Except that’s not true either.
Humans are not monkeys. Humans are apes. Apes are not monkeys. Look, it gets complicated.
Let’s start at the top, shall we? Humans are primates; and on this point just about everybody agrees (neglecting Creationist arguments that humans are somehow distinct from all animal orders and are a clade unto ourselves). Primates are divided into two sub-lineages:
- strepsirrhines, which include lemurs, lorises, bush babies, and pottos. The streppies (an unofficial name which I have just now coined for them) are characterized by their wet noses and by their ridiculously adorable large eyes.
- haplorhines, which include tarsiers and simians. Happies have dry noses (except during pollen season, am I right?) and the all-important ability to make comical facial expressions. I’m totally serious about that: haplorhines have a lip adaptation that enables them to contort their faces into all sorts of goofy shapes that are, sadly, beyond the reach of strepsirrhines.
Humans are haplorhines and simians. Imagine what Jim Carrey’s career would have been like if humans were streppies. Anyway, as is often the case in the biological classification game, each hierarchy has hierarchies above and below. Simians are divided into even more specific groups:
- The flat-nosed, or New World monkeys (from Central and South America), which include: marmosets; tamarins; capuchins and squirrel monkeys; night or owl monkeys; titis (snicker); sakis and uakaris; and howler, spider and woolly monkeys. As the name implies, New World monkeys are all part of the nefarious New World Order, which, with the help of the Illuminati, are poised to take over control of the entire world.
- The down-nosed simians, which include Old World Monkeys (from Africa and Asia) and the apes.
Now let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what we’ve learned. Humans, apes, and monkeys all share a relatively recent (by geological standards) common ancestor, and we’re all part of the same order. But let’s wave goodbye to the monkeys, for it is at this point that humans and our ape brethren take an evolutionary detour. Once we start down the path of apeness, ne’er another monkey shall we see. So what is it that distinguishes apes from monkeys, structurally speaking?
As this page explains, apes tend to be larger than monkeys (although there is a slight overlap in general body sizes). Apes also lack tails, have a broader chest than monkeys, and are often able to walk upright (and in the case of humans, do so almost exclusively). The apes belong to a superfamily called Homonoidea, and (surprise!) this group may be further divided into smaller groups.
- The lesser apes – a hurtful epithet if I’ve ever heard one – include the gibbons of India, China, and Indonesia.
- The great apes: chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and yes – humans. Great apes are generally larger than all other primates, have a more upright posture, exhibit some degree of sexual dimorphism (meaning males and females differ markedly in appearance), and have nimble fingers that can be used to make and wield tools.
So here we are, at the tail end of a hierarchy of hierarchies (as are all other extant species; I didn’t mean to imply that humans occupy a position of evolutionary superiority). Humans are apes, and apes are not monkeys. Apes and monkeys are related, but the relationship is more like that of very distant cousins. The meme’s second line should properly read “Think of yourself as a beautiful ape.”
Because you know what? You are a beautiful ape. You really are.