Did humans evolve from apes?

The next installment of “Everything you Know is Sort of Wrong” will be on the falsehood: “Humans evolved from apes.” Or, if you prefer, “Humans did not evolve from apes.” Either way, you’re wrong. And right.

Confused? Great, then we’re half way there! Here’s the details. (This is part of the Skeptically Speaking broadcast.) Please post your questions and tune in on Friday.


  1. #1 Azkyroth
    June 21, 2010

    Humans are apes, and share a common ancestor with other living ape species – a common ancestor that itself would be classified as an “ape” is a population survived.

  2. #2 Snarkyxanf
    June 21, 2010

    Humans are (one of the kinds of) evolved apes (all from the last common ape ancestor).

    We certainly did not evolve from any modern apes: apes and we are all evolved from earlier groups of apes.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2010

    What if the ape species that is the LCA of humans and the nearest living ape was exactly like that nearest living ape, to the extent that it would not be called a different speices? That would be a chimp, obviously. So, then, “We evolved from chimps” would be correct. Right?

  4. #4 Snarkyxanf
    June 21, 2010

    Well, the LCA of humans and chimps was not, in fact, close enough to be the same species (so far as I’m aware). But that does happen, with speciation events caused by isolated populations, or (in plants, especially) hybridization speciation.

    Even the original statement is not really wrong, as long as you’re clear that you’re talking about populations, not individuals, IMHO. Organisms do not evolve, populations do. Near the LCA, the boundaries of “species” are, by necessity, a bit hazy.

    Humanity is a population of apes that has evolved separately, without (significant) genetic transfer, from other populations of apes.

  5. #5 El PaleoFreak
    June 21, 2010

    “Either way, you’re wrong. And right”

    No. If you say “humans descended from apes” you are not wrong, you are right. Accumulated evidence from Darwin to our days is overwhelming. I’s a scientific fact. Don’t confuse people with this, please.

  6. #6 julfer mantne
    June 21, 2010

    If humans evolved from apes then how come the apes in the zoo aren’t humans that why i ask this questions, did we really evolved from apes/gorillas /monkeys.

    acai max cleanse

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2010

    (Snarkyxanf: I note parenthetically that the best estimate of a chimp-human LCA is a chimp, and there is nothing to contradict the idea that it was not simply a chimp.)

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2010

    El PaleoFreak: People are already confused, which is why we are talking about this. And that confusion can come from little things, like changing the wording!

    Anyway, there are those who do not like the”from” in “humans evolved FROM apes” in the same way that people don’t like the phrase “Homo erectus LEFT Africa” … Both imply things that didn’t happen or are not true, or reify or verify misconceptions in students.

  9. #9 Benjamin Franz
    June 21, 2010

    #6 julfer mantne appears to be a ‘fake participant’ spammer. Their link goes to a ‘health supplement’ page.

  10. #10 Benjamin Franz
    June 21, 2010

    Hmmm.. #6 is an exact cut-and-paste of a Yahoo Answers question: http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100222134447AAJV5BS

    Some kind of spammer bot linked to a web scraper to generate automatic ‘on topic’ posts?

  11. #11 darwinsdog
    June 21, 2010

    Ape is a set, human is a subset. Get it?

  12. #12 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2010

    So, then, what is the non-trivial of the term “ape” in the phrase “humans are apes”?

    Just as a reminder, the average ape is a monogamous, small bodies monomorphic suspensory fruit eater of Asia. (Most ape species are described this way).

  13. #13 José
    June 21, 2010

    What if we could get in a time machine and go back 8 million years to see the direct ancestors of modern chimps and we found that they hadn’t changed at all physically or behaviorally. Would the modern chimp and the 8 million year old ancestor necessarily even be the same species? What if chromosomal and/or genetic changes left them unable to interbreed?

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2010

    José: good questions. The species concept was not built to travel across time, so it tends to fall apart when put that that sort of work.

    There may be incompatibilities based entirely on immune system issues or other factors that would make a living species and a very recent ancestor that was otherwise identical to not interbreed. Would that make them not the same species?

  15. #15 Jim Thomerson
    June 21, 2010

    I have run across a few articles that suggest the LCA of humans + chimps and bonobos was more human-like than chimp-like. Also that chimps are more derived than humans. So I think arguing the LCA was indistinguishable from a modern chimp is poorly supported speciesism speculation. A Hennigian fundamentalist would insist that the speciation event which initiated the separate human and chimp evolutionary lines resulted in the extinction of the LCA species and the origin of two new species.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2010

    Jim, it could be secies-ism in some forms, but the argument has been well argued by Wrangham and Pilbeam and even me.

  17. #17 bomoore
    June 21, 2010

    Humans evolved from the first vertebrate that appeared during the Cambrian, 590-505 Mya. Always ask a geologist for correct answers, free of confusion.

  18. #18 Your Mammy
    June 22, 2010


  19. #19 Jim Thomerson
    June 22, 2010

    Take a look at this, particularly comment by Lovejoy in second to last paragraph. The idea that chimps are just like (almost, OK) like the LCA, is not universally supported.

    Thomersons came from England. Why are there still Thomersons in England?

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    June 22, 2010

    Jim, I’m famliar with this argument. At face value, this argument conflicts with the PREDICTIONS of our argument, but none of the facts. This leaves us in a difficult situation.

    One explanation (other than a misinterpretation of the anatomy) is that the chimp-human split is earlier than has recently been thought. There is good evidence for this. That maybe easier to believe than that gorill-chimp body plans evolved twice.

    Another explanation is that there was a greater diversity of hominoids than previously thought (not a suprise) and that among them there was a greater diversity of locomotory patterns.

    Along with this last bit, one can note that the difference in the overall anatomy of an early asutralopith and a modern chimp is very modest except in a few areas. The “human like” walking of early austrlopiths pushed by White, Lovejoy and Leakey is believed by a limited range of anatomists and is predicted, frankly, by where one works, what permits are needed, funding sources, (i.e. the usual tribal factors) more than by the measurements of the bones.

    I’m not at all interested in closing off the possibility that the LCA was more human like in locomotion that otherwise thought. I am, in fact, one of those people who suggested this at great risk to myself at conferences, etc., years back. I’m just not convinced of two things: a) That this evidence is being interpreted right and b) that a semi-bipedal positional behavior is all that important in an earl hominoid.

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  23. #23 Apid
    November 28, 2010

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  24. #24 Lucy Downer
    July 21, 2011

    go away.. im a monkey!!!!!

  25. #25 Joseph
    January 16, 2012

    HEY! I’m A MONKEY!