I have a degree in zoology. Years ago I got into an argument with somebody when I mentioned that the woodchuck and the groundhog are the same animal; it's simply a case of linguistics leading to one creature having two common names in much the same fashion that a long sandwich is called a "hero" a "grinder" or a "sub" depending on where in the country you are. (Or at least that was true before Subway came along and spread one of the many synonymous terms through nationwide franchising.)
The person I was speaking to simply wouldn't believe it. Never mind that I had a zoology degree, never mind that I could even recite the scientific name of the animal--Marmota monax--or that I'd even examined woodchuck-groundhog skulls in mammalogy lab. This person was absolutely convinced I was wrong, that the two words must designate two completely different species of organisms.
As maddening as that was, it's nothing compared to the most irritating thing those of us into zoology must deal with, namely that so many people, even well-educated folks, simply cannot understand that a chimpanzee is not a monkey.
The Reverend Al Sharpton is the latest offender:
"The cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys. One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that 'Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill.' Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?"
As someone who believes that Darwin was correct on human origins, let me fess up to something. When I first moved to the South, I had a rather cynical notion that one reason for the lack of acceptance of the theory of evolution in Dixie was that white folks down here didn't want to think about the possibility that humans could have originated on the African continent. The redneck didn't want a black man nudging his arm and smugly declaring "Well, I guess we're ALL African Americans, huh?"
I came to realize that this was a stupid thought I'd had, for one obvious reason: none of the black people in the South believe in evolution either. I've told some of my friends in the North that when I say, "Picture somebody in the South who believes Genesis and doesn't believe in gay marriage" that if in their mind's eye they see a white guy in rural Alabama with a pickup bearing a Confederate flag bumper sticker, that's understandable, but it's only part of the story. A southerner who thinks Darwin was a nut, and so is anybody who thinks a wedding cake can have two dudes on it ,is just as likely to be an urban black woman who drives a Honda Civic with an Obama bumper sticker.
But even if you accept creation instead of Darwinism, chimpanzees still aren't monkeys. They're apes. As Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond wrote in The Third Chimpanzee (1992), chimps have about 98.4% of their DNA in common with humans (p. 23). Chimps and monkeys? They only have about 92.7% of their DNA in common (p. 24). So not only are chimps not monkeys, they aren't even as closely related to monkeys as they are to us! (See also the American Society of Mammalogists paper on the chimpanzee if you're really fascinated by these animals.)
I'm actually with Reverend Sharpton in thinking the cartoon is inappropriate. I'm more concerned, however, with making a joke out of an incident where somebody was severely mauled by a wild animal than by any speculation that the cartoonist might have had sinister racial motives. Maybe he did, probably he didn't. What is clear is that the cartoonist did think he could use a horrible tragedy to get a laugh. Personally, I don't find animals attacking people particularly funny.
But remember, ladies and gentlemen: chimpanzees are apes. They are NOT monkeys. Neither are orangutans, but if you google "Any Which Way But Loose" you'll see any number of web entries where people say that Clint Eastwood's sidekick in that film was a monkey. The zoological battle to educate people on primate taxonomy, like Al Sharpton's indignation, never ends.