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Is Brian Blessed a monkey or an ape?

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

One of the recurring creationist attacks on evolution is, “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” I responded to this once before but it is time to revisit it. Why? Because Marty Robbins has attacked the British media, itself always a noble thing to do, for constantly conflating apes and monkeys. In the course of it he posts this image:

A monkey contrasted with an ape. Note the ape’s larger body and brain, shoulder mobility, and tendency to bellow “I’m Brian Blessed” at high volume.

Now John Hawks, who I usually defer to in these matters (he is, after all, an echt anthropologist, while I am a parasitical philosopher) has taken exception to this, and it is a complaint I have heard from a number of systematists. “Ape”, “monkey” and so on are not terms that have any biological meaning. Here is why: the following diagram indicates the technical names given to primates apart from “monkeys”:


If you are referring to “humans” then you can either mean the species Homo sapiens, or the genus Homo without ambiguity. But any higher in the taxonomic tree and you have to include the two Pan species (the chimps), and so on. [Note: the ranks here are purely conventional and have no biological meaning in themselves. There could be an indefinite number of unknown branches between any two rank nodes, and probably are quite a few.] But “ape” in ordinary use means HominoideaHomininae (the African Great Apes) minus Homo. And “monkey” means all primates, Old and New World, minus Hominoidea. So, goes the argument, “ape” and “monkey” mean nothing useful. They are no more terms of biological relationship than “kind” is a rank in systematics like “species”, etc.

A similar debate is hotly exchanged amongst paleontologists who discuss the origins of birds. Fewer issues generate as much ad hominem and ire. The BAD crowd claim that Birds Are Dinosaurs, while the BANDits hold that Birds Are Not Dinosaurs. The debate here, though, is rarely about whether or not “bird” means a feathered beaked thing, but whether or not birds arose from within the clade known as theropod dinosaurs that include T rex and other carnosaurs. However, BANDits often assert that the vernacular word “bird” has a meaning that excludes dinosaurs as an adjunct argument.

I’m going to call this the Ordinary Use argument. The idea here is that language has a technical use and an ordinary use and never the two shall meet in science. Systematists use new words to name the results of their taxonomic activities. Just as whales were once thought to be fishes, but systematists like Linnaeus recognised them as mammals, modern systematists have named natural groups that ordinary terms like “fish” do not capture. In phylogenetic terms, a name must be monophyletic, which is a way of saying that the group must have evolved just once. But an ordinary term like “fish” or “monkey” can have either many independent origins or classes of organisms (“fish” used to include waterfowl, crocodiles and whales) or can be a monophyletic group excluding some arbitrary part, like “monkey” excludes apes and humans. In neither case, according to a systematist, are these groups real (or, in their term, “natural”).

The problem I have is not a point about monophyly. There are those who object to the cladistic (“phylogenetic”) definition; they are often called “evolutionary systematists”. That view is widely thought to have been abandoned by all but a few holdouts. I have problems with their view because what they count as significant is often subjective, but that’s for another day. My point is instead, why should we take common or ordinary use as in any way important?

Wittgenstein famously wrote: “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” [Philosophical Investigations §43, see also §563], but he also said this was true of most, not all terms. In any case, where do language users get their uses as they learn their language? I learn what a crankshaft is from someone who knows how to fix and build engines. I do not learn it from a political pundit or my mother, if either of those two individuals do not know much about engines. Meanings do not sit on the landscape like trees, waiting for somebody to come along and pick their fruit. They are constructed by the community on the basis of the division of linguistic labour; we learn terms from experts. “Fish” was initially defined on the basis of the best natural philosophy of the day (in Latin, of course). Why can’t we redefine folk taxonomic terms now? Even Linnaeus initially named whales as fishes, and in a later edition of the Systema Naturae he revised that. And now we do not call whales fishes (although it took a long time for the message to filter through, as shown by the excellent book Trying Leviathan).

“Dinosaur” is a case in point. The term was coined by an anatomist, Richard Owen, in 1842. That it later entered the public imagination and became a term of folk art in no way means we must now restrict the term (say, lowercased) to apatosaurs and carnosaurs. Instead, we must correct ordinary use, by pointing out the inclusion of birdlike dinosaurs such as Compsognathus and the recent feathered dinosaur discoveries, and on this basis we should revised “dinosaur” to include “bird” just as we excluded “bat” from “bird” on the basis of expert classifications by Linnaeus and others.

So why not say “Birds are dinosaurs”? They exist as a natural group within another natural group and the usual way to express this is to say they are members of that group. Likewise, apes are monkeys, and there is no way to avoid it. In a similar way, if “fish” has any meaning at all as a term that describes the world, we are fishes, as Neil Shubin pointed out in that wonderful book Your Inner Fish. So Brian Blessed is a monkey. He is also an ape. And he is also a human, and the English and other languages had better catch up. So in the end we might actually have to allow that the British media might not be wrong (on this point), even if they are accidentally right. As a beautifully written piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement by Eric Michael Johnson quotes, the Roman poet Ennius once wrote Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis, which translates as “How like us is that very ugly beast, the ape”. That’s because, when all is said and done, we are, and Brian Blessed in particular is, an ape. And a monkey, and a mammal. And a vertebrate, and a boney fish…


  1. Jeb Jeb

    Well the picture of Brain Blessed says to me the debate has at least moved on to some degree. A late 17th century news editor would have gone with an artists impression of a tailed Satan instead, contrasted alongside one of an ape, which of course emphasised the rather human like defining characteristic of the ape as a tailless primate (the old defining charecteristic of an ape was based on it’s lack of said appendage). Being sloppy I ran with not putting in non-human before primate as is sometimes the case.

    I get the same thing with the way myth is used in popular usage as opposed to legend . As Ive just turned 46 in the last few weeks, I was wondering if it was an indcation of moving from middle age into the realm of the curmudgeon. But I don’t think that is utterly the case, it’s just one of a number of elements.

    • You are implying there is something not admirable about being a post-middle-aged curmudgeon. That’s crazy talk!

      Happy birthday, by the way…

      • Come on! What’s all this crap about post-middle-age? I’m older than both of you and I’m still working on ending my childhood.

        • jeb jeb

          Bollocks. My cunning plan of promoting myths in the hope of being taken for a mature and sensible adult dashed at the outset.

          After reading this and the remarks on Caliban, which I would fully endorse, it looks like I may be forced into the horrific position of actualy having to write up my research. “I will have none on’t. We shall lose our time And all be turned to barnacles, or to apes
          With foreheads villainous low.”

        • Jeb Jeb

          Well partly endorse. Its a migratory foundation legend and not a bloody myth. Its also rather old and the closing remarks are somewhat in keeping with its early 6th century monastic use that was more concerned with rapist saints than with apes.

          The story was intended for the education and moral instruction of monastic communities amongst other things.

        • There are too many people who would leap at a chance to end mine, which is why I deny them the pleasure by being post-middle-aged.

  2. Jeb Jeb


    No, I am just starting to find my feet with the transition to post middle age curmudgeon. I rather like it for the most part.

  3. BruceK BruceK

    How useful does this leave the word ‘fish’?
    As in,
    ‘I fancy fish for supper?’
    ‘Lamb chop then?’
    ‘Certainly. After all, mammals are a type of fish.’

    • What’s wrong with, “Fancy a barramundi for dinner?” or “Fancy a snapper for dinner?” Why do you have to have a term that refers to some amorphous grouping including squid, molluscs and crustaceans? (Any fish and chip shop seems to think these are fish.)

      How about “seafood”?

      • John Harshman John Harshman

        What do you want with your jugged fish, then?

  4. I sometimes imagine you, me, and some children at a party. I say to the kids: “John can’t count. Watch. John, how many FISH are there in this room?”

    • Are the children presently systematists? Because if not that would be a good teaching moment. On the other hand it would be great to say, humans are fish!

  5. “Hominoidea (the African Great Apes)”

    Err, in the diagram above, Homininae is the African great apes.

    I’ve heard of another proposal with regard to the word “fish”: restrict it to Actinopterygii. Thus lampreys, sharks, coelacanths, lungfishes, etc. would not be “true fish”. When turning the paraphyletic monophyletic, that’s always the great question: do you restrict or expand?

    Insects have a lot of interesting cases where expansion probably makes more sense: termites are cockroaches, butterflies are moths, fleas are scorpionflies, both ants and bees are wasps, etc.

    • I always get it wrong! I’ll go bang my head on a wall now.

      • What’s the wall ever done to you to deserve such uncouth treatment?

  6. TomS TomS

    What about australopithecines? Are they apes? Are they humans?

    What about lorises, lemurs, tarsiers? Are they monkeys? They certainly are primates. I don’t think that they look like monkeys.

    In English, the word “ape” is the ancient word, and as the English were not aware of chimps, gorillas, orangs, gibbons, or the New World, the referent was always an “Old World monkey”.

    And, as long as we agree that whales really are fish, after all … What about worms?

    • Educate! Educate! Educate! Teach people what an ape is. Reinterpret the colloquial term as charitably as one can given present knowledge. And yes, “ape” used to include Barbary apes, mandrills, baboons, and ordinary monkeys.

      • Porlock Junior Porlock Junior

        And yet they were distinguished long ago. Cf. “The Ape, the Monkey, and the Baboon”, a madrigal by Thomas Weelkes (who, I believe, also wrote “Thule, the Period of Cosmography” a name permanently stuck in my memory from my long-ago fandom of the English Madrigal School recordings of Alfred Deller et al.) which is plainly a satire on certain people who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern. The three have distinct identities, and a contemporary would presumably have known which was Shakespeare, which Jonson, and which Somebody Else. Alas, I have long lost the reference, and could not find it in an Internet search, showing which was which.

  7. John Harshman John Harshman

    I would like to point out that, even if you accept monkeys as a paraphyletic group worthy of a name, and thus that Brian Blessed is not a monkey, he is still descended from a monkey. The only way out of that one is to define monkeys as polyphyletic, which is possible (we can define any group we like) but hardly congenial. The term “monkey” would then mean the two groups Old World monkeys and New World monkeys but not, oddly, their common, quite monkeyish ancestor.

    Oh, and in addition to messing up Hominoidea/Homininae, you supposed that all primates are monkeys, thus slighting lemurs, tarsiers, pottos, lorises, and such. I won’t get into the problem of defining “dinosaur” purely with reference to apatosaurs and carnosaurs; even if you used those as reference taxa in a node-based phylogenetic definition, they would define only Saurischia. You need some ornithischian, at minimum. And as a still further quibble, “carnosaur” these days may not mean quite what you think. Tyrannosaurus, for example, is not a carnosaur, nor is Owen’s Megalosaurus.

    • I can afford to slight Madagascan primates as they lack a vote in the UN Security Council.

      Stop interfering with philosophical arguments with mere and ugly facts, damn you!

  8. Jim Thomerson Jim Thomerson

    I think, somewhere in the bible, there is the statement, “Bad taxonomy is the root of all evil.” It is mistranslated in the King James version.

  9. BruceK BruceK

    In the quest for monophyly what will happen to the highly polyphyletic category ‘spice’?

    Will it be extended to mean ‘flowering plant’ or be restricted somehow?

    • “Spice” like “weed” always was polyphyletic. Not all terms are terms of taxonomy…

      Trivium: “spice” comes from “species”, meaning “kind”

  10. Jeb Jeb

    “Brian Blessed in particular is, an ape. And a monkey, and a mammal. And a vertebrate, and a boney fish…”

    Get my revenge for being perplexed with biological terms with a what am I riddle.

    Ic wæs fæmne geong, feaxhar cwene,
    ond ænlic rinc on ane tid;
    fleah mid fuglum ond on flode swom,
    deaf under yþe dead mid fiscum,
    ond on foldan stop, hæfde ferð cwicu.

  11. Jeremiah Scott Jeremiah Scott

    I think an important concept is missing from this discussion, namely the grade: a group of taxa that share primitive features and a common adaptive strategy. Grades are obviously arbitrarily defined, but they are still useful and, speaking as a biological anthropologist, I would take issue with the assertion that grades such as “apes” and “monkeys” are meaningless. Grades are not natural groups, but it is useful to contrast hominins with apes, hominoids with monkeys, and anthropoids with prosimians. In each of these cases, the first group (the clade) shares derived features not observed in the second group (the grade), and adaptive hypotheses regarding these features are usually framed and tested by comparing the clades to the grades.

    I also disagree with your argument for why humans are monkeys and fish. Neither of the latter two terms are meant to be cladistic in the way that dinosaur is. “Monkey” is not a more inclusive group that subsumes apes and humans. Monkeys are defined to some extent by their lack of the derived features that unite humans and apes, so if you include humans and apes in the monkey group, it becomes impossible to define. I assume that those who argue that birds are dinosaurs are using dinosaur in the cladistic sense, i.e., birds share derived features with nonavian dinosaurs and thus must be included in the nonavian dinosaur clade or that clade ceases to be monophyletic. If “dinosaur” is not a cladistic term — if it is gradistic — then birds are not dinosaurs, just like humans aren’t apes, or monkeys, or fish. On the other hand, “Mammalia” and “Primates” are clades, so one can say that humans are mammals or humans are primates.

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