Science: “Why Are There Still Apes?”

The Story:

There remains a good deal of opposition, especially within “culture war” fighting precincts in the United States, to the ideas that species evolve; that the human species, also known as homo sapiens, has only been around for a small fraction of the time that life has existed in the planet; and specifically that homo sapiens is derived from older primate species. One recent example of this hostility is a recent statement of Herschel Walker, if “man came from the apes,” he wanted to know, “why are there still apes?”


The word “ape” is one of common English language speech, not biological classification. But if we take “apes” to be a generic term for the non-human larger primates, the question sounds a bit like this, “If I have a grandfather, why do I still have cousins?” Much of the population no longer has a living grandfather, but does have cousins, and (translating the metaphor back to the primate family tree) the term “apes” broadly covers them both.

Strange New Worlds:

Yes, contemporary biology does hold that the “apes” we see at the zoo are in a broad sense our evolutionary cousins. But for our evolutionary grandfathers one ought rather to focus on the Australopithecus. The Australopithecus are extinct, perhaps for precisely the reason the question suggests: they competed with the hominids for the same small ecological niche and lost out in that competition.

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