Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Maa Ki or Monkey?

Did Harbhajan Singh say Maa Ki... or Monkey to Andrew Symonds? This cricket controversy erupted more than a week ago when the Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds who is of West Indian descent accused Harbhajan Singh of calling him a monkey, a charge which Harbhajan denies. I would be more offended by the former. Any discussion of my mother's anatomy is strictly off limits. But I would care less if someone called me a monkey or a donkey or a dog. There are plenty of qualities in all these animals that I admire. But monkey is considered a racist slur by most and Harbhajan who was found guilty by the match referee Mike Procter is now facing an appeals hearing. The hype has died down somewhat so let's get back to the science. Why is monkey considered a racist slur and what does it mean when people say that someone has descended from a monkey.

The root of this perceived insult is the theological notion of the great chain of being (see image to the left) whereby all life on earth is arranged by divine design in a linear hierarchy, a ladder of progress so to speak with lowly animals at the bottom and humans occupying the pinnacle. In order to assert the superiority of the west over other people this chain of being was refined and humans were ranked according to western pre-conceptions of superiority. Since in the past the relationship of Africans to Westerners was mostly one of slave and master, this led to Africans occupying the lower rungs of the human part of the chain with western whites occupying the top. To call someone a monkey meant that you occupy the bottom part of the human chain. You are a human of less worth and are somehow "closer" to the animals than the rest of humanity. You would think that the concept of evolution would have broken us free from this chain, but perversely it seems to have reinforced the notion of a ladder of progress. This because the vast majority of people still think of evolution as a linear process whereby each species on the ladder evolved from the species one rung down the ladder. The thinking goes that since evolution theory tells us that we evolved from the apes in Africa, then Africans are somehow closer to the apes than Asians and Europeans who migrated and evolved "superior" traits.

Darwin taught us to think differently about life. He argued successfully that evolution is a branching process whereby an ancestral species can give rise to two or more descendant branches or species and those in turn can give rise to more descendant branches like I have show in figure below which is an evolutionary tree of the primate family.

In this scenario humans did not evolve from the chimpanzees as is supposed in the chain of being but the human lineage and the chimp lineage arose from a common ancestor some 6-8 million years ago. That ancestor evolved not from monkeys but from an even more ancient ape ancestor which also gave rise to the gorilla branch around 10 million years ago. And so on back in time about 30 million years ago when an ancient primate ancestor gave rise to the ape lineage. This was the common ancestor apes share with the monkey lineage. If you study this branching tree of evolution you will realize that monkeys, orangutans, gorillas and chimps are not intermediate frozen stages of evolution towards humans. They are all species on separate branches of the primate evolutionary tree, representing lineages which have been evolving independently of the human lineage for millions of years. I have shown the human lineage in some detail, but if you zoom into any of the branches that lead to the other great ape and monkey lineages you would likely see a similar branching structure as ancestral species within that branch gave rise to descendant species. Just as modern humans are different from their Homo erectus or even more remote Australopithecine ancestors, modern chimps, gorillas and monkeys have evolved characters different from their remote ancestors.

Zooming onto modern Homo sapiens we encounter an even more detailed branching structure which I have shown in figure below.

This is the family tree of humans composed of individuals and their descendants. This sort of a family tree is not unique to humans. Each of the various branches of the apes and monkey lineages will be composed of similar family trees of ape and monkey individuals and their descendants. Coming back to the human tree, famous people who did not leave descendants are shown in red. Harbhajan Singh, Andrew Symonds and Beckham are representatives of lineages with an unbroken chain of ancestors going back to the dawn of humanity. All family lines converge at this point which is the ancestral population from which modern humans arose. The implication is that since all humans share a common ancestor, then all humans are genetically equidistant from a member of any outgroup. For example, Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds are on average equally related to chimpanzees, or gorillas or monkeys or for that matter dogs, cats and bumble bees. When the West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding remarked in an attempt to diffuse the tension that we all descend from monkeys it really means that we are all equally related to monkeys and not that monkeys are our ancestors.

I would recommend a crash course in evolution 101 to both Harbhajan and Symonds. Harbhajan will realize that calling someone a monkey is really holding a mirror to one's own ancestry, and Symonds will realize how pointless it is to get worked up over something meaningless as this. If international sports bodies are bold enough they would remove the word monkey from the list of racial slurs. Historical injustices are hard to forget but this silly notion of one group of humans being closer to monkeys or being descended from monkeys gives undue importance to the discredited idea of cultural and genetic "superiority". We humans are certainly a very diverse bunch. But that should be cause for celebration and not a futile comparison with some other animal. As for Brad Hogg, that Aussie bastard seems to have gotten away Scot free :-)


  1. Nice post. Clarified my ideas. Thanks.

  2. Good post - very succint and clear :)

  3. I like it!
    The players could use this to come up with more appropriate sledges