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Is "Humans are (not) Apes" a factual or political statement?

Post of the Month: July 2012


Subject:    | How transitional fossils are determined
Date:       | 10 Jul 2012
Message-ID: |

Howard Hershey's POTM begins as a reply to this post.
Thought I would respond to Hawks, since, unlike UC, he actually tries to make an argument.

> Hawks:
> "We shouldn't smuggle taxonomic principles into everyday language to
> make a political argument.

Here lies the crux of UC's lament and Hawks argument. He thinks that any instance of smuggling taxonomic principles into everyday language involves making a political argument.

> That's what "humans are apes" ultimately is
> -- it's an argument that we aren't as great as we think we are.

Or, instead, it is the equivalent of an astronomer pointing out to someone that the 'sun' is, in fact, a 'star'. That is that the scientific understanding of what the 'sun' is has changed. The fact is, as UC keeps saying, that humans are classified within the same group as the other great apes. And in that sense, humans are indeed 'apes'.

Moreover, Hawks argument can also be applied to always keeping the word 'ape' as meaning the other great apes but not humans. That too can be described as a "political" argument, but one that argues that humans are as great as older cultures thought we were.

Frankly, I am a pluralist and try not to use the words in a political manner. When one correctly points out that humans really do belong to the same biological classification category as the other great apes and, in that sense, are "apes", that does not either diminish humanity's unique abilities and features nor does using the term (casually) to refer to the other great apes enhance humanity's uniqueness.

> Whether humans are special or not should be derived from biology;

Again, how does ignoring or lying about where humans are classified either enhance or detract from our specialness?

I am more than willing to point out humanity's highly derived features that differ from the other great apes, who, in turn, have undergone less change from the ancestral common ancestor.

> I don't think we need to make the argument by applying Orwellian
> coercion to the meanings of English words. Biologists control
> taxonomic terminology, and that's where science should aim.

And, as I point out, when biologists use the term 'ape' to be inclusive of humans, they are indeed pointing out the position of humans in a taxonomic scheme that has changed. Just like astronomers, when they describe the 'sun' as a 'star', are pointing out their relationship to a taxonomic scheme that has changed. In both cases, some people undoubtedly regarded the change as being 'Orwellian' and 'political'. Both relegate the 'sun' or 'humanity' to a larger category that they regarded as making the object less "special". But that loss of specialness is purely in their minds. The sun is no less special to us because we recognize that it is a star than humanity is any less special because we recognize that, in biological classification, humans are included in the group of 'great apes'.

> I don't think I'm being old-fashioned, nor am I promoting the idea
> that humans aren't part of the primate phylogeny. I'm only promoting
> the idea that we use taxonomy for its intended purpose, and not insist
> that English do the job instead.

We can, however, change the taxonomic use of the term to at least recognize phylogeny. Again, I have no problem with using 'ape' in its traditional meaning when applied to what I am going to see at the zoo or when I specifically want to refer to the other great apes that lack features of human specialness: for example, do apes use tools can be asked without noting the obvious fact that humans certainly do. But someone using the traditional meaning as political weapon to emphasis human uniqueness or deny human relatedness to the other great apes is doing exactly what Hawks is talking about.

> We aren't apes. And it's OK to teach your children that chimpanzees
> are apes, not monkeys. Because that's what I do."

I would also point out here, that taxonomically, the apes are included in the category Catarrhini which includes both the great apes and the other Old World monkeys. So, in the context of categorization, chimpanzees are a species that are within the category of Old World monkeys. In that sense, chimpanzees are monkeys. That neither makes them lesser or more than they are. And it certainly is not a "political" or "Orwellian" statement. Unless, of course, you don't accept modern taxonomy.

In traditonal taxonomy, the group of "monkeys" included both the Old World and New World monkeys and excluded the lesser and greater apes. This is now considered to be misleading.

"Thus, the two sets of groups, and hence names, do not match, which causes problems in relating scientific names to common names. Consider the superfamily Hominoidea. In terms of the common names on the right, this group consists of apes and humans, and there is no single common name for all the members of the group. One possibility is to create a new common name, in this case "hominoids". Another possibility is to expand the use of one of the traditional terms. For example, in a 2005 book, the vertebrate palaeontologist Benton wrote, "The apes, Hominoidea, today include the gibbons and orang-utan ... the gorilla and chimpanzee ... and humans",[10] thereby using "apes" to mean "hominoids". The group traditionally called "apes" must then be called the "nonhuman apes". As of July 2011, there is no consensus as to which approach to follow, whether to accept traditional paraphyletic common names or whether to use monophyletic names, either new ones or adaptations of old ones. Both approaches will be found in biological sources, often in the same work. Thus, although Benton defines "apes" to include humans, he also repeatedly uses "ape-like" to mean "like an ape rather than a human", and when discussing the reaction of others to a new fossil writes of "claims that Orrorin ... was an ape rather than a human""

Modern taxonomy prefers monophyletic over the paraphyletic groupings of "traditional" taxonomy. So in that sense the claim that chimps, in the technical taxonomic sense, are monkeys and that humans, in the technical taxonomic sense, are great apes is due to a change in taxonomy. One that better reflects underlying reality and that actually involves far greater change in other "common" or "traditional" terms than it does for humans.

Unlike the case with humans, the statement "apes are a subgroup of the Old World monkeys" or "birds are the living descendants of dinosaurs" doesn't bother most people. But the logic is the same and does differ from "traditional" taxonomy.

Modern taxonomy uses a branching model of relatedness that was often violated in traditional taxonomy (typically for arbitrary reasons of either incidental similarity (fish) or incidental differences (birds) or incomplete knowledge.


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