Saturday 5 November 2011

What's in a Name, Indeed!

I'm sorry. I'm not a "hide-bound traditionalist." And, as you may have guessed, I'm not adverse to the new or the iconoclastic. But I still bristle when I'm expected to use the term "hominid" to describe any ape that shares a common ancestor with orangutans. When Linnaeus was creating the Systema Naturae he was recognizing similarities and differences between organisms, and probably didn't give a second thought to all of the anatomical and behavioral similarities between humans and the African apes when he decided to give humanity its own family name, which was Hominidae
     Of course we've learned a lot since then, about descent with modification, about the DNA that makes us, about changes in allele frequencies in a population, and about the similarities and differences between organisms at the molecular level. And, where once it was quite all right to group the non-human apes and call them Pongidae (based on the genus name of the orangutans), it's been known for years that the genus Pongo split from the other apes a very long time before the human ones split from the others. The Very Serious anthropologists who decided to revise the Great Ape taxonomy had more than one choice, and were not, in any way, constrained to the decision they made, which was to place the African apes in a single family and call them all hominids (Family Hominidae). 
     In the first place they didn't need to put the gorillas, chimps and humans in the same family, regardless of the profound genetic similarities among the three. Based on the same kind of genetic evidence that they used as the rationale to break up the old Pongidae, they could just have well have decided to group the chimps and gorillas in one family and us humans in another. They chose not to. And I think I know why.
     We've all heard the amazing accounts of the mental abilities of chimps and gorillas, their parenting skills, their use of contrivances made from natural objects to increase their foraging abilities, thus enhancing their fitness as species. And no doubt all of the talk about the 'linguistic' abilities of chimps and gorillas has got you thinking that they must, therefore, be even more closely related to us than we ever thought before! I can certainly see why people are so excited to discover these behavioral attributes of our closest relatives. However, I'm not persuaded that these abilities mean that we and they are the same! As Iain Davidson has pointed out, however much you anthropomorphize the non-human African apes, and regardless of how you dress them up, you can't. take them. to dinner! And therein lies the profound difference that exists between us and them.
     Of course they're incredibly crafty animals! We and they came from the same stock! How could we have evolved in the direction we did if our common ancestors, which looked just like chimps and gorillas, had been utter cognitive dolts? We know this couldn't have been the case. So why insist that we are the same? Why not decide that, despite the near identity of our genomes, humans on the one hand and chimps and gorillas on the other are distinctive in their habits, their gait, their outward appearance, in brain size, in dental apparatus, in food preferences, and most important of all, in the ability to attach what's come to be called 'social significance' to mere objects. The day that a chimp comes to me and indicates that it'd prefer to have filet mignon rather than a banana, I'll eat my hat instead, and give up my jealous grip on the term hominid. Until that time I'd like to have the latitude, thank you, of using Hominidae to refer to us and every member of our clade since the last common ancestor of humans and chimps. 
     I know that, in previous posts, I've succumbed to peer pressure and used homnininiiill or some such refinement of the family Homininae, but I won't ever do it again.
     Animal rights activists may jump up and down and say this is just the sort of thing that endangered chimps and gorillas don't need. I agree. But what we call them means squat to them, even when they're being poached or encroached out of existence. What's in a name, indeed?
     While I'm at it, I might as well finish the job.
     I'm quite satisfied that the extant gorillas are various enough to be considered their own family. Likewise the chimps. And we know how wonderful and various our own lineage has been through time. So, like A. ramidus, I'm goin' out on a limb. 

Order Primata
 Suborder Anthropoidea
  Superfamily Hominoidea
   Family Hylobatidae
    Four extant genera: Hylobates, Hoolock, Nomascus, Symphalangus
   Family Pongidae
    One extant genus: Pongo  
   Family Gorillidae
    One extant genus: Gorilla  
   Family Panidae
    One extant genus: Pan  
   Family Hominidae
    One extant species: Homo sapiens
Take that, International Code of Zoological Nomenclature!

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