Wrongheaded anthropologist claims that humans aren’t apes

November 2, 2015 • 12:30 pm

It’s time to affirm once and for all that humans are apes, and to educate those who say otherwise. To deny that is to deny a palpable fact of biology and evolution: our close ancestry with other primates.

One of those who need education is Jonathan Marks, a cultural anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The University lists his interests as “Biological Anthropology, Human Genetics, History of Anthropological Thought, Evolution and Human Society.”  And he’s clearly passionate about his field, but his passion sometimes becomes rather aggressive—or even nasty.

I have a report, for instance, that Marks once gave a talk that was, in part, about human genetic variation and “races,” and in it he vehemently denied not only the existence of races, but also attacked studies of genetic variation among human populations, studies that, he claimed, were motivated by racism. When a questioner asked him, “Are you saying that anybody who studies geographic variation in human genes is a racist?”, Marks reportedly answered (in a large seminar), “Yes, and I’d put my boot up their ass.”

He’s now trying to put his boot up another posterior: the notion that humans are apes. But that posterior won’t yield, because, in fact, humans ARE apes. For that is how we’re technically classified in biology. Here’s a simple representation of that, showing that we’re apes; and one could also have put in another bracket around orangs, gorillas, the two chimp species and us, and labeled it “hominids (great apes)”.


And the classification from Wikipedia:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Suborder: Haplorhini
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: H. sapiens

If you look up the family Hominidae, you’ll see that it includes all the “great apes”: orangutans, chimps (both common chimps and bonobos), gorillas, and humans. In other words, we are “great apes”. We are also “hominids”, a term once used to refer to every species on “our” side of the evolutionary tree since we diverged from the ancestors of the other apes, but now hominids refers to all the hominidae, and the former “hominid” is now “hominin“.  (You can see the full phylogenetic placement of our species here.) Finally, we are in the more inclusive superfamily Hominoidea, which are all apes, including the great apes and the gibbons.

But Marks disputes this universally accepted classification in a post at the website PopAnth called “Are we apes? No, we are humans.” What he’s doing in the post, as you’ll see below, is denying that we’re apes because the popular conception of apes includes every hominid other than humans, but not humans themselves. He also intimates that there are dire but unspecified political consequences of thinking that we’re apes. Here’s his argument:

Our ancestors were of course apes. That is what science shows. Our closest zoological relatives are apes, and we fall phylogenetically among them–indeed, we are closer to a chimpanzee than that chimpanzee is to an orangutan.

But that elaborates the identities of our ancestors, not us. They were apes, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us what we are. The problem, as Simpson understood decades ago, is that ancestry is not the same as identity.

Yes but the classification of humans as hominids—as apes—does indeed tell us what we are, at least in one sense. It tells us, as you see above, that our closest relatives are other species that share some derived traits (called “synapomorphies”) with other apes, showing that these traits arose after we branched off from other primates. You can see a list of those synapomorphies here.

Marks goes on, confusing the issue of ancestry, which is what our classification with other apes is meant to show, with “identity,” a term that is pretty nebulous and has no formal meaning in biological classification, or even in biology.

We reject the simple equation of ancestry with identity in other contexts. Why should we accept it in science? The short answer is that we shouldn’t.

Science no more says that I am an ape because my ancestors were, than it says that I am a slave because my ancestors were. The statement that you are your ancestors articulates a bio-political fact, not a biological fact. And it is ridiculous and offensive in the modern era, in addition to being false.

Here you can see the ideology creeping in, though I’m not quite sure what ideology Marks projects, though he appears to be a leftist in other contexts. But saying that we’re “apes” has no “bio-political” connotation at all, except in the minds of ideologues like Marks. It doesn’t say that we are our ancestors: it says that we belong to a group whose members share some derived traits and who are evolutionarily diverged from other primates. It becomes clear that Marks is using a concept of “ape” different from that used by other scientists: apes are those other species that we gawk at in cages at the zoo:

What are we? We are human. Apes are hairy, sleep in trees, and fling their poo. I should make it clear: Nobody likes apes more than I do; I support their preservation in the wild and their sensitive treatment in captivity. I also don’t think I’m better than them. I’m smarter than they are, and they are stronger than I am. I’m just not one of them, regardless of my ancestry. I am different from them. And so are you. You and I have 46 chromosomes in our cells; chimpanzees have 48. They are indeed very similar, but if you know what to look for, you can tell their cells apart quite readily.

Then he becomes terminally confused:

. . . Obviously we are very similar to chimps, because we shared a common ancestry with them only a few million years ago. But that doesn’t tell us that we are apes; it only says that we are genetically very similar to apes by virtue of our shared ancestry with them.

And indeed we–that is, Homo sapiens–fall phylogenetically within the group that we call “apes.” Shouldn’t that make us apes?

On the other hand, we also fall phylogenetically within the group that we call “fish.” That is to say, a coelacanth is more closely related to us than it is to a trout. So we fall within the category that encompasses both coelacanths and trout, namely, fish.

Yes, but that’s not the same thing as saying that we fall phylogenetically with the group that we call fish. In fact we don’t (see below).

Yet we are not fish. There are certainly things to be understood by confronting our fish ancestry (such as our gestation in a saline, aqueous environment), but fish can’t read, so if you are reading this, then you are not a fish.

Well, “bony fish”are in the superclass Osteichthyes, to which we don’t belong, but we do belong to the class Sarcoptrygii, which are descendants of early fish, a group that include tetrapods.

Saying that we are not apes is like saying that Drosophila are not flies (dipterans). It’s just dumb, and somehow meant to set us apart from other great apes. Yes, we do have unique traits, but we’re still in the family of hominids. And, contra Marks, that does not mean that we are our ancestors. It means we share a common ancestor that lived in the past.

Historically, Marks is a bit like Deepak Chopra, who can’t let a criticism slide. So when the commenters try to set him straight, he goes into the comments section and argues with them—nearly always a mistake, particularly if there are biologists afoot. Here’s a humorous exchange from that section:

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 12.17.08 PM

Finally, it may not be irrelevant that Marks is also author of a book called Why I am not a Scientist, characterized like this:

Science, Marks argues, is widely accepted to be three things: a method of understanding and a means of establishing facts about the universe, the facts themselves, and a voice of authority or a locus of cultural power. This triple identity creates conflicting roles and tensions within the field of science and leads to its record of instructive successes and failures.

Well, whatever this postmodern babble means, if Marks wants to establish that he’s not a scientist, he’s gone quite a ways towards that goal in this piece.

And let’s not forget that denying that humans are apes plays right into the hands of religious human exceptionalism as well as creationism. It may not be surprising that Marks’s University web page says this: “Prof. Marks is on leave during the Academic Year 2013-2014, participating as a Templeton Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Notre Dame.”

155 thoughts on “Wrongheaded anthropologist claims that humans aren’t apes

  1. Surprise! From his page at the department:

    “Prof. Marks is on leave during the Academic Year 2013-2014, participating as a Templeton Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Notre Dame.”

    1. The use of races is a mistake since race=species. So what we have are sub-racial characteristics of local adaption. But in the 19th century people like the plant taxonomist Carl Linnaeus did consider them to be different races as in species and it stayed that way in the public mind. Continued in popular culture like calling those who are of Northern European extraction “Caucasian” which is in Turkey and Turks do not look like that.

      And because it is so embedded it also functions as a means of support for those, mostly of no or little science background to use it incorrectly and the multiple feed back loops that continue to support it through cultural inertia maintains it to this day.

      A tangled mess that will never be fixed at this rate.

            1. We generally use words, signs, treaties etc instead of our deficant which would have our scent on it. Like other animals that use bodily excretions to mark their territory.

              And the fun people have in relation to it in word and thought, though probably not deed.

  2. Can we also insist that apes (and thus humans) qualify as “monkeys”?

    Having a non-clade definition of monkey is surely as bad as a non-clade definition of ape.

    1. Yes, we can.

      It’s a smart answer to those show-offs who say, ”We’re not monkeys, we’re apes”! 😬

      It leads to tension at zoos. When children point at chimps and say, “Monkeys!” and their parents ”correct” them by saying, “No, dear. They’re apes.” I always want to say, “Well, actually …”

      My wife wishes that I didn’t have such urges … 


      1. Is this true? Looking at the ‘simple representation’ above the monkeys and the apes are not overlapping.

        1. But looking at that simple representation, you’ll see that monkeys are shown to be paraphyletic, since Old World monkeys are closer to apes than they are to New World monkeys. If you want a clade to contain all monkeys, apes are nested within it.

          It’s kind of weird how this causes so much controversy, since it’s really just an accident of English that causes it. In my native Swedish, monkeys are “apor”, and apes are a specific type, “människoapor”, ‘human-[like-]monkeys’.

          1. Yep. Unlike Ant, I feel no urge to correct someone on the use of monkey vs. ape since ‘monkey’ appears to have several different meanings. Vernacularly, it can be )and often is) used to refer to either the entire group or just the species with tails.

          2. It is all in the tails or lack there of. One can count Muggles who do represent tails as aberrant displays of normally shut off genes as an atavism. Yes that is what people are called who are born with tails–Muggles. I wonder if J.K.Rowling knew that?

              1. As said by a red Lectroid, a super solder variant of the black Lectroids from the 8the dimension.

  3. I think we should classify Marks, not as an anthropologist, but as a practitioner of PC confusionism™.

    It is completely incorrect that science includes “… a voice of authority or a locus of cultural power”

      1. Did you mean confucianism? Yes, I meant it to be confusing and compared to that “system of philosophical and “ethical-sociopolitical teachings” sometimes described as a religion”

        1. Yes, probably Confucianism is what I meant. I Googled confus… and got confusism. Must be a little used alternative name.

          1. “Confusism” may have been started by a con-founder with the same name.

            Sort of how Chopra has squared the market on verbal copra.

    1. I wouldn’t be too hasty in saying that Marks is wrong in saying that science is “[also] a voice of authority or locus of cultural power.” Obviously, at the denotative level the concept of science as method does not entail such a thing; however, that the meaning of “science” as it circulates in our culture is indeed a source of authority and power–the question is, is that authority and power justified, reasonable? I think in most cases it is. Marks, I’m afraid, might disagree.

  4. Not only are humans apes, we do a lot of ape things. Inevitably. Indeed, we don’t need to make movies about smart chimps taking over: Earth is, already, the ‘Planet of the Apes’. The more crucial point is that we are also survivors of a much dwindled great ape family, and seem to be working quite hard as a species to destroy the rest – and ourselves. Sigh….

    1. Yeah, see how Marks gets all upset at dissenting comments? That’s what apes do. His response is just poo flinging for the more refined.

  5. Oddly, though, there are plenty of biologists (not me) who would also say we aren’t apes. John Hawks is one, for example. And there are even some who would say we aren’t even descended from apes, including such prominent voices as Francisco Ayala. (None of this is about phylogeny; it’s about names. Still doesn’t make them right, though).

    1. What is “right” for a common name like ape? The point of both Johns (okay, one is Jon) is that common names are culturally defined and will vary from one group to the next (by language group or political identity or scientist/non-scientist) and claims of right/wrong usage is a category mistake. Using the same logic of Coyne, wouldn’t we also be invertebrates? Just a vertebrate invertebrate?

      1. Yes. Using the same logic we are also:
        -Microbes, germs, microorganisms

        1. Not so. Fish, yes, and I have no problem with that. The rest are descriptions of characters, not groups, and this is certainly most obvious for “unicellular”. “Worms” would be massively polyphyletic. What we are would be eukaryotes and, before that, life. Those are clades.

          Marks and Hawks, by the way, weren’t saying it was OK to separate humans from apes. They were saying it wasn’t OK to call humans apes.

          1. Prokaryotes, worms, microbes, etc. are groups, of course (groups defined by structure, or size). Not monophyletic groups, of course. Not clades.
            Fish and apes are also non monophyletic groups.

            1. The difference is that “fish” and “ape” do correspond to monophyletic groups (Gnathostomata and Hominoidea, respectively) and so can usefully be used to refer to those groups, while the others don’t. The clade “worm” would probably be Bilateria, not a sensible usage; and so on. Calling humans apes and even fish, when done in an evolutionary context, can be a handy way of pointing out that we belong to the tree of life.

              1. “The difference is that “fish” and “ape” do correspond to monophyletic groups (Gnathostomata and Hominoidea, respectively”

                They don’t, because some Hominoidea (hominins) are not apes, and some Ghathostomata (tetrapods) are not fish 😉
                Of course, some people want to *make* (or force) those correspondences.

              2. How is the correspondence forced? Is it also your contention that birds aren’t dinosaurs and/or that bats aren’t mammals?

              3. “Is it also your contention that birds aren’t dinosaurs and/or that bats aren’t mammals”

                They are. Mammalia and Dinosauria are formal taxa / clades. Bats belong to Mammalia, birds belong to Dinosauria, apes and humans belong to Hominoidea. There is no formal clade named “apes”.

              4. But there is no formal clade named “dinosaurs” either, or “mammals”. These just happen to resemble a couple of formal, Latin names. Why should a resemblance of terms be what counts? There’s no formal clade named “birds” either, and it resembles no formal name either. So would it be OK to say that kiwis aren’t birds? They’re about as different from the standard bird as humans are from the standard ape. Would you say that cheetahs aren’t cats, there being no formal clade named “cat”?

              5. “But there is no formal clade named “dinosaurs” either, or “mammals””

                You have Mammalia and Dinosauria (formal taxa) and their vernacular English terms “mammals” and “dinosaurs”. It’s not a matter of mere casual resemblance. “Mammalia” and “mammals” mean exactly and transparently the same thing. Hominoidea (which, by the way, means “similar to the humans”) has also its vernacular “hominoids”.
                Some people are trying to force “Apes” as THE vernacular word for Hominoidea. They have prominent figures like Richard Dawkins, and they are strong at the Wikipedia (hominoid redirects to Ape). You have of course the right to promote this. But it’s a campaign, not “the classification” or “the Science”.

                “So would it be OK to say that kiwis aren’t birds?”
                I think kiwis are considered birds in the zoo jargon and also in colloquial English, without any controversy.

                “Would you say that cheetahs aren’t cats, there being no formal clade named “cat”?”

                Maybe: one of “the big cats”. Same in Spanish. We wouldn’t normally say cheetahs, lions, tigers, etc, are “gatos”. Maybe in some special contexts, or when we are being a bit pedantic 🙂

          2. Even if there are other points of view, its surely still valid (and therefore ok) to call people a kind of ape.

            On what grounds are humans not apes; Paradolichopithecus was terrestrial and bipedal like an a’pith, was it no longer a monkey? Were a’piths still apes? What about Oreopithecus – interpreted either as a bipedalist or a sloth-like climber, Oreopithecus was phenotypically at least as divergent from the ‘normal’ apes as we are.

            Whatever the answers to these questions – why? What might define apeness without strict cladistics?

            1. And Paleofreak: people like GSP use words like ‘mammal’ differently to the clade definitions. After all why isn’t Cynognathus a mammal – even the basal Mammaliformes are strictly outside of clade Mammalia. Yet a far wider subset of fossil Synapsids fit the traditional zoological description of a mammal, in life, than the clades allow. I have no problem with attaching popular terms to all descendants of a common ancestor, the confusion started when clades were named things like Aves, Mammalia etc despite knowing people like Linnaeus & Darwin would’ve been far more inclusive of the definitions had they knowledge of, say, feathered basal maniraptors not too different from Archaeopteryx.

    1. I say we are whatever Templeton will pay me to say we are. C’mon, Templeton, where are you? I want a new bicycle!

      1. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

        “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
        Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
        Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
        Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
        Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

        (The Island of Doctor Moreau – H.G Wells)

  6. “a voice of authority or a locus of cultural power.” That’s ‘postmodern babble’ science.

    The only tension in science is Newton’s Third Law.

  7. I know chimpanzees. I’ve spent time with chimpanzees. You sir, are a chimpanzee.

    Paraphrasing Lloyd Bensen here. But, when you spend some time with wild chimps, you eventually realize not that they are “so humanlike!” But that you are very very chimplike.

  8. Thomas Huxley said he was not ashamed to have a monkey as ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected to someone who obscures the truth. I feel the same way about this anthropologist.

  9. I know he dresses like one, but in fact, Jon is not a cultural anthropologist.

    Also, I think you missed his point. Of course humans are apes, that is not deniable.

    But we also say that apes are not monkeys, or at least, get annoyed at all those zoo visitors standing around gawking at the gorillas and calling them monkeys. But if we put the right vernacular spin on “monkey” then apes are monkeys. (This is possible because monkey is not a proper technical term.)

    This is also not really about lumping and dividing so much, because that is more a species level thing.

    The points Jon makes are valid. But, I’m afraid, it is true that humans can be apes and humans can be seen as not apes at the same time, because the meanings of those terms are not rooted strictly in cladistic terms.

    1. Actually, I correct people who correct people who call chimpanzees “monkeys”. Of course they’re monkeys, as are we all.

    2. I think you missed Jerry’s point (correct me if I’m wrong, Jerry), which is that he understands Marks’s point, but completely disagrees. I guess you and Marks are trying to make a semantic argument, rather than a scientific one, but words have meanings, and in science they need to be precise. Would Marks call Neanderthals or Australopithecenes apes? Where does he draw the line and why? It seems rather arbitrary and a matter or taste or preference rather than science.

      1. I’m not actually making an argument, but if I did, it would be a scientific one. 🙂

        If there is a semantic argument being made here, I’m afraid it might be that we must call humans apes because we call humans apes.

        You touch on a very interesting and central question, though. Would someone with Marks’ position call Australopithecines apes? That is not a matter of taste or preference, but rather, the essential question in human evolution. Whether you want to call humans apes or non-apes for semantic reasons, as Jerry does (and legitimately I’m sure), humans have unique traits (obviously). We can therefore ask more precisely what those traits are, and then, since we are doing evolutionary biology here (not semantics) we can ask the usual Tinbergian questions about them, and we can ask about when they arose.

        Never mind the ape/not-ape part for a moment… ask whether or not Neanderthals are humans by these criteria, i.e., did they have these traits? H. erectus? “Early Homo?” Asking if Australopiths have these traits is bit naive given their diversity, but we can ask this for specific sets of fossil species.

        Historically bipedalism has been given a lot of weight in this kind of discussion, but in recent decades that has been sidelined. Brains are usually central. Tool use, but apes uses tools. But not like humans do. But are Oldowan grade tools different than what chimps to or more like what only humans do? Geographical associations, fire/cooking, foraging patterns, landuse patterns, other aspects of diet, mating system, sexual dimorphism in body size, patterns of life history/development (including the rise of a childhood phase, and post reproductive phase). All these things relate to unique human traits, all have various potentially knowable histories. All have been subjected to vast amounts of scientific study. There is nothing arbitrary or semantic about these questions. It is what we do when we study human evolution.

        Now, back to the ape/not-ape question. Marks mights say, and really probably is saying, something rather interesting here. Every ape species is unique (again, obviously) but the set of unique variants we see among apes in general has certain patterns, with no ape being uniquely unique (as it were) until we get down the list to humans, where the set of unique traits breaks that pattern. That is an interesting assertion, something a lot of people have been thinking for a long time (Darwin thought this, Washburn thought this, my graduate-days advisors and colleagues Isaac, Pilbeam, Deacon, Devore and others thought this, I happen to think this). Marks has re-articulated this in a somewhat new way and added a punch to it that is obviously causing some conversation.

  10. I’ve always found it interesting that the idea of being related to monkeys or apes strikes such an emotional chord with so many. Mythology is rife with examples of entire peoples descended from various animals. But they’re almost always something non-anthropomorphic, such as eagles or wolves or something. People don’t mind being told they’re descended from lions or jaguars. That’s not repulsive, it’s awesome.

    Apes must be a little too much like us, and maybe we don’t like what we see.

    1. I think that comfort level idea is a good one. The obvious reason origin stories don’t have us descended from apes is that most of the bandied about origin stories are not from where apes live. But, I’ve studied origin stories of people where apes are common, and never saw anyone claiming to be descended from them. Might be interesting to look at your idea more systematically and see if it holds up!

      1. Isn’t it the other way around? There are many origin stories in which apes or monkeys are descended from people who decided to go back to nature.

        1. Are there? Sounds interesting. I can think of transformation to apes or monkeys in a couple of places, but not many. I don’t think they are origin stories though. What are your examples?

    2. It is curious that in popular usage the words “animal” and “ape” are often used to refer only to non-human members of the taxon, but not so for “mammal”. I’ve heard people deny they are animals and apes, but not deny they are mammals. Why is that?

      1. In formal writing and education, etc, and in informal talk by experts, we use non-human ape, non-human primate, and even non-human mammal when referring to such. Despite JM’s valid points, we are better off referring to chimps as non-human apes.

  11. One simple question for Marks:

    Are you a mammal?

    Could equally ask that with “Animal”, “Vertebrate”, “Primate”…

    His declaration that “humans are not apes” is essentially the same as “humans are not animals”. But, like it or not, we are.

    1. Excellent point! When I meet someone and they ask me to tell them about myself, I have never stated that I was a mammal, nor a chordate, nor even a collection of of atoms. But, I am of course all of those things. But because I don’t generally identify myself by those terms, it seems according to Mark’s thinking that I don’t belong in those classifications.

      Well, I also have never self-identified as human. Does that make me any less human?

  12. Non-biologist here, so …
    I think Marks has a bit of a point, but goes overboard in his discussion.
    It’s all in the use that is made of the word “apes”.
    If you look at the chart that Jerry posted, it says “Hominoids (apes)”, and I think that is where Marks’ point arises – there is a scientific word “hominoids” that denotes a superfamily that includes the genus homo, but beside it is the not-necessarily-scientific word “apes”: the chart equates the two, so I take it that science does, but I don’t think popular (non-scientific) understanding does.
    Marks says:
    “Based on our physical features, we can readily classify ourselves as mammals, primates, and hominoids. But the Superfamily Hominoidea, as taxonomists have long noted, comprises ‘apes and humans,’ not just ‘apes.’ In other words, ‘human’ is a contrast group to ‘ape,’ not a subset; regardless of the biological phylogeny.”
    If Marks is right about that (the description of the the superfamily), then his point is reasonable – if he’s wrong about it, then he’s deliberately conflating the popular and scientific usages as the starting point for a polemic, to what end I really can’t see.
    As the commenters on the Marks article Matt Baen and Brandon Wheeler suggest, this is an issue of “grades” versus “clades”. To quote Wheeler:
    “i guess it’s all just grades versus clades. The author uses ‘apes’ in the gradistic sense, and in that sense we are not apes. Others use ‘apes’ as the common word for the clade hominoidea, and obviously in that sense we are apes. It certainly seems like day-to-day communication would be a lot more challenging if we didn’t allow ourselves to use words that refer to groups that characterise by a similar grade. But then again the use of the word ‘apes’ in the gradistic sense obscures our evolutionary relationship to the non-human anthropoids for those who don’t know the evolutionary history, which it turn shapes how these (other) apes are conceptualized. I’m torn.”
    And so am I, about that point; but not about the nonsense Marks then spouts about his ancestors and their being slaves/peasants – that’s not biology, that’s (as one commenter put it) politics.

    1. Huh, wouldn’t have guessed that they’ve got a better survival/injury rate at over 7 stories than they do under it. That was interesting, thanks. 🙂

  13. I haven’t read Marks’ book but I suspect the title might be riffing off of a classic paper about folk taxonomies in New Guinea, written by Ralph Bulmer, Why is the Cassowary Not a Bird?”.

    He may not be as doltish as it seems at first blush, although “…and a voice of authority or a locus of cultural power.” doesn’t bode well.

  14. Catfish are more closely related to dogs than they are to dogfish. Which only goes to show that “fish” isn’t a taxon. Is “ape” a taxon? The word ape has different meanings for different people and different times. The Barbary ape isn’t an “ape” by some definitions but is by others. Same, I think, for Homo sapiens.

  15. After reading Marks’ concerns, I am going to stop referring to us as apes. From now on I will refer to us as damn dirty apes. Because I ain’t afraid of no words.

  16. Oh dear, is he from the past? Because his emotional response to the word “ape” that he tries to justify with PoMo nonsense is strikingly similar to the kefuffle Darwin and Huxley et al. heard in their time.

    I think this quote from Huxley is apt:

    ….man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling it would rather be a man—a man of restless and versatile intellect—who … plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

    I smell theologian in anthropologist’s clothing.

    1. I smell theologian in anthropologist’s clothing.

      Maybe he forgot to launder them before wearing. Fabreze might help. 😉

  17. We are included in the Osteichthyes. The group includes two sub-groups: the Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fishes and tetrapods) and the Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes). Living sarcopterygian fishes include the coelacanths and lungfishes (and the tetrapods if you want to include the land fishes 😉 )

  18. I think I see where he’s coming from–

    “I should make it clear: Nobody likes apes more than I do.”

    …In fact some of my best friends are apes. I just don’t think we should be forced to sit next to them on the cladogram.

  19. I’m starting to get a feel for why Marks is taking this stand by reading the paper linked at the side bar of his post.

    Jonathan Marks (2012): The biological myth of human evolution, Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, 7:2, 139-157

    He is attempting to draw a line between the study of human biology and every other discipline of science as subjective rather than objective. He argues that, because we are human, we are incapable of neutrally observing the human species. Here are some excerpts that rang alarm bells for me, I’m sure there are many more:

    “The third sense in which human biology is invariably cultural lies in the very nature of the science itself, in explaining who we are and where we come from, as any origin myth does, but with the modern cultural authority of science behind it.”

    “We will see chimpanzees evolve from primordial hippies (Goodall, 1971) to manipulative strategisers (Goodall, 1986) to paramilitary units (Wrangham & Peterson, 1996). This does not mean that there is no reality, but it does mean that we cannot, and do not, take this literature at face value, because we know that the science is an intrinsically cultural science.”

    “however authoritative one might wish one’s pronouncements to sound, they are not objective and cannot be objective, because the science is structured in a way that prevents them from being so”

    This stuff passes peer review? Seriously?

    1. He argues that, because we are human, we are incapable of neutrally observing the human species.

      Well sure. But so what? We are mostly incapable of neutrally observing anything in nature. That is why science includes self-correcting mechanisms such as open publication, reproduction, etc. – to account for our biases.

      “We aren’t neutral on subject X” does not prevent us from effectively studying X. It means we might make errors out of bias (rather than random mistakes), so we have to try and test for bias in our results, that’s all.

      1. As long as we have some emotional attachemnts it will be subjective. However there are those who can suppress it or excise it from their work to a point. Why there must be many eyes and minds on them to balance out.

  20. I am an anthropologist, and for years I worked with other certified anthropologists who had varying degrees of difficulty with the concept of races. The issue goes waaaaay back in anthropology and post modernism has made the discipline so fuzzy that no one asks anthropologists about anything except for those who are paleoanthropologists, and they are very popular with public TV and the National Geographic. But for sheer idiocy you might note how the US census classifies human beings and for even sheerer idiocy how the American Association for the Advancement of Science classified human beings (I’m not sure how or whether they are doing this now). I tried for several years to get them to either stop trying or use a taxonomy satisfactory to at least 51% of paleoanthropologists. I never received a reply.

    1. As long as there is social and political discrimination based on the perception of race, it makes some sense to pay attention to such data. I don’t think the AAAS and the US Census should be thought of as taking a position on the existence of biologically distinct human subspecies; what they are doing is tracking categories that are socially and in some cases legally important (for employment law, etc), that’s all.

      Though I agree, it is something of a catch-22. If you want to determine whether there is (for example) employment discrimination against women or African Americans, you have to ask people their gender and race when you’re discussing employment. But the mere act of asking their gender and race on a survey about employment runs the risk of giving the impression that these factors are important in terms of job performance, when they’re not.

      1. I must admit I like the variation. I would not like to turn the rainbow into gray sameness by “over looking race” aka not seeing differences. Instead of seeing differences as a positive at worst or of no relative importance at best.

  21. One phrase up there summarizes the issue for me: ‘If ‘ape’ is to be a valid taxonomic category, then yes, we are apes…’. I have seen at least one phylogenetic tree that explicitly brackets the ‘apes’ in a way to exclude humans. Here
    is an example. So at least some authors were of the view that the term ‘ape’ is some sort of traditional or informal term.
    But I agree that if one uses the term to specify a monophyletic group, then of course we are apes (and monkeys).

  22. “in fact, humans ARE apes. For that is how we’re technically classified in biology”

    No. Wrong. Humans and apes are classified as Hominoidea.

    1. I don’t even… Gaahh! It hurts my eyes! The more detailed tree on the left may be ok, but I am now blind so I cannot tell.

    2. I thought we and chimpanzees were related to the same ancestor, probably Laura or some name I can’t recall now. So that little tree is wrongly designed at least in that area.

  23. There’s an excellent book called ‘Higher Superstitions’ by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt that deals with all the various left-wing political neuroses that have gripped subjects like anthropology, philosophy, biology, etc. over the last three or four decades. It’s beautifully written and people like Marks are exactly the kind of people that the book’s about. As far as I can gather, from having read a few other books on the subject as well, anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology, has been a bit of a magnet for this kind of confused wishful thinking.

  24. The problem some folk like Marks have wrapping their heads around current taxonomy (cladistic method is the game in town, and has been for some decades) put this post on my #TIP (“Troubles in Paradise”) http://www.tortucan.wordpress.com anticreationism project scope in any case, but the addendum on Marks’ connection to the Templeton orbit clinched its relevance. The Human Exceptionalism trope is a high rising stock in Intelligent Design circles, so one may watch for potential roles Marks may play along that track in future.

    1. To them we are so “specially created” that there is a wide chasm between us an the rest of Earth life.

  25. I wonder if he denies that there are (on average) biological differences in the nature of male and female brains that is independent of nurture? This is another tripping point in the ideology from which he may stem.

  26. From the South Park fish sticks episode:

    Kanye West: Because I am a genius I have ascertained that fish have gills. Doctor do I have gills?
    Doctor: He does not have gills
    Kanye West: You hear that? No gills! So I can’t be a fish! And I’m a genius voice of a generation! … So that is that. Alright! It’s over! Now are there any questions!?

    1. I saw this comment in email, and was mind to mention the fact that some people do have “gills” – we saw this in one of Neil Shubin’s friends on Your Inner Fish; she had a small cleft behind her ear, iirc.

      And the next email was a comment on this four-year-old post on Troy Britain’s Playing Chess with Pigeons weblog, “Gill slits” by any other name…


      1. Troy’s article is dynamite. I’m sure most at the Discovery Institute know this stuff. They just chose to ignore it Jesus. Great link.

  27. There is a terrific book by Carol Kaesuk Yoon called “Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science” that would help Marks and others understand where he has gone wrong. It also deals with the ‘fish’ problem in a very satisfying way.

  28. People are piling on over at his website, tearing him a new one, as the saying goes. I didn’t see any comments supporting him. Come join in the fun!

  29. what is it about political ideologies that allow them, like brain-infecting parasites, to commandeer their hosts and demand they contaminate every aspect of life they can touch?

  30. Maybe Marks is entertaining grades as opposed to clades, but then he should declare his classification system. I am one of those “idiots” that call us “fish”, but only when discussing clades.

    Speaking of which, and I see Andres Lopez mentioned it too, confusingly Jerry’s own reference classifies Sarcopterygii under the superclass Osteichthyes.

    Returning to hominins, I think Don Johnson in his Human Origins course is a proponent of the human grade, but I need to check that. He is else/also very clear with separating cladograms (nodes) from phylogenies (node lengths).

    On another matter of my confusion here, races, I found Jerry’s 2012 article illuminating:

    “One of the touchiest subjects in human evolutionary biology—or human biology in general—is the question of whether there are human races.”

    “As Sapp notes, and supports his conclusion throughout the review:

    Although biologists and cultural anthropologists long supposed that human races—genetically distinct populations within the same species—have a true existence in nature, many social scientists and geneticists maintain today that there simply is no valid biological basis for the concept. The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs.

    Well, if that’s the consensus, I am an outlier. I do think that human races exist in the sense that biologists apply the term to animals, though I don’t think the genetic differences between those races are profound, nor do I think there is a finite and easily delimitable number of human races. Let me give my view as responses to a series of questions.”

    “… Under that criterion, are there human races?

    Yes. As we all know, there are morphologically different groups of people who live in different areas, though those differences are blurring due to recent innovations in transportation that have led to more admixture between human groups.

    How many human races are there?

    That’s pretty much unanswerable, because human variation is nested in groups, for their ancestry, which is based on evolutionary differences, is nested in groups. …

    … But since the delimitation of races has historically depended not on the degree of underlying genetic differences but only on the existence of some genetic difference that causes morphological difference, the genetic similarity of races does not mean that they don’t exist.

    … What are the implications of these differences?

    Not much. There are some medical implications. As is well known to doctors, different populations have different frequencies of ailments.”

    [ https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/are-there-human-races/ ]

    Sorry for the long quote, but I wanted to excerpt the core points that allay my confusion and if someone else was similarly confused they may find this helpful.

    1. There is a blockquote fail regarding Sapp’s comment. Also, I meant branch length, not ‘node length’.

  31. Two can play at this game:

    Our intellectual ancestors were of course scientists. That is what science shows. Our closest academic relatives are scientists, and we fall phylogenetically among them–indeed, we are academically closer to a biologist than that biologist is to a geologist.

    But that elaborates the identities of our intellectual ancestors, not us anthropologists. They were scientists, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us what we anthropologists are. The problem, as Simpson understood decades ago, is that ancestry is not the same as identity.

    My apologies to other anthropologists who don’t agree with Marks, but his argument applied to his own discipline would imply that just because your discipline arose out of science and is related to science, doesn’t mean you can properly be called scientists.

  32. Postmodernism poisons everything.

    Now, (almost justified) hyperbole aside, using PoMo or other “antirealisms” to insulate religious beliefs is common, unfortunately. It is gossip, but I got the impression that’s what Bas van Fraassen does, for example. (Not pomo, but denies realism.)

  33. What are the rules about drawing cladograms? Is it standard to draw the branches so that humans are on the right (as above) — looking very much like the “best” position, the pinnacle of creation.

    Here’s another, with just the great apes and showing both Pan species:


    But since the Pan species diverged from each other more recently than Pan diverged from us, doesn’t it make more sense to draw it this way?


    Drawing it this way seems to make it harder to say that we’re not (great) apes.


    1. I love seeing it drawn the second way. I get the same thrill I always get when I see whales placed within the artiodactyla – which I now always think of as cetartiodactyla. Nothing drives home the surprising power of evolutionary forces like seeing the “odd one out” just as settled in a tree as the “regular-looking” members.

      1. As an aside, I always hated “Cetartiodactyla”. Why do we need a new name for an order just because it has members you didn’t expect? “Artiodactyla” works just fine.

    2. Rules for drawing cladograms?
      Well, “pinnate” diagrams (first species branches off ; second species branches off, … until one remaining species) aren’t considered terribly helpful. They’re more an indication that you haven’t got a wide enough suite of characters. Otherwise, no rules I can discern. Yes, you want your outgroup at one end of the species list, but the rest of the placements are pretty much determined by the experimental data and your original choice of taxa to characterise.

  34. What I find particularly vacuous about this argument is the idea of an “ape identity” to begin with. In fact, the notion of some sort of stereotypical “animal identity” versus a “human identity” is nonsense from the get-go.

    Pick any adjective out of the dictionary, and there will be a species that fits it like a glove on a hand, and a species that couldn’t fit it if given a million years. Among apes alone, you’ve got the reclusive orang-utan, the chatty monogamous gibbons, the tight-knit and dominance-based gorillas, and the political and sex-mad chimpanzees who are political and sex-mad in almost antithetical ways. Lumping them under “apes”, as if such disparate characters were basically the same thing, is not just empirically futile, but shockingly dull, uninformative, and incurious to an almost suspicious degree.

    And anyone intending to lump a million plus species together in a stereotype – from single-minded pulsing jellyfish to hyper-complex elephants – in order to exaggerate human exceptionalism, is frankly living in a different universe.

    1. Aren’t banobos the “sex mad” ones? Chimps and humans have too much in common behaviorally especially in relation to violence.

  35. Mmm… believe it or not, I had a similar conversation with John Hawks once and he blocked me; I had questioned his distinction between popular & scientific taxonomies by pointing out that folk taxonomies classed bats as birds & snails as fishes. Obviously, scientific knowledge has implications for popular understanding.

    However I see an inconsistency in the labeling of the cladogram so that humans are apes but apes are not monkeys. In the past Anthropoid polygeny was suspected but with the concensus supporting the monophyly of Anthropoidea, the apes are surely Catarrhine monkeys…?

  36. I find it ironic how much the public onanism represented by Marks’ article implies that he is, indeed, an ape.

    Additionally he is a Lysenkoist of Political Correctness.

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