Saturday, February 7, 2015

Apeocalypse now

A friend posted this on Facebook:

She asked "Can I make the "ape-ocalypse" pun and still be scientifically accurate?" and tagged me, as I am her guru for this.

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer:

Yes, but you must be talking about any combination of: humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans (aka the Great Apes) or Gibbons (aka the Lesser Apes), for these are the apes. (You can see our extended family tree over at OneZoom).

Colloquially ape can mean "any primate except humans", but as can be seen this is not accurate. For our primate cousins to be included we would need far less catchy alternatives such Primatocalypse (which would involve the primates: Lemurs, Tarsiers, Old World Monkeys, Apes and New World Monkeys) or Simianocalypse (which would be all the moneys and apes, simians being Old or New World Monkeys and Apes).

 People often don't realise that we Homo sapiens aren't just like apes, we *are* apes. A fantastic book to look at our ape heritage is The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts. Given that we are apes, one could argue for two reasons that we are, right now, in the middle of an apeocalypse:

1) Originally apocalypse meant revelation, it comes from the Greek for uncover, and is used in the context of uncovering knowledge. Whilst we (as a species) have a long way to go, we are currently in a position of having uncovered more information about how the universe works than at any point that's ever existed. For example, as Sean Carroll has (I think successfully) argued, the laws underlying the physics of every day life are completely understood. No, really, here's the equation. It's an exciting time to be alive, and that is thankful, as science is the best way we have to resolve the second reason.

2) These days (especially for those not in the Church), apocalypse more commonly means any universal or widespread destruction or disaster. Now, if we're to look at how we as species are treating this planet overall, one could also argue we are in the middle of, or on the verge of, an apeocalypse: We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, human caused climate change is real and is happening and to sustain the lifestyle that humans are on average living we would need 1.5 Earths.

It's Apecalypse Now, and for our sins, we've given ourselves quite a mission to put it right.

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