MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Ape Men

In an essay on philosophy, MJ asserted that humans are simply "jumped-up apes." Here's the problem with that idea.

As a one-time evolutionary biologist, I must take issue with MJ's statement ("Practical Philosophy", TableAus Nov-Dec 2005) that "evolutionary theory indicates that we are simply jumped-up apes."

I call this the "ancestor fallacy": the idea that we are defined by our ancestry. It is the same fallacy which made many of Darwin's contemporaries reject the theory of evolution because they felt being descended from apes was demeaning and made them less than human. But whereas they rejected evolution to protect their self-esteem, Michael accepts evolution in order to undermine human self-esteem.

It is a fallacy because we are not our ancestors, we are what we are. While evolution consists of the accumulation of small quantitative changes, that can produce qualitative changes. For example, it produced flying birds from flightless dinosaurs. And in our case, it produced rational beings capable of infinite levels of abstraction, from ape ancestors capable of nothing beyond the perceptual level of consciousness. It is as sensible for us to think we are mere "jumped up apes" and deny our unique power of reason, as it would be for an eagle to feel it is just a jumped-up reptile and deny its own magnificent power of flight.

At some level, Michael himself knows this to be true. That is why he is writing for TableAus, not Chimp Monthly. Those who like tell people we are no different in any significant way from other animals should practice what they preach by spending more time preaching to the monkeys instead.

Michael is right that we need to know what we are: but for the same reasons we need to know, we need to be careful to get it right. And the fundamental quality which makes us human and determines how we can and should live is our power of reason: a power unique on this Earth.

I also have to take issue with Michael's statement that "most of us believe that we are different from animals in some important fashion so that it is all right to kill and eat them." That is not a logical statement. If we are just another animal, then surely we have the same rights as other animals – who are renowned for their at best cavalier and at worst brutal attitude to other animals. The only possible rationale for us to treat animals better than they treat each other is if we are different, indeed better, in some crucial way. But then the argument dies of an internal contradiction. Again, philosophers should practice what they preach. If Michael truly believes we are no different from animals in any important fashion, why does he not take up this case personally with the lions of the Serengeti, who no doubt will give him a full and fair hearing?

© 2005 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.