Years ago, when my elementary school teachers delineated the tree of life in biology class, apes and humans were kept separate from each other. We belonged in our own group, the Hominidae, and the so-called great apes – orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees – formed another group, the Pongidae. The two groups were thought to have diverged from a common, primitive ape ancestor. But a combination of genetic and fossil discoveries changed this traditional view. Chimpanzees turned out to be our closest living relatives, with gorillas and orangutans on the next proximal branches to the group containing both us and Pan. Our family was not separate from the ape lineage. We are one kind of highly-intelligent, specialized ape.
In an essay published last week, written in response to a piece by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, anthropologist John Hawks called the statement that we are apes “a canard.” Ape is a vernacular English term, Hawks argues, and therefore the word should only be applied to gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, but not us. To call humans apes, he says, is an act of “Orwellian coercion” meant to debase our cherished and easily-bruised sense of self-importance. We can say that we’re hominoids or hominids – those are appropriate technical terms – but Hawks would rather we leave “ape” well enough alone.
Hawks doesn’t allow comments on his blog, but, thankfully, the discussion spilled over onto Twitter and other blogs. Historian of science John Wilkins articulated a response to Hawks faster than I could. (I have about ten days before the first draft of my next book is due, so I’m a bit slow in keeping up with internet kerfuffles.) There is no impenetrable wall between technical terms and popular usage, or, as Wilkins wrote, “Experts introduce and revise terms that the folk pick up.” Wilkins uses the word “dinosaur”, and the recently-altered meaning of the term, as an example. The anatomist Richard Owen coined “dinosaur” in 1842, and the term trickled out into public understanding to represent big, fierce, and otherwise monstrous prehistoric reptiles. But since the late 1990s, at the very latest, birds have been recognized as dinosaur descendants, and, in a very real sense, are themselves dinosaurs. This altered understanding – in which there are avian and non-avian dinosaurs – is beginning to take hold. Whether born in popular or academic circles, terms change meaning according to our mutating view of Nature.