Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Higgs' View: The Real Reason People Doubt Richard Dawkins is an Ape

The latest chatter in the evolution blogosphere is brewing over an unlikely contention that Richard Dawkins is not an ape. Higgs says he has a theory he thinks explains both the Washington Times editorial and the more general problem with acceptance of evolution.

Higgs’ View: The Real Reason People Doubt Richard Dawkins is an Ape

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The latest chatter in the evolution blogosphere is brewing over an unlikely contention that Richard Dawkins is not an ape. Professor Dawkins says he’s an ape, which puts him in the same category as the rest of us human beings. A piece in the Washington Times contends that he’s not an ape and neither are other people who do crosswords and like Shakespeare.  

Higgs has a theory he thinks explains both the Washington Times editorial and the more general problem with acceptance of evolution.

Higgs: While many people have written interesting blog posts here, here, here and here about the ape-hood of Richard Dawkins, I humbly suggest there's one more important point to be made. This  episode has helped confirm my suspicion that you humans are embarrassed by your relatives. You don’t like other apes very much. You think they’re ugly and you imagine they’re smelly even though most of you have never sniffed a gorilla.

Think about it. Animals make one of the most popular monikers for American sports teams, such as, say, the Philadelphia Eagles. But when has there ever been a team named after any non-human primate? Can you imagine the Cleveland Gorillas playing the Chicago Baboons? Not going to happen.

In the Washington Times piece in question, the writer made much of the fact that humans can read, and enjoy Shakespeare, and do crosswords and whatnot. But the DNA doesn’t lie, and it shows people are more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas. So you can’t very well put chimps and gorillas into the same category and not include yourselves, can you?

But consider if you will that the problem humans have with evolution isn’t with the theory. It’s the ape part where you’re hung up. Think how much more widely accepted evolution would be if DNA revealed your closest relatives were the lion, the tiger and the leopard! Cats are not only beautiful, we’re cool, if you know what I mean. Sorry, people, but you can’t choose your family.

To back my hypothesis, I’ll paraphrase from a letter we received from a reader: How can other apes be more than 90% genetically identical to us when they’re so inferior in “intrinsic beauty”?

Humans wouldn’t ask such questions if they could see the world through my eyes. As a cat, I find no aesthetic differences between apes. If a friendly family of gorillas adopted me, fed me and loved me, I’d be just as content as I am living among humans. This all reminds me of that episode of the Twilight Zone where the woman’s face is all bandaged up and the doctors and nurses are murmuring about their concern over her disfigurement. Then the bandages come off while the medical staff gasp in horror. The audience, however, sees that the medical people are hideous and the woman is beautiful (by human standards anyway).  Me, I just see humans, but I grasp the moral of the tale.  

It would be interesting to see if any evolutionary psychologists have investigated the reasons humans perceive some fellow animals as cute, or even beautiful, and others as ugly. Why do you characterize orangutans as “hairy” and me as “fuzzy wuzzy”? I suspect judgements have evolutionary roots. Perhaps there’s something about the similarities you share with other apes that triggers a negative attitude toward them.

On a serious note, if you can be mindful of this prejudice, you might be able to overcome it before it’s too late and you cause all of your closest relatives to go extinct. Not to get all preachy on you but IMHO they need your help. Thanks you for letting me express my opinions - Higgs.

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About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at fflam@phillynews.com. Reach Planet of the at fflam@phillynews.com.

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