Tag Archives: anthropology

Science

Remember: Not All Primates Are Monkeys!

Every year my research group take a trip together, and this year we decided to travel to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. I hadn’t visited this zoo since I was a teenager, so I was really looking forward to it.

The Cleveland Zoo has been in its current location for over 100 years, and boasts one of the most diverse collections of primates in North America. Fortunately, I work in Kent State’s Anthropology Department, and many of the people I was traveling with are primate experts. This meant, of course, that the primate exhibits ranked #1 on our list of things to see.

It was strikingly apparent, however, that despite the enthusiasm of the other visitors, most of them had real trouble identifying even the most basic differences among primates.

For example, I saw one child watching an animal climb a tree and heard him ask if it was a squirrel. This was a forgivable mistake, since he was around 4 years old, and the animal in question was about the size of a large squirrel. However, what really struck me was his mother’s reply. “No, it’s just a monkey,” she said dismissively, despite the fact that display was clearly labeled Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz).

Not a squirrel! A Mongoose Lemur (Lemur mongoz) at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

I understand that the average person is not an expert in primate taxonomy. But this mother would have never told her child that a that a lion was a cheetah, or even a tiger. Despite their superficial similarities, it is obvious that these animals are fundamentally distinct. Parents know that even young children are capable of telling them apart. People don’t use their names interchangeably simply because they are both big cats. So why is it acceptable to use the name “monkey” for all primates?

Lets take a look at when these examples actually diverged from each other. Lions, cheetahs, and tigers all belong to the family Felidae, which first arose about 25 million years ago. According to the Time Tree of Life, a website that gives approximate divergence times for various groups of organisms, lions (Panthera leo) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) diverged about 9.4 million years ago. Lions and tigers (Panthera tigris) are actually two species in the same genus, and only diverged about 3.7 million years ago. In fact, lions and tigers are so closely related that they can even form hybrids, know as a liger (if the male is a lion) or tigon (if the male is a tiger). Yet these two species of cat are almost never confused.

Lemurs, on the other hand, are drastically different from other primates. They are classified as a suborder of primates called strepsirrhini, which forms its own branch of the primate family tree. Lemurs diverged from other primates around 77.4 million years ago, and began evolving separately when they became geographically isolated on the island of Madagascar. The other major lineage of primates is the haplorhines, which includes platyrrhines (New World Monkeys) and catarrhines (Old World Monkeys and Apes).

As you can see in the figure above, the word “monkey” doesn’t refer to a single group of animals. All monkeys share a common ancestor, but that ancestor gave rise to more than just monkeys. Evolutionary biologists describe this type of pattern as being “paraphyletic.”

A Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus) reflects on life at the Cleveland Zoo. © Daniel Sprockett 2011

Later that day, I was taking this photograph of a flanged adult male orangutan when I overheard a child ask if these were the chimpanzees. “No,” her dad replied, “chimps are monkeys.”

Now, I know that lemurs are not the most well-known primates. In fact, the only famous lemur I can think of is King Julien XIII, the ring-tailed lemur voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in the Dreamworks movie Madagascar. But that excuse goes right out the window when you begin talking about apes. Apes are by far the most well-known primate group – you literally see them every day!

I’m not the only one that feels this way. Anthropologist Holly Dunsworth recently recounted some of her negative experiences attempting to educate zoo visitors on the differences between apes and monkeys:

Apes are gibbons, siamangs, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and people. We apes don’t have tails and we have big brains and advanced cognitive skills among other traits. Monkeys have tails (even ones that look tailless have little stubs) and most have much smaller brains (an exception being the capuchin).

Apes and monkeys are separate categories of animals. This is why calling an ape a monkey sounds absolutely crazy and that is why some people just can’t help themselves and morph into prickish pedants around ignorant zoo visitors.

So the next time you visit a zoo, please remember: not all primates are monkeys!

Lifestyle Religion

Allow myself to introduce… myself.

Hello all!

You don’t know me; my name is Dave Muscato, I’m an atheist, and I’m one of the new writers for Skeptic Freethought.

First off, I want to thank Ellen and the other writers for giving me the chance to contribute here.

Let’s get to it: I’ve been racking my brain for a few days trying to think of a great topic for my first post, and I finally decided that the most appropriate topic would be… an introduction. I think that if I’m going to write for you, it’s only appropriate that you know where I’m coming from and why you should bother reading what I contribute.

So, this is ol’ atheist me:

Just kidding, of course. There are some atheists who make that face, but I’m not one of them. Actually, I’m a vegetarian, I have two kittens, I love to read, and I play classical guitar music and jazz bass. I like yoga, running, hiking, biking, road trips, ancient languages, and hugs. I’m a student, a feminist, and an LGBTQ ally & activist. I do fundraising consulting for non-profits, and I volunteer at a local animal shelter.

Actually me

I’d like you to think of me as your neighbor, you know, the guy who lives in the apartment down the hall and dog-sits when you go away for the weekend. If you see me while you’re out & about, say hi!

I recently wrote an article on my own group’s blog with ideas to help other atheist group leaders. In it, I stressed the importance of a getting personal during and outside of meetings, of opening up to each other and bonding as friends. I’m vice-president of my school’s atheist group, and I also study anthropology – the study of people. One area in which the atheist community simply does not compete with religion is… well, community. If you guys are anything like me, we spend a lot of time looking at cartoons, watching YouTube videos, and reading science books & journals. This is all great; we should strive to expand our knowledge and amuse ourselves. But something is missing.

Just a few short years ago, I was a professional Christian praise & worship musician. I breathed Christ Jesus. I prayed regularly, I studied my Bible, I lead others in worship. I truly believed that laying on hands had healing power. I worried about the souls of my deist parents and my two apathetic brothers. I became obsessed with the Bible, which I knew was God’s Word, and I studied it intensively.

I’ll save my “deconversion testimony” for a future article, but when I started to open my eyes to atheism, I didn’t leave the church right away. In fact, I kept my atheism to myself and continued as a professional P&W musician, leading others in worship, participating in small groups, and performing for an entire year.

I did this because there is more than one reason people go to church, and the “other” reason was strong enough to keep me going, despite the obvious flaws in the rest of it. As I wrote in the article linked above, aside from getting (ultimately incorrect) answers to The Big Questions, people go to church because they want fellowship. It’s a foundational part of being human, and as social animals, we must embrace this. During that year, I was no longer impressed with my pastor’s ideas about the origin of the universe, the meaning of life, what constitutes moral behavior, or what happens to us after we die, but I did – still do – love the music, the sympathetic ears, the encouragement, and the feeling of being among friends.

As an out-of-the-closet atheist and now group officer, although it’s not part of my official charter, I consider it my duty to be available as a resource for other skeptics, especially those still on the fence or still in the closet. Not just for information about evolution, secular ethics, science, and skepticism in general, but as a friend, someone who wants to listen, someone who wants to help them free themselves from the clutches of delusion and welcome them to the real world.

A few people from my group at Skepticon last year :)

If you are out of the closet, I encourage you to make an effort to reach out to people you know. Invite them to your group meetings. Invite them to have coffee with you one-on-one. Invite them to the bar with you and your friends, and don’t talk about religion at all. Invite them to lectures and skeptic’s conferences. If you have friends or know people who are religious, make them a deal: You’ll go with them to church, if they’ll come with you to your skeptics’ group meeting. (It nearly goes without saying that if you’re not already part of a local skeptics’ group, join or start one!). If you need help finding a local group, please let me know and I’ll help you locate one. If you have never been to a skeptics’ conference, find one near you and go!

I look forward to hearing from you all. Have a wonderful week, and take care!

Dave :)