The ape insult: a short history of a racist idea

Most us know that calling someone an ape is racist, but few of us understand why. The Hornet magazine, 1871

Most us know that calling someone an ape is racist, but few of us understand why apes are associated in the European imagination with indigenous people and, indeed, people of African descent.

To understand the power and scope of the ape insult, we need a dose of history. When I was an undergraduate at university, I learnt about racism and colonialism, particularly the influence of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), whose ideas seemed to make racism nastier.

Indeed, it’s easy to infer this. Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) showed that the closest ancestors of human beings were the great apes. And the idea that homo sapiens were descended from monkeys rapidly became part of theatre of evolution. Darwin, himself, was often depicted as half-man, half-monkey.

What’s more, while most evolutionists believed that all human races descended from the same stock, they also noted that migration, and natural and sexual selection had created human varieties that – in their eyes – appeared superior to Africans or Aborigines.

Gregor Mendel demonstrated that the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants follows particular patterns and was posthumously recognised as the founder of the new science of genetics. Wikimedia Commons

Both these latter groups were often portrayed as being evolutionarily the closest to the original humans and therefore to apes.

The role of evolutionary thought

In the early 20th century, the increasing popularity of Mendelian genetics (named after Gregor Johann Mendel, 1822-1884) did nothing to depose this way of thinking. If anything, it made things worse.

It suggested that the races had become separate species, and that Africans, in particular, were far closer in evolutionary terms to the great apes than were, say, Europeans.

And yet, during the same period, there was always a stream of evolutionary science that rejected this model. It emphasised the deep similarities between different races, and that differences in behaviour were the product of culture not biology.

The horrors of Nazism put paid to mainstream science’s dalliance with biological racism. Adolf Hitler’s genocide, willingly supported by German scientists and doctors, showed where the misapplication of science might end up.

This left scientific racism in the hands of far-right groups who were only too willing to ignore the findings of post-war evolutionary biology in favour of its pre-war variants.

In the mid-1700s, Comte de Buffon suggested that all species of animals were descended from a small number of spontaneously-generated types. Wikimedia Commons

Clearly, evolutionary thinking has had something to do with the longevity of the ape insult. But the European association of apes with Africans has a much longer cultural and scientific pedigree.

Caught in the middle

In the 18th century, a new way of thinking about species emerged. Previously the vast majority of Europeans believed that God had created species (including man), and these species were immutable.

Many believed in the unity of the human species, but some thought that God had created separate human species. In this schema, white Europeans were described as closest to the angels, while black Africans and Aborigines were closest to the apes.

Many 18th-century scientists tried to undermine the creationist model. But, in so doing, they gave more power to the ape insult.

In the mid-1700s, the great French naturalist, mathematician and cosmologist Comte de Buffon (Georges-Louis Leclerc, 1707-1788) put forward the idea that all species of animal were descended from a small number of spontaneously-generated types.

Feline species, for example, were supposedly descended from a single ancestral cat. As cats migrated away from their point of spontaneous generation, they degenerated into separate species under the influence of climate.

Dutchman Petrus Camper applied Buffon ideas to man and concluded that monkeys, the apes and orangutans, were all degenerated versions of original man. Tibout Regters/Wikimedia Commons

In 1770, the Dutch scientist Petrus Camper (1722-1789) took Buffon’s model and applied it to man. For Camper, the original man was ancient Greek. As this original human moved from his point of creation around the world, he too degenerated under the influence of climate.

In Camper’s view, monkeys, the apes and orangutans, were all degenerated versions of original man. Then, in 1809, Darwin’s intellectual forebear, Lamarck (Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, 1744-1829) proposed a model of evolution that saw all organisms as descended from a single point of spontaneous creation.

Worms evolved into fish, fish into mammals, and mammals into men. This happened not through Darwinian selection but through an inner vital force driving simple organisms to become more complex, working in combination with the influence of the environment.

In this view, humans didn’t share a common ancestry with apes; they were directly descended from them. And Africans then became the link between monkeys and Europeans. The popular image commonly associated with Darwinian evolution of the staged transformation of ape into man should more properly be called Lamarckian.

In 1809 Jean Baptiste de Lamarck proposed a model of evolution that saw all organisms as descended from a single point of spontaneous creation. Charles Thévenin/Wikimedia Commons

The power of racism

Each of these ways of thinking about the relationship between humans and monkeys reinforced the connection made by Europeans between Africans and apes. And by making it seem as if people of a non-European origin were more like apes than humans, these different theories were used to justify plantation slavery in the Americas and colonialism through the rest of the world.

All of these different scientific and religious theories worked in the same direction – to reinforce the European right to control large swathes of the world.

The ape insult is actually about the way Europeans have differentiated themselves, biologically and culturally, in an effort to maintain superiority over other people.

The important thing to remember is that those “other” people are much more aware of that history than white Europeans. To summon up the image of an ape is to tap into the power that has led to indigenous dispossession and the other bequests of colonialism.

Clearly, the education system doesn’t do enough to educate us about the science or history of man. Because if it did, we would see the disappearance of the ape insult.

Read an article from our archives about covert racism: Are you racist? You may be without even knowing it