Of Monkeys and Ancestors

William Meikle and Eugenie Scott have an article in Evolution: Education and Outreach that looks at the frequently heard creationist question “If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?” The paper is short, coming in at three pages. In it the suggest that one answer the question by comparing human evolution to human genealogy – a pretty common tactic if one reads blogs.

The idea is that, supposedly, creationists are fixated on the great chain of being and think that monkeys evolved into apes, which evolved into humans. Furthermore, one form evolved into another the original form ceased to exist. Evolution proceeds, for the creationist, from parent to offspring. When one uses human genealogy to explain evolution one can use aunts, uncles, and cousins to explain cladogenesis – monkeys are our cousins not our parents. Which is fines as far as it goes. Another way of answering the question is to point out that there is more than one species of monkey which gets one a little further down the road but still falls a little short.

Part of the problem, at least with the creationists I have dealt with, is in the word “monkey” which has all the scientific usefulness and biological validity as Casey Luskin’s definition of whales as aquatic mammals. I have been asked the question a number of times by creationist and the discussion usually went as follows:

Creationist: If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

Afarensis: Because there are different species of monkeys and what happens to one species doesn’t happen to the others.

Creationist: (blank look) Huh?

Afarensis: Okay, do you know what a baboon is?

Creationist: Yes.

Afarensis: Good, have you ever heard of howler monkeys?

Creationist: Aren’t those those really loud monkeys?

Afarensis: Yes, and they live in South America and spend most of their time in trees. Baboons, on the other hand live in Africa and spend most of their time on the ground. so if the howler monkey evolves into creature X, what happens to the baboon?

Creationist: It evolves into creature X.

Afarensis: How is that possible?

Creationist: Because they are both monkeys.

Afarensis: Okay, but they live thousands of miles apart, even if they lived in close proximity they couldn’t interbreed. In order for baboons to be affected by what happens to howler monkeys there has to be a connection. What is it?

Creationist: They are both monkeys.

I have had some variant of this conversation with a number of creationists and have puzzled over how to proceed further. Although they understood that some monkeys are called baboons and some are called howler monkeys there seems to an underlying typological thinking going on and although baboons and howler monkeys are different they are still monkeys and if one evolves the other has to as well. Consequently, I don’t think that the approach outlined by Meikle and Scott will work by itself. The underlying definition of monkeys, and the inherent essentialism has to be addressed as well.

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5 Responses

  1. Judging from this conversation, I would say that no scientific argument in the world would convince these types of creationists, because they don’t, and never will, believe them.
    Of course, so far I never had the “pleasure” to talk to a creationist, so I can only guess here.

  2. You should try it, it is an eye opening experience.

  3. That’s actually a really good comparison (Old World vs. New World) that I never considered using before when I talked about this. Instead, I’d just use orangutans and bonobos–which is sort of the same idea but I like yours better.

    Another idea I’ve thought of using but haven’t used yet is maybe using Canids, that way they don’t get so hung up on the “human” evolutionary bit and can maybe apply it.

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Marianne Geiger, Raymond Ho. Raymond Ho said: (A look into a Creationist's mindset) Of Monkeys and Ancestors http://bit.ly/exocR9 [...]

  5. I’m thinking maybe if you start with “if one goes extinct does the other” and then bring in the evolution aspect it might be more effective because there are examples of species of monkey going extinct and yet monkeys still exist. One could use the dodo and birds in that fashion as well. At any rate it would get the idea across that what happens to one species doesn’t happen to the other.

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