Misconceptions about evolution: why humans did not evolve from monkeys

Part 2 in a series. Click here for part 1: why species, not individuals, evolve.

The one useful thing my sophomore year economics professor ever said came when discussing the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics (the idea that in a more or less perfect economy, markets optimize everything and government intervention is detrimental). “Nobody misunderstands the fundamental theorem,” he explained. “People who broadcast incorrect interpretations do so for their own gain.”

Charles Darwin Evolution Theory Natural Selection Genes Ape Monkey Drawing Hornet Ridicule Picture Weekly Show

This 1871 editorial caricature depicting Darwin as a monkey exemplifies the contemporary (and present day) ridicule of his theories.

Much is the case with evolution. Since Darwin’s famous On the Origin of Species, many have seen his theory as a threat to their social, political, or economic influence. As a result these people have spread false information to ridicule it, degrade its value in the public eye. This is how the most established fact in science has become riddled with controversy and why many people erroneously believe humans evolved from apes.

Why humans did not evolve from monkeys

One of the basic principles of evolution is that all life on Earth stems from a common ancestor. This organism, which lived approximately 3.8 billion years ago, provides the genetic blueprint for all species, and all living creatures can be traced back to it.

Of course, life has diversified since this ancestor roamed (or, more likely, floated around) the Earth. Its offspring slowly adapted to their environments, drifting apart through natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift. Over millions of years, these descendants became genetically distinct, forming new species vastly different from one another. Some survived, while many met extinction. These changes are mapped out on the tree of life.

Tree of Life Evolution Genetics Biology Darwin Natural Selection Common Ancestor All Organisms Species Weekly Show

The evolutionary tree of life traces all species back to the first common ancestor.

Like a real tree, evolution branches over time. One species gives way to new ones, each with a recent common ancestor. The more ancestors two species share the more closely their genomes match. A species of bird, for example, has more ancestors in common (and therefore more genes in common) with another bird than a human. This is how geneticists measure relatedness.

Now we return to our question. Modern day humans (homo sapiens) are primates, mammals with certain social, mental, and physiological characteristics. Genetically speaking, we are most closely related to other primates, specifically bonobos and chimpanzees. It follows, then, that humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share a recent common ancestor. In fact, geneticists estimate this ancestor walked the Earth between five and seven million years ago. This historic primate gave rise to new species over time, one of which became humans.

Note why this does not say we evolved from monkeys (a monkey, by definition, belongs to a subset of primates and does not include humans or apes). Just like two species of birds share a recent bird ancestor, all primates have a recent primate ancestor. This includes humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, and monkeys. While we share a common ancestor, we did not evolve from one another. This slight twisting of facts has instigated centuries of controversy and false information.

So next time someone claims you evolved from a monkey, correct his mistake. Better yet, if this person is a political or cultural leader, inquire why he is spreading misinformation. The truth may be surprising.

Now it’s your turn. Have you heard people make this claim? Did they have a hidden agenda? It’s troubling how common this is. Sound off in the comments section below. As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out! Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!

Part 2 in a series. Click here for part 1: why species, not individuals, evolve.

Click here for last week’s post: How to look back in time (actually)

Other related articles:

How Come There Are Still Monkeys? (Rational Wiki)

10 Fun Facts About Charles Darwin (Neatorama)

Evolution Myths: Yet More Misconceptions (NewScientist)

Researchers Have Implanted False Memores in Mice. Are You Next?

Don’t Click This Link


Comment question of the week

Have you ever come across someone spreading false information about evolution or science in general? Why do people do this?


2 thoughts on “Misconceptions about evolution: why humans did not evolve from monkeys

  1. Hello. And I have to agree that we did all start from the same “common ansector” His name is Jehova. Isnt it awsome to know that we were made in his image with a pupose ranther than the notion that on day,for no reason,the universe hiccuped, and the earth was formed. Then, billions of years later, For no reason, The earth hiccuped, and it formed an ameba. Then, Another billion years later, A man formed from all of the variations before it. And with out any explanation, or purpose for that matter. None for me thanks. I’ll stick with the idea of a higher power, But thanks anyway. Darren

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