Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Apes and Humans

Back in November I posted about the monumental stupidity a group of WPians seemed determined to display when arguing whether it should be clarified when the term 'ape' was being used to include humans and when not. Most were not only shocked at the very idea that the word ape could ever be used exclusively, they treated anyone who suggested otherwise as a dangerous, ignorant heretic unfit to be considered human or to grace the ideologically pure pages of the Wikipedia. Most of it was caused, I think, by a superstitious horror of creationism, and by being too much within their own bubble. The result was, and probably still is, an article that refuses to tell you what it's about. I was not foolish enough to get involved in that debate, I just commented on it in the spirit of an anthropologist who sees behaviour that excited his urge to understanding.

I pointed out then that many palaeoanthropologists and other specialists in the field of human origins are quite happy to use the word 'ape' in an exclusive or ambiguous fashion when speaking informally, even in academic papers, and clarify, 'apes and humans', etc, when there is a need for rigour. I have plenty of example among the papers I download and try to make sense of, and I was prepared to produce them if challenged, which I never was.

One of the people on my blogroll did get involved in that argument, attempted to inject some basic common sense and a regard for the truth and the principles of research, was insulted, declared anathema and banned. I don't suppose it bothered him very much, but it was odd to watch, strangely similar to what can happen on some left-wing sites, where a calm, measured, brief and truthful remark is denounced as hate speech by some spittle-filled, radish-eyed loon who announces his desire to rip out your innards unless you freely recognise his moral superiority.

Now another chap I read every day, John Hawks, who has taught me, or at least directed me to, most of the little I know about the subject, has casually stated 'humans are not apes'. The world continues to turn. The taxonomy of Homo sapiens continues to be a subject of considerable debate, but not because a word that has no technical sense in the field is sometimes used ambiguously. We may all breathe deeply, and consider more important matters, such as how Australopithecus sediba changes things.

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