Will the media please stop monkeying around?

Will the media please stop monkeying around?

Science reporting in the news media is not up to standard as often as it should be. But I think it has hit a new low today in the reporting of the controversy surrounding the “Toumaï skull”.

In the 11 July 2002 issue of Nature, a French team led by Michel Brunet announced the discovery of the 7‐million‐year‐old skull of an ape‐like species nicknamed Toumaï, which they claim is the oldest known hominid. In today’s issue of Nature, 10 October 2002, rival scientists claim that Toumaï is not a hominid at all.

What is a hominid? Well, as everybody knows nowadays, man’s closest living relative is the chimpanzee. The evolutionary split between man and chimpanzee occurred between 5 and 8 million years ago. A hominid is anything on man’s side of that split. To put it another way, a hominid is anything that is more closely related to man than it is to the chimpanzee. Terminology is evolving, but that is the traditional usage of the word hominid, and that is the usage employed by Brunet, by his critics, and by most of the news media reporting on the controversy today.

Anthropologists use the word human in two different senses. They most commonly use it in a narrow sense, synonymous with homo or man. Occasionally they use it in a broad sense, synonymous with hominid. Context generally makes it clear which they mean.

Hominids form what biologists call a family, the family Hominidae. If you want a non‐technical phrase meaning the family Hominidae, you can say the human family or the human ancestral family. Both these phrases are used by reputable anthropologists communicating with lay people. The family Hominidae consists of several genera, and Homo (man) is one such genus. All the genera except Homo are extinct. The picture is as follows:

The family Hominidae (hominids)
The genus
Homo (man)
The genus
Australopithecus
The genus
Paranthropus
Perhaps further,
disputed, genera

So, the hominids are the human family, and Toumaï is claimed to be the oldest known hominid. That’s not too hard, is it?

Now let’s see what the media made of it today. Their mistakes fall into several categories.

  1. Several publications explain the word hominid as meaning “pre‐human”. Any publication that says “hominid means ‘pre‐human” is plainly using human in the narrow sense of “man”: otherwise it would simply say “hominid means ‘human”. But even using human in the narrow sense, explaining hominid as meaning “pre‐human” will not do. There are 3 reasons.

    • When a publication explains the word hominid as meaning “pre‐human”, I don’t know whether it means “ancestral to man” or merely “appearing earlier than man does”. But it is wrong either way. There is a whole genus of hominids, Paranthropus, which are man’s cousins; and some species of Paranthropus appear later than man does. Those species cannot be described as “pre‐human” in any sense.

    • What about you and me? We are hominids, but I don’t think either of us would relish being called “pre‐human”.

    • A hominid is a pre‐human what? The speck of jelly from which all life evolved is pre‐human! “Ah,” I hear the journalist say, “you are not allowed to go so far back.” All right, I won’t go so far back. The little shrew‐like creature that was the last common ancestor of all the mammals is pre‐human. Can I not even go back as far as that? Then just how far back can I go? To which the only appropriate answer is, “You are only allowed to go back to the start of the hominids.” So a hominid is a pre‐human hominid. That’s sad.

    Some authorities describe the early hominids as proto‐human. I wonder if journalists have got hold of the term proto‐human and paraphrased it for their readership as pre‐human. If so, they have reversed the meaning. Proto‐ means “first”, whereas pre‐ means “before”. A proto‐human is, by definition, a human. A pre‐human is, by definition, not a human.

  2. Some publications say it is claimed that Toumaï is our ancestor. In fact, no scientist has made such a claim, and Brunet has said explicitly that it is too soon to know. The human family is not linear: it is bushy. Most hominid species are our cousins, not our ancestors. Brunet and his team have not claimed that Toumaï is our ancestor: merely that he is the oldest known hominid. Perhaps if I repeat these three words often enough for the benefit of journalists, the meaning will sink in.

  3. Some publications compound the above mistake by saying that Toumaï is claimed to be not just our ancestor, but our oldest ancestor. How absurd! Had he no parents? Our oldest ancestor is a speck of jelly or something even simpler. For oldest read oldest hominid. For ancestor read relative. Insert the word known, for there may be others yet unknown. Thus for our oldest ancestor read our oldest known hominid relative. Take out the words our relative, for every hominid is our relative. That leaves oldest known hominid. You get the picture?

  4. Some publications describe Toumaï as an “early man”. He is certainly not that. Human perhaps, in the broad sense of “hominid”. But not Homo – man.

  5. Some publications use the word monkey when they mean ape. Monkey? Monkeys are not in the same ballpark! Containing the family of hominids is the superfamily of hominoids, which includes the apes but not a monkey in sight; containing the superfamily of hominoids is the parvorder of catarrhines, which contains the old‐world monkeys as fairly distant cousins of the apes and of ourselves. The new‐world monkeys are even more distant. Man is much, much more closely related to the chimpanzee than the chimpanzee is to any monkey. No educated person nowadays has any excuse for writing “monkey” in a scientific context when he means “ape”. (I do however reserve the right to write “ballpark” when I mean “superfamily”.)

Many, perhaps most, publications today got it wrong in at least one of the above five particulars. Pride of place, however, must go to the Guardian headline. It begins:

Monkey or man? Toumai, hailed as our oldest ancestor…

In the course of nine words, that headline contrives to make four of the five mistakes I have described. For monkey read ape. For man read hominid. For our oldest ancestor read the oldest known hominid. I nominate those nine words as a candidate for the title of least accurate headline in the history of British broadsheet publishing.

Eric P Smith
10 October 2002


Footnote about terminology

Since I wrote the above article in 2002, some of the terminology in it has become dated.

Hominid

As of 2019, the taxonomy of the great apes is still evolving. The above article uses the words hominid and Hominidae with their traditional meaning of everything on man’s side of the evolutionary split from the chimpanzee, as did Brunet, his critics, and most of the news media reporting on the controversy in 2002. What were thus traditionally called hominids are nowadays generally called hominins, but the matter is complicated because some scholars use hominin to include the chimpanzee.

Ape

Nowadays it is generally accepted that the natural unit of biological classification is the clade. A clade (or monophyletic group) consists of a common ancestor together with all its descendants. Increasingly, taxonomists avoid giving names to biological groups that are not clades.

The superfamily Hominoidea is a clade, and it comprises gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. Biologists traditionally used the term ape to mean a member of Hominoidea other than humans. But if humans are excluded in that way, apes do not form a clade. Increasingly therefore biologists use the term ape to mean any member of Hominoidea, including humans.

The above article uses the word ape with its traditional meaning, excluding humans, as did Brunet, his critics, and most of the news media reporting on the controversy in 2002.

Monkey

The new world monkeys form a clade, and the old world monkeys form a clade. The traditional meaning of monkey is a member of either of those two clades. That is what I mean by monkey in the above article. But in that meaning, monkeys as a whole do not form a clade. Therefore biologists nowadays avoid referring to monkeys (in that meaning) as a group. The smallest accepted clade that includes all the monkeys is the infraorder Simiiformes (the simians), whose living members are the new world monkeys, the old world monkeys, and the apes (including humans).

Some argue for a monophyletic usage of the word monkey, meaning “simian”. In that usage, apes are monkeys and so are you and I. As of 2019, that usage is not standard.

Publications that used the word monkey when reporting on the Toumaï controversy in 2002 were invariably using it to mean “non‐hominid ape”. That is indefensible. If they had used the word monkey to mean “simian” then their usage might have been defensible, but that is clearly not what they were doing, because hominids are simians and they were contra­distinguishing hominids from what they called monkeys.