In Honor of Monkeys

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear someone refer to a chimpanzee as a monkey. It happens in movies, TV shows, books, and in life. It is rarely used as an intentional misrepresentation for ironic effect – most people are actually equating chimps to monkeys, which they are not. Chimps are apes, as are gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, and humans. This is a separate category.

Now, technically these categories were decided upon by humans (based on scientific processes), but there is genetic merit to them. All the apes mentioned above are more closely related to each other than any of them are to monkeys. Although there are hundreds of monkey species, all of these are more closely related to each other than any of them are to apes. These categories are fluid and there are still apparent “missing links” in genetic ancestry, but there is overwhelming evidence to denote that the taxonomic relationships in place are valid.

I think that many people actually realize this. Perhaps they call chimps monkeys out of pure cynical laziness. I think more often people just lump all non-human primates together into this perceived sub-human category. In either case, the error is inexcusable.

Another thing I hear sometimes is a person calling other people monkeys. This is used as a derogatory statement emphasizing the lack of intelligence that many people exhibit, similar to calling people “sheep” for being ignorant and easily manipulated followers.

What bothers me most about this is not its insult to humans, but its unfairness to monkeys. By claiming that humans who appear unintelligent or less evolved than they should be and equating this to being monkey-like is as unjustified as saying that humans evolved from monkeys. This makes humans out to be more evolved than monkeys when the truth is that both humans and each species of monkey are in a continuous state of evolution (albeit each at their own pace based on genetic and environmental factors). While apes did evolve from catarrhines, they did not evolve from modern-day catarrhines (Old World monkeys) but a common ancestor.

Each species of monkey has its own level of intelligence necessary to its survival, and this will either evolve as needed or lead to extinction in time. Such is true for every species. It’s okay to compare humans to monkeys in an intellectual and even philosophical manner. There are many lessons that we can learn and information that we can obtain by studying our primate cousins. But if we continue to view them as inferior versions of us or to view ourselves as (sometimes) superior versions of them, we’re not doing justice to anybody.

So in honor of monkeys, I will correct this verbal misdeed any time I hear it.


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