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Human Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?
One of the most common and comical rebuttals offered by Creationists against Evolution is the question “if human beings evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?”. This question is so aggravating because it marks a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution is and how evolution takes place. The person asking the question does not understand Evolution on a basic level and thus is repeating a question that he/she thinks is a big GOTCHYA moment against the proponent of evolution.
In this hub I hope to briefly discuss human evolution and the misunderstandings and misapprehensions Creationists and the general public sometimes have. One does not have to be a scientist to achieve a basic understanding of the way evolution works and if you genuinely believe Creation to be the correct answer you should have nothing to fear from considering evolution.
So why are there still apes? Well because Evolution is not ACTUALLY like this famous image here depicts. At no point in history was there only a single extant species of ape (extant is the opposite of extinct) that later descended/evolved into human beings. Rather human beings evolved from a common ancestor to all other extant apes and, in fact, humans are largely considered apes themselves by many in the scientific community.
What does that mean if you're a Creationist reading this? It means that Evolution is more like a bush, with many branches all stemming from the same central branches, spiraling out from a common ancestry. It means that Evolution is not like a steady progression from ape to man with no other branches beside us to carry the other ape lines forward.
Lions and Tigers and Tabby Cats
Human beings did not evolve from any currently living species of apes, we didn't evolve from chimps, we share a common ancestor with them. To form a family analogy we are cousins to chimpanzees, we might share the same evolutionary grandparents (in a sense) but we aren't directly linked. To say that we evolved from something is a bit like saying it was our evolutionary parent but chimps and the other ape species that still survive today are not our evolutionary parents, they are our cousins and some are more distant cousins than others.
I think the main point of contention here is actually the idea that human beings evolved from other animals at all. So to explain with an example that has nothing to do with humans I'm sure we're all familiar with the big species of cats. Lions, Tigers, Jaguars, Lynx, etc. Yet I've never encountered a Creationist confused by the fact that there are still Lions despite there being Siberian Tigers as well. Obviously there are differently evolutionary lines of the Family Felidae (cats) and the same holds true for humans and our fellow apes.
Aron Ra explains cat evolution
How Do We Know Humans Evolved?
Hopefully the example of cats helped clear up any confusion about how there are still apes if human beings evolved from apes. There can be many species in a genus of animals. But how do we know that human beings indeed DO share an ancestor with modern extant ape species? Well the answer actually comes from every corner of the study of biology.
For example we have dozens of transitional fossils showing animals very much like ourselves but also very much like our ape relatives. The fossils alone could confirm common descent from ape ancestors but they are just one line of evidence.
While none of the transitional hominids we've found are homo sapiens (that's the scientific name for our species) many of them are human, that's because human refers to any of these species that belong to the Genus homo. If we traveled back in time to observe the emergence of homo sapien's from their earlier ancestors there would not be a specific generation we could point to and say, 'this generation is not homo sapiens and this next generation IS'.
This is because evolution doesn't work within what I call 'hard lines'. That is to say the changes from a single generation to the next make it difficult to establish where one species begins and another ends it is only when viewed on a larger time scale that the macroevolutionary changes become apparent. All species are in a constant state of transition, even the ones that seem stuck in an evolutionary time warp (sharks, crocodiles, etc).
We have evidence in behavioral studies which show that apes, such as humans and chimps, share a great deal in common as far as behavior. Chimpanzees, for example, are often territorial and tribal, they even launch preemptive strikes against their neighbors or pick off the members of rival tribes when they are alone. They can form simple tools, recognize themselves in mirrors, recognize words and language and engage in a host of other behaviors that used to be considered exclusively human. Of course this by itself doesn't confirm ancestry, it is just one line of evidence.
By far the strongest evidence comes from DNA comparisons which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that human beings and apes are blood related. We're not talking about something that the supernatural excuses of yesteryear can explain away here, we're talking about the kind of evidence that convicts murderers. We're talking about the kind of evidence that can exonerate someone convicted of murder so that they are set free. DNA shows us that Chimpanzees, humans, gorillas and all other “Great” Apes share a common evolutionary parentage – we are related.
No Creationist I've ever seen would argue that this isn't the case with cats. I've never seen a Creationist argue that a Tabby and a Tiger could never share a common ancestor because Creationists can see just by looking at the shape of each creature that they are related. Yet when they look at a Chimpanzee somehow they do not see the similarities of appearance with human beings.
And yet even if they ignore the physical similarities, the behavioral similarities, the skeletal similarities and the fossils there is still, at base level, the DNA. The evidence of human evolution is coursing through all of us right now.
Human Beings ARE Apes
Remember earlier when we talked about hard lines? Every species is in a constant state of change, including our own.
Take, for example, the superficial differences that human beings refer to as race. These differences are tiny on a genetic level and they emerged only in the last 80,000 years since our ancestors starting leaving Africa. On an evolutionary scale 80,000 years is a short while and yet in that short time human beings have come to look pretty damn diverse as a single species. YET, we can all still interbreed, meaning we are indeed the same species.
Species is one of the more permanent lines for scientists to draw because it has to do with interbreeding. Even if two populations have diverged and changed for a long time if they can still interbreed they are typically considered the same species. After that however the classification system moves forward only tentatively. Over the years scientists have amassed data on human beings and other apes, including DNA tests and this eventually led to the admission that human beings themselves are a subset of apes.
If you don't accept genetics as valid science and thus dismiss the DNA I encourage you to make a list of the biological attributes of apes in one column with humans in another. We share a great deal in common with Chimps but we are also quite different because we diverged millions of years ago. In fact DNA studies suggest our last common ancestor with Chimps may have been as much 13 million years ago.
When I was a Creationist I was afraid to admit that I was an animal. Despite needing food like an animal, having the reproductive system of an animal, having to rely on fallible senses tied to a central nervous system and brain like an animal I wanted to believe there was something supernatural at work in human beings. Of course science can never fully disprove the supernatural, there will always be unanswered questions, dark spots of ignorance into which people will put ghosts and gods.
The fear I harbored about admitting that I was an animal turned out to be completely unfounded. In fact it seems utterly silly to me that I was ever so afraid so simply look at the facts or look in the mirror. All of us are animals, that much is obvious and even many Creationists might agree with that assessment. But just as we fit into the classification of being animals human beings also fit without issue into the Primate order and the Family known as Hominids. We meet all the criteria of being apes.
The denial of evolution carries with it a price but it is one that is lost on many who identify as believers. To them they are safeguarding their rock-founded faith from the shifting sands of human science. Some even see evolution as atheistic or inherently anti-God because it seeks to explore and explain human origins by following evidence and the scientific method rather than by trusting in the authoritarian edicts of the Church, the Bible or their God.
Admitting that you are a member of the animal kingdom and that you are a PART of nature, not apart from it, need not stir fear of nihilism or the threat of hellfire. All it requires is an open mind and the ability to look at and accept the evidence that scientists have uncovered. From all corners of biology the evidence has mounted and mounted including the strength of DNA evidence.
There is no other issue I can think of where Christians would be so quick to deny the weight of DNA evidence. Yet here, when it comes to the reality of their own ancestry, they cover their eyes, cup their mouths or plug their ears like the monkeys of old.