No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Humans are primates. First scandalously suggested – or, at least, first credited as being suggested – by Charles Darwin, this taxonomical classification has since been confirmed by genetic DNA testing. Humans are very much primates, with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees, our closest relatives, as being ‘wellover 99%’ (Waldau 2007, 105; original emphasis removed). Humans are closer to chimps, genetically, than African elephants are to Asian elephants (ibid.).

This fact has caused ideological problems for much of the Western world. The Christian Bible has long advocated man’s dominion over animals – not over other animals, but over animals, period. There is a deep-seated belief in the idea that human are somehow intrinsically separate from, and “above”, the animal world (not to mention the worlds of plants and fungi). This view remains common today, with many Western and Westernized peoples ‘count[ing] themselves a significant cut above animals’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347); viewing humanity as inherently ‘set apart from the rest of nature’ (Waldau 2007, 107). Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as animals, and, later, following Darwin, the taxonomical restructuring of humans as primates, has challenged this deeply held conviction of the Western world’s. And think about it: We classified ourselves as primates. Classification is a human concept, bounded by human-created terms and ideologies. Even the scientific concepts of genetics and DNA are arguably bound to specifically human understandings and framings of these concepts.

So why, then, do so many people still reject the idea that we are “like primates”, or that primates are “like us”? Much of it is tied to the perceived “nature/culture” divide and the socially-held idea that ‘in virtue of culture, humans transcend nature’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347). Yet modern academic critiques (both positive and negative) of the so-titled “Anthropocene” recognise this divide as ‘an untenable approach’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Rather, our (human) place in the world and our relationship with “nature”, is ‘an important arena for [ongoing] anthropological analysis’ (Fuentes 2012, 141). This includes, undoubtedly, our ideological relationship with ourselves as primates, as well as our ideological and physical relationships with other non-human primates. The emergence of ethnoprimatology in the anthropological field is evidence of this growing interest in the link(s) between humans and primates. Fuentes writes that an ‘ethnoprimatological [sic] orientation accepts humans as primates and sees value in including other primates as co-participants in shaping social and ecological space’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Here, ethnoprimatology draws heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene.

Certainly, the insisted separation between humans and primates is revealed to be a distinctly ­Western phenomenon. In many places, humans live in close co-habitation alongside other non-human primates, such as in South- and Southeast Asia, as well as in parts of Africa. Diogo (2018) argues that the negative view of primates is a uniquely European phenomenon, as many other people(s) who interact frequently with primates tend to have a much closer and even reverent relationship with them. He cites Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting Babi, the baboon God, as well as Balinese temples filled with real and sculpted long-tailed monkeys. Waldau (2007), too, references the words of gorilla scientist Dian Fossey’s guide Manuel, who, when encountering free-ranging gorillas in Rwanda, exclaimed ‘Kweli ndugu yanga’, a Swahili phrase meaning ‘Truly my kin’ (Waldau 2007, 104). This reveals intrinsic differences between Western and non-Western views regarding other non-human primates, and our relationship with them.

Of course, this culturally perceived kinship between Swahili peoples and gorillas in no way justifies or legitimises the colonial and very racialized history of Europeans referring to Black African humans as apes. Inspired by Linnaeus’s proposed sub-species (see my companion post here), the early days of physical anthropology were rife with apparently “scientific” comparisons between the physiology of Black African humans and great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Black Africans (and their kin across the colonies) were routinely referred to as “less evolved” or “less advanced” than their white European counterparts; further down on the evolutionary ladder and more akin to the apes than to “civilised” humans. (Of course, the idea that evolution is a “ladder” at all is a complete fallacy, but that’s an argument for another day). As such, colonial regimes of slavery, segregation, and apartheid could be legitimised through “scientific” terms. Yet once again, we see Diogo’s (2018) claim that this negative view of primates is a distinctly European perspective. Being likened to primates is, in itself, arguably not a “negative” thing – since humans are primates, and there may be much to admire in the lifestyles of primates across the globe. Only in the Christian European view were primates viewed as below humans, and therefore to be like primates was also to be below (other) humans. Modern anthropological and ethnoprimatological analyses critique these understandings, both historical and ongoing, and question, quite literally, what it means “to be human” – and to be primates.

Image Source: Business Insider


Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Fuentes, A 2012, ‘Proposal 2: Humans as Niche Constructors, As Primates and With Primates: Synergies for Anthropology in the Anthropocene’, Cambridge Anthropology, Vol. 30, Issue 2, pp.141-146

Sheets-Johnstone, M 2010, ‘The Descent of Man, Human Nature and the Nature/Culture Divide’, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.343-360

Waldau, P 2007, ‘Kweli Ndugu Yanga – The Religious Horizons of “Humans are Primates”’, Worldviews, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp.103-123

See More:

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

If you’ve never studied biology before, or expressed any interest in the worlds of zoology or botany or mycology (the study of fungi; and no I didn’t just Google that three seconds ago…), then you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Carl Linnaeus is (or was). The Swede is largely credited as the “Father of Modern Taxonomy” for his system of classification outlined in his book Systema Naturae (first edition published in 1735).

Of course, the concept of classification had been around long before Linnaeus. DeSalle and Tattersall (2018) argue that ‘[n]aming things is a very deeply embedded component of our cultural and evolutionary development’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018, 30). The very basic of language is to name things, and, more than that, naming things in relation to other things. The human naming of things – including “natural” things like plants and animals and fundi – reveals ‘a whole mentality, a view of how the universe is constituted’ (Douglas 1965, 197). Indeed, Mary Douglas’ examination of the rules of Leviticus (Douglas 1966) – dictating what animals are acceptable to eat and why, based on common characteristics – reveals that classification of the natural world was around long, long, before Linnaeus. Classifying the world around us, Douglas argues, protects society from ideological ‘ambiguity and dissonance’ (Douglas 1965, 196). In doing so, humans put the natural world ‘in its place’ (Douglas 1965, 196), and this implies ‘only two conditions, a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order’ (Douglas 1965, 198). (It was in this context that her arguably most famous assertion that “dirt” is simply ‘matter out of place’ (ibid.) appeared).

Where Linnaeus “revolutionised” the world of taxonomy, was in his ‘great gift… of standardization’ (Naumann 2006, 80). He created the binomial system of nomenclature that is still used in the natural sciences today, where each species is given a two-part name in Latin and/or Greek form: First, their genus (e.g. Homo; capitalised), followed by their individual species name (sapiens). (The name Homo sapiens means “wise man”. He was not the most original in his choices). Linnaeus was the first to (officially, at least) classify human beings as belonging to the same kingdom as animals. (Placing humans in the same order as primates came much later, after Darwin and his own “revolutionizing” work on evolution).

Yet Linnaeus was not content to leave it at that. Systema Naturae was published amidst a boom of colonial expansion, where the concept of “race” was perhaps more prominent than ever before. Subsequently, good ol’ Carl thought it would be fitting to divide Homo sapiens into four racial subspecies – and brace yourself, because by modern standards it truly is awful:

‘(1) American: red, bilious, straight – governed by customs; (2) European: white, sanguine, muscular – governed by customs; (3) Asian: sallow (pale), melancholic, stiff – governed by opinion; and (4) African: black, phlegmatic, stiff – governed by chance’ (cited in Diogo 2018, 283).

These distinctions were made not just on skin colour but on temperament and “humour”, too. Linnaeus also went so far as to include the further subspecies ‘Ferus’ (for, I kid you not, feral children) and ‘Monstrosus’, denoting ‘mythical people with strange morphologies’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018). Clearly, he was getting a little carried away. Anthropologically speaking, it reveals an interesting paradigm. In the art versus science debate, Anthropology is largely considered more on the “art” side, whereas taxonomy – based on principles of biology – is considered a science. Yet relegating humans into four racial subspecies – as well as two completely “mythological” subspecies – was clearly not based on any “real” science. We now know, genetically speaking, that there is only one species of human, and that remains Homo sapiens. Sorry Linnaeus.

Yet when these proposed subspecies were published, it was the first time that the notion of “race” had been given a “scientific” basis. Contemporaries of Linnaeus, such as the Dutch physician and anatomist Petrus Camper, used this taxonomic classification of race to further his studies of physical anthropology, including the dubious and now-debunked “science” of craniology/phrenology. As such, the “science” of race loomed large in the colonial mindset of the time, with the “lower human races” of the colonies seen as ‘powerful personifications of wilderness to be fought heroically and conquered by civilised Westerners’ (Corbey quoted in Diogo 2018, 487). Race was given a solid hierarchy, and Anthropology a scientific basis. Certainly, the history of Anthropology is fraught with racist and colonial representations of “primitive”, “less-developed” peoples. Perhaps we should be grateful, then, that the “science” of Anthropology has been discredited, to allow for the more subjectivist interpretations of the “art” of Anthropology to take its place.

Image Source: Time


DeSalle, R. and Tattersall, I. 2018, ‘The Name Game: Linneaus’s 260-Year-Old Classification of Human Individuals and Populations Was the Start of a Hugely Problematic Trend’, Natural History, Vol. 126, Issue 6, pp.30

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Douglas, M 1966, ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts and Pollution and Taboo, Routledge Publishing, United Kingdom, pp.42-58

Numann, P 2006, ‘What’s in the Box? Linnaeus’s Legacy’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, Vol. 18, pp.77-94

See Also:

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Art/Science Debate

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A Few Lessons Learned From Anthropology’s Past

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: (Cultural) Relativism

Relativism or, more specifically, cultural relativism, is the notion that concepts and ideas are relative to the cultural context in which they are produced and understood. Like the image above suggests, the notion of oppression, or male-dominance, might very well differ depending on the culture in which a woman belongs. The idea behind cultural relativism is that ‘panhuman generalizations’ (Spiro 1986, 262) about “culture” and “humanity” are likely to ‘be either false or vacuous’ (ibid.), since (it is argued), no two cultures are the same, or maintain the same understanding(s) of any given concept or idea. Rather, ideologies – such as, for example, “morality”, or “knowledge” – are determined by the ‘historical and social conditions that gave rise to [those concepts]’ (Miller et al. 2019, 295).

Okay, you might be thinking. That sounds straight-forward enough. Different cultures interpret things differently. Got it. Well… not so fast. Just as the cartoon above could be considered reductive – reducing the agency of the women in determining what they wear and why; reducing the relative perceived “seriousness” of male-domination in both cultures; and not to mention the fact that depicting a woman in a full burqa does not necessarily specify her “culture”, merely her religion – so too has cultural relativism received criticism in the academic sphere for being reductive. These days, ‘the label of relativism is more likely to be levelled as an accusation that adopted as a positive description’ (Paleček & Risjord 2012, 10).

The debate has been going on for decades. Claiming that all cultures are inherently, intrinsically, fundamentally, different, implies that ‘there are no available transcultural standards by which different cultures might be judged’ (Spiro 1986, 260). Not judged in an aesthetic or superficial sense, but in a moralistic sense. For example, surely the age-old maxim of “murder is bad” should be held universally, no matter the culture? And yet we know it’s not that simple. More than that, though, claiming that cultures are “unique” and distinct from each other is ‘implicitly comparative, in that to be unique means something must be compared and judged different to others’ (Miller et al. 2019, 284). In this way, then, cultural relativism has completed an Ouroboros revolution; a snake eating its own tail. Anthropology especially, it is argued, is the most ‘formally aligned with the very idea of the comparative’ of all the social sciences, since comparing cultures is almost ‘definitional of the discipline’ (ibid.). Certainly, cultural relativism is a concept you’re bound to come across many times in your Anthropology studies, in both its positively and negatively associated forms

At this point, I wouldn’t blame you for heaving a great sigh of exasperation and thinking, Well, that doesn’t clear anything up! And you’re not wrong. But, I say, take comfort in its subjectivity: for just as cultural relativism dictates that concepts are relative to the culture in which they are understood, so too is the very concept of cultural relativism relative to the anthropologist in whose work it is being referenced.

Image Source: Malcolm Evans (Artist)


Miller, D., Costa, E., Haapio-Kirk, L., Haynes, N., Sinanan, J., McDonaldn, T., Nicolescu, R., Spyer, J., Venkatraman, S., and Wang, X. 2019, ‘Contemporary Comparative Anthropology – The Why We Post Project’, Ethnos, Vol. 84, No. 2, pp.283-300

Paleček, M. and Risjord, M. 2012, ‘Relativism and the Ontological Turn within Anthropology’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp.3-23

Spiro, M.E. 1986, ‘Cultural Relativism and the Future of Anthropology’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp.259-286

See Also:

Cultural Appropriation and Cake?? A Bittersweet Analogy

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)