Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Ape Means Again

I wrote a few months ago about the horrible mess that was the Ape page at Wikipedia. To sum up, it had been taken over by a group of people so terrified of appearing to leave a crack open to creationist interpretation that they refused to recognise the easily verifiable fact that ‘ape’ is used by most people in a way that excludes humans.

If you ask ‘Is Richard Dawkins an ape’*, you introduce a context in which most people, but by no means all, would say yes, but the fact remains that in general use it does not include Homo sapiens. The real point is that it isn’t a technical term, much less a taxonomic one.

It looks as though the neurotic editors at WP have finally been persuaded to relax and think intelligently about the problem. I won’t go over the points I made at the time- anyone who wants to can follow the link- but to refuse to explain what the article is actually about, and to insist hysterically that it is only allowed to mean what you want it to mean, is at best to render the article worthless (people go there seeking information, after all, and if you refuse to give it to them you might as well not bother writing it), and at worst it is umbilical subduction unworthy of anyone who calls himself a scientist.

No one at all involved in trying to make some sense of that mess was disputing the taxonomy of Homo sapiens**. The whole debate was about the meaning of the word ‘ape’ in English. Dictionaries, we were told, are not a valid source for the meanings of words. Hmm. The writings of experts in the field of palaeoanthropolgy, we were told, are not valid evidence of how experts in the field use the term. Hmm. Curiouser and curiouser.

I checked a considerable number of papers written by said experts, and I found that my memory was not faulty. Most of them use ape in different ways, depending on the context of the discussion. They are quite relaxed about switching between ‘humans and other apes’ and ‘non-human apes’, ‘apes, including humans’, and other formulae, in which the word ‘ape’ is to be interpreted in different ways, sometimes within the same paragraph. Only when rigorous clarity is required do they explicitly state what they mean by ape in a particular case or, more usually, they will switch to taxonomic terms to avoid ambiguity.

So even among those who work in the fields of biology, primatology, palaeoanthropology etc, usage is free and relaxed, and this fact is easily shown to be true.  Among the general public ‘ape’ is most commonly used in a sense exclusive of humans, and this is also easily shown to be true. But try arguing that with a band of true believers who are determined that no crack will be left open by which the infidel may enter. I didn’t try to argue, I’m not stupid, but a lot of people did, and had to retire- or were banned- confused and amazed by the closed minds of those who were claiming to represent scientific truth,

John Hawks, whose blog I follow assiduously, both for his own articles and the resources and links to other papers that he provides, went even further the other day. He declared that he doesn’t think of ‘ape’, or even ‘monkey’, as including humans at all. And Palaeofreak (in Spanish), who was, as I recall, one of those who was reckless enough to try to make the same points I was making, on the WP discussion page itself, and got banned for his pains, also comments on the same subject, leading to an immensely long comment thread which is quite interesting at times although it falls into some of the same errors as the original WP thread. It's further complicated by the fact that they are actually discussing the Spanish word 'simio', which is much broader in meaning than the English 'ape', as though it meant 'ape'. Strange, but true.

*I don’t have a Dawkins fixation, it’s just that he was used as the example in the article.

**There is actually a great deal of doubt about the taxonomy of Homo sapiens, but the general relationships between extant anthropoids are clear.

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