Are We Descended From Monkeys?
    By T. Ryan Gregory | September 24th 2009 03:47 PM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About T. Ryan

    I am an evolutionary biologist specializing in genome size evolution at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Be sure to visit


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    Today I gave my lecture on mammal diversity and evolution in the 4th year vertebrate course. We have been talking a fair bit about paraphyletic groups, common vs. scientific names, and so on. Within this context, we explored the issue of whether we're "descended from monkeys", by taking a look at a phylogeny of relevant primates:

    The issues that we noted were:

    1. "Apes", as defined as orangutans, gorillas, and chimps, but not humans, is paraphyletic. In other words, either "apes" is not a scientifically defensible term or else it must include humans.

    2. "Monkeys" is paraphyletic, and in particular Old World monkeys are more closely related to "apes" than they are to New World monkeys. (Also, humans and Old World monkeys are equally closely related to New World monkeys).

    3. We are not descended from any modern "monkeys" or "apes", rather we share common ancestors with them. (In that sense, the answer is NO to whether we're descended from monkeys).

    4. The last ancestor shared by all apes (including humans) would itself probably have qualified as an ape. (In that sense, the answer is YES we are descended from an ape, but not any of the modern species).

    5. For "monkeys" not to be problematic, it would have to include apes. In that sense, we would be apes AND monkeys. (And, for that matter, we're also lobe-finned fishes). As above, it may very well be that the ancestor of all monkeys and apes (the very bottom node on the phylogeny) would have been considered a monkey, and therefore YES we are descended from a monkey (but again, not any modern species).

    After class, one of my students emailed me a link to this video, which explores the issues nicely. The author takes a cladistic approach and concludes that we are descended from monkeys for the reasons listed above.

    What do you think?


    You either believe God created humans as they are or that through evolution whether secular or theistic means we came to be humans as we are today. I believe we evolved from the ooze of life and therefore have monkey ancestors if that is what DNA shows. If not a monkey then some other primitive creature. I believe in God but don't believe God created all things in 6 days. If he had anything to do with us and the rest of the world it would have been at the very beginning and setting evolution in motion. That is an opinion from one who has not enough knowledge or objective information to say anything for sure. I don't know anyone who does for that matter.

    That's not unreasonable - the part where there is a true schism are people who just don't accept any science; the planet was created 10,000 years ago and all those fossils are just faith tests, etc. 

    On the other side, there are truly people who just hate religion and use science as an excuse in their culture war.  I chaired a panel at the last AAAS meeting here, on science communication, and Eugenie Scott, head of the NCSE (who are on the front lines of protecting evolution science) addressed the more militant science brethren out there when she said (I have to paraphrase - I have the video but on a machine in my office) 'they don't speak for all scientists - they don't even speak for all atheists.'

    People like you (or me or Ryan and most everyone here, else we wouldn't be here writing and talking about this stuff) are the overwhelming majority.    The kooks on each fringe get all the attention, though.
    As in many issues today, the extremists both politically and spiritually are the ones who get the most coverage. Thanks for the article and reply.