If We Evolved From Monkeys…

At their best, blogs tell you something you didn’t know, in the same way you learn something from an interesting person you meet at a party. John Wilkins, a philosopher of science, has just such a post up at Evolving Thoughts. He addresses the strangely enduring meme, “If we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?”

While the entire post is enlightening, I was especially taken by a detail. In the mid-1700s Carl Linnaeus established the first large-scale system for classifying species. Linnaeus once declared, “There are as many species as the Infinite Being produced diverse forms in the beginning.” I was aware that his religious views did not stop him from putting humans (Homo sapiens) in the primate order. It turns out, however, that Linnaeus originally put humans and chimpanzees in the same genus, Homo. Wilkins includes this striking passage from a letter Linnaeus wrote to a friend:

It is not pleasing that I placed humans among the primates, but man knows himself. Let us get the words out of the way. It will be equal to me by whatever name they are treated. But I ask you and the whole world a generic difference between men and simians in accordance with the principles of Natural History. I certainly know none. If only someone would tell me one! If I called man an ape or vice versa I would bring together all the theologians against me. Perhaps I ought to have, in accordance with the law of the discipline [of Natural History].

I had no idea that Linnaeus thought about the displeasure he would trigger by his handling of humans. It would be up to a later naturalist, Johann Blumenbach, to rip the chimps out of our genus.

Today, Linnaeus’s system lives on, although a bit awkwardly. Linnaeus’s ability to classify humans, chimps, and the rest of life was, scientists now realize, evidence of common descent. (We belong to the mammal class because we share a common ancestor with other mammals not shared by, say, birds.) It’s been some six million years since our ancestors diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees, and our DNA remains very similar. As a comparison, consider the genus of lemurs, Eulemur. Anne Yoder of Duke University estimates that the ten species in this genus share a common ancestors that lived 9.5 million years ago. Other genuses are far older, such as the ant genus Pheidole, which dates back 60 million years. By this standard, at least, we should share a genus with chimps. Not very pleasing to some, I’d wager. But let’s know ourselves, as Linneaus says.

(PS: some scientists want to scrap Linnaeus’s whole system and start fresh. For more, see this Discover feature by Joshua Foer.)

15 thoughts on “If We Evolved From Monkeys…

  1. It just occurred to me that my journey to this place right now might in fact hinge on a statement my mother made when I was just wee sprite back in nineteen fifty mumble.

    She said, “. . . well, you know, people are a kind of animal . . .”

    I can clearly recall how elegant and plausible that statement sounded at the time; to my young and inquiring mind it drew a neat circle that contained to whole living world. Even though at that time “biology” simply meant “the study of living things.”

    Her name is Helen and she will still tell you the same.

    Thanks, Ma.

    And thank you, Carl, for invoking such a fine train of thought. Synergistic, man!

  2. Strictly, however, it should be noted that Linnaeus didn’t fully or properly describe chimpanzees, calling them Homo troglodytes (cave dwelling man) and failing to attend to better than travellers’ tales in his description. While Blumenbach acted, so far as I can tell, out of revulsion rather than science, he at least read the right material.

  3. Evolution, imo, is circumstanial evidence. A pile of written circumstantial evidence as fact three stories tall, remains tests on circumstanial evidence, reports of circumstantial information and hypothosis from circumstantial evidence/information.

    The theory of human evoluton is information. Some of the information has granted us great achievments in biology and molecular biology.

    However, imo, teaching that people are animals haw wrought more harm than good. In my mind, only an unresponsible person would refuse to link growing animalistic behaviour in different societies by people to the teaching that people are animals.

    I think the facts support that teaching people they are animals does cause people to behave like animals: killings, thefts, rapes and conquests. We had those before Darwin. We have them now. Except now, we have more people.

    In closing, if you tell a Wahabbi or an Al Quedah that he’s an animal, he’ll either chop your head off or blow your brains out. If I’m going to get killed for disagreeing with those people, it’ll be standing for Christ, not insulting them.

  4. GRRRRRR….We did NOT evolve FROM monkeys. That headline just made me see red… and yes I saw the word “if”. and yes we ARE part of the primate lines. But most people seeing that headline are going to react like I did. Perhaps naming the precurser or mentioning Linnaeus and chart would have been more appriate.

  5. In closing, if you tell a Wahabbi or an Al Quedah that he’s an animal, he’ll either chop your head off or blow your brains out. If I’m going to get killed for disagreeing with those people, it’ll be standing for Christ, not insulting them.

    I am glad that your faith in a heaven similar to that of the Islamists provides you with comfort in the moment they decide to kill you.

    Me, being a smart tool using monkey. I’ll and defend myself with practiced skills and well chosen tools.

    I wonder when you meet you god will he not ask why you didn’t use the intellect he gave you to solve your problems or save yourself. 😉

  6. There is far FAR less evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to suggest changes in crime rates have anything to do with the teaching of Evolution.

  7. Don Snow says …” teaching people they are animals does cause people to behave like animals: killings, thefts, rapes and conquests. ”

    Those aren’t characteristics of any animals I know about: only humans perform such acts. So describing us as evolved from animals / apes seems an insult to them, not us.

  8. No- we evolved from primates- specifically our closest ancestor is the Chimpanzee.

    Monkeys are another branch.

    As for teaching evolution makes people act like animals… the people who actually understand it tend to be the smartest AND the least likely to commit crimes. I’m talking about the people who if you ask them if they “believe in evolution” start talking about theories in science, weight of evidence, etc.

    Most Americans are creationists. Our crime rate is so high because of the war on drugs- see how quickly we hit politics? Stupid theists legislating “morality”. Sorry- pet peeve of mine.

  9. Actually, the more scientists study chimpanzees, the more they are found to behave like us. That eat meat, they hunt, they kill other chimps from rival troops who enter their territory. There have also been reports of mother-daughter pair of homicidal/cannibal chimps from Goodall. I sometimes wonder if their behavior is like ours because their DNA is like ours. Just wondering….

  10. Actually the genes of a chimp are quite different from those of a human being as they have quite a few less and some of the ones they have humans do not. I am still looking for an observation of a gene that actually changes function for example from controlling eye color to controlling the thickness of ones nails. There had to be a lot of such changes between chimpanzees and humans.

    By the way when speciation occurs it does not necessary mean the old species dies off.

  11. . In science there are 2 things facts and theories. Evolution is not fact it is theory hence the “Evolutionary Theory”. If it were a scientific fact it would be called such.

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