How come there are still monkeys?
|The divine comedy
"If humans descended from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys?" is one of the most frequently asked questions about evolution.[Note 1] It can be phrased in different ways, regarding smaller mammals, fish or basically any animal alive today that resembles any evolutionary ancestor — although the monkey example is most prominent, because of the much greater resemblance between you and a family member[Note 2] (in the case of the Chimpanzee, sharing 98.8% of your DNA) than between you and a stranger grabbed off the street.[Note 3]
Some creationists ask questions like this thinking they've made a real zinger you can't possibly answer, and that all of evolution thus falls apart. Such people generally have little interest in an answer, let alone serious discussion of the issue. Going above such people's heads, major creationist institutions — including Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International — actually warn creationists against asking this question, explaining that the very question itself is based on a blatant misunderstanding of evolution.
However, the purpose of this article is not to argue that honest questions are stupid — the question could be asked in all innocence by anyone mis- or uninformed about evolutionary theory. Causes of this gap in public understanding of evolution range from poor teaching of the subject to, frequently, active perpetuation of misrepresentations of it by creationists.[Note 4] So, there's no loss in assuming good faith and examining "why there are still monkeys", even though — as the saying incorrectly stipulates — "humans are descended from monkeys".
What is behind the question?
Most of the simple but common "arguments" against evolution stem from serious misunderstandings of the science and principles that underlie it. Exploring the confusion behind the question is key to answering it. "Why are there still monkeys?" involves two major errors:
- First: the psychological essentialism of folk biology. Research has shown that people (adults and children alike) tend to be "intuitive creationists". The phenomenon of psychological essentialism causes people not to engage in population thinking, but to lump all individual animals of a certain "natural kind" (in this case, monkeys) together as more or less identical. In this misconception of evolution, it is individuals that simultaneously "transform" rather than populations that evolve.
- Second: the question misinterprets evolution as a linear anthropocentric process: an upward-sloping line, like the old, pre-scientific idea of a "Great Chain of Being". This is a simple way of viewing evolution and changes are easily visualized in a linear fashion—the famous picture of human ancestors walking behind each other offers a prime example. However, this traces just one twig of a much more complicated tree of life.
Many people are deeply reluctant to consider the possibility seriously, and treat it as asking "Do you want to be descended from a monkey?" But, of course, science and history are about what reality is and was, not what we would want it to have been.
There is also the related question: "If monkeys changed into humans, why aren't today's monkeys changing into humans?" Many people subscribe to the mistaken ideas that:
- evolution is finished
- evolution states that one animal only evolves into the next animal—that if we started again, the exact same evolution would happen
- some modern animals are descendants of other modern animals
The reality is that evolution is still happening, even in humans over the past few thousand years—the most famous and clear example being lactase persistence, which developed in Europe 10,000 years ago and separately in Kenya 3,000 years ago. Evolution has a multitude of possible paths, with specific changes depending on the environmental pressures at any particular time. Evolution is not random, but is affected by random factors—good enough outcomes of those random factors are what survives.
Key rebuttals address the misunderstandings behind the monkey issue:
- Evolution is the change in populations, not in individuals.
- Evolution is not a process in which species universally progress up a "ladder".
- Humans are not descended from any modern species of monkey; both monkeys and humans are descended from some long-extinct ancestor pre-dating both. Although this species, if it were transferred to today, would be considered a "monkey", it is not any living species of monkey.
- Humans (Homo sapiens) are the only living species of the genus Homo, which is only one branch of the Great Ape (Hominidae) family. The other species and genera, such as the extinct Australopithecines, are less human-like, and such can be called more monkey-like.
- Evolution explains how humans developed from a primate ancestor, but not an extant species of monkey or ape. Modern primates include: bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, baboons, macaques, lemurs, gibbons, and humans. None of these is a descendant of any other.
- Australopithecines and others - including those which truly did eventually evolve into us - it is not true that "there are still" those ancestors.
- Speciation can occur by branching into two or more reproductively isolated populations (cladogenesis) or when a single population changes over time to such an extent that the later population is considered a different species (anagenesis).
Disappearance of ancestors
The question assumes that ancestral forms must disappear as evolution takes place. This is not the case—species can often go millions of years with little in the way of change (hence "living fossils"). If an ancestral form is well adapted to a particular set of conditions (i.e. it "fits" an ecological niche) and these conditions do not change, then there is minimal selection pressure to drive evolution; this is what is really meant by "survival of the fittest": those who best "fit" in their environment. If a sub-population of this species migrates to a new habitat with new conditions (e.g., new food or a new predator) then selection pressure is placed upon it to evolve. As this sub-population evolves to fit a different set of environmental conditions, it may diversify enough to form a new species while the ancestral form stays relatively unchanged. But there's no rule that says the original species must go extinct to make way for the new one.
This sort of change drives much of evolution, with populations being split and forced by nature to adapt to new environments. Separation of this type often leads to one species splitting into two separate species. Indeed, it was observations of this sort that initially led Darwin to propose natural selection as the mechanism for evolution.
Branching family tree of cousins
Some report success with the cousins analogy: species are extended groups of distant cousins with a long-dead (great-great-great-) grandparent. The current configuration of life is a snapshot of the living; the dead are long gone and no one wrote down the family tree, so we have to work it out from available evidence. Richard Dawkins uses this analogy in his book River Out of Eden. Asking If humans are descended from monkeys… is the same as asking If I am descended from (misleading, the correct term would be "related to") cousin Bob, why is cousin Bob still alive?[Note 5]
Complexity and intelligence
The question also seems to assume that evolution moves from more simple organisms to more complex ones. Given a simplistic view of evolution, it's easy to assume that humans are more complex than monkeys and that consequently "humans evolved from monkeys". But evolution is about adaptation, and this doesn't necessarily involve an increase in complexity—though increases in complexity are frequently the result of improved adaptation. While modern humans certainly possess intellectual skills far superior to those of modern monkeys, it is by no means clear that their common ancestor was less intelligent—or even more monkey-like—than modern monkeys.
Humans are only "superior" to monkeys in terms of intelligence, and the hidden assumption is that intelligence is a sign that we are the "most evolved". From our anthropomorphic point of view, this makes us superior. However, if we were to classify "most evolved" as meaning "most able to live in trees" then the pinnacle of evolution would be held by monkeys. One could choose any extremely evolved capability to make the same claim—an elephant's trunk for example.
You can try to elicit from the questioner what on earth the question means to them using the Socratic method:
- Why shouldn't there still be monkeys?
They're probably thinking in terms of linear evolution working up a ladder of life, but the details may be of interest.
- Which species of monkey do you expect to be missing? How do you know there wasn't one that is actually missing now, having turned into us?
A scientific or generalized explanation may be difficult for someone with a fundamental misunderstanding of evolutionary theory to grasp. An informal analogy may get the idea of non-linear evolution across:
- If dogs are domesticated wolves, how come there are still wolves?
- If mammals and birds are descended from reptiles, then why are there still reptiles?
- If white Americans and white Australians are both descended from Europeans, how come there are still Europeans?
- If Protestants came from Catholics, how come there are still Catholics?
- If Christians came from Jews, how come there are still Jews?[Note 6]
- If rock-and-roll came from the blues, how come there is still the blues?
- If the English language is descended from Old Norse, Proto-Germanic, and Norman French, how come people still speak Norwegian, German, and French?
- If the Afrikaans language is descended from Dutch, how come people still speak Dutch?
- If rain comes from clouds, how come there are still clouds?
One of the most powerful ideas in evolution is that speciation is caused by physical separation. Just as Americans are separated from Europeans by the Atlantic ocean, species can diversify along different routes when isolated from each other. One may change dramatically, one may stay the same. There are still Europeans. There are still monkeys.
If this doesn't work (actual answer to the Europeans analogy: "But that's different."), then you may have some trouble getting the point across to this person.
If you're quite sure the creationist doesn't care about your answer, then feel free not to take the question seriously—although one does run the risk of cementing even more misunderstandings about evolution, as these do resemble the straw man answers often put forward by creationists to mock evolution.
- When monkeys turned into humans, the gap was filled in by shrews turning into monkeys, lizards turning into shrews, salamanders turning into lizards, and so on down the line.
- Some of the monkeys, when given the choice, preferred to stay the same.
- If man was formed "of the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7), how come there is still dust?
- Their Pokétrainers don't put them in enough fights for them to evolve.
- If you descend from your grandparents then why do your cousins exist?
One of the very worst ways this question can be answered is to argue the definition of "monkey" or "ape", or whatever. "Ah, but humans are monkeys!" says the feisty evolutionist, thinking that they can get one up over the creationist by being clever. Any consistent, monophyletic collection which includes all monkeys (as well as apes) also necessarily include humans well. If the question is about fish it's even worse, as "fish" is a paraphyletic group.
The important thing is that the universe doesn't give a hoot what we call particular animals and how we group them. Names, clades, groups, species and sub-species are all human inventions designed to help group and classify animals. These are useful, and in scientific taxonomy (at least) are based on real properties, but they're not real distinctions. Actual evolution works on populations and individuals that comprise them; the fact that we like to break these up into groups is just a model, nothing more. Any discussion of what is and what isn't a monkey, ape or human in the context of the "why are there still monkeys" question would be to miss the point entirely. It nicely highlights how our definitions might be a little arbitrary when put next to reality, but this has little bearing on the misconceptions underpinning the fallacy.
One might be tempted to say that Neanderthals aren't around anymore. This seems like a simple way of dealing with the issue, avoiding the complexities, and everyone knows that Neanderthals are gone. But it can leave the impression that one is saying that modern humans are a step up the evolutionary ladder from Neanderthals; or that Neanderthals were more monkey-like than modern humans. Does one really want to take that easy way out?
Why aren't monkeys evolving today?
A related question is "Why aren't monkeys evolving (into humans) today?" Or even "Why aren't humans evolving (whether from monkeys, or to something better)?"
Aside from much that has already been pointed out:
The simplest answer is that monkeys, and humans, and everything else (unless it's going extinct, which is a kind of evolution anyway) are evolving today.
- Today's species have taken their own path of evolution over the last millions of years. Evolution from one modern species to another would require undoing a bunch of evolution and repeating another bunch of evolution, which would, if it were possible, take millions of years.
- The environment—including the various other species to which the species has a relationship as competitor, symbiont, prey, etc.—is different today from when today's species first appeared, so the evolutionary pressures are different. Especially in zoos. (And yes some people seem to think we should be able to go to the zoo and see monkeys evolve.)
- There is no direction that is universally better ("up the ladder"), just change via reaction. "Fit" in "survival of the fittest" is best understood as "those best fit to their environment". (OK, this is repeating what has been said before, but it is worth repeating.)
- There have been, and continue to be, evolutionary changes to humans.
- Around five thousand years of recorded history may seem like a long stretch, but it's just a snapshot of the evolutionary process. To ask why something hasn't changed into an entirely different form in that time is like asking why your popcorn hasn't popped after one second in the microwave.
- Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (2013, St Martin's Griffin) Chris Stringer ISBN 978-1250023308
- Info graphic
- Accept It: Talk about evolution needs to evolve by Eugenie Scott (director of the National Center for Science Education) in ScienceNews volume 176 number 3 (August 1, 2009) page 32.
- Richard Dawkins mentions in his Channel 4 documentary Faith School Menace? that this is the most common question posed to him. He cheekily turns to the faith school's science teacher to answer (it wouldn't be a spoiler to say she fails), before answering it himself.
- See the Wikipedia article on Hominidae.
- For the genaeology of the great family of life, see the following Wikipedia article: Common descent.
- Among these, Harun Yahya ranks among the worst offenders.
- Perhaps the point could phrased more true to the situation with If I, a Smith, am descended from my Jones grandparents, how come the Jones family is still alive? However, the cousin Bob analogy is more accurate relatively to the misleading question, since modern apes are not our ancestors (grandparents), but our evolutionary cousins who share with us a common ancestor.
- Though Christians have tried to make this one less true over the past 2000 years.
- Use with caution though; too many people think that men are missing one rib. Work by Vesalius proved this to be wrong in the 16th Century after years of just assuming that men must have a missing rib because the Bible said so.
- TheThinkingAtheist. Top Ten Creationist Arguments. YouTube, December 30, 2009. Retrieved October 24, 2023.
- DNA: Comparing Humans and Chimps. American Museum of Natural History. Archived from the original on February 5, 2019.
- Mitchell, Tommy. If Humans Evolved from Apes, Why Do Apes Exist Today? Answers in Genesis, September 21, 2010. Archived from the original on May 21, 2023.
- If we evolved from apes, why are there still apes today? in Arguments We Think Creationists Should NOT Use. Creation Ministries International. Archived from the original on April 25, 2023.
- Thinking About Evolution: Cognitive Factors That Get in the Way, Mixing Memory
- John L. Rudolph and Jim Stewart. Evolution and the Nature of Science: On the Historical Discord and Its Implications for Education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 35, NO. 10, PP. 1069–1089 (1998)
- See the Wikipedia article on anthropocentricism.
- bacopa, comment, Why Evolution Is True, 2021-03-17
- Hat tip to "Bruce the Hoon" at PZ Myers' Pharyngula blog, comment dated May 28, 2011.
- This one apparently works quite well.
- If evolution is real, why can’t we go to the zoo and see monkeys evolving into human beings?, MarkMaynard.com, 2010
- See the Wikipedia article High-altitude adaptation in humans