Are You A Primate?

Posted on August 20, 2012


Are you a primate? Scientists say that you are. They’ve been saying it before Darwin came along, and people have been arguing with them ever since. Is there a significant physical difference between humans and other primates which can be used to get us out of that classification?

In the 1700’s, Carl Linnaeus began to systematically classify living things. He was a gifted taxonomist, and he knew it. He wrote this about himself in third person:

“God Himself guided him with His own almighty hand. He caused him to see more of creation than any other mortal before him. He bestowed on him the greatest insight into natural history, greater than any other had ever received.”

Linnaeus saw his work as a mission from God that he was divinely equipped and guided to carry out. His monumental effort to classify nature became an incredibly significant contribution to man’s understanding of the world around us. Linnaeus classified plants and animals by studying their form and structure (morphology). Using this methodology, he put humans and all the other primates into one category. He lived long before Darwin, so his classification was not influenced by evolutionary assumptions.

Classifying humans among the animal kingdom was controversial enough at that time, but putting us in the same category as gorillas was sure to cause a stir. He responded to objections with a challenge to find a morphological difference to set humans apart.

“I ask from you and from the whole world a generic difference between men and simians (apes) in accordance with the principles of Natural History. I certainly know none.” [translation source]

So humans are animals, according to Carl, but are we just animals? Isn’t that the real question? Linnaeus responded:

“I well know what a splendidly great difference there is [between] a man and a beast when I look at them from a point of view of morality. Man is the animal which the Creator has seen fit to honor with such a magnificent mind and has condescended to adopt as his favorite and for which he has prepared a nobler life.”

As you can see, the language he used is quite different from some of our modern day creationists – many of whom refuse to classify a human as an animal. Linnaeus was clearly a creationist, but he reasoned that God had created the human body to be very similar and that the distinction between man and beast lies beyond their similar morphology.

About 100 years later, Darwin wrote “On The Origin of Species”. Although that book didn’t deal with human origins specifically, everyone recognized his suggestion that humans descended from a common ancestor of other primates. The debate progressed from Linnaeus’s shared anatomy to Darwin’s suggestion of shared ancestry. Once again, this concept was met with opposition.

In the wake of Darwin’s book, the famous anatomist Sir Richard Owen, one of Darwin’s early critics, tried to take the debate backward by arguing that the structure of the human brain is different than other primates. He claimed to have found a distinction where Linnaeus could not. In a speech aimed at challenging Darwin’s book only a year after publication, Owen said that “only man had a posterior lobe, a posterior horn, and a hippocampus minor.” This started one of the most lively clashes in science when Thomas Huxley (often referred to as Darwin’s Bulldog) disputed Owen’s claim. Huxley and others clearly demonstrated that those three features of the human brain could indeed be found in other primates. The debate dragged out for years as Owen refused to admit his mistake. In the end, ol’ Linnaeus was still right, and a well-established scientist’s attempt to knock down Darwin failed.

Owen continued to lash out against his former friend Darwin and Darwin’s supporters such as Huxley and Hooker. You can take a glance at Owen’s wikipedia article and see many of his notorious disputes, such as his feud with Gideon Mantell. While Mantell was recovering from a crippling injury, Owen tried to steal credit from some of his work and was subsequently dismissed from the Royal Society’s Zoological Council for plagiarism. Mantell continued to suffer from his injury until he took his own life.  Then Owen had his rival Mantell’s spine removed and put on display. It’s no wonder that posterity has not viewed Owen favorably, even though he was a skilled anatomist and made several legitimate and sustained contributions to science.

It’s been over 100 years since that dispute, and over 250 since Linnaeus, but some people are still looking for a physical distinction between humans and other primates. The discovery of the cell and the DNA within offered new avenues to explore and compare. Experts examining this data have concluded that the microbiology among all primates (including humans) is indeed very similar. I think it’s wise to accept the similarities and move past the anatomical question. People are appropriately placed in the animal kingdom. We belong in the mammal class and the primate order. The difference between man and beast must be something else, so let’s look to understand that. Even some creationists, such as Todd C. Wood, agree with the conclusion that the human and chimp genomes are 98% similar – though they believe the two to be distinct creations with no ancestral relationship. Wood succinctly stated:

“The high similarity of humans and chimpanzees reinforces our spiritual – not physical (Ecc. 3:18-21) – distinctiveness from the
animals. It is the image of God that makes us human not some intrinsically valuable genetic element.” [read his paper here]

That’s the discussion we should be having as Christians, in my opinion. That’s the conversation taking place at BioLogos, the ASA, and among certain Intelligent Design proponents and even some Young-Earth Creationists like Todd Wood. Others, such as Reasons to Believe, Answers in Genesis, and many Intelligent Design sites and blogs such as Dembski’s UnCommon Descent have continued to challenge Linnaeus. They are attempting to succeed where Owen had failed and find some little difference that can be used to separate us from other primates. Their mission appeals to many Christians who dislike the primate classification, and they continue to find a large, non-scientific audience who support them. Unfortunately, it appears that they are leading these followers through a wilderness of pseudo-science and postponing the important discussion that Linnaeus started centuries ago.