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The monkey problem 25 April, 2011

Posted by Simon Nickerson in Uncategorized.

This is a different kind of dispute – it’s about scientific words and what they mean.

Last week Martin Robbins, writing for The Guardian, complained about people confusing the terms “ape” and “monkey”. He seems particularly annoyed with entertainment journalists writing about the upcoming movie Rise of the Planet of the ApesHe quotes examples of headlines like

Fans go bananas for new Planet Of The Apes trailer which takes humanised monkey effects to a whole new level


Trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes Promises Monkey Invasion

Robbins points out that apes and monkeys are very different groups, and goes on to point out another common mistake – failing to recognise that humans are apes, too.

John Hawks picked up on this story, but he has a different take on these definitions. Looking at the groups based on their evolutionary history, he argues that if you include humans with the apes, then you have to conclude that monkeys are apes as well. So Hawks decides that “monkey” and “ape” aren’t defined well enough to be proper biological terms, preferring to use “hominoids” (apes + humans) and “anthropoids” (apes + humans + monkeys).

John Wilkins takes a deeper look at the problem of how people define and use these terms, and talks about a similar issue about birds and dinosaurs – introducing me to the BAD (Birds Are Dinosaurs) and BANDit (Birds Are Not Dinosaurs) groups on either side of the debate.

Is there any way to resolve this? Not that I can see. People will always use terminology that they are familiar with, even when it clashes with current biological understanding. If biologists avoid the common-use terms, and stick to biologically accurate words, they make it more difficult to communicate with the public.



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