An anthropologist who thinks we aren't apes


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!

Then, failure.

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.

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Odd that he would, in an election year, cite flinging of poo as a difference.

This seems to be more a dispute over semantics than anything else. Marks isn't denying that humans and apes fall into the same taxonomic category---he specifically states that they do, in fact---his argument is centered more around the unique adaptions that undeniably separate us from the rest of the group. It's rather like the contextual usage of the word "animal"; nobody denies that humans belong to the Kingdom Animalia, but if I said, "You animal!" very few people would take it as a mere statement of scientific fact.

By Juan Diego Rossiter (not verified) on 03 Nov 2015 #permalink

I agree with Juan, it is a dispute over semantics, great apes can be considered as a paraphyletic group excluding humans.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 03 Nov 2015 #permalink

He's wrong on his cartoonish colloquialisms too: What do you call living in skyscrapers and flinging CO2 into the atmosphere? Trees and poo with a bit of technology.

Seriously though, I have never understood (except in a vaguely clinical sense) this need that some humans have, for the belief that they are "better than" someone else, even "better than" other animals. An enormous quantity of evil, racism being the paradigm case, has followed from that.

Re. Juan @ 3: I always say "humans _and other_ animals," because we _are_ animals, and we shouldn't be so hubricious as to separate ourselves from the rest of nature. I'd rather be an animal than a vegetable or mineral, wouldn't you?;-)

This exemplifies a common downfall of rationalist movements: the tendency to start thinking that favored abstractions are more real than the concrete realities from which they were derived. "Fish" don't exist in nature; such words are abstract concepts used to help structure and organize our observations of concrete things that do exist: tuna, hammerheads, morays, parakeets, elephants, humans. You wish to repurpose a common English word that always included only the first three of those six animals to include all of them, simply because your research involves the recognition of monophyletic groups only, and you want a nice short snappy word for that group.

However, for most ordinary activities the most useful abstractions applied to living things are, to use your enshrined jargon, phenetically defined categories that take symplesiomorphies and autapomorphies into consideration (i.e., for the uninitiated, based on overall similarity, including the possession of primitive, or contrarily novel and unique, characters). If one's goal is to obtain food, care properly for a pet, or figure out what animals one's fishing license entitles one to try to kill, the dictionary definition of "fish" is much more helpful than yours. Tell people that they are "stupid" and need to "go back to school" if they persist in using an abstract category that has long-since proven its utility outside the context of phylogeny production, and you just reinforce the impression that the abstraction "ivory tower academics" corresponds to a set of activities that have no relevance to ordinary life.

@ Jane
I fully agree with you, except that I would not call "rationalists" people saying that fish do not exist and that one should say "craniata" instead.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 04 Nov 2015 #permalink

PZ Myers' opening remarks are insulting and unprofessional. Professor Marks isn't claiming to write popular articles, he is writing popular articles. This arrogant reviewer fails to understand that there are legitimate alternative interpretations of word meanings, with different usages for different audiences. A physical anthropology text I am using in one class refers to nonhuman tool use traditions as "cultural"; in general anthropology (with stricter definitions of what constitutes "culture"), the word "protoculture" is used. That, too, could be argued that it implies a future evolution into true culture, with integrated elements. There are different contexts in which these words are used.

What is unacceptable is the lack of collegiality required of scientists in Myers' use of "terribly wrong-headed", etc. and
"Wow" and other sneering remarks. Cladistics is not the be-all and end-all of classificatory systems, and Professor Marks does not have to be scolded to "go back to school" or that his work is "stupid". PZ Myers needs to learn to write in a manner that is mature and civil.

By Deborah Swartz (not verified) on 04 Nov 2015 #permalink

Sadly, the more I read Dr. Myers' articles, the more I find him to be on the side of proper science. So he doesn't tolerate poor science writing - where's the problem?

Here are two crappy (imo) articles that appeared in the last week:

The Economist: Greater than the sum of its parts

BBC Earth: Meet a lamprey. Your ancestors looked just like it

Both demonstrate that writers who know nothing about cladistics or basic taxonomy are going to write a bunch of nonsense and mislead the public. These are the people who should be lying awake at night thinking "Boy, I sure hope Dr. Meyers doesn't read my article, because he's going to say some un-collegial things to me!" Or, the magazines could hire a frickin biologist to edit articles their regular editors don't have the background to understand.

So, what did y'all think of the Humans are not from Earth post?

If a software says " I am computer", and a human being think " I am ape", both are wrong. What's a human being is not an issue for evolutionary biologists while neurologist does not know how neurons relates to consciousness. When I think " What I am?" is not my physical body asking, it is my consciousness. It does not matter if my body was raped from apes, it is not my body thinking this question as I doubt that any ape think this question..

And my consciousness is a software inserted into a terrestrial biological body, be it ape or something else. Ehe Windows software came from Bill Gate's mind and not produced by computers, so, it is not logical to think that human bodies produced their consciousness. At last, Science has no data for afirm it.

The fact that we have less chromosomes than apes is due apes are better organic machine than us. And they are better machines because they reproduces faithful the machine that created all living beings here, the Newtonian machine. Human physical body is the necessary natural machine retrocess for nurturing a different origin from a different creator. Which we don't know who is, because we don't know what we are.

This is a science issue? Of course, not. Science deals with objects, real things, it does not makes comparisons of two things, does not do cladistic... humans do it. When Science alone enters in the apes' world in the jungle and in the humans world in New York, Science is dealing with two totally different things and has no real data indicating that one thing is related to another.

One day Science could to prove that our physical body came from apes and our consciousness came from our human brains. But, it didn't yet.

And if you want to talk for Science, you must feel as you are Science, and not a scientist atheist or theist or communist with their private interpretations behind Science.

By Louis Morelli (not verified) on 04 Nov 2015 #permalink

@ GregH
In the present case, Myers does not comment on the Economist or on the BBC. He is insulting a colleague on the ground he considers great apes as a paraphyletic group not including humans. But, as can be seen with the example of fish, considering only monophyletic groups is absurd. Admittedly, grouping otherwise is subjective and relative, but if you consider yourself very close to chimps, I will not insult you.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 05 Nov 2015 #permalink

This comment is off topic, but it is of Interest to People, because it examines the Conduct of Countries who belong to the 2 largest Religions of the World.

The recent Turkish Elections gave Turkey a Muslim Government, and we will see how they might Vote on Kosovo joining UNESCO, given that it is Illegal for Kosovo to join UNESCO, because of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, and it is also Immoral for Kosovo to join UNESCO.

The Religious People say that the Correct Way to Define Proper Conduct is what is known as the Golden Rule.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

All Countries want other Countries to Obey International Law, but many Catholic European Union Countries, and many Muslim Countries, think that they are Above the Law, and Above Human Norms.

Muslim Turkey has a Kurdish Minority that wants Independence, because they do not have their own Country of Kurdistan, and there are over 5,000 Races on this Planet, but there are less than 200 Countries.

Muslim Turkey does not want to give the Kurdish People their own Country, but Turkey wants to make Serbia’s Province of Kosovo become an Independent Country, and unlike the Kurds, the Albanians have a Country called Albania, even though no is objecting to them being in neighboring Countries.

Given these Facts, then the UNESCO Vote on Kosovo will be a Test of who practices Proper Conduct.

There are People who wonder why much of the European Union is the way it is, and it is because much of the European Union is dominated by Catholic Countries.

“They claim to know God, but they deny him by what they do. They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit to do anything good” (Titus 1:16).

Catholics and Muslims Know that Illegally changing borders, or Pressuring Nations to change their borders against their will is both a Sin against God, and it is Wrong even to Non Religious People who have a Conscience.

“You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:13-17).

“Cursed is he who moves his neighbour’s boundary mark. And all the people shall say, Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:17).

“Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28).

The Catholics have read the following Scriptures, and so they understand that God wants People to worship Him in the boundaries of their country, and in a non-racist manner.

“And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, For we also are His children” (Acts 17:26-28).

Poland has a Catholic Government, and Turkey has a Muslim Government, and we will see if they and others will reflect Proper Conduct regarding the Vote at the UNESCO Vote on Kosovo joining UNESCO.

History has shown us that the Catholic Countries like Croatia, Germany, and others where the Most Guilty during WW 2.

“They claim to know God, but they deny him by what they do. They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit to do anything good” (Titus 1:16).

Former Director-General of UNESCO Federico Mayor opposes Kosovo's membership in UNESCO, and the News Article is on the B 92 Website, and it is Titled: Former UNESCO chief against Kosovo's membership at… .

The Ottoman Empire of the past, and Muslim Albanians of today have Proved what the Europe will experience if they allow Catholicism and Islam to remain in the European Union at , and at .

GregH - I thought the Economist article on the eastern coyote or coywolf was pretty darned good for science (or anything, really) in the Economist. Cladistics is an abstract mental model, not a full description of the way the world really works. The evidence that gene flow has occurred recently between coyotes and wolves is, as far as I can tell, strong, as is the evidence of past gene flow between Homo sapiens and related hominins that had not yet been rendered extinct by our ancestors. The article coherently and rightly observes that this is a problem for simple definitions of species: hybridization between seemingly distinct species is a common fact that doesn't fit into the framework of strict cladism, but the alternative of decreeing that anything that hybridizes must be the same species no matter what its morphology won't satisfy taxonomists, or the public, at all.

As for the article on lampreys, I didn't think much of the content or style. However, a quick Google for "fish phylogeny" suggests that the lamprey is a very basal lineage, while eels proper (not closely related) are fairly basal as well, and they probably have many plesiomorphic features. That is, they do look like primitive vertebrates and chordates. Even Pikaia looked somewhat like a teeny little eel-like fish. Of course there will be numerous technical characters that differentiate eels from their distant ancestors, but for the public - those lumpen hoi polloi who are supposed to be breathlessly hanging on every word of the folks in white coats, and who have no experience of obscure fossils - envisioning our remote oceanic ancestors as looking like lampreys would be close enough to go on.

The first thing that needs to be understood regarding this comment is that there are Honest Christians in the European Union who do not Repress their Fellow Human Beings, and who do not commit Injustices against their Fellow Human Beings, and then there are the Catholics in the European Union.

There are some Muslim Countries in the World who do not Repress their Fellow Human Beings, and who do not commit Injustices against their Fellow Human Beings, and then there are the Muslims in Europe.and it needs to be understood that mention of Countries refers to the Leaders of those Countries, while there are Citizens of every Race in Europe who are Objective with regards to the Facts.

This comment contains some information proving that Germany and Catholicism in the European Union wants to use Islam in the European Union as their Secret Army for the Fourth Reich, and this is why Germany, and other Catholics support the Muslim Kosovo Albanians with their attempts to make Serbia's Southern Province Independent.

Islam in Europe is being used as a Political Movement that is Independent of Law and of Democracy, and so there could be some People who think that the European Union is better off without Catholicism and Islam in the European Union.

We know that the European Union President wants the European Union to Establish its own Army, and it is mainly Catholic Europe centered around the Germanic and Nordic Peoples who wish to Dominate the rest of Europe, and they are the Allies of the Muslims Albanians, and Muslim Bosnia in Europe, and France is pressured by Catholic Europe to follow Germanic and Nordic Europe.

We can see why the Catholic Countries of the European Union Act the way they do, and it is because, as European Catholics, they Love Evil, at… , and at… .

An Example of this is how Pope John Paul 2 beatified a Nazi War Criminal who was the Archbishop Stepinac of Croatia and the current Pope wants to make this Mass Murderer a Saint, and the Video is Titled: Nazi War Criminal and Roman Catholic Cardinal Stepinac at .

We know that Muslim Turkey is Guilty of several Genocides, and the one we hear of most of is the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and Turkey committed Genocides on Greeks and on others.

The Catholics in Europe are also Guilty of Genocide in Europe, and they wish to continue committing Genocide in Europe.

A Video of what the Catholic Church did in one part of Non Catholic Europe is Titled: Jasenovac - Cruelest Death Camp in WW2 (English subtitles) (WARNING -- NOT CENSORED) at .

We can see how the Radical Muslims of some of the Muslim Countries behave, and it needs to be said that not all Muslim Countries are Radical Fundamentalist Muslims, but Radical Fundamentalist Muslims Countries like Bosnia and Albania in Europe, at… .

The Croats of the former Yugoslavia, and the Albanian Muslims, and the Muslims of Bosnia Herzegovina were the Allies of the Hitler and other European Catholics, and they were involved in Genocide of Serbs and Jews in WW 2, and today the Muslims of Bosnia Herzegovina and the Muslims Kosovo Albanian are continuing their Cultural and Physical Genocide of the Serbian People which they began decades ago.

The World can Cope with a few Worthless Human Beings who happen to be ordinary People, but the World cannot survive if too Many of the Leaders of the more significant Countries of the World are Worthless People.

The World's Leaders including the Turkish People Know that Turkey committed Genocide, and they have not as yet Admitted to it, and All Worthwhile Leaders of the World should Admits to this, and Aplogies for its Genocide.

All of the Worthwhile Leaders as opposed to the Worthless Leaders of the Countries of the World Know that because of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, it is Illegal for Serbia's Province of Kosovo to join UNESCO, and we know that Worthless Leaders are a Danger to this Planet.