Consider the ape.

One popular misconception in our culture is that we are the evolutionary descendants of apes. People are prone to saying “we evolved from the apes.” People associate ape-like behavior as primitive and somehow assume it predates our civilized, “evolved” behavior.

People are wrong.

We did not evolve from the apes. The apes are still living! We evolved (and are still evolving) concurrently alongside the apes. Though it’s silly to compare degrees of “evolvedness,” people who assume the apes are in some pre-human stage are, to put it politely, rather misinformed.

I assume this misconception arises because non-scientists have a long track record of portraying evolution as some directed process towards an ideal form. The idea is that animals are always getting faster, smarter, and stronger, lest they be killed by those who are already fast, smart and strong. Evolution has become a stand-in for intelligence, so much so that the word “devolve” has entered our lexicon as a derogatory synonym for stupidity (e.g. the frat guy is said to have devolved from the college student).

Wrong again, people (except for the burn on frat guys, that theory holds water).

Most evolutionary biologists will tell you how poorly the phrase “survival of the fittest” describes evolution. What Darwin proposed (and biologists believe) is not in survival of the fittest, but in “descent with modification.” There are species, there are environments, and the pressure is on the species to adapt to their environment. If this means a species must shed its enormous forebrain or lose its coconut-crushing biceps, so be it. In other words, we are different than the apes, not more evolved.

You know the infamous diagram which shows the “transition” from ape to human?

Did you ever wonder about the other branch of the evolutionary tree? It’s not as cool looking, but it’s equally valid. Apes are still here. And apes have been evolving all the while.

Note: author is too lazy to research and draw the physical changes to the ape as it evolved.

Thus, it is wrong to impose some hierarchy of species or use evolution as justification for our species’ grossly inflated perception of itself. If humans are badass, its not because we are some evolutionary winner (I can make a strong argument that humans are badass because we produced the song The Final Countdown. Thanks, Europe!)

There is a (probably fake) picture going around the net right now of an Orangutan using a spear to fish. People are making a big fuss about it. They are making stupid internet comments such as “PLANET OF THE APES IS UPON US” and “THEY’RE EVOLVING!!!” The underlying assumption, of course, is that the apes are “catching up” on the evolutionary scale.

Don’t be like internet idiots. Next time you are at the dinner table and Aunt Prim&Proper makes some comment about your chimp-like manners, you can tell her where to stick her anthropocentric assumptions.

“Aunt Prim&Proper,” you’ll say.

“Such thinking is just one step removed from the geocentric silliness of yonder times. I think you owe an apology to the great apes.”

“Well, I never…” she’ll begin to respond, but silence will fall over the room.

She hath no recourse against the icy blade of science.

~ by wcuk on April 28, 2008.

3 Responses to “Consider the ape.”

  1. Welcome to Anthro 101. Now read this chapter on primitivism and watch Idiocracy…

  2. Excellent post. I found it thanks to the new (controversial) feature of WordPress “possibly related posts”! It would be unlikely to find it otherwise, unless it came up in a search (together with so many other posts that the chance of finding it is small).

    Not only I agree with everything you say, I will also refer to your post within mine! 🙂

  3. P.S. However, perhaps also… chickens are (still) dinosaurs:

    My Greek article, discusses this, pointing out that the old philosophical question “did the chicken make the egg, or did the egg make the chicken”, has now been resolved: “Tyrannosaurus made the chicken” (hehe):

    Hence, or otherwise, we may not be apes (100%) but we are entitled to protest (against anti-evolutionists):
    “How dare you insult my great-great-great-….grand-father”?

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