We’re all apes, including Dawkins

March 22, 2012 • 11:09 am

Last week I wrote a post highlighting a silly piece by Vlasko Kohlmayer in the Washington Times denying that Richard Dawkins (or any human) was an ape. If you construe apes according to the definition I used—i.e., “Old World anthropoid mammals, more specifically a clade of tailless catarrhine primates, belonging to the biological superfamily Hominoidea”—then, yes, we’re all apes, along with gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, chimps, and bonobos.

Anthropologist John Hawks objected, arguing that humans, though nested within the monophyletic groups above, formed their own clade, and that the word “ape” isn’t a precise taxonomic term, but a term of folk taxonomy:

“Ape” is an English word. It is not a taxonomic term. English words do not need to be monophyletic. French, German, Russian, and other languages do not have to accord with English ways of splitting up animals. Taxonomy is international — everywhere, we recognize that humans are hominoids.

I didn’t quite get this, because I was using “ape” in the way defined above: as a truly monophyletic group.  Hawks doesn’t allow comment on his website, so there was no discussion.

On his website Evolving Thoughts, the philosopher of science John Wilkins took issue with Hawks, and agreed with me that humans are apes, summarizing the anti-ape argument and then refuting it with a simple diagram that shows us nested within the Hominoidea along with other apes:

The claim that humans are apes is less clear. In folk taxonomy, “ape” is a term that has no comparable scientific meaning. It basically means any primate that lacks a tail and is not human. “Human”, however, denotes a single and scientifically accepted species (or group of species), so here the claim is that the technical taxon falls within a prior folk taxonomic category interpreted scientifically. This is not new, of course, since Linnaeus famously placed humans (Homo) within the same genus as other apes, a classification that was later changed to reflect folk taxonomic preferences (by Blumenbach, and later Oken).

Now the claim is that humans (Homo sapiens) are apes (Homininae), which is a group defined as the African Great Apes. In short, it is a claim that humans are a species of African Great Ape (and therefore a member of Hominoidea, which includes gibbons and orangutans, also included among these apes). The issue is whether or not the taxon name denotes a natural group. And what counts as “natural” in taxonomy is that the group is monophyletic, or is all of the taxa that can be included without any not being included, in that group.

Here’s a diagram showing humans nested within the monophyletic group Hominoidea. The red bit includes the other apes:

From Evolving Thoughts (J. Wilkins)

He then explains why he thinks we’re apes:

“Ape” has (once again) been redefined by the experts, and to make a rhetorically memorable point, some taxonomists say “humans are apes”, which is the vernacular way to say “members of Homo are members of Hominoidea” without turning off the aforementioned ten year olds. Any professional that continued to talk about “non-human apes” and meant “non-Homo Hominoidea” should be asked to justify why that is a group of interest, especially as new fossils continue to blur the intuitive lines that motivated the distinction.

Here’s a phylogeny of primates. Note that the “ape” group is monophyletic if it is construed to include humans.  Note, though, that “monkeys” do not form a monophyletic group, because Old World monkey are more closely related to the apes than they are to New World monkeys. In other words, the group “monkeys” does not include all the descendants of a common ancestor; it is what’s known as a paraphyletic group.  But construing things broadly, we could consider humans and apes as monkeys, just as we see humans as apes.

Finally, Brian Switek weighed in today on the Coyne/Wilkins side (I must say, Wilkins hasn’t always agreed with me!) in a post at Laelaps, “I’m an ape, and I’m also a fish.” What he means by being a “fish” means that humans are also nested in the monophyletic group that includes all the descendants of our fishy ancestors:

And the words we choose depend upon how specific we wish to be. In an evolutionary context, I am simultaneously an ape, a monkey, a primate, a mammal, a therapsid, a synapsid, an amniote, a tetrapod, and, to pick an arbitrary stopping point that suits this post’s purpose, a fish. You are a fish, too. Now, I typically don’t come home from an afternoon walk and tell my wife “There were so many fish walking around the park. Everyone’s out today” – such a statement would make it sound as if I had slipped into a Ray Troll painting – but, in an evolutionary sense, it still would have been true. Among other things, we’re fish. The term isn’t terribly specific, but it’s not inaccurate, either, as a newly-announced cousin of ours demonstrates. . .

I don’t expect the idea that we are fish to pick up much popular currency. The everyday, paraphyletic meaning of the term is entrenched, and I don’t expect anyone to refer to the salmon in their sushi as a “non-tetrapodomorph fish.” But the idea is still a useful one as we explore our relationship to the rest of life on earth. After all, we share a common ancestry with every other living thing on the planet, and, for a time, our ancestors and kin were snake-like fish with thick fins supported by stacks of bone. The way those fish swam, and walked, through prehistoric seas formed the foundation for the flowering of vertebrate evolution on land, including the later origin of a lonely species of upright ape obsessed with its own beginnings.

Yep, we’re apes.  I don’t know what Hawks is on about, really, since apes are a monophyletic group, even if not a formal category. But Hominoidea is a formal category, and includes not just us, but everything that’s recognized as an ape by biologists.

In the end, this is a tempest in a teapot, for what the misguided Kohlmayer meant was that we do not share a common ancestor with other apes.  And that’s clearly wrong.  But yes, we are apes, and mammals, and reptiles, and fish, just as birds are dinosaurs.  In the end, all that’s important is that we recognize where we fit in on the tree of life.

78 thoughts on “We’re all apes, including Dawkins

  1. As far as I know, Chimps and Bonobos are our closest relatives, and they are closer to us, genetically, than they are to Gorillas, so when we classify both Gorillas and Chimps as “Apes”, it makes no sense to leave the humans out of that group. Ergo, if Gorillas and chimps and bonobos are all “Apes” then so are we.

    1. In my experience, a lot of this stems from the inability to think in terms of phylogenetic trees, as well as the tendency (as in the example tree for this article) to place humans arbitrarily at the far right on one of these trees (so humans may appear to be their “own” group). If we rotate the nodes or branching points – as one can without changing the phylogenetic hypothesis at all – one could place humans somewhere in the middle of the tree (e.g., between the orangs and chimps/gorillas) in the order from left to right. This would make it clear that, if any species is an ape, we are also apes.

      1. Quite right. There’s no reason whatsoever to have humans higher than chimps, etc. Evolution did not strive to create us, despite what Kenneth Miller and the Pope say.

  2. As I’ve pointed out a couple other times on this bl… er website, mammals are not actually reptiles. No modern taxonomist defines Reptilia to include mammals and their ancestors. Instead, it’s defined to include the most recent common ancestor of turtles, lizards, the tuatara and crocodilians and all of its descendents (Gauthier et al., 1988; Reisz, 2004; Gauthier et al., 2004; Kischlat and Timm, 2006). Thus birds are reptiles (being more closely related to crocodilians than to other modern reptiles), but mammals are not, since they’re outside the turtle-lizard-tuatara-croc group.

    1. Even the reptilian group you mention combines the diapsids (most reptiles and the birds) and the anapsids (turtles). The trouble is that there is no common, well-known or popular term for the separate synapsid lineage of the amniotes that led to mammals, so people still misleadingly claim, as you point out, that mammals evolved from reptiles.

      1. Turtles have an anapsid skull, in terms of skull fenestration, but they are well placed within diapsida.

  3. There is a certain amount of talking at cross purposes on this. It would have been better if John Hawks allowed comments so it could all be there, but we can safely assume he is well aware that humans comprise a branch of the hominoid tree. So that doesn’t refute his point.

    But as I commented on Brian Switek’s blog, this is a matter of usage, not just cladistics. For example while I disagree with Hawks (I do call humans apes), I also disagree with calling present-day apes monkeys. It’s useful to be able to distinguish between them in non-technical language. For example to point out that since the Miocene, monkeys have largely replaced apes in similar ecological niches across Africa and Asia. I agree the presumption should probably be in favour of monophyletic terminology, but paraphyletic terms have their uses – and you don’t have to go as far as fish to find them.

  4. “In the end, all that’s important is that we recognize where we fit in on the tree of life.”

    Well, for the most, I would be in full agreement with that statement. But there is another much more fundamental hurdle that one must first cross before coming to this enlightened understanding, namely, recognizing and accepting the “life tree” as fact and that we humans are part of it and not a creature of sudden, supernatural whim.

    Until these principles and facts are taught – as a natural course of our public education, starting at grade 1 – I seriously doubt that ‘merkuns we will even begin to understand the “evolving tree” concept let alone understanding that as of us are but a small off-shoot on that Douglas Fur!

  5. Those on both sides of this issue appear to be apes since there is so much nit-picking going on.

  6. “But yes, we are apes, and mammals, and reptiles, and fish, just as birds are dinosaurs”.

    Many (many) times I’ve pounced on people who describe Whales / Dolphins / Sharks as ‘fish’ and pointed out that they are mammals. Does this mean they’ve been right all along?


    1. Yes, and bats are flying fish.

      I’m with Hawks on this, ape was a well defined term, like monkey. I still use them in the common paraphyletic way.

    2. Came back from Gibraltar a few weeks ago where there are a bunch of flea-ridden, verminous creatures whose sole role in life is to rip off tourists. These creatures are locally called “apes” with the “Ape’s Den” being a well known place where they congregate. The name has stuck because they are tail-less. They are even called “apes” by people who ought to know better:


      They are, of course, not apes but tail-less monkeys – Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) and the population present in Gibraltar (monkey not human I hasten to add) is the only free-living non-human primates in the whole of Europe.

      1. I thought they were rather cute. Not sure how they rip off tourists though – I certainly didn’t give them any money.

        1. I used the word “rip” in the literal sense. Had one of the buggers wrapped around my neck and was “gently” trying to unscrew it!

            1. Actually they are wonderful animals and thriving in Gibraltar unlike the ones in their natural habitat in the Atlas Mountains. Genetic studies have proved that they were introduced into Gib probably in the 1600s from Algerian populations (although they were topped up in WW2. Churchill specifically ordered that some monkeys be brought across from Africa in order to reinforce the legend about Gib stop being British if the monkeys leave) and because the are well looked after are doing very well indeed. In fact possibly too well. They are beginning to come into the town itself and becoming a nuisance!

              For a more irreverent view of them see the ARmy Rumour SErvice (colloquially known as arrse) website:


  7. So can I still say “That’s not a monkey, that’s an ape.” when someone points to a gorilla/chimp/orang/gibbon/siamang?

    1. In the sense that we are fish, we are also monkeys — as are the other great apes. Our ancestors certainly would have been classified as monkeys, tail and all, were they still alive today.

      So, if your SIWOTI kicks in at that point, probably best to say something like, “Yes, that’s a monkey — more specifically, an ape. As are we both.”



      1. So how ’bout the guy I saw at the zoo on Sunday telling his child that a sleeping chimp was a “lazy gorilla”? Can I smack him?

        1. That shouldn’t be a problem; I’m pretty sure the gorillini tribe didn’t truly emerge until well after the death of chimps’ most recent common ancestor with gorillas, so chimps couldn’t possibly be gorillas.

          Now, I shall sit back and expect to be told I’m wrong.

  8. I certainly feel like an ape. Like “The Kinks” suggested, “give me half a chance and I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle,cause the only time that I feel at ease is swinging up and down in a coconut tree, Oh what a life of luxury, to be like an Apeman.

    And please send your corrections regarding the placement of coconut trees to Ray Davies. I contend that an apeman is an ape.

    1. Coconuts grow on palms, which are monocot plants ; most other things which are commonly described as “trees” are dicot plants. That’s about as far from being a tree as you can get and still be a plant.
      And yes, I too am a fish. Though not an elasmobranch.

      1. Damn. Thought of a better last line :
        “I too am a fish, and a chordate too. But I am not now and never have been a member of the Chondrichthyian Party.”

  9. I recently read an article about how the term “hominid” used to be applied only to humans (Homo Sapiens) and our direct ancestors but over the course of time – through mapping of the genome of Gorillas and Chimpanzees, we realized that they are much more closely related to us than previously believed. So now the term hominid applies to humans, gorillas and chimpanzees as well. I am not a biologist so I am not qualified to judge how accurately the article depicts the facts.

  10. I used the word “rip” in the literal sense. Had one of the buggers wrapped around my neck and was “gently” trying to unscrew it!

  11. Thanks for this, I appreciate the discussion.

    I don’t actually know *anyone* who is not a scientist who says “apes” and ever means “humans”. Consider:

    “Look at the apes!”

    “Who let those apes in here?”

    “You damn dirty ape!”

    I think it is useful to have language that distinguishes apes and humans in this way. I think “fish” is useful, as is “reptile”, “tree”, and “bug”. If instead of these, I need to identify monophyletic groups, that’s what taxonomy is for. We have lots of taxonomy-derived terms in ordinary English for this purpose: hominid and anthropoid are prominent examples. When *those* change meaning, as “hominid” is in the course of doing, we can explain the science. In the case of “ape”, I think the intent of changing its meaning is instead mostly political.

    1. Does that mean BigBob is justified in calling whales fish, since that’s been a common English usage? Shouldn’t language adapt with improved understanding of the world?

      In my experience, the vast majority of my acquaintances who accept evolution also refer to humans as a type of ape. My acquaintances who separate humans and apes tend to doubt evolution, and usually also separate humans from animals.

      1. “And when that we come to Imez
        Where the mountains flowed with snow,
        We tacked about all in the north,
        Till we see the whalefish blow”

    2. Is this an extension of the species problem?

      I suppose Richard Dawkins was indeed making a political as well as an emotional point – we ARE only animals. We impose our view on the world because we need to organize and systematize but this is never simple because Nature is messy! I do use ape to include humans, it seems bizarre to me to think otherwise, but then I look at things bottom up rather than top down, again a fundamental split in world views.

    3. One thing that strikes me about Kohlmayer’s article is that it’s basically an “argument from semantics”, and due to the fallacious nature of such arguments, it rather fails and doesn’t contribute much to a discussion regarding the truth of evolution.
      In the end, all that’s left to discuss is the semantic issue: Are apes humans or not?

      However, while Kohlmayer’s argument against evolution can arguably be said to be wrong, the semantic issue doesn’t really have a truth value assigned to either conclusion:

      You can say “It’s true that Taxonomist A defines apes as D, and it’s true that Taxonomist B defines apes as D’.”, but you can’t really say “D is a more correct definition than D’.”
      You could argue that D or D’ is more useful, or that D or D’ is much more widely used and should therefore be used to minimize confusion, but in the end, neither is objectively “more correct”.

      What we really need to do is to be clearer about the definitions we’re using. If we don’t know them to be nigh-universally accepted among the people we’re talking to, and if they’re central to our arguments, we need to explain them.

      Moreover, when quoting somebody to make a point, we must consider what definitions they’re using, and “translate” the logical implications of their statements accordingly.


      As you may have noticed, I’m having trouble expressing my thoughts on the matter concisely. In an effort to achieve some greater clarity on the subject, I recently started up a conversation on TED.com on this issue, titled:
      “Humans are apes!” “No, they’re NOT!” “YES, THEY ARE!” – Where does arguing semantics get us?

      I invite anybody who finds the topic interesting, or who wants to straighten me out, to join us there.

      Best wishes,
      Ape (by some definitions)

    4. Certainly the older usage of ‘ape’ meant an animal one grade lower than humans on the Chain of Being. Meanings of words do change in common parlance, and in this case if it shifts or has shifted to better reflect scientific usage, that seems like a good thing. Doubtless there were once people who objected to calling humans mammals. I don’t think the same will happen to monkey or fish.

      I’m confused by your calling this ‘political’, but perhaps that’s a cultural difference. I guess in America, introducing an overtly evolutionary meaning to something is a political act. So be it. In communicating my research I find it both convenient and helpful to call humans apes but not monkeys.

  12. Perhaps I can clear up some of the confusion. Hawks isn’t arguing that humans aren’t apes if “apes” is defined as synonymous with “hominoids”. He’s simply pointing out that “ape” isn’t a term that needs to be synonymous with “hominoids” and perhaps shouldn’t be.

    It’s a pretty simple concept, really. Cladistics and colloquial terms don’t have to be synonymous, and I would argue that there are many cases where they shouldn’t be. Are humans monkeys? If you insist that they’re apes then by the same logic they’re also monkeys and fish (since they belong to each of these clades). “Monkey” describes a paraphyletic group but is nevertheless widely used, so it’s not outlandish to suggest that “ape” refer to a paraphyletic group as well.

    Where most of the confusion seems to originate is that Hawks’ argument has no relevance to the science vs. religion debate. This is simply a matter of how scientists and others choose to define their terms. Basically, must I say that “humans have longer legs than non-hominin hominoids” or can I say “humans have longer legs than apes.” The answer is not a question of biology, but of English usage.

    1. This is what I would have said if I had figured out how to sign in yesterday. I knew what Hawks was saying.

      I’m an organismal biologist and I am all about the monophyly of formal taxa.
      On the other hand, I think it’s kind of arrogant of biologists to insist on redefining centuries-old vernacular terms for groups of organisms to match recent advances in phylogenetic taxonomy. Lots of perfectly good and unambiguous groupings turn out to be paraphyletic (or poly-): fishes, flukes, algae, monkeys, ungulates, crustaceans, wasps, flies, lizards, reptiles, dinosaurs, invertebrates, etc. etc. Apes.

      so what?

  13. Dawkins himself inextricably lists us in the middle of them – “The African Apes are gorillas, humans,
    bonobos and chimpanzees” – so that is the order in which I illustrate them here.

    I wanted to use my countrywoman, Beatrice Tinsley (whom I am proud to have known, long ago) instead of the Bard, but there are no good pictures of her out of copyright.

  14. Here’s a different if not totally serious view on the human relationship to the apes from a Nobel prizewinng physicist.

    “[T]here’s much more difference (…) between a human being who knows quantum mechanics and one that doesn’t than between one that doesn’t and the other great apes.”

    M. Gell-Mann at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Chicago 11 Feb. 1992.

    From http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0012089.

    Certainly Kohlmayer falls in the latter category.

  15. I will give the critic the benefit of the doubt and assume that he wasn’t denying the monophyly of Hominidae as a clade. It sounded like he was trying to draw a distinction between a grade and a clade. A clade is a phylogenetic term (and in this case a formal named taxon, though it need not be) which should be as precise as possible to aid in classification and scientific communication. But it seems like he meant that we humans are so derived that we have our own distinct self-made niche. He means “ape” in the same way we can informally talk about “fish” even though systematists would no longer recognize the Class Pisces.

    Of course even IF my charitable interpretation is what he was going for that still doesn’t matter, because Kohlmayer was missing the original point. Dawkins wasn’t using “ape” in the loose sense of some sort of evolutionary grade. Dawkins was clearly using it in the clade sense and the rest is mere obstinate pedantry.

  16. Religious people ask how an atheist can live without the sense of wonder and awe they get from contemplating their sky-daddy.

    When I contemplate my relationship to the rest of life, to chimps, trout, tyrannosaurus rex, sequoia giganticus, strawberries and truffles, now that is TRULY AWESOME.

  17. Apes cannot be associated with humans for humans kill and maim for property ,wealth They do not hate someone because of their religion killing and maiming,letting their young die by thousands a day because of lack of food.

  18. I kind of feel that in formal taxonomy, an effort should be made to redefine or rename classifications such as to purge paraphyletic groups. What purpose do they serve other than to stand as an artifact to historical misconceptions of phylogeny based on an incomplete analysis? Is it so that when a Creationist says “I’m no monkey!” we can reply with the utterly irrelevant and pedantic retort, “Neither am I, I’m an ape”? Or is it just so we can confuse the fuck out of people?

    Obviously informal taxonomy such as develops out of natural language will contain many praphyletic groups. But why would formal taxonomy ever employ such groupings, EVER???

  19. So should we chastise Joe Travis, an author of the 2012 paper in evolution entitled “VARIATION IN OFFSPRING SIZE WITH BIRTH ORDER IN PLACENTAL FISH: A ROLE FOR ASYMMETRIC SIBLING COMPETITION?” for not using “non-tetrapod placental fish” since this is clearly what the paper is about?

    The word “fish” is used almost invariably in it’s paraphyletic since by nearly all biologists in the professional literature although in class all of us are likely to say “I am a fish”. John’s point, which seems to be missing from the OP and many comments, is that Ape is not a formal taxonomic term so there are no rules for its usage. This mean as with any word, it will have multiple meanings and we understand the meaning from its context. So when we make the political or educational statement, “I am an ape” we are using the word differently from the statement “I am interested in studying locomotor biomechanics of african apes”. There is no right or wrong way to use the word “ape”. That is where I disagree with John who would say its wrong to use ape in this sense since the conventional and common usage is in its paraphyletic sense. John makes a strong case but words change meaning and take on new meanings so having two different meanings for the same word might be confusing to some but is certainly not wrong (as in one of the statements “I am an ape” “I am not an ape” has to be false).

  20. A thought occurs:

    “Humans are animals” is less contested.

    But the “animal” group is more general than both the “fish” group and the “ape” group.

  21. Humans are apes, fish etc…Where does this leave traditional notions of human rights, human dignity and the intrinsic value of human life? Feedback is welcome.

  22. I am an ichthyologist. One barrier to my accepting cladism is that I have to accept that there is no such thing as fish in the long accepted sense. I once explained to a colleague that we are osteichthyes. She responded, “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard!”

    The discussion here is perhaps just the reverse. The argument is for accepting a paraphyletic definition separating humans from the monophyletic ape lineage, in contrast to using fish as a paraphyletic group including agnatha, chondrichthyes and osteichthyes, but excluding tetrapods.

    1. Just as an invertebrate biologist can study a paraphyletic group and a herpetologist can study reptiles, ichthyologists can study fishes. But none of these are natural objects unless they are monophyletic. Instead they are groupings of convenience.

      When one says “birds are dinosaurs” one is announcing that one natural group is part of another that folk did not tend to think it was part of, which is a way of announcing a novel notion. Language will follow that discovery. To reject this as somehow bad language usage is to suggest that we can never say more than our prior language use permitted, which is a problem if we learn something new. As, indeed, we have here.

    1. Assimilating the concept of ‘human’ to ‘ape’, ‘monkey’, ‘fish’ concepts dehumanises us and leaves me thinking that it could become increasingly difficult to defend and preserve traditional ideas such as that of ‘human rights’ (ie. as rights that are properly distinguished from ‘animal rights’ of course) if ‘humans’ are henceforth to be categorised as ‘fish’, ‘monkeys’ etc. It also seems to undermine related traditional ideas such as those mentioned above, which are admittedly ideas that I see some value in. As others have hinted at here, perhaps it is not such a good idea to jettison paraphyletic definitions of ‘fish’.

      1. Perhaps the following is of relevance:

        “While it is true that politicians can use any word they want. We reply that language works only when those using it agree on what the words mean, and that the meaning of words cannot be unilaterally changed by someone without the agreement of others.”

        – William Lutz

        1. I have nothing against coining new terms for new ideas, so why not do the same for the monophyletic group in question. I think this is more sensible than trying to co-opt an English word that is clear enough to continue to serve its purpose, but I do realise that not everyone here is endorsing this sort of move.

  23. If anyone’s still paying attention… 

    We came across this sign in the zoo at Drayton Manor Theme Park. OK, clearly, while it’s a well-kept zoo, it has no aspirations to be an educational centre, but we were gobsmacked by this sign (close up). (CapnAlex is my younger son.)

    We just couldn’t imagine how they’d managed to get it so badly wrong!


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