Every now and then in discussions of human psychology and motivation, someone inserts the witty remark that humans are just “advanced monkeys,” or “monkeys with smartphones,” or something of the sort. Everyone laughs. Oh, humans!

This smuggest of all YouTube videos is the perfect example:

I understand a bit of where the unbearably smug-sounding author of this video may be coming from. We have good evidence that humans have ancestry in what we call the animal kingdom. And we have good evidence that we share a close link with what we call primates. We certainly have a lot to learn about human behavior from studying other primates. Yes, we do stupid things sometimes, and yes, we make a mistake when we assume ourselves to be somehow separate from the rest of the universe.

THAT SAID….

There are a couple of things that are very wrong with calling humans “monkeys”. Since people like the maker of this video so often use the humans-are-monkeys-line to “prove” points, it’s important that we draw the problems out.

First of all, a pedantic scientific point. We are not monkeys. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, which are also not monkeys, but apes. That common ancestry also does not necessarily make us apes – it makes us cousins of apes, or members of the ape genus, depending on the biological classification.

More importantly, calling humans “monkeys” is not even primarily a scientific statement. It’s a philosophical statement. Since the philosophical statement is asserted without philosophical argument, that’s a big problem. If you call humans “monkeys”, you are smuggling in certain value judgments about human capacity and human nature under the cover of “science.”

By using a word – “monkey” – which has inherently negative connotations, you are making a negative value judgment on the worth and status and nature of humans. Calling a human a “monkey” is not just a humorous way to point out his or her evolutionary past shared with apes. When we think of monkeys, we (for better or for worse) tend to think of little shit-throwing, mindless, sex-driven, violent creatures.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, when you call humans “just advanced monkeys,” this is what most people hear you saying about themselves. Is it really how you want them to think of humans?

It may be true that humans can be little shit-throwing, mindless, sex-driven, violent creatures. Criticize all you want, and you won’t run out of shameful things to say about humans. But that’s probably not all they are, and you will have a pretty damn hard time providing otherwise. Given other self-conceptions, humans can be heroic, benevolent, honorable, peaceful creatures. They can be:

“In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” – Hamlet

Why should we just assume as a philosophical truth that humans are doomed to the status and value of uppity monkeys?

I won’t mention all of the other ridiculous fallacies to which assumption leads. Watch the video to see how it attempts to dispense with philosophy, religion, art, architecture, and civilization itself in under four minutes just by repeating a tired intellectual joke about human monkeys.

How will you choose to view the world and humans’ role in it? What self-conception will you give humans? Think carefully about your beliefs, but be aware of how language and connotation can change belief. Then watch the language you use. Your choice of words makes its own claims about reality given half a chance.

Photo Credit:Alex Guillaume

Thanks for reading! Want more? Get my best new essays delivered to your door (well, email inbox) in one nice, tidy package twice monthly.

Leave a Reply