Saturday, April 30, 2011

A first lecture on primate taxonomy (with obvious debts to Robert Benchley and Will Cuppy)

               To begin with, In 1987 there were about 170 species of primates.  Today there are over 400.  Go Primates! 
               For the sake of argument, let us say that there about 400 species of primates, ±75%.
               The first kind of primates are called prosimians.  Actually, however, they are not really a kind of primate, but two kinds of primate: lemurids of Madagascar, and lorisids of Asia and Africa.  To be absolutely fair, however, we have to acknowledge that there are two kinds of lorisids – fast-moving galagos and slow-moving lorises, although at the speed of light they may seem identical – so the first kind of primate is really three kinds of primates.
               But we should also include the fourth kind of primate in this first kind of primate, because the tarsier isn’t quite a monkey, and that’s what prosimians are – “not quite monkeys”.  According to cladists, the tarsier should be reclassified with the monkeys because phylogenetically it is almost one of them.
               The first four kinds of one kind of primates share an arbitrary property: namely, that they are still alive, and have not gone extinct.  Yet.   Consequently we need to expand our first kind of primates to incorporate the adapids and omomyids, two other kinds of the first kind of primates, now extinct.  The most interesting feature of the adapids and omomyids is that we don’t know what they evolved from and we don’t know what they evolved into, but we’re pretty sure that they evolved.  Don’t tell the creationists. 
               And before the adapids and omomyids were the plesiadapids, who only had a few of the primatey features by which we identify primates as primates and not as colugos, or flying lemurs, which are not actually even lemurs, so it’s hardly even worth asking whether they really fly.  But they do seem to be transitional forms between other mammals and primates, and you can tell the creationists that for me. 
               Fortunately, the diversity of the second group of primates is more precise.  The group we contrast with the prosimians is not, as you might think, the antisimians, but rather the simians themselves, although only Europeans really call them that.   We officially call them anthropoids, which means “sort of like people” from the Greek, and they should most definitely not be confused with the hominoids, which means “sort of like people” from the Latin, and comprise only a subset of the ones from the Greek.
               There are two kinds of anthropoids, and we distinguish them on the basis of geography and their noses.  There are other things we could focus on, like the form of their skull sutures, or the number of premolar teeth they have, but no, we focus on their noses.  The kind of monkey found in the Americas is really two or five kinds of monkey.  One or more of them is the marmosets, also known as the marmosets and tamarins.  Their principal distinction is how small they are. 
               How small are they?  They are so small that they never grow wisdom teeth.  Marmosets are also widely regarded as the stupidest anthropoids.  That is probably just a coincidence, however.  
               The pygmy marmoset is actually smaller than the dwarf marmoset, but it is the other way around for people.
               The other kind of New World monkey is known as everything else.  They include monkeys that hang by their tails, monkeys that hang out at night, monkeys that resemble The Phantom of the Opera, and even monkeys that resemble monks, which sounds more reasonable than it should.
               The other kind of anthropoid is actually two kinds of monkeys and one or several kinds of apes.  They all have the same number of teeth as us, or at least they would if we didn’t have our teeth pulled.  They are called Catarrhini, on the basis of their noses, from the Greek “flowing downward”.  You probably don’t want to know what that’s referring to, but suffice it to say, if you were a New World monkey, you would go through Kleenexes twice as fast.
               The Catarrhini consequently include the vervet monkey, known to biomedical research as The Monkey; and the rhesus macaque, known to neurobehavioral research as The Monkey.   Nobody remembers Jimmy Durante anymore, so the future of the proboscis monkey is in doubt.   Baboons should never be described as polygamous, since they do not have marriage.  They should be called polygynous instead.  In addition to the monkeys of the Old World are the Hominoidea or apes.  They lack a tail, unlike the Old World Monkeys, which all have a tail, except for some of the macaques. 
               The apes are all adapted for hanging from the trees, including humans, who do not hang from trees.  Extinct apes were very diverse, but that didn’t help them.  Today there are two or more kinds of apes.  The lesser apes are gibbons, who are very speciose, but probably not for long.  If they were smart enough to know about The Great Ape Project, they would probably get really upset.  The gibbons are monogamous, because there is no such word as “monogynous”. 
               The hominids come from the Latin for “even more like people”.  They may or may not include the great apes.  The great apes include the orangutan; the gorilla, known to evolutionary psychology as Koko; and the chimpanzee, known to evolutionary psychology as the human.
               The hominins are the Tribe Hominini.  Chimpanzees are the Tribe Panini.  When chimps  cannibalize the dead infants of their species, they may be confusing them with sandwiches.  To cladists, australopithecines never existed.  Australopiths existed.  But it makes them seem kind of naked without a Latin-sounding suffix.
               Hominin evolution, also known as hominid evolution, includes those hominids, also known as hominoids, who became bipedal, or at least had their canine teeth shrunk.  Stone tools, also known as culture, coincide with the origin of the genus Homo.  Some experts believe that there are 12 species recognizable within the genus Homo, of which 11 are now extinct.  I guess culture wasn’t such a great adaptation, after all.

I know it’s a stretch, but George S. Kaufman and Robert Benchley were both members of the Algonquin Round Table.


  1. I think this is the funniest thing on primates I've ever read.

  2. Very enjoyable article...and I learned a lot too!