Laelaps

How human an ape

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A mother gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and her child. Photographed at the National Zoo.

It may not be accurate to call our species “the third chimpanzee”, but there can be no separation between apes and humans. We are apes. This realization has only come recently. There has been a long tradition of scholars who have tried to find something, anything, to draw an unbreakable line between us and our nearest relatives. As Henry Smith Williams wrote in a 1900 biography of Ernst Haeckel published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, however, perhaps we have engaged in such efforts because apes are so uncomfortably similar to us;

I confess I have always found it hard to understand just why this peculiar aversion should always be held against the unoffending ape tribe. Why it would not be quite as satisfactory to find one’s ancestor in an ape, as in the alternative lines of, for example, the cow, or the hippopotamus, or the whale, or the dog, or the rat, has always been a mystery. Yet the fact of this prejudice holds. Probably we dislike the ape because of the very patency of his human affinities. The poor relation is objectionable not so much because he is poor as because he is a relation. So perhaps it is not the ape- ness, so to speak, of the ape that is objectionable, but rather the humanness.

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A young organutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Photographed at the National Zoo.

Comments

  1. #1 Boronx
    March 26, 2009

    Yes, we are apes. Meditate on this to maintain a happy marriage.

  2. #2 Fertanish
    March 26, 2009

    I dunno…apes seem pretty smart to me.

    I first saw the mother / baby pictured above in February. It was early on a Saturday morning indoors at the National Zoo Ape House and we kinda tagged along with somebody who gained access before the building was officially open. Four of us stood very quietly watching the mother sleep with and then gently hug her child not far in front of us (obviously behind the glass enclosure).

    About twenty minutes later, a fairly large group of young teenagers came into the house, moving quickly and talking loudly. In response, the mother quickly scooped the child under her arm and ran off to a dark corner of her enclosure. Not only was the mother and child far from the gaggle of young humans, but the baby was completely hidden away during the retreat, practically invisible to onlookers.

    Of course, many animals nurture their offspring, but the love and protection this mother showed for her child was remarkably touching and from my observation reached an intangible quality of affection. I would hope to think if I watched this scene with complete ignorance of science and somebody told me I had evolved from the mother I was looking at, I would be nothing but proud at the statement.

  3. #3 jck
    March 26, 2009

    I wonder if there would be fewer creationists if we were descended from lions or eagles or something “noble.” As for myself I kind of like the idea that our closest living relatives are poo-flinging nymphomaniacs.

  4. #4 ~L.K.
    March 26, 2009

    I think the reason why people are so hesitant to call themselves apes (or related to any other animal) is because some people out there think of themselves ‘better’. One of my roommates absolutely hated animals (which meant we weren’t roommates for very long). The only reason why she even slightly cared about monkeys and apes is due to their relation to being humanoid.

  5. #5 El PaleoFreak
    March 27, 2009

    Ape is a common word for furry, four-handed primates. The term ape doesn’t mean human. Some people want to change this, including the humans under the term “ape”. They think it is scientifically accurate, and that if you don’t agree, you are an ape-hater or a creationist.
    I am an evolution obsessed fan, an anti-creationist, and I “love” apes. But sorry; the scientific word for the clade that includes apes and humans is Hominoidea. We are hominoids, not apes. Ants are not wasps. Our ancestors were apes, and the ancestor of ants were wasps. Evolution happens.

  6. #6 Laelaps
    March 27, 2009

    EPF: I am not disputing the scientific term for the clade the includes gibbons, orangs, gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. I am just using “ape” as a non-technical equivalent. I see no reason to keep using “ape” in a paraphyletic sense.

  7. #7 Rosel
    March 27, 2009

    I don’t particularly like apes, but of course I’m not going to deny our lineage just because of that.
    Scientifically it’s rational, proven and shouldn’t be a problem, however I suppose culturally speaking there are downsides to saying we are animals, as people can take this as both an excuse (I can’t help it, it’s in my nature) or as a means of oppression (you can’t do that! it’s not natural!!)

    A bit like the appropriation of evolutionary theory by Social Darwinists, using science as a way to attempt to legitimise their own prejudices.

  8. #8 El PaleoFreak
    March 27, 2009

    I see no reason to force the meaning of common words to follow taxonomy rules. But of course you can use “apes” as a non-technical equivalent of Hominoidea, you are free of using words as you want, if you don’t mind causing confusion. We could use “humans” the same way (in fact, Hominoidea means humanoid, or human shaped). And then we could claim that “apes are humans” because apes are members of Hominoidea = the humans. That would be equally fine. I simply ask not to mistake a language change proposal with “Science” (“Humans are apes because Science says it”, told me a guy from the Wikipedia). And please don’t let opposite views being always accused of anti-evolutionary.

  9. #9 Raymond Minton
    March 27, 2009

    Our relatives, the chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, don’t kill each other by the millions, create death camps, or build Hydrogen bombs. Maybe they’re the ones who should feel insulted!

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