A terrible tragedy unfolded this week at the Cincinnati Zoo when a rare, 17-year old silverback gorilla named Harambe was killed by zoo officials who believed it was necessary in order to save a 4-year old boy who had fallen into the animal’s enclosure. News of this story spread far and wide and reaction from the public has ranged from outrage at the zoo to outrage at the parents of the child, and everywhere in between. Many primate and zoo experts have supported the split-second decision to take the life of the gorilla, interpreting the gorilla’s behavior as threatening to the boy. Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard said he stands by the decision: “We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child’s life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made by our dangerous animal response team.” Yet, there are others who claim the decision was hasty and that non-lethal methods of dispatching the gorilla could have been employed. The debate will continue as more details about the situation come to light.
But an additional issue that arose during the coverage of this story can be clarified immediately, as the answer has been known for over 150 years. Yet surprisingly in 2016, some pundits still do not understand the basic fundamental concepts of evolution.
On his daily radio show on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh had this to say about the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. In particular, Mr. Limbaugh chose to respond to the comments of Ashley Byrne, a spokesperson for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, when she was interviewed on CNN’s Newsroom, saying:
ASHLEY BYRNE: “In many circumstances gorillas have shown that they can be protective of children or small beings. Frankly, the fact that this gorilla was innocent in the first place, that's the first place that this situation went wrong because even under the best circumstances captivity is never adequate for gorillas and other primates. And in cases like this we see that it's even deadly. And this tragedy is exactly why PETA urges families to stay away from any facility, zoos, circuses, or otherwise, that displays animals as a sideshow for humans to gawk at.”
Mr. Limbaugh, after playing this audio clip responded this way:
By switching to a mocking tone, Mr. Limbaugh seeks to insult “the evolution crowd”, yet doesn’t seem to realize the joke is on him. Mr. Limbaugh’s comments reveal a striking ignorance about the most basic premise of evolution. Evolution does not state that we came from the gorillas, apes, or monkeys that you see today. Instead, we share a common ancestor with our fellow primate species – a common ancestor that lived long ago and has long since vanished.
Below is a phylogenetic tree representing the evolutionary relationships between the living primates. Humans (hominids) and chimpanzees are most closely related and, based on an abundance of molecular genetics and fossil data, it appears that humans and chimps diverged along their own evolutionary paths at least 6 million years ago (and possibly earlier).
This is a well-established fact that deserves repeating: humans and chimps diverged along their own evolutionary paths. So while chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor (technically, an ancestral population because an individual does not evolve; rather, populations evolve over vast periods of time), HUMANS DID NOT EVOLVE FROM CHIMPANZEES. Furthermore, gorillas diverged from the chimpanzee/human ancestral population even further back in time, approximately 7 or 8 million years ago. This is also why gorillas did not (and will not) become “one of us”.
This is why some in the “evolution crowd” might tell you that your question is absurd - it is a clear admission that you do not understand the key principle of evolution. Perhaps the analogy conveyed in this meme will clear up your confusion about how evolution works, and how humans actually evolved.
The discovery of evolution is one of the most revolutionary insights into who we are and why we are here. We implore Mr. Limbaugh and those of his ilk to reconsider whether they wish to continue believing in a fantasy, or have the courage to embrace reality. Many religious people do not see evolution as a violation of their faith; indeed, are you not insulting your creator by refusing to apply the reason that has been gifted to you?
Contributed by: Jason Organ and Bill Sullivan
For more information about human evolution check out this series of podcasts from the Leakey Foundation.
References:Venn, O., Turner, I., Mathieson, I., de Groot, N., Bontrop, R., & McVean, G. (2014). Strong male bias drives germline mutation in chimpanzees Science, 344 (6189), 1272-1275 DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6189.1272
Glazko, G. (2003). Estimation of Divergence Times for Major Lineages of Primate Species Molecular Biology and Evolution, 20 (3), 424-434 DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msg050