Ape, man

He started it!

I’d originally intended three posts for my human series, but unsurprisingly, it’s expanding on me. The first three were Who you aren’t, Who you are, and Who are you, and it seems I’m forced to abandon my clever titling convention as the topics proliferate. This one’s about the term “ape” and how it relates to you. If it had been a planned post, then I’d have saved that Kinks song for it, and the Huxley book pic too.

The first story goes way back, to the 18th century – specifically, the decades-long sequence of editions of the Systema Naturae by Carl Linnaeus. This initial, monumental classification of living things was so damn accurate that it remains the linchpin of scientific knowledge of living things to this very day, changing only in its precise subdivisions rather than its structure and function. The point: that when you look in the vertebrates, you find mammals; when you look in mammals, you find primates; and when you look in the primates … you find people. Yeah. Humans = animals, indeed inside an already-inhabited group of animals.

Its ten editions span 1735-1780, decades before evolution was articulated or gained its name. This is the moment, and I’ll drill into 1747.

My upcoming book includes a detailed section about the 1747 Linnaeus-Gmelin exchange, so I will restrain myself from continuing here. Merely note the standing discrepancy between what the data show from the very first rigorous look and how people wrote about it publicly.

The second story is a neat century later, now in the mid-late 19th century. European scientists (and audiences) are getting their first look at real gorillas and other nonhuman apes, and Thomas Huxley gets to dissect one. Unlike Linnaeus, he was completely forthright about what he saw, in his 1868 Man’s Place in Nature.

Keep that in mind: (i) that Linnaeus’ private observation is now publicly confirmed; and (ii) that we are not only “in the apes” but firmly ensconced in a subgroup thereof with the gorillas and chimps. There is absolutely no “Anthropo-” group holding [gibbon / orang / gorilla / chimp] distinguished from a “Homo-” group holding just us.


In particular: if you think humans look funny in the above illustration, then consider these:

  • The relict effect: every species shown is the extant form of a rather speciose group, most of whom are extinct, and therefore each is quite funny-looking
  • Confirmation bias: that each species shown displays a highly derived and very effective form of locomotion; that all of them have bare skin somewhere and none of them have underfur … in other words, the human genus isn’t “obviously” the odd one, we simply want it to be

But that’s funny, you say – I never saw it put quite that way on the zoo placards, nature specials, or bio/anthro classes. No, you didn’t, because Huxley’s work in this precise regard was simply … minimized, that’s the only way to put it. Shifted slightly from we are one of the apes into we came from apes.

This shift was real and its history includes several smoking guns. I happen to take squinty taxonomic nuances very seriously, and I’ll turn this gaze to the overpowering taxonomic work most important to anything you ever saw or heard about the relevant group: George Gaylord Simpson’s 1945 Classification of Mammals.

Unequivocal. Conclusive. Done. Except … for some reason, the terms used to the right are still retained and taught, for no reason at all. They’re garbage. The absurd term “Hominidea,” assuming it’s not a typo, needs to be replaced with Hominidae, the subfamilies (ending with “-inae”) should be scrubbed, and the tribes (ending with “-ini”) should be scrubbed. If this were any mammalian group that happened not to contain us, such subdividing of the taxonomic levels at Subordinal, Superfamilial, Subfamilial, and Tribal would be laughed out of the room.

Alternately, depending on a closer look at precedence, the “Hom-” prefix should be abandoned for “Pong-,” resulting in Pongidae instead, and Pongoidea for the apes supergroup if we must have such a name. Those are the only two viable taxonomic options here, and which one is right is easily resolved if we’d only look.

This depressing and inexcusable miscarriage of science showed its face especially in the 1980s, during the first wave of DNA sequencing following the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). I stress that on its own J. N. Spuhler’s analysis of mitochondrial DNA among the apes was and is awesome. However, historically, bear in mind that passions and grant applications regarding the new technology were running hot-and-high, and the desire to see unique revelations from these analyses resulted in a telling discourse about the paper.

Here’s the paper: it’s unequivocally a landmark and required reading for any student of genetics, and you’ll see that Spuhler does not claim that genetic information is overturning anatomical information; he only contrasts his results with preceding genetic work. However, viewed unsympathetically, his literature review doesn’t concern anything but, and therefore the questions and the history of the topic across subdisciplines wasn’t brought fully into the light.

The science has never been confusing or contradictory: humans are apes. Not “from,” are. Every examination, every technological refinement we bring to it, confirms the basic observation and clarifies a corner of it. I stress, too, that it’s not a “precept of evolution” or anything to do with “believing” in it (give me strength) – this is classification based on observation and completely understandable methods of grouping creatures. It’s the observation that’s the problem though: it is terrifying to the vast majority of people who encounter it, and as I discussed in The evolution of evolution and develop in The Edge of Evolution, so scary that the response is the foundation for the entire interaction among evolutionary theory, mainstream Protestantism, and radical/reactionary Evangelism.

Next: Butchery


One thought on “Ape, man

  1. Pingback: Count Bacula, part 6: Monkeyshines | Man nor Beast

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