Jonathan Marks has written a terribly wrong-headed article — it’s embarrassingly bad, especially for someone who claims to be writing popular anthropology articles. He’s adamant that humans aren’t apes. He’s not denying evolutionary descent from a common ancestor, he just seems to fail to understand the nature of taxonomic categories.
What are we? We are human. Apes are hairy, sleep in trees, and fling their poo. I should make it clear: Nobody likes apes more than I do; I support their preservation in the wild and their sensitive treatment in captivity. I also don’t think I’m better than them. I’m smarter than they are, and they are stronger than I am. I’m just not one of them, regardless of my ancestry. I am different from them. And so are you. You and I have 46 chromosomes in our cells; chimpanzees have 48. They are indeed very similar, but if you know what to look for, you can tell their cells apart quite readily.
Wow. So wrong.
He’s confusing species with higher levels of the taxonomic hierarchy, that is, the leaves for the branches. If he’s going to take that attitude, there are no apes anywhere — there is no single species we’d call “apes”. Chimpanzees could similarly protest that they aren’t apes, they have a set of characteristics that distinguish them from those other apes, gorillas, humans, and orangutans. Gorillas could announce that they are Gorilla gorilla gorillia, not some damn dirty ape like chimps or humans or orangutans. And so on.
Of course we’re apes. We’re members of a broad group of related animals, and we call that taxonomic group the apes. What he’s doing is similar to if I declared that I’m not human, I’m an American — rejecting affiliation with a general category to claim exclusive membership to a subcategory.
And he goes on and on about it. Sorry, but I detest that definition by chromosome number. Are Down syndrome people not human? Minor rearrangements of chromosomes are fairly common — do they break some membership rule, so that you’re kicked out of the human club if you don’t have your genes in the right order?
He also has a cartoonish definition of apes. They live in trees and are hairy and throw poo. Again, it’s using the circumstantial to displace the general. “Ape” is a statement of relationship, not an individual — so to deny your apishness is to deny your history.
He almost sort of gets it.
And indeed we–that is, Homo sapiens–fall phylogenetically within the group that we call “apes.” Shouldn’t that make us apes?
On the other hand, we also fall phylogenetically within the group that we call “fish.” That is to say, a coelacanth is more closely related to us than it is to a trout. So we fall within the category that encompasses both coelacanths and trout, namely, fish.
Yes! He almost has it!
Yet we are not fish. There are certainly things to be understood by confronting our fish ancestry (such as our gestation in a saline, aqueous environment), but fish can’t read, so if you are reading this, then you are not a fish.
Jonathan Marks: go back to school and learn some cladistics. You don’t identify a clade by autapomorphies, or traits that are novel to a species, like reading. It’s like declaring that zebrafish have horizontal stripes, and fish don’t have stripes, therefore they are not fish. It’s stupid on multiple levels.
Until you’ve mastered the basic concepts, I’d appreciate it if you stopped miseducating the public, too.