Editor's Note: This post is also appearing at the American Institute for Biological Sciences' Year of Science 2009: Celebrate Evolution. For more, see our tribute to Darwin on his 200th birthday.
February 12th, as every aardvark to zebra knows by now, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. The day before the bicentennial, a spirited discussion of Darwin and his place in history came up on, of all places, the Howard Stern radio program, on Sirius Satellite Radio. The two-minute conversation is of interest because it represents an average view on Darwin from people who are well-educated but haven’t necessarily paid a great deal of attention to developments in evolutionary science. For them, a distillation of Darwin comes down to a single salient fact: we came from monkeys.
What follows is a transcript of the discussion on the Howard Stern show, with some notes from me interspersed in brackets. Robin Quivers was in the midst of reading the news:
Stern: Anything else, Robin?
Quivers: Yes. Darwin is also celebrating an anniversary. They say that it’s the bicentennial of his birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his revolutionary On the Origin of the Species.
HS: Isn’t it funny how people, you know, they call Darwin a genius and stuff, that nobody figured out that we come from monkeys? I mean, we look like monkeys. I mean, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal that he figured that out, but yet it is a big deal.
[In fact, certain basic aspects of evolutionary theory were so self-evident once Darwin had the genius to notice them that Darwin’s friend and defender T. H. Huxley said upon reading the Origin, “How stupid of me not to have thought of that!” To hear Darwin historian and performer Richard Milner sing about Huxley’s reaction, go to the February 11th episode of Science Talk, the Scientific American weekly podcast.]
RQ: People are still arguing the point!
HS: Yeah, and you still got these religious nuts that think we, you know, didn’t come from monkeys. You know, they refuse to accept science.
[Most mainstream religious groups accept the reality of evolution.]
HS: They actually have skulls where we evolved from monkeys.
RQ: Well, even if we didn’t evolve from monkeys, if God made everything, he kept basing everything on the same model. And so the model was a monkey.
HS: We certainly didn’t come from fish, we don’t look like fish.
[Wrong! Not only do we come from fish, our anatomy reveals our deep connection—as Neil Shubin explains in his book Your Inner Fish. For a short treatment, see his article “The Evolutionary Origins of Hiccups and Hernias,” in the January issue of Scientific American.]
RQ: Yeah, well, they say everything started in the sea, though. I don’t know how that all worked out.
HS: I think Darwin just saw the obvious. I don’t know, I think if I had lived during those days I would have invented the theory of evolution. I would have looked at, like, Gary [Stern show producer Gary Dell'Abate, famous for his large teeth and heavy brow], and said, you know, you look like a monkey.
RQ: I think we come from monkeys after looking at you!
HS: That’s right.
RQ: That’s not nice.
HS: It’s not nice, but it’s true. I could have come up with, I would have been the father, it would have been Howardism, not Darwinism.
RQ: And you wouldn’t have given it such a nice name as "On the Origin of the Species".
Quivers starts to read another news story when Stern interrupts.
HS: Sarah Palin and George Bush didn’t believe in evolution. I sent them a picture of Gary. And then they changed, Bush…
RQ: They changed their minds?
HS: Oh yeah, now he believes in it. [Long pause.] I’m kidding, Gary. You look good, believe me. We should all look so good. I look like a mess, too.
Howard’s right that we do look like monkeys. We look even more like apes. Because we are apes. An analysis of the relationships among the apes reveals that we are firmly entrenched within the ape grouping. We are more closely related to chimpanzees than gorillas and chimps are to each other. So we are just another kind of ape. The kind that can send satellites into space to broadcast radio comedy programs during which we spend a couple of minutes considering our origins, but apes nevertheless.