Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker offered up the common creationism pseudoscientific line, stating that “At one time, science said man came from apes. Did it not?…. If that is true, why are there still apes? Think about it…. We have an evolution that is — we’ve gotten so intelligent that if that is still true, why are there still apes?”
Derided for his poor understanding of modern evolutionary science, Walker is far from alone. Surveys agree that a large portion of the population does not buy into Darwin’s bioevolution. PBS has offered up the following correction to such paranormal thinking.
“Humans are more closely related to modern apes … but we didn’t evolve from apes, either. Humans share a common ancestor with modern African apes. … 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” (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/faq/cat02.html).
Funny thing about that. Although markedly closer to scientific veracity than Walker’s pseudoscientific contention, the PBS clarification too has significant errors. Even many who accept bioevolution do not understand how it actually works, and that we humans evolved directly from and literally still are apes. So let us take the Republican’s creationist claims and use it as a teaching moment.
First, Walker makes the common mistake of sort of thinking evolution has ultimate purposes to it, such as producing high human intelligence. Not so. Unlike human directed technological evolution, natural evolution is not an intelligently directed, purposeful effort to achieve specific goals that result in progressive advances, such as the evolution of aviation technology from the original wood and cloth Wright Flyer to the gleaming aluminum piston DC-3 to the composite material Boeing 787 jetliner. Biological evolution is an unguided, semi-random biological affair in which constantly altering DNA combinations end up competing with other DNA combinations in a survival of the fittest struggle in whatever happens happens. One of many ways for DNA to survive and thrive is for a line of descent to become more complex and capable, But simple works too – the vast majority of organisms are very small and not highly intelligent, as per microbes and insects..
Sometimes a species evolves pretty much as a whole population into a new species and replaces itself, that’s called anagenesis. Where Walker again goes wrong is thinking that is the only way it happens. More frequently a species spins off a new species laterally via cladogenesis, leaving the original species also continuing to exist, and maybe spin off yet new species – kind of like how the sitcom All in the Family spun off Maude and The Jeffersons before it itself evolved into its direct descendent Archie Bunker’s Place. It is somewhat similar to how Walker’s parents did no die immediately after his birth, which some parents normally do, such as salmon and assorted invertebrates.
As for apes, they are a clade of primates that first appear in the fossil record about 20 million years ago in the late Cenozoic. One ape feature is the lack of a tail. The formal name for apes is Hominoidea. That’s Homonoidea, get it? Around 10 million years ago arose the great apes, the hominids which contrary to PBS therefore are not distinct from apes, the family explicitly including them (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape is a good summary with spiffy phylogenetic charts and everything). That then split both into the subfamily ponginines, resulting in orangutans, and the subfamily hominines which are the rest of the great apes. PBS is further off the phylogenetic base when it suggests that gorillas and chimps are a group distinct from humans, because hominins include only chimpanzees and humans. Some 6 million years ago the hominins gave rise to yet new clades that would led to chimpanzees on one hand and humans on the other. Humans did not of course evolve from modern chimps or gorillas, but we certainly did descend straight from ancient apes with chimpanzees and bonobos are closest living relations, and we still are apes. Much as whales are marine mammals, bats are flying mammals, and birds are flying dinosaurs. We are extra big brained, bipedal naked apes with opposable thumbs and large mammary glands on females.
Walker said something that is a dash perceptive while missing the mark. He asks why is that with humans being so smart that the less intelligent gorillas, chimps, bonobos and orangutans are still around? Think about it Mr. Walker. There used to be lots of ape species, but since the advent of our genus Homo three million years ago, culminating with H. sapiens a few hundred thousand years ago, we have one way or another killed off most apes, leaving remnant populations of a few species that are in dire danger of extinction in the wild. That’s called evolution.
The fossil record demonstrating the evolution of hominines has become extensive over time, and is backed by sophisticated DNA analysis. Walker’s notion that science no longer supports the human-ape connection is as cringe worthy wrong as is that people running for major office offer up such nonsense in the 21stcentury is deeply disturbing. Or, Walker knows better, but was playing to his theoconservative base. That’s plausible because the US is the most creationism friendly prosperous democracy, whether that be the Genesis story or less Biblical intelligent design theory. But the creationist cause has faded in recent years. As its percentage of the population shrinks the religious right has intensified its focus on the more pressing business of using abortion https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/2022/06/the-forced-birth-movement-hates-real-religious-liberty-how-to-use-that-against-them-by-making-abortion-a-religious-and-medical-right/ and manipulating elections in their project to establish a Christian Nationalist Republic while denying the climate change that threatens the use of their precious fossil fuels that God in His Wisdom gifted this God Blessed nation with. That as America is becoming less antiscience as surveys show support for creationism and the Bible literalism it rests upon (https://news.gallup.com/poll/394262/fewer-bible-literal-word-god.aspx) declining in favor of rising acceptance of evolution. That is largely due to the rapid decline of religious belief in the country as it secularizes towards the first world norm — atheists do not creationists make (http://americanhumanist.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/art-1-Paul-The-Great-and-Amazingly-Rapid-Secularization-of-the-Increasingly-Proevolution-United-States.pdf). The slide of creationist opinion is sufficient that the main advocacy organizations for evolutionary science among the public – the National Center for Science Education and the American Association for the Advancement of Science – are putting as much or more focus on climate issues as on the creation contention. But with many states and the Supreme Court in theoconservative hands, the nonsense nonscience that is creationism may well come back to the cultural-legal forefront.