Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Chicago, has written a rather nasty post at Why Evolution Is True about another professor, biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks, from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The sniping began when Marks posted an article rejecting the use of the word “ape” to refer to humans.
But the dispute is really one about semantics. Both Marks and Coyne would agree that we belong to the same clade as apes do. (A clade is a group of organisms that share a common ancestor.) It’s just that Marks doesn’t want humans to be called apes, because in common usage, “ape” has a certain connotation. I don’t think he would object to the term “hominin,” though, which is the scientific classification, and carries no such baggage.
I can understand why Marks wants to distinguish us from apes. Coyne said it correctly, I think. Marks doesn’t want us to identify with apes and apelike behavior. In that sense Marks is correct — we are not our ancestors — we are more than our ancestors. That is, if you believe in common ancestry, which Marks apparently does.
Paul Nelson, writing here at Evolution News, says that evolution is a theory of transformation. He quotes Marks, who points out we are very different from apes, and it is the differences that matter most. If common ancestry is true, we acquired those differences by an amazing transformation. Of course, if common descent is not true, the battle between Marks and Coyne is a battle over terminology without meaning.
Image credit: Lepidlizard (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.