Thursday, October 28, 2010

Half-Monkey, Half-Person: Evolution and Equality

Photo: Young black spider monkey
A monkey.
A human.
A bonobo.

Recently, Glenn Beck said this:
I don't think we came from monkeys. I think that's ridiculous. I haven't seen a half-monkey, half-person yet. Did evolution just stop? There's no other species that's developing into half-human?
First, we did not "come from" monkeys. We share a common ancestor with modern monkeys.

Second, I'd like to address right-winger's repulsion at the notion of our common ancestry with other primates, and its relationship to attitudes about equality.

Just to be clear, I'm not planning to argue that accepting the fact of evolution means you're more egalitarian. The notion of "survival of the fittest" and evolutionary psychology have notoriously been used to justify inequality to the extent of genocide. I want to focus on the implications of the fact that we share a common ancestor with other primates.

To be fair to Beck, he didn't seem as offended by the concept as some right wingers do. He did say, "If I get to the other side and God says, yep, you were a monkey once, I'll be shocked, but I'll be cool with it."

I'm sure God is relieved to know that.
Not all conservatives are so, um, "open minded" about our genetic relationship to primates. In 2008, Who Is Your Creator's national campaign put up billboards and signs across several U.S. states asking, "Are They Making a Monkey Out of You?" in an attempt, "to call attention to the 'lack of proof' for the theory of evolution." It's hard to imagine that conservatives don't sputter with anger when they leave comments like,
I have more faith in the biblical account than the you evolved from a monkey account even though you are flinging excrement everywhere.
Jesus has done everything he can to demonstrate and loudly declare God's love to the people he created and offer them another chance for eternal life. But man has become "wise" in his own eyes and wants to belief his glorious ancestor is a monkey.
Such conservatives are like Beck, however, in that they seem preoccupied with monkeys, and ignore the existence of our closer genetic relatives, great apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. Why? My guess is that the great apes, to a far greater extent than monkeys, are more like humans than religious conservatives care to admit.

You're going to ignore gorillas? Fine. See if they care.
Before going further in this analysis I'd like to take a moment to talk about great apes.

Non-Human People

Frodo the chimpanzee
Great ape societies are as complex as human hunter-gatherer societies, and just as varied in their organization: gorillas are so patriarchal and highly organized that their group members are referred to as "troops"; chimpanzees are likewise patriarchal but much more fluid in their organization; bonobos are matriarchal and more egalitarian; while orangutans are largely solitary. As an explanation for the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos,
It has been hypothesized that bonobos are able to live a more peaceful lifestyle [compared to chimpanzees] in part because of an abundance of nutritious vegetation in their natural habitat, allowing them to travel and forage in large parties (source). 
This hypothesis has also been made about human hunter-gatherer societies, to explain the social differences between, for example, the relatively egalitarian !Kung people, and the more violent and hierarchical societies of the Amazon.

In addition to these broad differences between species,
within each species we find, just as in humans, variation from group to group. There are “cultures” of violence and “cultures” of peace. The latter are made possible by the universal primate ability to settle disputes and iron out differences (source).
Gorillas show that like humans, apes are capable of social adaptation and change. Male gorillas usually react aggressively towards male outsiders; but in Central Africa, the development of broader kinship circles has mitigated this tendency.

Another bonobo
Great apes engage in a range of behaviours that, at one time or another, were thought to be unique to humans. Their capacity to learn and understand language is well on its way to being established. Bonobos have sex for pleasure - and a host of other social reasons - rather than just for reproduction. Chimpanzees form bands, invade the territory of other chimpanzees, kill them, and claim the territory as their own - that is, they engage in wars of territorial expansion. While it has been well-known for a while that animals other than humans use tools, for some reason the belief persisted that only humans used weapons for hunting. That vestige of  uniqueness was shattered when it was found that chimpanzees make spears for hunting. Orangutans, on the other hand, use tools to avoid being hunted - making leaf-instruments to alter the tone of their voice and trick predators into believing that they are larger than they actually are. 

Great apes have repeatedly shown themselves to be capable of emotion, altruism, and empathy. Chimpanzees bond with kisses and hugs, and "a chimpanzee consoles a victim after a violent attack, placing an arm around him and patting his back." In studies, chimpanzees help researchers with no promise of reward. Bonobos have been observed to be helpful to strangers, assisting companions new to their quarters in zoos, taking them by the hand to show them the layout of their building.

Chimpanzees care for the frail and elderly. And when one of their group dies, they mourn in ways that are very human, holding each other for comfort. Their observed reactions to death can be characterized in the five stages of loss. Denial and isolation as they continue to groom the body of their fellow chimp, and stand watch through the night. Anger, sometimes attacking the corpse. And depression, being subdued following a death (source). Bonobos have also been observed dealing with death and grief, for example protecting dead bodies from zoo-keepers who they believed to be threatening.

The similarity between humans and great apes in terms of social arrangements, intelligence, and emotional capacity - not to mention genetics - has inspired a movement for great ape personhood rights. In 2008, Spain passed legislation granting chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans legal rights to life and liberty.

I wouldn't call great apes, "half-monkey, half-person," because the phrase mis-represents the way evolution works, and inaccurately implies that humans are the zenith of evolutionary achievement. Were Glenn Beck more scientifically literate, he might have said, "I've never seen a person-like non-human yet." In which case, great apes definitely fit the bill. 

Too Close For Comfort

Religious conservatives latch onto the imagery of our tailed, arboreal fellow primates the monkeys as part of an attempt to ignore and deny the fact that we really are just another kind of ape.

Tellingly, the idea that we "came from monkeys" has been linked to morality. Listing the ways that the United States is losing its moral grounding, Judge Roy Moore complains that, "our children are taught in our public schools that they are descended from monkeys."

It's not simply the absence of god in the theory of evolution that's the problem. There are tons of religious people who have no problem plugging god in as the prime mover of the evolutionary process. The problem is that when you abandon biblical literalism, you have to abandon this little nugget: 
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, The King James Bible)
It becomes difficult to justify the belief that humans have a god-given right to dominion over the animal world, if  humans are animals ourselves. And that's the undeniable conclusion that evolution leads us to. 

Wouldn't you agree?
As Frans de Waal, renowned primatologist, writes,
Those who are in anthropodenial try to build a brick wall to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. They carry on the tradition of René Descartes, who declared that while humans possessed souls, animals were mere automatons. This produced a serious dilemma when Charles Darwin came along: If we descended from such automatons, were we not automatons ourselves? If not, how did we get to be so different? (source)
The distinction between the human world and the natural world is conceptual rather than factual. We are a part of it, we do not exist over and above it. This is most self-evident when we study the behaviour and societies of the great apes. The dichotomy between the animal world and human society is easily debunked by the observation that animals have societies too - and great apes have societies and behaviour that are so like our own.

The, "I didn't come from a monkey!" response to evolution springs from a sense of human exceptionalism, and a presumed license to dominate the animal world.  

That's why the conflict over evolution is important not only for the sake of promoting knowledge and combating ignorance (though that certainly is enough), but also for the sake of promoting equality, not to mention environmental responsibility. Because, specifically in the current US context, evolution is pitted against human exceptionalism, and the belief that humans have a god-given right to plunder and exploit the world - ironically enough, given that social-Darwinism was used in support of colonialism and imperial expansion in its heyday. Despite that reversal, domination over nature remains wrapped up with harmful ideals of masculinity (harmful because such ideals are unattainable, encourage risky behaviour, and encourage domineering behaviour in other aspects of life). Images of apes continue to be used to demean and dehumanize people of colour. But dehumanizing someone loses some of its power when you acknowledge that being human isn't so special.

That's just grazing the surface of the way that attitudes towards nature and animals interact with notions of gender and race. Barely grazing the surface. (If you have any thoughts on the topic, please contribute them in the comments!)

We are genetically related to monkeys. The notion that that relationship is somehow beneath us as human beings needs to be challenged, because it supports human domination of the animal world, which in turn supports other kinds of privilege and domination.

Now, some cute pictures of apes and monkeys! (click on images to appreciate them full-size)

Left column: Rhesus monkeys, vervet monkeys,
baby langur, red-faced spider monkey. Right
column: macaques, a black howler monkey, a
baby gibbon


  1. Awesome post. There is nothing I can add because I think you've basically said it all here, only much better than I ever could.

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  2. OMG! Baby orangutans are sooo cute!

    Also, good post!

    Did you hear about that new species of monkey that was discovered recently? Apparently the only scientifically observed individual has been eaten by locals :(

  3. Thanks so much, Kristine and Christina!

    I did hear about that monkey. That's something else humans share in common with chimpanzees and bonobos - we all eat monkey meat.

    Personally, I think baby gorillas are the cutest. Did you see the expression on the one riding on its mother's back? Wheee!

  4. Excellent post! I loved the look on the "wouldn't you agree?" chimp's face.

  5. Great post! Really informative and well-written. And those pictures are so gorgeous!

    [Came here by way of Shakesville's blogaround, btw :)]

  6. (Here via Shakesville blogaround)
    Really great post! I especially love what you say about understanding evolution making biblical-style domination of the world less tenable. And this, exactly, is something I've thought about a lot: "But dehumanizing someone loses some of its power when you acknowledge that being human isn't so special."

  7. I loved the photo of the man bottle feeding that sweet little ape. The darling was gazing at him with such love. There is no doubt about it that was the best.

    You`ve explained what I have thought but never put into words. Deborah

  8. Hi. I've just discovered your hysterically good blog. Perhaps you'd be interested in this analysis of the doctrine of human exceptionalism:

  9. Thanks for the link! I will definitely give that a read.

  10. Humans are amazing. Yes, animals are amazing too.
    You rightly point out that the dominion of animals is linked with humans' ideas of superiority. Humans and monkeys are different, and that difference needs to be understood.
    It is sad that some believe that teaching children myth (religion) as truth is the moralistic and valuable thing to do. While religion does teach morals and some value religion, it is wrong to teach it as an accurate depiction of the how the world evolved.
    You made an interesting parallel between the dominion of races and gender, and the dominion of nature. Historically, it has been human males that have oppressed. However, today, women can also be attributed to that oppression. Not only do women oppress nature, they also oppress their own gender. In an age of technology and human rights (except in some places), it is no longer the old "men oppress" chant. Today, women have the means to acquire power, to have their voice be heard, to transmit knowledge. Today, in developed countries and some developing countries, women can obtain a status of power. It is time.
    One of the things I like most about your blog, is that – your assertion of power through an amazingly intelligent voice.

    I must comment on the pictures. My favourite one is of the baby orangutan with the wild hair. Also any picture where there is hugging or funny faces. Who am I kidding, I love all the pictures. Kudos for including a more sombre side of chimp life, i.e. the one behind the bars.

    I look forward to reading more posts!

    1. Philismad... wow! are you serious? religion is myth? try using half the faith it takes to believe evolution and all it says to find out the truth on what really happened. Humans have a divine creator and to not see that is being extremely ignorant. Scientific facts backing up the bible and other religious events are everywhere!

    2. My name is Daniel..

  11. I came here to understand exactly where humans came from, and yet still not satisfied after 30 minutes of reading. From my understanding from an evolutionists point of view, at some point humans were some form of primordial-slime, and then we became humans through millions of years of genetic change. If we evolved over millions of years then there must be some species still going through DNA change, surely they weren't just "bumped up" all at the same time from half monkeys to full human. Please, could someone point me in the right direction as what the explanation for this phenom is? Thanks

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  13. I don't usually get too worked up when people talk about species nearing extinction. Evolutionary pressures produce a constant churn of new species better adapted to their current environments that "take over" from species that cannot compete. But the Great Apes are a special case. I feel it is critical that we do everything in our power to ensure the survival of Gorillas, Orangutans, Chimpanzees, and Bonobos in the wild for the very reason that they demonstrate so clearly that we humans are one with the animal kingdom. There is no "us" and "them"; there is just us.


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