the very idea horrify you because you're morally superior to that sort of thing?

"and you were not permitted to boost your points with negative portrayals of others’ beliefs"

Why should they be obliged by a stricture you yourself will not be restrained by? The cornerstone of your faith seems to be dumping on materialism.

The Thought Criminal said...

Anonymous, I still think it's an insult to the apes, who aren't engaged in destroying the biosphere. "Fallen apes", "criminally insane apes", maybe, but not just "apes".

I will say this is a slightly more interesting discussion than whether or not Pluto is a planet. But, then, animals tend to get the interest of other animals.

Don Cates said...

But remember that gorillas, chimps, and orangs are also evolved apes, just as evolved as we are.

Anonymous said...

"so you can't use them as synonyms of monophyletic taxa."

Well, no, you can; it's simply a matter of defining them properly and making it common knowledge. The Bible counts bats among "birds" (Deut. 14:11-18). Nobody in the English language today still uses the word "bird" that inclusively. You can use "ape" and "monkey" scientifically: ape synonymous with "Hominoid" and monkey with "Simiiformes". The definition of "fish" is so broad at the moment in our language I'm forced to leave its scientific disentanglement to others.

Anonymous said...

"It's an insult to the apes."

That's simply your opinion as an ape, of course. :)

John Harshman said...

That's not the point, El PaleoFreak. They're common words, so you can use them in various meanings, subject to change. The currently most popular meaning of "ape", the one excluding both humans and Old World monkeys, is a 19th Century imposition by scientists. Previously it had been an approximate synonym of "monkey". And scientists are now in the process of changing the meaning again to conform to current (correct) understanding. Why not? The new meaning can even coexist with the old; the meanings of a great many words depend on context. So chill. When someone at the chimpanzee enclosure says "look at the monkeys", nod your head sagely and look both within and without.

Troy Britain said...

I'm sort of surprised that this is even an issue. I thought it was settled once it was determined that humans share a closer common ancestor with chimps than chimps do with gorillas (the 1960s or 70s?).

El PaleoFreak said...

John, I agree at some point:
*Some* scientists and science communicators have decided to change the meaning of "ape" to conform to *their* understanding.
Those people are not saying "it's good to change the meaning of this word, let's start calling us apes"; most of the times they are saying "humans are apes" in a way that is near dogmatic.
The new meaning is already coexisting with the old, causing confusion, perplexity and noise.

John Harshman said...

The point of saying "humans are apes" is to get evolution into the public's mind. And I think that's a good thing. You may disagree, but I don't see why. Is it always bad to change the meanings of words? Does it cause confusion? If so, how? Is there anyone who won't know what you mean when you say that humans are apes? Doubtful.

Anonymous said...

"scientists and science communicators have decided to change the meaning of "ape" to conform to *their* understanding"

Yeah, that's what science and scientists DO when they discover new evidence: they change their opinions to suit the evidence, instead of ignoring it to keep on believing what feels comfy. That's the difference between science and religion, and it's what makes science capable of producing results and what KEEPS religion from doing the same. In this case, it goes all the way back to Linnaeus -- who was a creationist, by the way -- who formulated the modern biological classification system and could not find, even way back in the superstitious 18th century, a scientific, biological justification for putting humans in a category separate from other apes, and he was horrified by the obvious conclusion that we ourselves belonged in whatever category the others did. He went begging to his contemporaries to come up with such a justification and when no one could, they just decided to arbitrarily create a separate classification for humans to soothe our wounded pride. THAT was a failure of a scientific responsibility and it was finally corrected. The same has to be done now with the term "monkey".

"most of the times they are saying "humans are apes" in a way that is near dogmatic. "

No more dogmatic than saying "humans are mammals" or "humans are vertebrates" or "humans are animals"... and as we all well know, there are STILL religious people who have problems with each and every one of those statements to this day. THAT'S dogma in action. Bowing to the evidence is in no way "dogmatic". It's intellectual honesty.

Joe Felsenstein said...

That was settled about 1985 with DNA hybridization work by Charles Sibley and Jon Ahlquist, which was quickly followed by a lot of confirming work using sequences. Up till then the human-chimp-gorillaclade seemed to have a trichotomy in it.

But the argument here is not about what the phylogeny is, but what we are supposed to call our species when using English common words such as "ape", "monkey" (and "fish").