This is another falsehood, but a tricky one. Remember the point of falsehoods: They are statements that are typically associated with meanings or implications that are misleading or incorrect, and in some cases downright damaging. “Humans evolved from apes” is an excellent example of a falsehood because it is technically correct, yet the implied meanings that arise from it are potentially wrong. Even more importantly, you can’t really analyze the statement “Humans evolved from apes” without getting into an extended analysis and discussion of what an ape is and what a human is.
When most people think “humans evolved from apes” they think of humans and they think of apes (gorillas and chimpanzees) and they imagine the latter evolving into the former. Sometimes people then ask “Well, if apes evolved into humans, why are there still apes? Explain that, Mr. smart scientist guy!!!” or words to that effect. Also, when people think “humans evolved from apes” they may also focus on the word “from” and assume that human ancestors were apes and humans are not. That might be true, but it might not be true.
A priori and without knowledge, one can not assume that the ancient population (species) that was to give rise some modern ape species and to humans was like an ape, or like a human, or something else. There are a lot of possibilities out there. It turns out, and I’ve addressed this elsewhere, that the last common ancestor (LCA) of apes and humans was probably very much like a modern chimpanzee. So, living humans evolved from an ancient ape.
“Aha!” you may say. “Humans DID evolve from apes! Chimp-apes, to be exact!” and that would be a reasonable thing to scream at me. But you’d be missing a key point. The key point is that if you are the average person, you were ASSUMING that the ancestor of apes and humans was ape like because of your Western heteronormative racist Abrahamic biases that cause you to see non-human animals as inherently less evolved and more primitive than humans. You got it right but not because you KNEW something. You were guessing and you got lucky.
Also, it isn’t really completely true that the LCA of humans and chimps was a chimp. It was probably chimp-like, but it may also have been different in important ways, some readily visible if we were to meet up with them (after traveling back in time in a time machine).
Nonetheless, it is true that humans evolved from an ape ancestor, so the statement “humans evolved from apes” actually passes an important test. However, we’ve also seen that there can still be a misunderstanding with respect to the question of living apes not representing ancestral apes just because of some modern idea of primitivism, and the common creationist claim about a species not being able to exist if it gave rise to a different species some time during it’s history. So, you can say in a classroom “Humans evolved from apes” as long as you address these other issues to avoid a misunderstanding. And, you should be testing students with carefully worded multiple choice questions designed to trick them into revealing any misconceptions with which they may have come into the classroom, or that you may have managed to teach them by accident.
But wait, there is another problem with the statement “humans evolved from apes.” This is the part about “from.” The statement that is being made here, by implication, is that there apes, and then there were humans, and they are not the same thing, and one gave rise to another, and humans are not apes.
One could start off an entire course in biological anthropology with this statement and never really resolve it by the end of the semester. Humans are apes phylogenetically, but then again, apes are mammals phylogenetically and to say “apes are mammals” is trivial and uninteresting. It may be that there are interesting and important things about apes that make them apes to the exclusion of aardvarks or some other mammal. For example, if you go with the “apes are apes” idea, then apes are monogamous, 7 to 16 kg in body mass, eat almost exclusively fruit, and locomote almost exclusively by hanging under branches. The fact that this description excludes gorillas, chimps, and bonobos is of little consequence, because the vast majority of ape species are gibbons and siamangs.
“But wait!” you say (I have a feeling I’m going to get yelled at again). “Chimps and gorillas are great apes! When we say ‘apes’ we mean great apes! They are different than the broader category of apes!”
OK, fine, I’ll buy that, but you must now understand that you’ve fallen into my little trap! If great apes are distinct from “the apes” and you want to call them something different because of their body size, their locomotary pattern, their diet, and their mating system, then the same exact argument can be applied to humans, and humans are arguably not “apes” but some other category. Humans do not eat exclusively fruit (they eat mainly grains, roots, fruits, meat); they are similar to the great apes in body size, but not in body size dimorphism. They locomote in an entirely different way, and they have an entirely different mating system. And there are other differences as well.
So, the “from” in “humans evolved from apes” is OK if we want to think of humans as different from apes. Or, if you don’t like that you could say “humans are a form of ape” … (I often mistype from as form and form as from, so to me, it makes little difference!) … I’m not going to tell you that either one is wrong, because I’m agnostic on that point.
However, I tend towards thinking of humans as apes simply because of the pedagogical (and damaging) importance of human exceptionalism. Better that we think of ourselves as a form of ape. Well, actually, better that we think of ourselves as highly inadequate bacteria. But THAT is a different story altogether….
More Falsehoods !!!
This post is one of a series on the topic of falsehoods. The following is a list of falsehoods posts in order:
- The Falsehoods
- “False Pearls before Real Swine”
- Falsehood: A baby is not the biological offspring of its adoptive mother
- Falsehoods: Has evolution stopped for humans?
- Natural Selection is Survival Of the Fittest (A Falsehood)
- Falsehood: Nature maintains balance.
- Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?
- The poor and the dark skinned have more babies than the rich and the light skinned
- Acting for the survival of the species (a falsehood)
- Culture Overrides Biology (Another falsehood)
- What is the Placebo Effect, and it it getting stronger?