About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ape to monkey??

The History Channel is about to broadcast a documentary on human evolution, premiering Sunday, August 7th at 9pm Eastern Time.

The web site of the program looks fine, if a bit on the Dysney side of things. There is an accurate time line of human evolution (can you believe it? They actually claim that the story began 5 million years ago!), and a "missing link" interactive challenge, in which the visitor can play paleo-anthropologist.

Of course, I haven't seen the program, but we surely need good science on TV, especially about evolution, and particularly on human evolution. What bugs me is the title of and advertisement for the show: "Ape to Man: Has Evolution Made a Monkey Out of You?", accompanied by a poster showing an image similar to Michelangelo's famous Sistine Chapel painting, where God's hand almost touches Adam's. Except that in the History Channel version, "Adam" has the harm of a monkey. (Notice the confusion in the title vs. subtitle of apes and monkeys, which are pretty different kinds of primates...)

Why? Why peddling to the so-called controversy over evolution? I understand that commercial channels have to attract audiences, and the competition is fierce (especially from all those ludicruous "reality" shows that are so popular nowadays), but couldn't the people in charge of the advertisement campaign for "Ape to Monkey" be a bit more creative and equally effective?

By the way, we most certainly did not come from monkeys (or apes). We share a common ancestor with them. That would be like saying that you descend from your cousin. You don't, although you do have some of the same genes because you share some of the people on your family tree.


  1. Let us not get to excited about the marketing issue here. These programs and there marketing approaches are designed to appeal to the general public. We have to remember that the population that is familiar with evolution and in particular human evolution is a small group, even in the USA. I still would rather watch this than multitudes of mindless television entertainment available.

  2. I think that it's splitting hairs to claim that we are not really descended from apes or monkeys. Consider what the common ancestors was like -- they would very quickly be called apes/monkeys.

    So why not bite the bullet about our ancestry?

    And it's interesting that there isn't similar indignation over dogs being descended from wolves, or cereal grains being descended from various wild grasses, and so forth.

  3. Loren, well, it may be hairsplitting, but scientifically there is a distinction between being related to and being directly descended from. It's a matter of teaching the proper concept. Incindentally, dogs are not descended from wolves, they share a (admittedly very recent) common ancestor with them... :-)

  4. Hmmm, I'll have to partially disagree here. I do agree the "Ape to Man" title is misleading, but for another reason, which I hope against hope to make clear in the following (long ugly words involved).

    In the field of phylogenetics, the only accepted, natural groups are the monophyletic ones. Which means: groups that include the most recent common ancestor and ALL of its descendants. That's why the group "reptiles" is not strictly valid (it's a paraphyletic group). It is kept as a separate class of Vertebrata out of tradition. Why isn't it monophyletic? Because it does not include birds and mammals.

    Now, to the point where apes and men join the fun. If you call chimps, gorillas and orangutans apes, you must call humans apes too, because we all share a common ancestor. Ans we actually do call ourselves apes, too, although with another less popular word: we are all Hominoidea primates (the primates that look human, i.e. have no tail - include gibbon here).

    So, we did not just come from apes, we are part of the group. Otherwise, we are not following the most accepted practices in phylogenetics.

    The point Massimo has and is very important is that we did not come from our cousins, obviously. We are not descended from chimps or gorillas. But we do descend from extinct apes.

    I now this is long enough already, but there's another little point I'm not so sure about: the wolf thing. The split between wolves and dogs is so recent, that the parental species (wolf) is still around, so it's a bit hard to justify saying that dogs do not descend from their population - OK, wolves might have changed a teeny-weeny little in these 10,000 or so (?) since dogs split, but are they a different species now? That's a bit extreme. Maybe that's why the most recent classification of the dog is Canis lupus subspecies familiaris (or was it dometicus?). Or maybe they changed it again. Oh well, what's a damn species, anyway? :O)


  5. And by the way, Massimo: have you watched the "Ape to Man" thing at all? I did, and found it pretty good, actually.


  6. We aren't from apes or monkeys but share a common ancestor? What? What ancestor would that be, if not some other form of primitive primate? Either way you slice it, we're monkeys.

    Also, there are several -- equally logical and credible -- theories on whether or not dogs descended from wolves. One of the best theories, supported by DNA testing, suggests that most dog breeds descended from Asian wolves.

    You can't just say "No, silly, this is what happened," because all of the explanations are practical and supported by some kind of evidence.

    However, saying that "We did not descend from apes, but we share a common ancestor with apes," isn't splitting hairs -- it's splitting microbes. That common ancestor was some from of primitive primate -- that's only if you refuse to admit that the first upright walkers actually did descend from a now extinct species of great ape. You can choose to call it a monkey or not, it doesn't change the reality of the situation.

    The reality of the situation, as supported by any kind of rational logic, and fossil record, is that the first upright walkers, our ancestors, descended directly from a species that were much like the great apes we have today. We didn't descend from Chimpanzees, surely, nobody thinks that, and our ancestry is shared with the Chimpanzee, but that ancestry is that of a now extinct branch-swinging, eventual land-hopping, grass-eating, cheetah-feeding ape.

    Perhaps it is that you are only willing to call the current species of apes -- Gorillas, Chimps, Orangutans, etc -- actual apes. But, that doesn't really make any sense. The only reason for that logic would be to avoid calling human beings a species of ape, or to have some form of principal on which to base a rejection of "ape to man" ideology. Luckily, principal is no match for the combined forces of fact and reason.

  7. there is no way that you can believe that there was no intelligent design at all. If you believe that we all evolved from a single-celled organisms, where did that single-celled organisms come from? even if this single-celled organisms came from nothing then how did it evolve int the perfectness of a bird so its bones were hallow or the longs special designed so it could breath while flying? or the giraffe and its sponge like water absorber in its head so its brains wouldn't blow up while trying to get up from a drink? and what about the missing links? to many variables.


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