Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Get your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty not-a-monkey!

On the latest Culture Gabfest they discussed the weekend's box office champ, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But of course, I'm not going to talk about the movie, but about something that occurred during the conversation about the movie.

In a clear slip of the tongue, when alluding to the chimpanzee lead character, Caesar, one of the panelists used the word "monkey"—which was caught by one of the other panelists (as it's apparently a plot point in the movie)—but despite that, the first panelist did use "monkey" once more later on in the discussion. And the thing is: It's not that the panelist in question failed to grasp that apes and monkeys are separate (she poked fun at her faux pas while reading the copy for the podcast's sponsor after the segment), but that didn't stop her mind from using the terms interchangeably those two times; even a person of obvious intelligence could make that mistake.

As I've mentioned in the past, something I notice is people who are actively ignorant of the distinction, who stand in front of a zoo enclosure filled with, say, orangutans, and say to their children, "Look at the monkeys" (passing that ignorance on to another generation) even though there's signs right in front of them identifying the orangutans as apes.

It's a particular pet peeve of my wife, so that's probably why it really registers on my radar now, but I'm sure there was some point in my youth when I failed to think about how a monkey is not an ape (and vice versa); there was a point where I did learn it, but even afterward it would take some effort to keep them distinct. Now it's ingrained, but it hasn't always been that way.

In any case, it seems clear that this conflation of the terms is not uncommon. But is the reason merely because our parents got it wrong in their minds (presumably because their parents got it wrong, going back generations) and their misuse came to be our foundation for how we refer to primates in general? And then as that spreads to society in general it ends up affecting those whose parents had not had cause to use "monkey" when referring to an ape? Is that the source of our generalized ignorance?

How to solve this? Well, clearly having over 40 years of the Planet of the Apes franchise around—with apes clearly designated in the title—has not done the trick, so perhaps it's hopeless.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm guessing that what really sets of the ape revolution is that we humans cannot get straight in our minds that apes are not monkeys. If so, it's a cautionary tale that warns us our ignorance will someday be our undoing.

So, parents, the best thing you can do for your children is to teach them (and yourselves) to say "apes" when it's "apes" (when in doubt, look for the absence of a tail); that may result in their best chances for survival.

Don't put your children in a situation that may lead to a future where someone exclaims, "Damn you! Damn you all to hell!" while pounding his fists in the sand.


Yes, there are some who argue apes are, in fact, monkeys. The misuse mentioned above is misuse because it's not being used intentionally but because people don't know classification distinctions at all. Just so we're clear.

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