New atheists think people are just monkeys so nyah


Frequent commenter Sigmund alerted me to another entity crying out for scrutiny and derision: the Iona Institute, an Irish “institute” (can any old thing call itself an institute? The Faraday Institute, the Tobacco Institute, the Iona Institute – are there any gates, any gatekeepers? is it just anarchy around here?) dedicated to saying how great the Catholic church is.

The amusing thing (amusing in a rebarbative kind of way) is that the Iona Institute invited dear auld Brendan O’Neill to give a talk, and he obliged. From Trotskyist splinter group to libertarian “contrarian” faitheist pope-cheering what-the-hell-is-that – that’s Spiked and its editor Brendan O’Neill. So the Trotskyist libertarian pope-fan told the Iona Institute…you’ll never guess what. That’s it’s all the fault of The New Atheism.

O’Neill, who also writes for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph among other publications, said [there] was widespread antagonism “towards strong belief or solid faith”.

He said: “In our relativistic era of ‘anything goes’, when we are expected to respect all cultures as equally valid, a religion that considers itself the ‘one, true faith’ and as ‘universal’, is looked upon as dictatorial if not fascistic.”

Yes that’s right. A religion that considers itself the ‘one, true faith’ and ‘universal’ is bound to consider itself entitled – indeed mandated – to impose that ‘one, true, universal faith’ on everyone. Since Catholicism is not “true” in any sense that matters, that imposition is as dictatorial as it gets.

Speaking about the New Atheism, he said: “The New Atheism regards not only religious faith but any view which considers mankind as more than a monkey as suspect, strange, deluded.”

Well that’s just a stupid falsehood.

He continued: “New Atheists’ real problem with religion is its treatment of mankind as special and distinctive, as the governor of the Earth, as having ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and every other living thing that moves on the Earth’.

No it isn’t. That’s one problem, especially when it’s the kind of “dominion” that entails treating all other living things as human property to do with as it likes, but it’s not “the real problem” – there are lots of real problems, many of them worse (at least from the human point of view) than that one.

“At a time when we are increasingly seen as mere bundles of genes, little more than DNA, sharing 90 per cent of our genes with bananas, religion’s sanctification of man is seen as perverse.”

Religion’s what?! Religion doesn’t “sanctify” humans – religion scolds atheists and humanists for focusing on human beings instead of imaginary gods; religion tells human beings they can’t understand god’s ways and reasons so they just have to obey; religions tells human beings they are nothing compared to god.

Concluding, he said: “The end result of the crashing together of these trends is a creeping and sometimes shrieking intolerance of Catholicism in particular, and religion in general. This has led even me – a lapsed Catholic and immoveable atheist – to worry about the illiberal streak to modern-day atheism, and to want to stand up for the absolute freedom of religion.

Funny that he decides to worry about the putative “illiberal streak to modern-day atheism” and not the well-known and very obvious illiberal streak in Catholicism. Chump.

Comments

  1. sailor1031 says

    “a religion that considers itself the ‘one, true faith’ and as ‘universal’, is looked upon as dictatorial if not fascistic.”

    Wow! This guy is smart. He gets it. Absolutely right except it’s dictatorial AND fascistic.

    ““New Atheists’ real problem with religion is its treatment of mankind as special and distinctive, as the governor of the Earth, as having ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and every other living thing that moves on the Earth’”

    Well it’s certainly one of the big things that made me dump RCC and its ilk. Anyone who can’t see that humans are just another animal hasn’t:

    a. read the literature
    b. spent any time with animals

    “The New Atheism regards not only religious faith but any view which considers mankind as more than a monkey as suspect, strange, deluded.”

    Oh, bullshit. What the fuck is wrong with monkeys? This guy should have half their charm and intelligence. I take it back – he don’t get nuthin’. And – he ain’t no atheist. He’s just a fucking liar.

    Sorry for the language Ophelia, but this kind of screwed up thinking has pissed me off since I argued with Father Stickles about it many decades ago……..and found how stupid the christian religion is about this.

  2. Quine-Duhem says

    Doesn’t Brendan O’Neill make a factual error in his piece? I recall that we share approximately 50 per cent of our genes with bananas. Religion, however, is 100 per cent bananas.

  3. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Fighting for freedom of religion was, after all, the starting point of the Enlightenment. Today’s pseudo-Enlightened thinkers who simply spit bile at dumb religious people don’t understand history or liberty.

    Ah, yes. Questioning the truth and morality of religious claims and criticizing religious privilege are indeed impossible to distinguish from “spit[ting] bile at dumb religious people”.

  4. Hamilton Jacobi says

    The New Atheism regards not only religious faith but any view which considers mankind as more than a monkey as suspect, strange, deluded.

    Humans are similar to monkeys in many ways, but there are also very important differences. It is a fact that we are biologically apes, and the idea that God has chosen us to have dominion over the world has been a direct source of enormous suffering (both human and animal) for thousands of years. Why is it wrong to acknowledge these facts?

  5. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    a creeping and sometimes shrieking intolerance of Catholicism in particular

    If Catholicism was a little more people friendly, maybe we wouldn’t be quite so intolerant. But when the Catholic hierarchy continually shows that it’s more concerned with the prestige and dignity of the Church than with the welfare of children, then some intolerance is called for.

    Pope Benny Ratzi lies about condoms’ efficacy against AIDS. That’s because Benny is convinced The Big Guy In The Sky hates condoms. Benny is just another Liar for Jebus™, like so many other Christian god-botherers.

    A couple of years ago, a nine-year-old Brazilian girl was raped and impregnated by her stepfather. She was pregnant with twins and incapable of carrying the pregnancies to term, so she was given an abortion. The local Catholic archbishop excommunicated everyone involved in the abortion with two exceptions. The girl wasn’t excommunicated because she was too young to have made an informed choice. And the rapist wasn’t excommunicated since the Catholic Church approves of child rape. It must approve, since it keeps supporting and protecting child-raping clergy.

    You’re right, O’Neill. Many of us Gnu Atheists are intolerant of Catholicism. We’ve got reasons for our intolerance.

  6. Rieux says

    Off-topic—sorry—but:

    As you may have heard, Adam “Ebonmuse” Lee has spurned the stampede of prominent atheist bloggers to FTB and has joined “The Big Think” instead; “Daylight Atheism” is now to be found at http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism .

    Adam is now two posts in at his new digs, and he’s already been set upon by a surprising number of tone trolls. (In fact, his Post #2 is already a defense against said tone trolls.) It doesn’t appear to be a coordinated attack; I’ve never heard of The Big Think otherwise, but I’m getting the sense that much of the commentariat there just isn’t prepared for or comfortable with that horrible zealous lunacy called overt atheism.

    A few of us (but actually, uh, mostly me) have been trying to beat back the tide of tone trolling in the comment sections on Adam’s two posts; anyone want to jump in with us? Unfortunately The Big Think uses Disqus comments (yechh), and it’s odd that one can’t post or even see comments on the site until one clicks on an individual post title to get to the post’s dedicated page(s)… but anyway I think Adam deserves more commenter support over there than he’s currently getting.

  7. Paul W., OM says

    Well, we are apes, and cladistically, we’re basically Old World monkeys too, and thus monkeys, in the same sense that we are also mammals, tetrapods,… ,vertebrates,…, prokaryotes, etc. We’re on the ape branch of the Old World monkey branch of the monkey subtree.

    Technically, we’re simians. “Simians” means “monkeys and things we still don’t want to call monkeys, even though it turns out they clearly are.”

    You and I are more closely related to Old World monkeys than they are to New World (American) monkeys–we have closer common ancestors–so if Old World monkeys and New World monkeys are all called “monkeys,” we should be too.

    Either that, or our Latin American so-called “monkey” brethren deserve their own special non-monkey name, too. They’re less closely related to, e.g., African and Indian monkeys than we are. If any of us monkeys “aren’t monkeys,” it’s our southern amigos..

    And it’s a terrible racial slur to call them monkeys, but not us.

    Or wait, is it a terrible racial slur to think it’s okay to call African and Indian monkeys “monkeys”, but not American ones?

    Both, I think.

    From Wikipedia:

    Simians are divided into two groups: platyrrhine (“flat nosed”) or New World monkeys of South and Central America and catarrhine (narrow nosed) monkeys and apes of Africa and southeastern Asia. New World monkeys include the capuchin, howler and squirrel monkeys; catarrhines consist of Old World monkeys (such as baboons and macaques), gibbons and great apes. Humans are the only extant catarrhines that have spread successfully outside of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia, although fossil evidence shows many other species were formerly present in Europe.

    Viva la simians, you narrow-nosed monkeys, you uppity think-you’re-fucking-special catarrhines, you.

    Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard about your big brains and erect posture and opposable thumbs and that shit, but we’re talking family here. And science.

    I’ve known fucking howler monkeys with a better claim to “not being monkeys” than you fucks. Squirrel monkeys, even.

    See you all at the family reunion.

  8. Robert B. says

    Just to play, ahem, devil’s advocate:

    Don’t we here consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding religion? And while I don’t think anyone here advocates making atheism mandatory, that’s something that does happen sometimes when a government is both atheist and totalitarian. And this is still dictatorial even though atheism is true.

    Honestly, I think that anyone who sincerely believes something is of the opinion that any contradictory positions is wrong. In other words, if you know the truth, you know the one true truth. And even if you keep in mind the possibility of being wrong, if you believe something you have to think it’s the one true truth. Otherwise, you are actually believing that you don’t completely understand (which is a perfectly okay thing to believe, of course.)

    So I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in believing oneself to possess “the one truth.” (Though you always have to keep in mind the possibility of error and be open to counter-evidence.) And I don’t think the Catholic claim to “the one truth” is the reason they’re seen as dictatorial. The Catholic church is seen as dictatorial because they act like fucking dictators. And even their actions aren’t the fault of their claim to truth: plenty of people are very confident in their principles without doing any of the heinous shit that the Catholic hierarchy does. The two just aren’t related.

  9. John Morales says

    I can’t resist.

    “I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.” — Terry Pratchett

  10. John Morales says

    Robert B., advocatus diaboli:

    Don’t we here consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding religion?

    Not I; religion ≠ theism.

    (I’m not just an atheist, I’m irreligious)

    Honestly, I think that anyone who sincerely believes something is of the opinion that any contradictory positions is wrong. In other words, if you know the truth, you know the one true truth.
    […]
    So I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in believing oneself to possess “the one truth.”

    The truth about what?

  11. Robert B. says

    @ John Morales:

    Ah. A good distinction. I suppose I should have said “Don’t we consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding God?”

    The truth about what? Well, the truth about whatever question you’re trying to answer at the time. Are you implying that the Catholic Church claims to have “the one truth” about everything? That… could be so, and it would demolish a lot of my point. Thinking you know everything is tantamount to a complete shutdown of reason, with widespread consequences. For one thing, you’d have no reason to let people disagree with you.

    (The seriously religious people I know well are more humble than that, but then, none of those people happen to be Catholic and even if they were, they probably wouldn’t be representative of the church leadership if they were hanging out with me.)

  12. MrGronk says

    The thing to remember about the Spiked crew is that they are compulsive contrarians. This is OK and even useful in small doses, but when it becomes an unthinking habit it indicates the intellectual level of a bunch of smart-arse schoolboys.

  13. says

    i was walking down the street when i thought i heard this voice say
    say, ain’t we walking down the same street together on the very same day
    i said hey senorita, that’s astute, i said
    why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute

    —Paul Simon, “Gumboots”

  14. John Morales says

    Robert,

    “Don’t we consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding God?”

    Not bad, your asymptotic approach to a reasonable question proceeds apace.

    To that version, I’d first confirm you mean the actual existence of something you call “God” (we know the concept exists), rather than something about it or otherwise relating to it, and would therefore ask you to define what it denotes.

    Well, the truth about whatever question you’re trying to answer at the time. Are you implying that the Catholic Church claims to have “the one truth” about everything?

    I’m not implying anything about the Catholic Church.

    You, O Advocate, on the other hand seem to have accepted my contention that “the one truth” without a referent is meaninglessly vague.

  15. says

    Robert B

    Don’t we here consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding religion?

    No. I’m an atheist because I don’t see any evidence for theistic claims nor do I see any questions that require an religious explanation. As such, I assume the non-existence of any supernatural beings you care to mention but am willing to acknowledge the possibility that someone may produce some evidence at some point.

    It’s an attitude that starts and ends with the available evidence and, as such, is very different to the religious approach of starting with the conclusion and then trying to change the facts to fit.

    And while I don’t think anyone here advocates making atheism mandatory, that’s something that does happen sometimes when a government is both atheist and totalitarian. And this is still dictatorial even though atheism is true.

    This strikes me as being an argument for secularism rather than a commenty about atheism.

  16. Torquil Macneil says

    My four-year-old boy asked me the other day: ‘Dad, what kind of a thing are you?’ (Believe me, those who don’t have kids, this is not an unusually surreal question from a four year old.)

    My seven-year-old daughter cut in with: ‘He’s a human being, which is a kind of ape.’

    So that’s Brendan O’Neil told.

    My mum’s in hospital; who else am I going to share the cute stuff with?

  17. Gordon says

    The religious love to tell you they have a view that exalts humans as special – except when they are telling you that you are a filthy wretched sinner in their god’s view.

    What’s ennobling about that?

  18. lurker says

    ‘I suppose I should have said “Don’t we consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding God?”’ (Robrt B)
    It sort of depends on which God you’re talking about, hard to have one true belief regarding God when the religious keep inventing new Gods.
    E.g. a Deist, God = the Universe, type God definitely exists, but we still see no point in worshipping it or even calling it God.

  19. says

    a religion that considers itself the ‘one, true faith’ and as ‘universal’, is looked upon as dictatorial if not fascistic.

    Yeah, that’s because it’s correct, ain’t it so?

    “The New Atheism regards not only religious faith but any view which considers mankind as more than a monkey as suspect, strange, deluded.”

    On my last holiday, we went to a zoo where they had great apes. They live on artificial islands so you’re mainly separated from them by water. There was a silverback who used to come to the edge of the water, sit down, feed and stare at the other apes.
    I could have spent the whole day there watching him watching me. It was absolutely factinating.
    It’s hard to understand how one cannot see that we’re apes, and it’s even harder to understand why one would be offended by this fact.
    My kids, on the other hand, found them largely uninteresting, despite my best efforts to point out the similarities. Why? Because of them. They basically felt that they can watch apes all days, the would prefer the goats now, thank you.

    Gordon

    The religious love to tell you they have a view that exalts humans as special – except when they are telling you that you are a filthy wretched sinner in their god’s view.

    Well, apparently god loves your dog more than you. Your dog is allowed to fuck whatever doesn’t move fast enough while you get sent to hell for that.

    Robert B

    Don’t we here consider atheism to be the one true belief regarding religion?

    Nope, it’s the best supported hypothesis. It’s not “true” in the sense that 2+2=4.
    There could be something out in the universe that would merit the label “god”, although I doubt it, but I’m open for the possibility.
    But all religions I’ve hears of so far are demonstrably false.

  20. says

    Gilliel:

    “But all religions I’ve hears of so far are demonstrably false. [sic]”

    No nasturtiums being cast, but I take here the liberty to correct your syntax. I take it that you meant to say: “But all religions I hears of so far are demonstrably false.”

    Better, nést pas? 😉

    I think that the onus is on the believers or their spokespeople to show how their particular religion is based on demonstrable truth, rather than for us watchers from the balcony to show why they are false.

    Easy to show that religions are preposterous, inconsistent, illogical etc. A bit of a stretch to show that any particular one is demonstrably false. (I only include supernatural-based beliefs here. Such materialist notions as the one that says that the world rests on the backs of four elephants, who stand in turn on the back of a giant turtle, have not won general endorsement from the scientific community.)

  21. John Morales says

    [pedant]

    lurker,

    E.g. a Deist, God = the Universe, type God definitely exists, but we still see no point in worshipping it or even calling it God.

    That would be Pantheist, but note the subtle difference between that and Panentheist; in each case, a deity being the universe and a deity encompassing and transcending the universe.

    Deism denotes a non-personal deity separate from the universe.

    (Which only emphasises your point! :) )

  22. Didaktylos says

    To be convinced that humans are a type of ape all one needs to do is to watch (with muted sound) footage of drunken human street violence and compare that to footage (again with muted sound) of chimpanzee alpha male challenges.

  23. says

    Ian MacDougall

    I think that the onus is on the believers or their spokespeople to show how their particular religion is based on demonstrable truth, rather than for us watchers from the balcony to show why they are false.

    … which reminds me of a very revelant Christopher Hitchens quote: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

  24. says

    “The New Atheism regards not only religious faith but any view which considers mankind as more than a monkey as suspect, strange, deluded.”

    If he’d at least said “ape”, then this comment would have at least been halfway defensible. (It still has implications that are false, since of course virtually all of us recognize H. sapiens as a very special species of ape) Now, I’m on the mind that when speaking informally, it can be okay to refer to apes as a type of monkey, since the current definition of monkey is not a monophyletic group, and it could be if you just included apes. But when leveling a criticism like this, get your damn terminology right!

  25. says

    Ian McDougall

    No nasturtiums being cast, but I take here the liberty to correct your syntax. I take it that you meant to say: “But all religions I hears of so far are demonstrably false.”

    Better, nést pas?

    Why not correct my spelling?
    All religions I’ve heard of so far are demonstrably false.
    It’s not only that they claim a lot of shit for which there’s no evidence at all (but that’s not really possible to disprove either), but they also claim a lot of shit that definetly is false. Because those claims adress things within our world, history, physics and so on.
    I know, “sophisticated” theology like Lutherans claim less shit than AIG, but they still do.

  26. Robert B. says

    @ Gilell:

    I actually regard mathematical “truth” to be a bit vacuous. I love math, and in fact it is awesomely useful. But the perfect, eternal truth of math is achieved by abstracting away all the facts. 2+2=4 would remain true (given the however-many axioms of the natural numbers) even if counting and addition weren’t accurate ways to describe the world. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to imagine a universe that didn’t run on math… but if it did, the math would still be true. Math is “true” in a way that has nothing to do with actual reality. That doesn’t seem like a very useful sort of truth to apply to any matter of fact.

    I also hold that there is probably no God. (With P(God) on the order of, I dunno, 10^-40 or so.) Whenever you say anything about the world, there’s a nonzero chance that you’re wrong. But that doesn’t mean there’s more than one truth. As a matter of fact, there either is or is not a God. There is one true truth regarding this question. And I’m 1-10^-40 sure I have it.

  27. says

    Off topic:

    The Big Think uses Disqus comments (yechh), and it’s odd that one can’t post or even see comments on the site until one clicks on an individual post title to get to the post’s dedicated page(s)…

    It isn’t odd at all, really. Disqus does comments only and it manages them on its own systems, so to get that functionality, Big Think blogs will need to link to Disqus’s comment thread counter for each post on the main page. It appears they just have not done so yet.

    Disqus is user-hostile.

    Why do you say that? It isn’t much different from the commenting systems used elsewhere, and it has the added benefit of letting you delete your comments made through Disqus on any blog or website you made them on.

    On Topic:

    This has led even me – a lapsed Catholic and immoveable atheist – to worry about the illiberal streak to modern-day atheism, and to want to stand up for the absolute freedom of religion.

    For one thing, “immoveable atheist” is the gnice, roundabout way of saying “Catholics (and theists in general) are full of shyte”. It’s the same position that Gnu Atheists have. Another thing about this is that absolute freedom of religion is a terrible thing. We could look back on past religions that sacrificed humans as the extreme example, or to modern-day filth like the Catholic Church’s attempt to cover up the molestation and rape of girls and boys by its employees. Sometimes these days, it takes secular or state authorities to keep religions ethical and force them to observe human rights. Religions, like any other human institution, need to be regulated in what they can do to other humans. They should not be granted any absolute powers do to as they please no matter what beliefs they center around.

  28. says

    Giliell:

    “But all religions I hears of so far are demonstrably false.””

    There is absolutely nothing grammatically wrong with that. It’s the way my grandmother would have said it, if she had been anti-religious, (which she wasn’t. Bless her departed soul.) She taught me to speak like that too.

    So anyone who says to me it’s wrong looks out.

    😉

  29. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Robert B., I also think the existence of God is very improbable. But rather than being merely astronomically small, I would say his probability of existence is thermodynamically small (perhaps 10^{-10^{100}}). I guess that makes me an agnostic.

  30. MacTurk says

    Please understand that the Iona Institute is basically the tax-efficient ego vehicle of Mr David Quinn, who is a regular columnist in “The Irish Independent”, an Irish daily newspaper. He is a staunch defender of the Catholic Church, its hierarchy, and its power and position in Ireland.

    Given the powerful position of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the past, it is understandable that they see any change as negative. And Mr Quinn’s role(self-appointed) is to stand in the way of change, screaming that it is all an anti-Catholic conspiracy. “It” may, and often has, included the European Union, changes in adoption law, and the demands of sexually abused people for recogniotion, apologies, and compensation.

    You could think of him and his institute as being the Irish equivalent of the American fundy evangelicals.

    Their mission ststement is;

    “The Iona Institute promotes the place of marriage and religion in society. We defend the continued existence of publicly-funded denominational schools. We also promote freedom of conscience and religion.

    The Iona Institute is headed by religious and social affairs commentator, David Quinn”.

  31. Robert B. says

    Hamilton, off the top of my head, I don’t think the human brain has enough lifetime clock cycles to justify that level of confidence.

    *wikis*

    Okay, assume you spend your whole life thinking about God, who is so blatantly implausible that every neuron in your brain can make you ten times more certain each time it fires. You’ve got about 10^11 neurons, which can apparently fire 10^3 times per second, and I hope you’ll live for 3*10^9 seconds. So when you died, you’d have a confidence of 10^(-3*10^23). Which is a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion orders of magnitude higher than what you quoted. And incidentally, I think I just proved that you only have about two trillion possible moments of conscious attention in your life (three trillion if dreams count) as a hard biological maximum, barring sudden-onset immortality. So anything with probability of order 10^-13 or less is literally not worth considering.

    Probability is fun!

  32. says

    I wasn’t (in case there’s any doubt about it) saying that humans are not apes; far from it. (Giliell, funny you should mention watching a silverback. It was watching a small troop of gorillas that included a toddler at the local zoo that got me into my brief but fascinating career there.) It’s the “more than a monkey” that’s idiotic (or, more likely, just dishonest).

  33. says

    MacTurk – yes: Sigmund told me it’s basically the equivalent of Bill Donohue’s Catholic League (or lobbby or falange or whatever the hell he calls it); one guy and a computer…except that it has real power and clout.

  34. Rieux says

    Ophelia—yeah, Disqus really sucks. Commenting on “Friendly Atheist,” AlterNet, and now “Daylight Atheism” is a pain as a result. I’m deeply grateful that FTB didn’t stoop to using that lousy software.

    (Actually, though the registration process here was confusing and a little annoying, I haven’t had any subsequent problems with the FTB comment system at all. A pleasant surprise, at least thus far for me.)

  35. Rieux says

    Aratina—

    Well, I’ve run into different problems on the three different Disqus-using sites I’ve commented on—”Friendly Atheist,” AlterNet, and the new “Daylight Atheism”—, so I get the sense that there must be some kind of customizable options that webmasters can monkey (ha! for an instant I’m back on-topic!) with.

    Anyway, though, here’s what comes to mind as problems with Disqus on at least one of those three sites:

    • Either doesn’t allow guest (i.e., no-registration) commenting or doesn’t allow guest commenters to edit their comments

    • No preview

    • Frequently (and inconsistently) deletes paragraph breaks, turning what I thought was coherently structured text into stream-of-consciousness sludge

    • Ignores HTML style markups (boldface, italics, underline, strikethrough)

    • Adds automatic bold or italics markup to all blockquoted text, and then reads HTML style commands within those blockquotes backwards (e.g., {i} = italics off, {/i} = italics on)

    • Breaks long comment sections into multiple pages (though only one URL), which makes the usual problem with threaded-comment systems (i.e., it’s difficult to find recent replies) much worse because one has to spend several minutes slogging through numerous interior links to even see late-in-the-list comments, much less determine whether they’re new (or responding to you)

    • Formats threaded comments incompetently, such that later comments in a thread have effectively no horizontal space at all—check this out.

    That’s what I can think of off the top of my head.

  36. Paul W., OM says

    Ophelia,

    I didn’t think you thought we weren’t apes, or even particularly that we’re “not monkeys.”

    Just that if even new atheists did say we’re monkeys, that wouldn’t be wrong. Ambiguous, given the screwed-up terminology, but not actually wrong. (And amusing.)

    James Sweet:

    On any reasonable scientific understanding of monkeys, we are monkeys—we’re only not monkeys if you arbitrarily exclude the apes from the phylum, for unscientific, historical reasons.

    IMO we shouldn’t do that for the same reason we don’t exclude whales from the mammals. Once you realize they’re really not fish and really are mammal-like in the crucial scientific sense, it’s silly not to call them mammals—that’s what it turns out to mean to “be” a mammal.

    Sometimes getting the terminology “right” involves fixing the broken terminology, to bring it in line with the facts.

    (BTW, I’m not a biologist or any kind of expert on this, so if anybody has superior knowledge of the subject, feel free to correct me.)

    Whether or not you choose to make the definition of “monkey” conform to the scientific facts, other things “our side” often says about these things aren’t quite right, either.

    E.g., it’s often said that we’re not only not monkeys, but not descended from monkeys—we’re only descended from a “shared common ancestor.”

    The nearest common ancestors of modern monkeys (and us) were monkeys. They are more closely related to extant New World and Old World monkeys than those monkeys are to each other, and not particularly ape-like, so the weird exclusion of apes could not reasonably be applied to it.

    If such monkey-like animals were still extant somewhere, and we found them, we’d immediately recognize them as actual monkeys.

    We can finesse the issue, or just be more specific, by calling them proto-monkeys or whatever, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t real monkeys, just early monkeys, not modern ones. It’s actually the center of the radiation of monkey species, so it’s the prototypical monkey and should count more clearly than any particular extant species.

    When our side says that we’re not monkeys and not descended from monkeys, and (just) “share a common ancestor” with monkeys that’s misleading and largely wrong.

    We share a common ancestor with paramecia and petunias, and we’re way, way, way closer to the monkeys than that.

    We’re not just close to them, but literally among them on the metaphorical tree of species. You can’t get any closer to being a monkey than that, even if you’re uncontroversially a “monkey.” You’re there already.

    I’m not saying that you can’t have other kinds of biological types, based on scientific facts other than sheer relatedness.

    For example, among the birds, we have “vultures” that aren’t particularly closely related to each other—different species of birds evolved similarly to scavenge carcasses, and independently developed the same combination of soaring wings, bald heads, hooked beaks, etc. (IIRC, raptors are another example of such convergence of relatively unrelated species.)

    I could see saying that monkey-ness is not monophyletic for a similar reason—if there’s a distinctive monkey mode of making a living, with corresponding constraints on morphology, you could make a distinction between the “monkeys” that maintain that cluster of features, and the “apes,” which don’t—they’ve “changed into something else” in functional terms, even if they’re as closely related.

    My impression is that there isn’t a very good argument like that—there’s not a better reason for excluding apes from the monkeys than there is for excluding humans from the apes. It’s mostly a matter of tradition. It’s also my impression that if you do things that way, such that we’re “not monkeys,” it only makes it clearer that our nearest common ancestors were monkeys.

    What I mostly object to is that people affirm that we are apes but deny that we are monkeys, as though those were comparable scientific facts. They’re not.

    When they go so far as to deny that our closest common ancestors were monkeys, that’s worse—they were clearly already monkeys in any sense that we are still apes.

  37. dirigible says

    Spiked’s contrarianism is curiously directed. Reactionary, one might almost say. If one was being polite.

  38. says

    Paul,

    “Just that if even new atheists did say we’re monkeys, that wouldn’t be wrong.”

    I know, but if new atheists said “any view which considers humans as more than monkeys is suspect, strange, deluded” then that would be wrong. O’Neill is pretending to think that gnu atheists think not only that humans are primates but also that humans are not > monkeys. The key bit wasn’t the monkeys but the more than.

    It’s possible that I’m being tiresomely literal about this. :- )

  39. says

    (Here’s why – apes are descended from monkeys, but they’re not monkeys now. We’re apes, not monkeys. In that sense, it is “wrong” to say we are monkeys. O’Neill was either confused or doing a Wilberforce.)

  40. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Robert, when I tossed out that number I was thinking along slightly different lines. For one, it is a round number that indicates roughly the probability that the matter in the visible universe (containing on the order of 10^80 elementary particles) would be in a unique state that we could interpret as the “mind of God” — assuming that all states are equally probable a priori. I think this is roughly what Dawkins has in mind when he talks about the very low probability of God arising spontaneously, given what we know about the laws of physics.

    Also, even if we talk strictly about confidence based on empirical evidence, I think we have to go outside one individual’s mind to describe a modern atheist’s confidence that God does not exist. I know that mine is based largely on the accumulated scientific knowledge that has been built up over the last four centuries or so. This growth of knowledge has so far been an exponential process (following something like Moore’s Law), because big advances in science are made only by those who do not waste their time repeating well established results of the past. That’s another reason why we can put an extra exponentiation into the mix when calculating probabilities. I would not know how to carry out a reasonable estimate of the probability resulting from such a process, although I readily admit that a number as small as 10^{-10^{100}} would be implausible.

    Finally, it seems difficult to rigorously exclude other possibilities, such as that I may be a raving nutbag locked up in my mother’s attic, and you and the rest of the universe are nothing but my hallucinations. Based on the observed frequency of mental illness in the general population, it would be difficult to push that probability below about 10^{-6}. But I suspect from the vividness and consistency of my hallucinations that that is probably not the case.

  41. Robert B. says

    @ Hamilton: I was basically just taking an excuse to have fun with math; the difference between 10^-40 and 1/googolplex is pretty much trivial, since as I said they’re both too small to waste any time caring about.

    But still, I think my math basically holds up. (By the way, I was talking about the odds based on my empirical knowledge, not the a priori odds – a priori odds are a little silly anyway: unless you’re on the quantum scale, they’re always either 0 or 1 and you can never know for sure which.) Expert testimony is great for increasing the practically attainable confidence, but I don’t think it can increase the theoretical maximum. The problem is, you have to multiply the expert’s confidence in his own information by your confidence in the expert, and to become confident in an expert (or a field of expertise) you need to do things like observe its results, learn a little bit about how it works, etc, which all takes brain cycles. Granted, that’s a more efficient way of learning than discovering everything yourself from scratch, but at 10x confidence for each firing of each neuron I was already estimating the most efficient learning physically possible.

    And yeah, when I claim my odds for the existence of God what I’m actually doing is estimating the odds that I’m a brain in a jar or completely insane or something, because that’s the most plausible way I could be wrong, by a long shot. And like you, I think the consistency of what I observe, and its ability to surprise me, makes that pretty unlikely. 10^-6 is probably the right magnitude for that level of mental illness but I think (somewhat unhumbly) that someone who thinks like me is much less likely than a randomly selected person to be literally and completely out of touch with reality.

  42. says

    Wow Rieux, that is quite a list of problems and are all excellent reasons to not like Disqus. I would think you are right that some of them are configurable, but I imagine that a few at least are caused by default settings which should never have been set as defaults in the first place by Disqus.

  43. Paul W. says

    Ophelia,

    The key bit wasn’t the monkeys but the more than.

    I agree. And the same applies with apes, even though we are uncontroversially still apes.

    The fact that we are exactly apes doesn’t mean that we are stereotypical apes. We can be humans, with the distinctive characteristics of humans.

    Likewise, if we “are monkeys,” that doesn’t mean that we aren’t specially apes and specially human, too.

    My point is that the monkey/ape thing is a terminological gotcha. There’s good scientific reason to say apes are monkeys in the same crucial sense that humans are apes or primates. And there’s nothing wrong with that—neither says that we can’t be smart, moral, etc.

    Here’s why – apes are descended from monkeys, but they’re not monkeys now. We’re apes, not monkeys. In that sense, it is “wrong” to say we are monkeys.

    Saying that apes are “not monkeys now” or that “we’re apes, not monkeys” is begging the question I’m actually raising.

    “Ape” and “monkey” are just not scientific terms in the same sense. In the central, crucial scientific sense that we are still apes, we are also still monkeys.

    We’re simians, and the term “simians” really means “monkeys, not excluding the apes.”

    I am saying that the scientific community screwed up in standardizing “ape” and “monkey” in very different ways—or at least that it’s a mistake to continue to use use them in public as though they had comparable meanings. They don’t.

    But they used to.

    Before around 1910, it was common not just for laypeople, but for scientists to use “ape” to mean “tailless monkey.” Everybody recognized that apes are monkeys, unless you exclude the apes from the monkeys by definition.

    What we have now is a mess, where we have principled terms like “primate,” “simian,” and “catarrhine,” and unprincipled terms like “monkeys-and-apes” and “Old World monkeys-and-apes” and “Old World Monkeys” (excluding the apes)—and the scientists are somehow supposed to be the arbiters of “correct” usage of both the technical and vernacular terms.

    Scientists and educators took away a perfectly good literal sense of the vernacular word “monkey”—monkey-like animals including the apes—and didn’t give us back a good word for that.

    Or rather, they gave us back a fine word—simian—but downplayed it and misled us about it. Nobody’s expected to know that very interesting word.

    If asked whether we are monkeys, they typically tell us we’re “primates” “with a shared common ancestor with monkeys,” but they generally don’t tell us what our actual relationship is to monkeys.

    We are specifically simians, meaning exactly that we are exactly monkeysexcept in the sense that we define “monkey” precisely to exclude us apes.

    The fact that we are simians is a very interesting scientific fact. We are monkeys*. (*not excluding apes)

    The “fact” that we are “not monkeys” is not an interesting scientific fact—it’s a useless and usually very misleading tautology.

    (Or it’s just ridiculously obvious. We’re quite obviously not stereotypical “monkeys”—where are the prehensile tails? Who shaved off my fur? And where’s my peanut?)

    If we say that “humans are primates” and “humans are apes,” but “humans are not monkeys,” in any context other than the professional primatological literature—and without the above explanation—it’s basically wrong.

    Even scientifically literate people can’t be expected to understand that the term “monkey” does not work in at all the same way as the terms “primate,” “ape” and “human”—and even people who do understand the distinction should not be expected to care about such a perverse terminological nit.

    They should care that we are monkeys* (simians) in exactly the same sense that we are primates and are also apes. That’s an interesting scientific fact, and we shouldn’t skip the monkey* (simian) level, which is often the one asked about.

    If they’re actually interested in the science, they should also care that

    (1) we are catarrhine monkeys*, more closely related to all other Old World monkeys* than any of us catarrhines are to any New World monkeys, and

    (2) our nearest common ancestors were actual Catarrhine monkeys. (With no asterisk, and no need to say “simians” to make it clear that we’re not excluding the apes. They weren’t apes, and they were unambiguously monkeys.)

    Scientifically literate, pro-evolution people have heard over and over that we are “not monkeys” but “share a common ancestor” with monkeys, and most of us have been fooled by what amounts to a terminological trick.

    I certainly was, long after I became an atheist, and even long after I seriously studied evolution but never paid particular attention to details of primate phylogeny. I didn’t know I descended from actual, literal monkeys and from a particular, known subtype of actual, literal monkeys. I didn’t just descend from some unknown species vaguely like a lemur, but from a catarrhine monkey that was probably very similar to some extant catarrhine monkeys.

    That bugs me. I was a sucker for “our side’s” habitually evasive framing of the “monkey” issue—and I’m about as scientifically literate as you can expect anyone to be.

    When creationists say that we claim to be descended from apes, or even to be apes, the proper response is “Yeah, but so what? That doesn’t imply what you’re trying to make it imply. We’re apes, but we’re also great apes, and human beings, which most apes are not.”

    If they say that we claim to be descended from monkeys, or even to be monkeys, the proper response should be “Well, the term “monkey” is pretty fucked up, but basically yeah. We descended from catarrhine monkeys, and in an important evolutionary sense still are catarrhine monkeys—we’re still catarrhine simians—but so what? That doesn’t imply what you’re trying to make it imply. We are also apes, great apes, and human beings, which (other) ‘monkeys’ are not.”

    If you’re asked the classic gotcha question of whether you’re descended from monkeys on your mother’s side or your father’s, there is one right answer: “Both.”

    If you’re asked if that makes you a monkey, the right answer is “that depends entirely on whether you exclude the apes from the monkeys by definitional fiat,” or “not in the sense you obviously want that to mean”; it’s not a simple “no.”

    It’s not a stupid question, even if it’s typically used as one. The non-tautological answer is very interesting.

  44. says

    Paul, for once I seriously have no idea what you’re getting at with this one. It’s probably my old zoo background kicking up – apes just are a different category from monkeys. I know we descended from monkeys, I said that, but that doesn’t mean we are monkeys now. All mammals descended from a little shrew-like critter but that doesn’t mean we’re all little shrew-like critters now.

  45. Godless Heathen says

    All mammals descended from a little shrew-like critter but that doesn’t mean we’re all little shrew-like critters now.

    But some of us are.

  46. Paul W. says

    Ophelia:

    I know we descended from monkeys, I said that, but that doesn’t mean we are monkeys now. All mammals descended from a little shrew-like critter but that doesn’t mean we’re all little shrew-like critters now.

    I’m not sure what you’re really saying there, either.

    Would reptiles and birds be a better example of that sort of thing? “All birds are descended from reptiles, but they’re not reptiles anymore.”

    That’s an example where don’t go with monophyletic terms—if we called all descendents of reptiles “reptiles,” birds would be “reptiles.” (And so would we.)

    I think there’s good enough reason not to call birds reptiles, because the bird phylum is large and diverse, and pretty distantly related to any other reptile descendents. If we’re going to try to salvage prescientific terms at all, we sometimes have to give up on forcing terminology into the monophyletic mold.

    Still, terms should be monophyletic by default.

    I don’t think that the relationship between monkeys and humans is very close to the case of reptiles vs. birds.

    It’s more like gourds vs. squashes. Are squashes gourds?

    Biologically, they are. Squashes are just gourds with some superficial differences from other gourds, such as a thinner rind and a thicker part that humans find edible, or whatever.

    To a non-biologist that might seem stupid and wrong. In the vernacular, a “squash” is prototypically something very edible, where a “gourd” is something with a hard rind, that you can make a rattle out of, maybe by just drying it and letting the seeds rattle around.

    If you ask somebody for a “gourd” because you want to make a maraca, and they bring you back a zucchini, you’re probably not going to be pleased, because a zucchini is obviously “not a gourd” in the relevant vernacular sense.

    That doesn’t stop botanists from saying that cucumbers are gourds.

    Squashes are gourds, scientifically, even if they’re obviously not gourds in the vernacular. They have all of the biological features of gourds, even if the most salient ones to non-biologists (the rind and edible part) has been greatly diminished or exaggerated by natural or artificial selection.

    I’m saying that humans are monkeys in a similar scientific sense, even if they’re obviously not monkeys in a vernacular sense.

    Going back to reptiles vs. birds, consider the big biological differences. Reptiles are cold blooded, birds are warm-blooded. Reptiles have scales, and birds have feathers. Their skeletons are different in major ways, and so on…

    Another factor in favor of maintaining the either/or reptile/bird distinction is that there isn’t just one kind of bird—there’s a big subtree of birds, big enough and distinct enough to need a good handy name that distinguishes it from all the other reptile descendants.

    If there was only one species of bird, and scientists discovered that it was evolved from reptiles, many might say that it was a kind of reptile—a bizarrely evolved distant relative of the other reptiles, but still “a reptile.” Probably not, because birds are so different in so many basic ways from other reptiles, but that’s a factor too.

    The reptile vs. bird thing gets interesting when you consider the warm blooded dinosaurs that birds evolved from. Are birds still dinosaurs? Were those earlier dinosaurs still reptiles? There may be no right way to draw such lines, but when it comes to modern or recent birds vs. modern or recent reptiles, we don’t need to. There’s a conveniently big gulf between reptiles and birds, so the either/or distinction works passably well.

    Now consider monkeys vs. apes. What biologically important monkey features have we lost, and what have we gained, that would make us biologically not monkeys anymore?

    (Notice that a loss of a feature counts more toward being “not an X anymore” than a gain of a feature. I don’t think apes have lost monkeyness so much as they’ve gained apeness.)

    We apes are just not very far removed from monkeys, nor very different from them. Our nearest common ancestor with some monkeys was a catarrhine monkey, and catarrhine monkeys are still around.

    If we treated apes and monkeys like we do squashes and gourds, we’d say that apes are monkeys, despite the similarly obvious differences between stereotypical apes and stereotypical monkeys.

    When it comes to squashes and gourds, scientists do often make concessions to popular usage—instead of just talking about gourds with no explanations, they might say “gourds and squashes” to make clear that they’re talking about all of them, or say “gourds (including squashes)” to also make it clear that the terms are not mutually exclusive, as many people would think.

    Similarly, primatologists sometimes talk about “apes and humans” or “apes (including humans).” The latter is more informative—it gets across that there’s an important scientific sense that humans literally are apes, even if they’re often considered “something else.”

    I think we should talk about monkeys the same way. Sure, there’s a sense in which apes are not monkeys—that’s how the terms are commonly defined—but there’s a basic biological sense in which apes are still monkeys.

  47. Paul W. says

    Thinking that an ape is a kind of monkey is not an error. The either-or distinction is artificial and unscientific.

    The confusion comes from people insisting that apes “are not monkeys,” in defiance of obvious appearances and scientific fact.

    I think it’s basically speciesism and accommodationism.

    I typed “did humans evolve from apes?” into google, and the first link I got was to an evolution FAQ at PBS.

    The very first question and answer was:

    1. Did we evolve from monkeys?

    Humans did not evolve from monkeys. Humans are more closely related to modern apes than to monkeys, but we didn’t evolve from apes, either. Humans share a common ancestor with modern African apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees. Scientists believe this common ancestor existed 5 to 8 million years ago. Shortly thereafter, the species diverged into two separate lineages. One of these lineages ultimately evolved into gorillas and chimps, and the other evolved into early human ancestors called hominids.

    The first two sentences are just false. (The rest isn’t good either; the chimps-and-gorillas vs. humans thing is arguable at best.)

    We did evolve from apes, and we did evolve from monkeys.

    Sure, humans do “share a common ancestor” with “modern African apes,” but the nearest common ancestor of all of the modern African apes (including us) was unambiguously an ape. Not an extant one, but as clearly an ape as can be, biologically—it was the center of the radiation of the modern african apes.

    Likewise, the nearest common ancestor of that ape and Old World monkeys was a catarrhine monkey, and its nearest common ancestor with all monkeys was a monkey too—the monkeyest of all monkeys, more closely related to all extant monkeys than any extant monkey.

    How are we supposed to teach people about the relationships between monkeys, apes, and humans if we deny the most basic scientific facts about those relationships?

    I think constant hammering on “apes are not monkeys” is bound up in this monkey denialism.

    We don’t want to admit that the creationists are right—evolutionary theory does clearly say that we evolved from apes, which evolved from monkeys, and we biologically still are apes—and we’re monkeys too, biologically speaking.

    My impression is that in most languages, the word for “monkey” does not exclude apes. (E.g. in Arabic or Hindi or Swahili.)

    This seems to be a matter of what’s considered “correct English” rather than what’s scientifically true—and “correct English” is wrong for largely political reasons.

    We are simians. “Simian” literally means monkey in Latin, and the name was chosen for the usual good scientific reasons.

    We’ll say it in Latin, but not in English, even though it’s true in English too, in biological terms, just as squashes are gourds. (Botanists are willing to say that in English, not just in Latin clade names. Squashes don’t get upset at being told they’re biologically gourds, I guess.)

  48. Paul W. says

    I’m conducting a little informal poll over at the Endless Thread on Pharyngula, about whether apes evolved from monkeys, and whether humans evolved from apes.

    So far, the clear majority is wrong. :-)

    After a while, I’ll ask them to defend their answers.

    Would you be interested in me pointing them here to explain how I’m wrong, in the interest of balance, or should I let it go here and do it there?

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