I originally wrote this article about how humans are apes over 10 years ago (back in the ancient days of this website), based on a claim from Richard Dawkins he was an African Ape (which I reviewed here). Whether or not you like Richard Dawkins, and there is a lot to like and not like about him, he is entirely accurate about this one thing — we are humans and we are apes.
At the same time that I wrote about Dawkins’ quote, I ran across an article in io9 by Annalee Newitz, “The last time we redefined what it means to be human.” Newitz clarifies the current cladogram, a diagram that shows relationships among organisms, for humans and their closest primate neighbors (from an evolutionary standpoint).
Now, you may be wondering why I’m writing (or writing in the past) about the evolution of humans, but my original interest in starting this blog was to write about evolution and creationism. Seriously, that’s where I got my start. I would help write evolution articles on Wikipedia, I’d follow anti-evolution legislation in state legislatures, and I got into a public feud with the arch-creationist himself, Ken Ham.
But let’s write about something more interesting. Why and how are we both humans and apes.
On being humans and apes
Humans today are the species sapiens in the genus Homo, the subfamily Homininae, the family Hominidae, the order Primates, the class Mammalia, and the kingdom Animalia. There are other classifications, like tribe and subtribe, sub-family, and other fine tunings, which have made the taxonomic classification of organisms complex, especially because of the use of Latin names. Moreover, there are a lot of similar-sounding taxonomic groups for humans and great ape relatives. But let’s try to make it as clear as possible..
Currently, the taxonomic classification of primates is a bit confusing, because the hierarchy is subdivided much more than other organisms, possibly because of our interest in our own evolution. So here we go:
Family Hominidae – this is the classification that includes all of the great apes (the “African ape” mentioned by Dawkins, though not all of them are in Africa). The great apes include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and humans and all of their extinct ancestors. All members of this family are called hominids, which split from other apes, specifically gibbons, about 15-20 million years ago.
Subfamily Homininae – about 12 million years ago, orangutans diverged from other hominids into their own subfamily, Ponginae. Homininae now includes gorillas, chimpanzees, humans, and bonobos.
Subtribe Hominina – About 5-8 million years ago, chimpanzees and bonobos (subtribe Panina) diverged from the bipedal apes. All the members of this subtribe, including extinct genera, Ardipithecus (about 5.5-4.4 million years ago), Australopithecus (about 4–1.8 million years ago), and Kenyanthropus (3–2.7 million years ago), Paranthropus (3–1.2 million years ago), along with Homo (the only living genus of the subtribe), are called “hominins.” Homo sapiens are modern humans, which includes those of you reading this article.
So are you confused? I am. Just remember that hominins are us and our immediate ancestors that diverged from chimps and bonobos. And hominids are all of the great apes.
Taxonomy is rather complicated, and it makes biologists and anthropologists force organisms into particular groups. Remember that evolution is gradual (unless you’re a proponent of punctuated equilibrium, which states that species are static until some environmental event causes rapid change), so there’s not a single fossil that has a little sign that says “beginning of the hominid line.”
Using extant species as a starting point (since it’s mostly clear what are or are not members of the same species), you work backward until some point in time when you can define a split. But the split could have taken thousands or millions of years, and gene flow could have occurred between the groups that would eventually evolve into new species.
If you’re looking for evidence, the peer-reviewed journals are full of separate pieces of evidence. Remember, those who think that human evolution is some sort of lie, think that there’s one article written that has the experiment that “proves” human evolution. There isn’t, though there are a lot of review articles that sum up the current thinking and evidence. Studying evolution is based on thousands or even millions of individual papers based on individual observations and experiments.
We did not evolve from chimpanzees
One of the things that frustrate me is that even though we are humans and apes, we did not evolve from extant (currently existing) apes. We did not evolve from current chimpanzees, gorillas, or bonobos. Humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor.
Creationists love to say “well if humans evolved from chimpanzees, why are there still chimpanzees?” If you thought anti-vaxxers lack science knowledge, wait until you run into a creationist. The answer to that question is that we did not evolve from chimpanzees, though we are closely related, sharing over 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees.
In taxonomy, we are attempting to show a lineage, not unlike a family tree, although instead of going back a hundred years or so, we are going back millions of years. And all current organisms on an evolutionary cladogram, like the ones for apes, show endpoints of evolution (at least at the snapshot in time that’s being shown). Chimpanzees and humans are endpoints of five to eight million years of evolution from a common ancestor.
From a scientific point of view, humans are just another species of apes. Not only is Richard Dawkins fine with that, but so am I. Of course, if only those non-human great apes could speak, they’d ask for another opinion.
And because I’m on a roll, I want to make another point. If humans are over 99% related to a chimpanzee, the difference between every human’s DNA is much less than 0.1%. Racism is based on a tiny, insignificant difference between humans. Racism is not at all scientific. But that’s an article for another day if anyone wants to read about it.
At any rate, enjoy being an ape. And a human.
I have no clue why this article retains its popularity over ten years. Every day when I check the stats for this website, I see 100-200 hits. Maybe creationists are trying to find evidence that they are not related to apes. Who knows? Speculate in the comments.