Washington Times denies that Richard Dawkins is an ape

March 18, 2012 • 10:21 am

I received this from several people, and at first thought it was a joke. (This shows how hard it is to distinguish the effusions of the faithful from pure satire.) After exercising due diligence, I have decided it’s real. It’s an article by Vasko Kohlmayer in the Washington Times raising this question: “Is Richard Dawkins an ape?”  Kohlmayer’s conclusion, of course, is “no”:

In an interview with a black African bishop, the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins identified himself as an African ape.

“I am an ape. I am an African ape. I am very proud to be an African ape and so you should be,” Dawkins told the bemused cleric.

Even though he did not intend it, Dawkins’ statement brings out starkly the intuitive implausibility of evolutionary theory.

When hearing those words, one is immediately struck by the obvious falsity of the claim: No matter what he may choose to call himself, Richard Dawkins is certainly is no African ape.

To give an idea of the distance separating the two creatures, below are some things that Richard Dawkins can do, but which an ape – African or otherwise – could never do:

  • Read a novel
  • Reflect on his own existence
  • Enjoy a Shakespeare play
  • Wonder about the meaning of life
  • Appreciate a Beethoven symphony
  • Think about the theory of evolution
  • Dream about his future
  • Perceive right and wrong
  • Complete a crossword puzzle
  • Contemplate the size of the universe
  • Form a mental concept of God

Richard Dawkins can do all this and more while even the brightest of apes is incapable of even grasping the point behind these mental activities.

To suggest that there is some kind of fundamental equivalence between Professor Dawkins and an ape is not only demeaning, it is outright incredible. It is also indecent, since there is something almost blasphemous about a person putting himself on the same level as an animal.

Kohlmayer’s argument, of course, is religious:

The truth is that we have all been created in God’s image. Fallen though we are, we still bear the divine stamp in our being. We must never forget that. Above all, we must not teach our children that they come from animals. Not only is this untrue, but if we tell them that they are animals they will eventually start acting like animals. . .

Richard Dawkins’ intelligence and the ability to speak and reason did not come from apes. Neither are they a product of chance. They are gifts from above. He should not be using these gifts to demean himself or the One who gifted him so liberally.

Blah blah blah. . . the words appear on parade, like a team of well-rehearsed horses.  Has Kohlmayer ever looked at the behavior of atheists?

I believe it was William Jennings Bryan who denied during the Scopes trial that man was a mammal.  That one statement laid him low, exposing his Bible-ridden ignorance for what it is. Of course we are mammals, and of course Richard is an ape.  The Wikipedia definition is as good as any:

Apes are Old World anthropoid mammals, more specifically a clade of tailless catarrhine primates, belonging to the biological superfamily Hominoidea.

Last time I looked, I was also a tailless catarrhine primate, so that makes me an ape as well.  The only thing I’d take issue with is Richard’s statement that he’s an African ape. He’s an ape who is descended from African apes, but he’s currently an Oxford ape. (Richard was an African ape when he was growing up in Kenya.)

As for Kohlmayer’s argument that we’re not apes (or animals!) because we can do all sorts of things that other beasts can’t, well, those abilities come from the evolution of our big brains, not from the hand of God. Just because some apes have capacities more advanced than others doesn’t mean they’re not apes.  Crows are a lot smarter than ducks, but nobody denies that a crow is a bird.

I doubt that this article is a hoax because here’s the Times profile of Vasko Kohlmayer:

Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life. He has discovered that no matter how many places you’ve been, there is always something new to learn wherever you go.

Yeah—maybe he should learn what an “ape” is!

And, of course, the Washington Times is currently owned by the Unification Church (aka “the Moonies”).



h/t: Dom

98 thoughts on “Washington Times denies that Richard Dawkins is an ape

  1. Every time I go out on a cold Canadian winter morning I say to myself what’s an African ape like me doing in a climate like this?

  2. AronRa on YouTube has some great videos explaining how we’re clearly apes. Perhaps someone should point Kohlmayer to them!

  3. Every time I swing from the chinning bar next to our bathroom my dog barks at me. I tell him “I can do this because I’m an ape, your a canid you can’t”.

  4. Wow – ‘demeaning’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘gifts from above’. That really reads like Soapy Sam Wilberforce against Huxley. Have theological arguments, and wattling outrage, effectively stayed the same since then?

    1. My thoughts exactly! My first impulse was that it had to be satire…

      Sadly it still appears to be an issue, almost 150 years later.

      Just to copy from Wikipedia, and a written eyewitness account of the Oxford debate of 1860,

      “In the Nat. Hist. Section we had another hot Darwinian debate… After [lengthy preliminaries] Huxley was called upon by Henslow to state his views at greater length, and this brought up the Bp. of Oxford… Referring to what Huxley had said two days before, about after all its not signifying to him whether he was descended from a Gorilla or not, the Bp. chafed him and asked whether he had a preference for the descent being on the father’s side or the mother’s side? This gave Huxley the opportunity of saying that he would sooner claim kindred with an Ape than with a man like the Bp. who made so ill a use of his wonderful speaking powers to try and burke, by a display of authority, a free discussion on what was, or was not, a matter of truth, and reminded him that on questions of physical science ‘authority’ had always been bowled out by investigation, as witness astronomy and geology. A lot of people afterwards spoke… the feeling of the meeting was very much against the Bp”

    1. I can’t “Form a mental concept of God” and I’ll bet Kohlmayer can’t either. At least not a coherent concept that has any relationship to the words that Christians, Jews and Muslims mutter.

      I guess that makes us both less than human.

  5. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for him to describe himself as African. He was born in Africa and spent the first eight years of his life there. I was born and grew up in Wales, but now live in America. I still consider myself to be Welsh, rather than American.

      1. I’m pretty sure Richard meant he was a member of the least inclusive clade containing _Gorilla_, _Pan_, and _Australopithecus_.

        That’s what I’d have meant, nothing to do with actual birthplace.

        1. Oh, I’m sure you’re right. I didn’t for a moment think he was principally referring to his birthplace. It was just that Jerry, by saying he was an Oxford ape, sort of chose to interpret it in a different way. I was responding to that (presumably) tongue-in-cheek interpretation.

  6. I’m confused as to why you thought that this was a “joke.” The words “Washington Times” in association w/ the piece should have immediately ended all wonderment.

    Slow day?

  7. We are created in God’s image, which explains our ability to ‘complete a crossword puzzle’…..

    I thought sophisticated theologians decried atheists for pointing out how believers have an anthropomorphic god.

  8. “Fallen though we are, we still bear the divine stamp in our being. We must never forget that. Above all, we must not teach our children that they come from animals. Not only is this untrue, but if we tell them that they are animals they will eventually start acting like animals”

    And if we tell them that they are fallen sinners won’t they start acting like sinners? Which is worse?

    1. As a character in one of the webcomics I read once put it “I could try doing the right thing, but that interferes with my ‘why miss Heaven by inches?’ policy.”

  9. Pas un singe ? peut-etre un ane?
    ( Mais Je ne veut pas diffame les pauvres anes)
    Il y a beaucoup des ans depuis mon ecole –
    je suis desole- pardonnez-moi SVP???)

    1. I think it would be “il y a beaucoup d’années depuis la classe de français” because you’re referring to an unspecific number of years.

      1. (Mais je ne [veux] voudrais pas diffamer les pauvres ânes) Je n’étudie pas le français depuis longtemps – je suis désolée etc.

      2. I have always wondered about the diff between an and annee. I am sure a teacher told me once upon a time. Thanks.
        Oh jeez, the infinitive. Of course.
        Mon, hum, dieu!! J’ai honte! J’ai oubliee trop!!

  10. Dawkins is right to call himself an African Ape. “African Ape” is a valid taxon, consisting of Chimps, Gorillas, Humans, and closely related species/subspecies. Orangutans are the Asian branch of the Great Ape taxon. Then there are the lesser apes, the Gibbons.

    You don’t think that Hawaiian fruit flies are no longer Hawaiian fruit flies when they are reared on the main land; do you?

  11. True item: at Zoo Atlanta, which (I thought) had a pretty good reputation as a quality zoo, and in particular their primate exhibits), in the primate exhibit where you can look out at gorillas, on one wall they have a large display entitled “There are Three Major Groups of Primates” with separate panels for Prosimians, Monkeys, and Apes. I took photographs of the display on a recent visit.

    Here is the complete text of the Ape panel, next to a large photograph of a gorilla:

    – The ape group includes the largest primates.
    – They have the shortest muzzles and have no tails.
    – It takes years for their young to grow to maturity,
    – They inhabit the forests of Africa and Asia.

    No mention that humans are apes, and the reference to the forests of Africa and Asia would seem to imply that they are not.

    1. If the fundies are taking their kids to the zoo they’re doing half our work for us. No need to upset the parents. The kids who are paying attention will get the idea.

  12. Speaking of Hominoidea, here is a breakdown (and another relevant LOLape:

    “Until roughly the 1980s, most scientists believed that humans were so different than apes that we and our direct ancestors (like Austrolopithecus) should have our own family, Hominidae. […]

    Now Hominidae includes humans as well as our close ape relatives, chimps, orangutans, and gorillas. Just for good measure, we’ve added a new subfamily, Homininae (humans, gorillas, chimps), a “tribe” called Hominini (humans, chimps), and even a “subtribe” called Hominina just for humans and our ancestors. […]

    With help from genetics, human scientists gradually realized that you can’t evolve from a common ancestor with apes and then pretend that you aren’t sharing a family with them. But if you need to keep the apes out of our evolutionary cubby hole, the new taxonomic classifications still give us the term hominin.”

    Doing a Google Trend the article finishes:

    “Still, it’s clear that many more people are aware of the term “hominin” than they were even ten years ago. Perhaps without realizing it, we are participating in a transformation of what it means to be human.”

    Except, of course, if you are religiously glued to your old ideas.

    [HT: Ed Yong.]

    I dunno if that classification is accepted yet, but it sure reflects the changes in observations! Also to the table comes that extant Modern man is a hybrid (if that is the correct term?) out of 2-3 subspecies including Neanderthal and Denisovans, and the family tree looks positively lively.

  13. There are a lot of items on that list that humans can do a lot better than our relatives can, but the only items on that list that I am willing to assume that ‘apes’, as Kohlmayer is misusing the term, are “Read a novel”, “Think about the theory of evolution”, and “Complete a crossword puzzle”. (Although simply being aware that not every animal/plant is the same and noticing that those differences correlate with differences in survival gets you pretty close to contemplating evolution.)

    Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gibbons, may not be the brightest members of the family, but I would not claim that they cannot “Reflect on [their] own existence”. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried, but I strongly suspect that some of our ape relatives would “Enjoy a Shakespeare play”, and while their sense of meaning may be ‘unsophisticated’, surely they “Wonder about the meaning of life” and are able to “Appreciate a Beethoven symphony”. All an ape needs to do to “Dream about his future” is consider when lunch is…. And it is well-established that both apes and dogs are able to “Perceive right and wrong” (particularly when they are the wronged party). Neither “[Contemplating] the size of the universe” and “[Forming] a mental concept of God” requires sophistication – knowing that the universe is larger than the area that you know covers the first, and attributing events to a cause is sufficient for the second.

  14. 1) This is real, not a joke.
    2) This was published in the Washington Times

    These two statements are mutually exclusive.

  15. I sentence Vasko Kohlmayer to three years of wearing an “I am an ape” shirt.

    And since we were all aflutter about it a while ago, for us USians:
    Frozen Planet premieres on Sunday, March 18, at 8PM e/p.

  16. Okay, so how many things could your average teabagger either do or articulate? How about Jesus’ disciples?

  17. Otto: “Apes don’t read philosophy!”

    Wanda: “Yes, they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it!”

    (Obligatory “A Fish Called Wanda” quote)

  18. I much rather be genetically related to noble apes than I would to a Moonie like Vasko Kohlmayer. Too bad evolution didn’t select against someone like him and other myth believers.

  19. “The truth is that we have all been created in God’s image.”

    Without fail, whenever I read this religious rhetoric, I wonder what the author means. Is God male? Does he have male genitals? If so, for what purpose?

    1. Well, assuming that the miracle going by the name Jesus wasn’t haploid, the Holy Ghost had to have gotten the DNA from somewhere. That would have been why God needed genitals; to inseminate Mary with a clone of Himself.

      This leaves us with the question of Mary’s genetic contributions to the miracle baby. Did she make a forced donation of an ova to the process or not? Could it be that a body with one half of her genes ascended directly into Heaven and is immortal?

      It is painfully obvious that only through a near total lack of knowledge of reproduction could the ancient scribes have thought their fabrication was plausible.

      1. Jesus wasn’t born of sperm and egg. He was a cell containing the essence of God, which started to duplicate and then turned into a fetus. If you don’t believe me, ask my friend, Alex. He knows stuff like this :). A lot of it…

        1. I’m curious where you came across this idea. If you or Alex didn’t just make it up then maybe there’s an authority somewhere who did.

    2. What’s so special about the cheesemakers?

      It’s not just the cheesemakers; he obviously means any manufacturer of dairy comestibles.

  20. To Professor Jerry,

    Italicizing, or even tinkering with any part of the title of a post in WordPress causes a lot of problems for those who are trying to share your articles on Facebook and Google Plus. On Facebook it inserted unintelligible characters into the heading that I had to manually fix, and in Google Plus, ‘washington times’ was cut off by default. Just thought I should let you know.

    A fan

    1. Blame web 2.0. Blame wordpress. Coyne is just using the tools wordpress gives to him.

      Seriously, people, the madness called HTML 5 must be stopped.

  21. Even many scientists have trouble with the fundamental logic of phylogenetic systematics. They consider the idea that we humans are bony fish and reptiles “clearly absurd” or argue that we aren’t apes but only share ancestors with apes. At the same time, they have no problem with accepting that we humans are mammals, tetrapods, vertebrates, and chordates at the same time, instead of only one of these. The concepts is really the same!

    Yes, I am a human and ALSO an ape, because a human is part of a group called apes, and because there is no decent way of defining apes that would exclude humans. Yes, we are mammals and also bony fish, because the mammals are part of the clade of those bony fish that evolved to live on land, and because there is no decent way of defining bony fish that excludes land vertebrates. Etc.

  22. It is also indecent, since there is something almost blasphemous about a person putting himself on the same level as an animal.

    I sort of agree. After all, we humans have survived so far on the grace of bacteria, and it is certainly demeaning to the real Masters of the Earth if we put ourselves on level closer to them.

  23. I understand the point, in that we and what are informally referred as «apes» form a clade, but there is no need to redefine the current meaning of the word ape. Every day language can be paraphyletic. I’m an hominoid and so are chimps and gorillas, and that is the term I use when I wish to convey a more scientific meaning.

    I’m not an ape and I’m not a monkey. Ape and monkey are not taxonomic terms.

      1. If you want to distinguish between apes and monkeys then you are applying taxonomic knowledge. That in turn justifies using the criterion of monophyly for the category ‘ape’, and by that criterion we are undoubtedly apes.

        1. You lost me there. In common usage apes are not monkeys, while accordingly to monophyletic revisionism applied to language apes should be monkeys.

          If you want to take monophyly into everyday language, then whales are fish, and bats are flying fish.

          1. Filipe, why is it such a big problem for you to be an ape? All it means when someone says this in the context of evolutionary theory is that you’re descended from apes, which is true as far as we can tell.

            All you’re doing is making a big deal of the semantics of “human” and “ape.” We all understand the difference between a human and a gorilla. There’s nothing you can try to convince us of along these lines that we don’t already know.

  24. In the comments of the linked article there is ‘Tim’, who is lacking in at least one of the listed capabilities (the ability to think about evolution). Perhaps he is not human?

  25. Speaking of apes, I’ve been wondering if our primate relatives are known to suffer from mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and Tourette syndrome.

  26. No, unfortunately this is not a joke. If you poke a bit around the internet you will find a lot more “gems” by this guy.

  27. Regarding the “African” thing… meh, depends how you parse it. If I take a pair of African elephants and ship them to China, do their descendants become Asian elephants?

    In any case, Vashko says “one is immediately struck by the obvious falsity of the claim”, but my reaction is just the opposite: How can one look at humans and other apes and deny that they are related?!?

  28. Seems to me that if an ape can’t “Think about evolution” it’s on about the same level as Kohlmayer, but if it can’t “Form a mental concept of God”, it demonstrates its superiority.

    1. Well, Hawks disagrees with me and John Wilkins agrees with me. I stand by what I said based on the fact that “apes” construed as “including humans” are indeed a monophyletic group; that is, if one construes apes according to my definition above, which is not a technical taxonomic term but nevertheless a monophyletic category, then humans are indeed apes. This is a tempest in a teapot, really. The results are clear: humans and the “other” apes are a monophyletic group, so we all share a single common ancestor, which was what the critic of Dawkins was attacking.

      Wilkins’s piece is pretty clear about what he and I agree on. But it’s no biggie, for crying out loud: the important question is whether our closest relatives are gorillas, chimps, orangs, and the other “apes,” and the answer is YES.

    2. Well, we all agree on the important question (I hope!).

      But I have to say that I’m torn on this issue. When I’m at a zoo and I overhear a parent or child say, “Look at the monkeys!” while pointing at gibbons or chimps, my instinctive reaction is still that they’re wrong.

      But, even if I take a moment to review my reaction, and concede that, from a monophyletic standpoint, they’re right, I know all but a very few of them will be right for the wrong reasons!

      I had similar thoughts in the San Diego Museum of Man when a young boy pointed at a statue of an early hominan (or homininan?) and said, “Look at that ape!” I wasn’t sure how his parents would react if I pointed out that he was just as much an ape as it was, and bit my tongue.


      1. Hawks is supposing that languages don’t change, despite evidence to the contrary. In the fairly recent past, “ape” referred solely to a paraphyletic group. These days it often refers to a clade. One word, two meanings? How is this possible?

        And of course it’s been pointed out already that the most common current meaning of “ape” is different from that current at one time, and the change was a result of scientific opinion. To be consistent, Hawks should agree that monkeys are apes, since that was the prior sense of the word.

        So yeah, in the right context it’s good to say that you’re an ape, and a monkey, and a fish. The paraphyletic sense of the last term has legitimate uses, especially when ordering in a restaurant. (“I’ll have the fish.” “Which fish, sir, the trout or the beef?”) But I don’t see such a use for the other two. There’s nothing but upside to thinking of apes and monkeys as clades.

        And I’m a systematist, so you should believe everything I say on the subject.

          1. Since they aren’t a real group, you should have no use for a name for them. If you had a use for some reason I don’t currently imagine, you could call them “monkeys that aren’t apes”. Or you could talk about the two separate, real groups Old World monkeys and New World monkeys.

  29. “…if we tell them that they are animals they will eventually start acting like animals. . ”

    One would hope so!

    Following Kohlmayer’s lead, here’s a list:

    Animals usually:
    – Don’t wage war on their own kind.
    – In those species whose young need dedicated parental care, painstakingly fill that need.
    – Conform to the standards of their community.
    – Allow other animals to live as they wish, unless they actively interfere with themselves.
    – Take what they can use, leaving the rest for others.
    – Don’t get religion, nor commit themselves to other ideologies.
    – Enjoy the life they have, without fretting about what others have.

    I couldn’t give my kids any better advice!

    1. While this isn’t all strictly true (lots of animals hoard food for example), it’s interesting to note that “wage war” and “covet” (your first and last examples) are things that chimpanzees actually do. I always think it’s hilarious to point out that the chimps seem to be sinners every bit as much as humans.

      1. The closer they are to humans, the more they act like humans, then?

        (I was very careful to say “usually”.) Animals that hoard food (the squirrels burying their finds in my lawn, for example) actually intend to use it, later on. Except for a few species, most don’t hoard things just to have them.

        And yes, certain animals have “sinful” traits; goats will eat and eat until they kill themselves, cowbirds are freeloaders and poor parents, rats can be racist, and poorly-trained dogs will kill for the fun of it. Still, the principle holds; acting like animals is not the horrible outcome we were warned of.

    2. Also, I would suspect that the reason animals might not do these things is because they are constantly struggling for life, and don’t have the time or the ability to so.

      Religion, bigotry against other animals, hoarding resources, etc all take extra resources above what is necessary for survival. An animal that is always struggling for its next meal might not have the resources to do that, even if they “wanted” to.

  30. “…because we can do all sorts of things that other beasts can’t, well, those abilities come from the evolution of our big brains, not from the hand of God.”

    Brain size alone does not account for what a creature can do. Elephants have larger brains than man, for example. No creature can do what man can do, for good and bad. Vasko rightly presented this. Man was made in the image of God. All men and women know this instinctively, yet some choose to deny it.

  31. The exclusively human characteristics listed are, by definition, autapomorphies. Autapomorphies are uninformative about relationships. Only Synapomorphies, shared characteristics, are informative about relationships. At least that is how I, a recent convert to cladism, understand it.

    There have been suggestion that humans and chimps should be in the same genus; Homo, as it happens, because of closeness of genetic relationships. I don’t agree, because of morphological differences between present day Homo and Pan.

    1. “I don’t agree, because of morphological differences between present day Homo and Pan”

      You’re not a properly confirmed convert, then. What you ought to have said was “I don’t agree, because it obfuscates the sister-group relationship between _Pan troglodytes_ and _Pan paniscus_.”

      The morphological differences you cite are almost all autapomorphies of terminal taxa, and of no consequence in cladistics.

      It’s not actually a religion, BTW. 🙂

  32. At one time cladism was promoted with such zeal that various nonbelievers characterized it as a religion. Speaking as a taxonomist, I regard a genus as a monophyltic group of morphologically similar species. I have described two genera, each including but a single species. There is an argument that single species genera are no more information rich than their single species, and so should not be constructed. I think a species which disturbs the morphological similarity among species of any genus where one might place it is best treated as a single species genus.

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