Why are there still monkeys?

Vervet

Once upon a time, a Roman author named Quintus Ennius wrote: “how like us is that very ugly beast, the ape!” It was quoted by Cicero, and from him Bacon, Montaigne and various others. But always it was thought that apes (simia, literally “the similar ones”), which in that time include monkeys and what we now call apes indifferently, were distinct from humans in every meaningful way. As Cicero said after citing Ennius, the character is different.

But then along came a Swedish botanist turned generalist, Carolus Linnaeus, in the 18th century, and despite being a creationist, he put apes, monkeys and humans in the same group (Primata, literally, “the first ones”), and worse, apes and humans into a single genus, Homo. He wrote to Johann Georg Gmelin

It is not pleasing that I placed humans among the primates, but man knows himself. Let us get the words out of the way. It will be equal to me by whatever name they are treated. But I ask you and the whole world a generic difference between men and simians in accordance with the principles of Natural History. I certainly know none. If only someone would tell me one! If I called man an ape or vice versa I would bring together all the theologians against me. Perhaps I ought to have, in accordance with the law of the discipline [of Natural History].

Nevertheless the theologians objected to humans and apes being placed into the same class no matter what the reason, and in 1775, Blumenbach revised the classification so that Humans were the sole members of Homo and Chimps the sole members of Pan. No real reason was given, as this was both intuitively (read: “religiously”) obvious, and the period in which Authorities got to make classifications based on what seemed best to them, stated or unstated.

Which brings me to the continuous Creationist canard (no, it’s not a duck): Why are there still monkeys if humans evolved from monkeys?

There are two sides to this question: one is whether any modern view of evolution requires that there only be one instance of a “type” and once it has been evolved out of, it should go extinct. This is a silly belief that itself is based on ideas that predate even Linnaeus – that each “position” on the “scale of nature” once occupied by a lineage, must become empty when that lineage moves upward. No theory of evolution has held this view for at least 200 years, even before Darwin. If we did evolve from monkeys, then monkeys do not all have to go extinct just because another kind of monkey (i.e., us) has evolved.

The second side to the question though is this: were our ancestors monkeys at all? And the answer to this is subtle.

There are basically two ways to classify things in biology. One is by identity – if group X is the same in some important manner to Y, then X + Y form a group based on that identity. The biological term for identity of characters here is homology, a term proposed by Richard Owen in 1843. It means the same organ under all variations of form and function. All organisms that have a heart form a single group – no matter if the hearts are single chambered, double chambered, or four-chambered. But organisms that have some kind of pump that is not “the same” as the heart are not in that way homologous – if, say, the “heart” in that species develops out of the anus or something, and not in the thoracic part of the body.

The other way is to classify by similarity. Something is in the same class as another thing if it resembles the other. Similarity is not identity – the anus-heart would be classified as similar to the thoracic heart in virtue of a similar task or even activity and structure. To say that humans are not like beasts is to classify by what seems important to use as a similarity measure to us. The biological term for a trait that resembles others because of form or structure is homoplasy. Bats’, birds’ and insects’ wings are homoplasious – similar because of what they do, not because they are the same parts used.

Something can be the same even if it is not very similar, and groups made by identity are called taxa (singular taxon), whereas groups made by similarity are types. Classifications of taxa are called, naturally, a taxonomy. A classification based on types is a typology. These are often confused, even by scientists.

So were our ancestors monkeys? Each way of classifying gives a different answer. On the identity criterion, humans fall naturally into several increasingly larger groups: Homo is in Hominini, which includes several now extinct Homo species and chimps; Homininae, which includes hominids as well as gorillas; Hominidae, which also includes orangutans, and Hominoidea, which includes gibbons. Hominoidea is referred to as the African Great Apes, although the gibbon and orangutan live in Asia. It a part of Catarrhini, or the Old World (African and Eurasian) monkeys.

Hominini

So, if you classify by taxa, any immediate ancestor of our species was a member of Homo, Hominoidea (and hence the apes), and Catarrhini (or the Old World Monkeys). Hence our ancestor was a monkey, because we are monkeys (and apes).

But “monkey” is typically understood to mean a Primate that has a tail, and so it includes also the New World (American) monkeys: the Platyrrhini. But apes do not have tails, so “monkey” defined by similarity as a type is basically Primate minus Hominoidea. This is like saying that a cookie (or biscuit in the sensible English speaking part of the world) is whatever is left after a bite has been taken out of it. It is what taxonomists call a paraphyletic group: a group that is everything left over by some exclusion of a part that would normally be included.

Now, our ancestors were never New World monkeys. The term “monkey” therefore refers to animals that include organisms that don’t share our ancestry further down the tree. It’s a type, not a taxon.

Ordinary language is typical. That is, ordinary terms like “monkey” refer to things that resemble each other is ways that may not even be scientifically natural. It’s best when making a scientific claim to use scientific terms, because they refer to natural things, natural classes. So a scientist would say “humans evolved from hominoids, which evolved from catarrhines, which evolved from an ancestral primate.” An ordinary speaker would throw their hands up in despair and say “Just tell me, did we evolve from monkeys or not?!” They are speaking past each other. “Monkey” has no scientific meaning.

Some scientists, though, think that this is just logic and language chopping. Of course whatever it is that humans have as their distant ancestor would have been called a “monkey” in ordinary (that is, typical) terms. Geogre Simpson once said exactly that:

On this subject, by the way, there has been way too much pussyfooting. Apologists emphasize that man cannot be the descendant of any living ape—a statement that is obvious to the verge of imbecility—and go on to state or imply that man is not really descended from an ape or monkey at all, but from an earlier common ancestor. In fact, that earlier ancestor would certainly be called an ape or monkey in popular speech by anyone who saw it. Since the terms ape and monkey are defined by popular usage, man’s ancestors were apes or monkeys (or successively both). It is pusillanimous if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise (1964, p. 12).

This passage is much beloved of creationists, for it seems to be an obvious contradiction to the view that evolution does not say that our ancestors were monkeys. Simpson in fact was of the old school (note that this is written in 1964, before the form of classification I call “by taxa” was developed – it’s known professionally as “phylogenetic taxonomy”, or “cladistics”). But even so, read what he says carefully: No living ape is our ancestor (or even very much like our ancestor to an anatomist). So if by “ape” (or “monkey”) you mean a chimp or a macaque or an orangutan, no, we are not evolved from these ugly beasts.

So when someone asks if we evolved from monkeys, tell them “Yes, if by “monkey” you mean a primate; no, if you mean Primate minus Hominoid”. Of course at some very early and distant time our ancestors were monkeys, but not recently.

Now, back to the “why are there still monkeys?” part of the question: on the older view of evolution that was the common idea of evolution for a century prior to Darwin (both the evolution of organisms, or languages, and of social institutions), if a lineage had evolved, it moved “up” the ladder as a whole. On the Darwinian view, only one part of a species evolves into the next (and there’s no “next step” – a species evolves into whatever suits the local conditions of the population it evolves from; it may be bigger brained or smaller brained, or for that matter bigger or smaller). The rest of the species remains. So we end up with an increase in the diversity of life, which is, I think, the single most important point Darwin ever made. Monkeys remain because we are monkeys, and so are chimps, orangs, and all those other primates. All of them remain because they evolved by the multiplication of taxa.

89 thoughts on “Why are there still monkeys?

  1. Could you cite some source of mainstream creationist thought

    Heh. Creationists and thought don’t go together.

    This is a classic attempt to belittle creationist thought with argumentum ad hominem.

    No it isn’t. If someone misrepresents someone else’s viewpoint then it’s a Strawman argument. An ad hominem argument is “John Smith is an idiot. Don’t listen to him”.

    I would check out Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research and find out what their arguments really are BEFORE trying to refute creationist positions

    …been there. Done that. Laughed at the play-science that they think they’re doing.

    Plus, this discussion about monkeys is an old argument. Let’s here something new!

    …sure. But how about creationists start first? surely it’s their time to come up with a new idea rather than spouting the tired old canards (“God did it” being the ultimate in tired old canards).
    –Simon

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  2. 1. Simon7, “Creationists and thought don’t go together” = argumentum ad hominem. You just attacked the Creationist rather than what arguments he uses by belittling his mental capacity.
    2. Simon7, I concede on your statement about the straw-man vs ad hominem. I guess I was focusing on more of the points made in comments (like yours) than the article. But by saying that it is a strawman argument do you agree with me that it’s not a valid argument to be making? That’s my whole point, if you want to win the argument, then make your case more accurately.
    3. Whether you think AIG and ICR practice play-science or not, the discussions on this subject here would certainly be elevated by being more academic in the approach to the argument. Even if you laugh at them, it is important to counter another person’s argument point by point rather than by simply making up your own points on their behalf to argue against.
    4. Go to their sites. They say a lot more than “God did it.” That would be a short and sweet website, three words. Pick any article, post it here and argue it point by point. I would be very interested to see how many times the discussion of the article attacks the creationist mental capacity etc. vs. how many actual arguments are made and or countered.
    5. If you want people to believe your view, why do you think it is up to Creationists to disprove it by coming up with new arguments? Obviously they must have many arguments with which you are unfamiliar if you think the only thing they have to say is that “God did it.” There are lots of tired, outdated arguments that neither evolution or creation theorists use in their arsenal. Some are still being used.
    Lastly, in summation of all of my points, if you think it is important to educate people with your viewpoint on science, you really should know accurately the countering views, so that when people are told something that you believe to be false, you know how to counter it. Trust me, that is what the creation side is doing! They comb the news daily looking for evolution in the news so that they can inform their supporters of the Creationist interpretation of that news.
    btw: thank you for the civil dialogue. It seems to be easy for people to wage flame wars on this topic

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  3. 1. Simon7, “Creationists and thought don’t go together” = argumentum ad hominem. You just attacked the Creationist rather than what arguments he uses by belittling his mental capacity.
    2. Simon7, I concede on your statement about the straw-man vs ad hominem. I guess I was focusing on more of the points made in comments (like yours) than the article. But by saying that it is a strawman argument do you agree with me that it’s not a valid argument to be making? That’s my whole point, if you want to win the argument, then make your case more accurately.
    3. Whether you think AIG and ICR practice play-science or not, the discussions on this subject here would certainly be elevated by being more academic in the approach to the argument. Even if you laugh at them, it is important to counter another person’s argument point by point rather than by simply making up your own points on their behalf to argue against.
    4. Go to their sites. They say a lot more than “God did it.” That would be a short and sweet website, three words. Pick any article, post it here and argue it point by point. I would be very interested to see how many times the discussion of the article attacks the creationist mental capacity etc. vs. how many actual arguments are made and or countered.
    5. If you want people to believe your view, why do you think it is up to Creationists to disprove it by coming up with new arguments? Obviously they must have many arguments with which you are unfamiliar if you think the only thing they have to say is that “God did it.” There are lots of tired, outdated arguments that neither evolution or creation theorists use in their arsenal. Some are still being used.
    Lastly, in summation of all of my points, if you think it is important to educate people with your viewpoint on science, you really should know accurately the countering views, so that when people are told something that you believe to be false, you know how to counter it. Trust me, that is what the creation side is doing! They comb the news daily looking for evolution in the news so that they can inform their supporters of the Creationist interpretation of that news.
    btw: thank you for the civil dialogue. It seems to be easy for people to wage flame wars on this topic

       0 likes

  4. 1. Simon7, “Creationists and thought don’t go together” = argumentum ad hominem. You just attacked the Creationist rather than what arguments he uses by belittling his mental capacity.
    2. Simon7, I concede on your statement about the straw-man vs ad hominem. I guess I was focusing on more of the points made in comments (like yours) than the article. But by saying that it is a strawman argument do you agree with me that it’s not a valid argument to be making? That’s my whole point, if you want to win the argument, then make your case more accurately.
    3. Whether you think AIG and ICR practice play-science or not, the discussions on this subject here would certainly be elevated by being more academic in the approach to the argument. Even if you laugh at them, it is important to counter another person’s argument point by point rather than by simply making up your own points on their behalf to argue against.
    4. Go to their sites. They say a lot more than “God did it.” That would be a short and sweet website, three words. Pick any article, post it here and argue it point by point. I would be very interested to see how many times the discussion of the article attacks the creationist mental capacity etc. vs. how many actual arguments are made and or countered.
    5. If you want people to believe your view, why do you think it is up to Creationists to disprove it by coming up with new arguments? Obviously they must have many arguments with which you are unfamiliar if you think the only thing they have to say is that “God did it.” There are lots of tired, outdated arguments that neither evolution or creation theorists use in their arsenal. Some are still being used.
    Lastly, in summation of all of my points, if you think it is important to educate people with your viewpoint on science, you really should know accurately the countering views, so that when people are told something that you believe to be false, you know how to counter it. Trust me, that is what the creation side is doing! They comb the news daily looking for evolution in the news so that they can inform their supporters of the Creationist interpretation of that news.
    btw: thank you for the civil dialogue. It seems to be easy for people to wage flame wars on this topic

       0 likes

  5. Ok if we evolved from monkey’s and apes over thousands of years how come no apes or monkeys have learned to speak english – or maybe they have ? How come none of our brothers locked in cages at zoos have evolved to the point where they start yelling “Let me outa here. I am not a monkey I am a human being …. I want a job, I want a bonus.” Oh yeah that’s those guys down on Wall street – they are all monkey’s.

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    1. how come no apes or monkeys have learned to speak english

      According to SIL International (formerly Wycliffe Bible Translators),that number is 335 million.

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