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:

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    August 28, 2009

    Well, actually, better that we think of ourselves as highly inadequate bacteria

    … or diverse bacterial colonies.

  2. #2 Jared
    August 28, 2009

    Yes, but I rather like monophyletic groups and to exclude humans from “apes” would be like excluding sea-snakes from other elapids because they are marine and eat fish. In phylogenies, we have a point in which all descendants of an of a common population are given a label, if you include chimpanzees and gibbons as “apes,” humans must also be included as we are descended from the same lineage as chimpanzees. We are also hominids, as were Neanderthal, Homo erectus, et al. While we may be distinct from chimpanzees. A taxon should not include some of a descendants rather than others if they are all descended from the same common ancestor which establishes that lineage. “Great apes” is one lineage, but “apes” are a lineage more distally from the present. All great apes are apes, but not all apes are great apes. This can be applied to humans as well.

  3. #3 Charles
    August 28, 2009

    It seems that we can apply the same reasoning to the statement “humans come from monkeys.” This is also abused by evolution deniers when they ask “then why are there still monkeys, etc.”

    Our common ancestor with monkeys might have been a monkey or a proto-monkey, but it’s certainly not the same as modern monkeys.

  4. #4 Zwirko
    August 28, 2009

    You could also point out that apes are monkeys (cladistically speaking).

  5. #5 mk
    August 28, 2009

    Humans are a primate that (which?) evolved from an earlier form of primate.

  6. #6 frog
    August 28, 2009

    This doesn’t make sense to me: 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.

    That principal also distinguishes every great ape from every other — orangutangs have a different mating system from the others — chimps aren’t committed fructivores — they all differ in locomotory patterns — gorilla dimorphism is quite different from chimps & orangs…

    It’s just anthropocentrism. Once again, verbalism is a killer. You can quantify phylogeny — the rest is just mutterings. We’re all Great Apes — it’s the simplest categorical system and is actually quantifiable.

  7. #7 Stacy
    August 28, 2009

    Am I allowed to put my cartoon here? :-)

  8. #8 F'tang F'tang
    August 28, 2009

    Modern humans and apes descended from earlier apes. There!

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2009

    exclude humans from “apes” would be like excluding sea-snakes from other elapids because they are marine and eat fish.

    So, you are saying that calling a gorilla an ape is the same thing as saying that it is not a primate? Is calling primates primates saying that they are not mammals? And so on? No, you are not saying that. But how does ape (hominoid) become a family distinct from OW simian primates? There is a very good argument that humans are similarly distinct. Again, I’m agnostic on this but I’m never going to accept the argument that the construction of new taxa is impossible because it makes cladists squeemish. No one is trying to violate the clades here. That would be bad.

    Charles and catharine: It seems that we can apply the same reasoning to the statement “humans come from monkeys.” This is also abused by evolution deniers when they ask “then why are there still monkeys, etc.”

    That’s a little harder because the last common ancester of the Old World Monkeys and Apes (to keep it simple) was not necessarily a catharine primate (as in like the living forms). But yes, there is something to that problem. In some ways, monkeys are apes could be better because in some traits the ancester of all monkeys and apes was more ape like. Monkeys are more derived in many ways.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2009

    Humans are a primate that (which?) evolved from an earlier form of primate.

    As offensive as that might be to some, it IS correct!!! (and meaningful)

    Frog: I made a correct parallel argument. Let me do it again more clearly:

    Diet: [gibbon/siamangs and great apes] [ humans]

    Locomiation: [Gibbons/siamangs][great apes] [humans]

    Mating system: [gibbons/siamangs] [great apes] [humans]*

    Body size: [gibbons/siamangs][chimps/orangs/humans ][gorillas]

    Given this, if these are the important variables, then the following can be said: IF great apes are different from gibbons, then humans could be considered different from great apes.

    Your yammering about anthropocentrism and how easy everything is to quantify is gibberish, unless you are trying to make a cladistic argument. Then, you are just wrong because we have not asked a cladistic question.

    *By mating system I mean “operational sex ratio” which places all the great apes together. There are other ways to do it that put each great ape in differnt groups but that does not make any of them like humans or gibbons

  11. #11 Brian Schmidt
    August 28, 2009

    “….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.”

    I think you said that you tested your students on the “humans evolved from apes” question, so did you follow your own advice or just grade it as true or false?

    My advice is that when you label something “false” that you should stick to something that is unambiguously false, not something that requires this degree of verbal tap dancing. I should think you would still have plenty of examples to draw from.

  12. #12 Jim Thomerson
    August 28, 2009

    Bad taxonomy is the root of all evil.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2009

    I think you said that you tested your students on the “humans evolved from apes” question, so did you follow your own advice or just grade it as true or false?

    No, I never asked that question in a TF or MC format. This is more of an essay question sort of topic!

  14. #14 Jared
    August 28, 2009

    New clades can be created, but they are not divisive in nature, but inclusive.

    Here’s a better example: reptiles and birds, if you include the tuatara, crocodilians, snakes, and amphibians under Reptilia you must include birds since birds are closer related to the crocodilians than crocodilians are to any other reptile. Mammals may be excluded from this group since their common ancestor with all reptiles predates the common ancestor of all reptiles (including birds). You can’t have it both ways as it results in a paraphyletic group.

    They are still birds, a newer taxa, but they are part of the Reptilia class if you include crocodilia.

  15. #15 El PaleoFreak
    August 28, 2009

    “Ape” is a commond word, not a technical, taxonomic, or scientific word. Humans descended from apes but we are not “a form” of ape. Humans are a form of hominoid (Hominoidea), a valid taxon that includes apes and humans. Some scientists and science writers pretend to synonymize the words “ape” and “Hominoidea” in order to fight real or imaginary anthropocentrism. I think it’s absurd.

  16. #16 Jared
    August 29, 2009

    “pit viper” is also a common term, that does not mean it isn’t synonymous with Crotalinae. I see your argument, that we can use common names to refer to any arbitrarily defined group, including or excluding any organisms based upon our own ideas of what constitutes this group. Of course we can, but we can also use taxa to refer to arbitrary groups, that does not mean we should. For explanatory power, equating common names to specific taxonomic groups is what educators have always done and will continue to do. For this purpose, “ape”=Homonoidea just like “pit viper”=Crotalinae

  17. #17 Jim Thomerson
    August 29, 2009

    Turtles are no longer Reptiles; now Class Chelonia. And yes, birds are reptiles. Learn something new ever’day.

  18. #18 Mike Keesey
    August 29, 2009

    That’s a little harder because the last common ancester of the Old World Monkeys and Apes (to keep it simple) was not necessarily a catharine primate (as in like the living forms).

    Are you suggesting that Catarrhini is polyphyletic? Otherwise, the LCA of Old World monkeys and apes most certainly was a catarrhine.

  19. #19 Mike Keesey
    August 29, 2009

    Incidentally, I wrote an essay on similar lines here: http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/2007/12/human-origins-wrongs-answers-to.html

  20. #20 Mike Keesey
    August 29, 2009

    Turtles are no longer Reptiles; now Class Chelonia.

    “Testudines” is the preferred name, since Chelonia is also a genus.

    There are many different definitions of “Reptilia” (whether its rank be class or whatever–ranks are arbitrary), but none of the ones used recently exclude turtles. The term is rather problematic, and some people (self included) think it should be avoided. “Sauropsida” is the name of the clade including turtles, lepidosaurs (tuataras and lizards, the latter including snakes), and archosaurs (crocodylians and avians).

  21. #21 Mike Keesey
    August 29, 2009

    There are a lot of parallel cases that can be made throughout living things:

    Humans are a type of ape.
    Apes are a type of monkey.
    Baboons are a type of mangabey.
    Snakes are a type of lizard.
    Birds are a type of dinosaur.
    Termites are a type of cockroach.
    Fleas are a type of scorpionfly.
    Butterflies are a type of moth.
    Bees are a type of wasp.
    Ants are another type of wasp.

    And so on.

  22. #22 Charles
    August 30, 2009

    Taxonomy of species seems so slippery.

  23. #23 timbuga
    August 30, 2009

    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.

    Do you know of any culture that doesn’t see non-human simians as “inherently less evolved and more primitive than” (in the incorrect, non-technical sense of “inferior to”) humans?

    Also: when the words are used in their correct, technical sense, humans certainly are more evolved and less primitive than non-human apes – i.e. physiologically (and behaviourally!) more distant from the last common ancestor. Just like birds are more “evolved” than crocodiles.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    August 30, 2009

    timbuga:I think you need to reexamine your netero-cladistic pangean assumptions.

  25. #25 Jared
    August 30, 2009

    Birds are “more evolved” than crocodiles? How? This is news to me…

  26. #26 Jared
    August 30, 2009

    Wait, hang on, Turtles are no longer classed as Reptilia? Testudine LCA with squamates is more recent than the Archosauriform LCA with squamates… I’m confused, is there new data suggesting turtles are less closely related to squamates than crocodilians and birds are?

  27. #27 Jim Thomerson
    August 30, 2009

    Not expert on turtles; should talk to friends who are, I suppose. I googled around and got the statement that the earliest amniotes were cotylosaurs who were anaspids as are turtles. I would take this as supporting that LCA of turtles was earlier than the LCA of the Reptiles, crocs included. We need expertise here.

    Nah, species taxonomy is not all that slippery, but is challenging.

  28. #28 Jared
    August 30, 2009

    I found a paper suggesting that testudines predate the LCA of all other reptiles including all archosaurs. See, even someone like me that follows the phylogeny of Viperids can miss the phylogeny of testudines! It’s not slippery, but it’s a lot of shit to keep up with, and the terminology gets slippery, because, ok, are “turtles” to be considered “reptiles?” If so, we need to include crocodilians and birds, too…

    The actual phylogeny isn’t slippery, what we call them can get slippery.

  29. #29 Jim Thomerson
    August 30, 2009

    My expertise is in recognizing fish species. I’ve described a couple of genera, revised one genus twice, and coauthored one family level DNA phylogeny study. I accept the idea that taxonomy, the names, should reflect the phylogeny. The most idealistic expression of this idea is that one should be able to reconstruct the phylogeny from the taxonomy. The converse of this is that the taxonomy is, itself, an hypothesis of relationship. In real life, I am reasonably happy if the taxonomy is limited to monophyletic entities and doesn’t contradict the phylogeny.

    So far as common names go, in some groups, North American freshwater fishes for example, we have official lists of common and scientific species names which we all use. The scientific names change as our understanding of relationships changes, but the common names are quite stable.

  30. #30 El PaleoFreak
    August 30, 2009

    “Bees are a type of wasp.” (etc.)

    No. Bees are a type of insect, Hymenoptera, Apocrita, etc., as well as wasps. “Wasp” is a common term and its meaning doesn’t match the bees or the ants, even if it’s true that bees and ants evolved from wasps. The same follows with “apes”, “snakes”, and so on.
    Common words from common language* don’t have to obey cladistic rules.

    *The term “Dinosaur” is different: it has a scientific origin, and in my opinion it should be used linked to a taxon name (Dinosauria).

  31. #31 David Horton
    August 31, 2009

    Yes, as you say, the problem is in the word “from”, and this is a subset of the problem that creationists have no idea that there are two parts to evolution adaptation and speciation. There lack of any understanding of the second part is why they come up with the nonsense about chimps still existing now disproves evolution. It is probably better to avoid the “from” construction. What really happened of course is that two populations of “orechimps” became geographically separated. Adaptation continued in both, but the resultant genetic compositions of the two populations could no longer be shared. It seems, as is often the case, that the adaptation of one population, perhaps because it found itself in a more radically changing habitat, resulted in animals that came to look like us. The other population (perhaps) remained in a more constant habitat and therefore retained more of the characteristics of the prechimps. Our shorthand for this differentiation (we know what we mean) is that humans evolved from chimps. Perhaps we should always give the more complex description (which also gets rid of the creationist nonsense about missing links) but I doubt it will make any difference to those who imagine there is a god to be created in the image of 6000 years ago.

  32. #32 David Horton
    August 31, 2009

    My apologies for the typos esp of “prechimps” and “there” – it has been a long day!

  33. #33 Gil
    August 31, 2009

    A funny joke during “The Problem With Popplers” episode of Futurama was the humans dressing up an ape as Leela and the Omicronian King Lrr has great difficulty discerning the difference between an ape and a human. From an alien’s perspective a chimp and a human would be practically siblings as they share 98% of their jeansgenes. By rights if another planet was discovered and was brimming with life then the genetic material ought to be significantly different from that of Earth’s genetic material. Also what qualifies as to what make a plant or animal on Earth may not be so clear cut on another planet. Heck, inevitably all life on Earth has a common ancestor.

  34. #34 timbuga
    August 31, 2009

    Birds are “more evolved” than crocodiles? How?

    In the sense that early Archosaurs looked more like crocodilians than like birds. That’s the only meaningful sense for “primitive” or “more evolved” (I think Dawkins wrote a book chapter about that). If there is a detailed cladistic analysis that proves the opposite, then I apologize.

    timbuga:I think you need to reexamine your netero-cladistic pangean assumptions.

    Who doesn’t? But some links / citations / counter-examples would certainly help.

  35. #35 Greg Laden
    August 31, 2009

    timbuga, I’m afraid that I don’t have time to do the homework you have randomly assigned me, but if you would like to provide a cladistic analysis that demonstrates that birds are more derived than lizards (or whatever) plesae do so! And quick, before some of my commenters get mad at you! (for making broad factual assertions without references and when challenged requiring references from those who challenge you. )

  36. #36 Jared
    August 31, 2009

    timbuga, we all know external visual appearance is indicative of evolving, don’t we
    /sarcasm

    Seriously though, study your ancestral archosaurs, the earliest crocodilians look nothing like modern ones….

  37. #37 timbuga
    August 31, 2009

    Seriously, guys. (Search for “Mayr” in the second link)

    Crocs are cold-blooded, crawling, scaled, and have teeth. Birds are hot-blooded, feathered, toothless – and they fly. With humans, they’re the classical counter-example to, well, the falsehood that “having more inherited common characters implies sharing a closer common ancestor”.

  38. #38 Greg Laden
    August 31, 2009

    Birds are not hot-blooded. They are homeothermic endotherms. There are probably other members of this larger clade, now extinct, that are as well, based on estimated from the fossil record. Yes, feathers are derived from scales, but what about thermal control of offspring sex? Is that derived or not? Do you know?

    If you change “closer” to “more similar” you will be heading in the right direction, sort of.

  39. #39 Jared
    August 31, 2009

    Crocs are cold blooded, ok, and have you seen this:
    Seymour RS, Bennet-Stamper CL, Johnston SD, Carrier DR, Grigg GC (2004) Evidence for endothermic ancestors of crocodiles at the stem of archosaur evolution. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 77(6):1051-106

    If you want to go with that text on evolution, (I actually own it, it’s a nice reference) I encourage you to read it in context. My point is that stating something is more similar to the common ancestor and has retained more characteristics does not indicate it is “less evolved.” I could (but won’t) similarly argue that because fewer species and numbers of crocodilians exist, they have undergone more strict selection (read: evolution via stabilizing selection) than have birds, which have radiated considerably. Stating one group is “more evolved” than another on the basis of novel characteristics is pretty much a vacuous claim.

  40. #40 amphiox
    August 31, 2009

    timbuga, as far as I know, the stem archosaur was a small bipedal insect eating critter. It didn’t have any ossified dermal armor plates, it wasn’t aquatic, had no epiglottic valve, didn’t do death rolls, didn’t have powerful bone crushing jaws, and didn’t have 2 aortas. And we have no idea what its homeothermic status was. There’s even been some suggestion that the stem archosaur already had protofeathers.

    So no, it isn’t obvious at a glance that crocodylians are less derived than birds. They might well be, but we need a true trait by trait comparison for know that for sure.

  41. #41 Rob
    August 31, 2009

    Evolved from?… we still are apes, why is this such an issue?

  42. #42 techskeptic
    August 31, 2009

    “Well, if apes evolved into humans, why are there still apes? Explain that, Mr. smart scientist guy!!!”

    Well, if some British became Americans, why are there still Canadians? Explain that, Mr. smart scientist guy!!!

    There I de-equivocated it for them.

  43. #43 Divalent
    August 31, 2009

    Greg Laden: “They [falsehoods] are statements that are typically associated with meanings or implications that are misleading or incorrect, and in some cases downright damaging.”

    This is a very Orwellian definition of the word “falsehood”. Very scary.

  44. #44 Stephanie Z
    August 31, 2009

    Orwellian how? False still equals incorrect.

  45. #45 Jim Thomerson
    September 1, 2009

    I think it was Asimov who said something like. “It is false to say the earth is a sphere. But it is more false to say the earth is flat.” Popper talks about verisimillitude, truth-likeness. Hopefully as science goes along our theories contain more and more verisimillitude.

  46. #46 Jared
    September 1, 2009

    It was Colbert who talked about truthiness…

  47. #47 Greg Laden
    September 1, 2009

    Divalent: Please expand, I don’t get what you are talking about, but it sounds interesting!

  48. #48 Jim Thomerson
    September 1, 2009

    ‘Humans did not evolve from apes.’ is clearly a falsehood with 0 verisimillitude. I think it is bad taxonomy to say ‘Humans did evolve from apes.’ is also a falsehood. The statement can be confusing to someone who does not have adequate knowledge of the situation; and that is not good. I think that the second statement is an example of a true statement simplified and pared down to where it is easily misunderstood.

    One of my geology professors at the University of Texas argued that geology undergraduate education consisted of the faculty lying to students through the freshman year; then spending the remaining three years trying to convince the students they had bee lied to. Because I have 32 years experience teaching introductory and general education courses, I see his point. The first presentation of an idea has to be simplified to the point that it can be grasped by a novice. It is a real challenge to simplify a concept while still retaining a high degree of verisimillitude. Perhaps this is really what we are talking about here.

  49. #49 Jared
    September 1, 2009

    We need to figure out ways of presenting this in a succinct and accurate way. I have a few ideas for falsehoods about genetics and evolution, but the others give me issues. The idea of an ongoing list of falsehoods and discussion about how to better present the information could be very useful for instructors in all academic levels.

  50. #50 Deepak
    December 27, 2009

    I have similar feeling as well. If humans evolved from some other species like apes, then there should not be co- existence of both. This does not make sense that a portion of the apes got smarter and become human and rest were left behind. If there was anything like evolution of humans from apes, it could have happened due to some climate change and in that case there would have been no existence of any kind of apes on this earth, which is not true.

    One of the possibility could be that humans and apes may have lived closely before the rise of civilzation. May be that could be the reason behind the findings of the fossils found by the scientists during excavation and their theories.

    Another thing to mention here is that, humans are the only living beings on this earth who balance there body on there heels, rest all other animals including apes they balance there body with their toes and not the heels. I believe this is the bigest distinction to prove this fact.

  51. #51 Greg Laden
    December 27, 2009

    I have similar feeling as well. If humans evolved from some other species like apes, then there should not be co- existence of both. This does not make sense that a portion of the apes got smarter and become human and rest were left behind. If there was anything like evolution of humans from apes, it could have happened due to some climate change and in that case there would have been no existence of any kind of apes on this earth, which is not true.

    This is simply not how evolution works at all.

    We know that all life on earth arose from single original species. By the model you are using here, there would today be only one species still.

Current ye@r *