Is it a Falsehood that Humans Evolve from Apes?
How about this one: Is it a Falsehood that Humans did NOT evolve from Apes????
Yes and no. Humans descend from a population of primates from which other apes also descended (minimally the two species of living chimps) and which was part of the panoply of late Miocene forms, all related to each other, that we call apes. So yes, humans evolved from apes.
There are people who don’t believe that. They, creationists, think that apes are apes and humans came from somewhere else, like the Garden of Eden or Mud or whatever. (This may depend on which flavor of creationist and, frankly, which humans the creationist is talking about … by some creationist theories, white people came from Eden, while various brown people came from various mud, and Jews came from monkeys.) When creationists object to the phrase “Humans evolved from apes” evolutionary biologists tend to respond with a long list of reasons that we should assume that humans and chimps DID evolve from a common ancestor which was an ape of some kind.
People who are not creationists, but still prefer some kind of human exceptionalism, may not like the phrase because it strongly implies that humans are apes, and they may prefer that we be thought of as different from apes.
Either way, we need to understand that the phrase “Humans evolved from apes” has two distinct meanings for people who hear it. One emphasizes the word “apes” and the other emphasizes the word “from.” By one way of thinking, the phrase means “Homo sapiens is one of several species of ape.” By the other way of thinking, the phrase means “Homo sapiens evolved from apes into something different.” Either way, some people will be annoyed. Either way, the statement may be correct.
When science educators, hear resistance to a phrase linking humans to apes, we tend to want to push the humans back in with the apes right away. We don’t want to encourage any sort of human exceptionalism, or any sort of random nonsense about how evolution didn’t happen. And, a natural extension to that way of thinking is to insist that humans are apes. Fully, unexceptionally, undeniably, apes.
Putting this in a slightly different, perhaps demented matter: “Humans evolved from apes” is wrong because “Humans evolved from apes.”
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 discussion of what an ape is and what a human is. And this is a trick one: The reason “humans evolved from apes” is false has nothing to do with the fact that it is true (which it is). It has to do with what is going on in people’s minds when they think “humans” (or “apes” or “evolved” or “from”).
So, how true is the statement that “humans ARE apes?” 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, “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….
As an experiment in both thinking about this and pedagogy, I’ve written part of the above discussion in a different way. Have a look:
The Kladistic Konundrum …
Cladists like to point out that a monophyletic (all related to each other and not distributed across a set of evolutionary branches with extra twigs in there) group is a member of the larger monophyletic group to which it blongs. Thus, a human is an ape, an ape is a primate, a primate is a mammal, and so on and so forth. Therefore, plain and simple, “humans are apes.” Anything that looks or smells like a contradiction to that is necessarily wrong.
This “cladistic requirement” is true, but it is sometimes misapplied. This is because a perfectly good monophyletic group can be joined with, or even infiltrated by, a perfectly good alternative category that is actually meaningful. For instance, it appears based on recent genetic research that polar bears are a form of brown bears. There is one species of brown bear seen as numerous populations including the Kodiak bear, the grizzly bear, the European brown bear, etc. Within this clade, as a branch not adjoining the brown bears but within them, is one population that happens to be maritime adapted and white. The polar bear. So, we have a separate species sitting there within a clump of closely related populations.
Does this mean that the numerous derived adaptations seen in polar bears are less important than they otherwise might seem, and the polar bear is just a subspecies of brown bear? Or, does it mean that there are several species of brown bear, rather than several populations, and one of them is white and eats seals? Yes, both could be true, depending on what you think is important. It think, though, that most people would keep the brown bears as one species and the polar bears as another species, and simply admit, despite the cladistic requirement, that a new “kind” of bear has emerged from another. Perhaps some day there will be multiple species of polar bear descending from this current form.
The following little conundrum illustrates the triviality (and misleading nature of) the cladistic requirement in relation to the question at hand (humans evolving from apes, or not).
When most people say “humans are apes” they do not mean that humans are “small bodied almost exclusively arboreal fruit-eating suspensory monogamous primates” which is what the vast majority of apes are, given that this describes gibbons and siamangs, and most apes are gibbons and siamangs.
Yes, it is true that apes can be divided into lesser apes and great apes. The lesser apes diversified first, the great apes later. So, why are the great apes not just a form of lesser apes? If your claim that humans “are” apes because they (hominids) diversified from an ape population is valid, then that logic MUST be applied to the other apes, so great apes are lesser apes.
Therefore, when a person says “humans are apes” they mean that humans are “small bodied almost exclusively arboreal fruit suspensory eating monogamous primates. Which they’re not. And, have they realized they were saying that, they probably would have put it differently.