If humans evolved from apes, why do apes still exist?

January 14, 2013 22
If humans evolved from apes, why do apes still exist?

The fundamental issue with this question is that there is an assumption that humans evolved from apes – but this is not the case.  The simple answer is that humans did not evolve from apes:  both apes, humans, and other primates evolved from a common ancestor. The common ancestor was probably more similar to apes than humans in terms of appearance.  It is estimated that this lineage branched apart 8 million years ago – one branch leading to homonids (human-like), and the other branch leading to apes.  This estimate varies – some arguing the split was as close as 5 million years ago, others that it was as distant as 20 million years ago.

It’s important to realize that evolution is not a linear process where one species evolves from the previous, effectively “replacing” the previous.  Instead, it is a much more complicated process where species will branch off an existing line of ancestors.  Seperate branches evolve along different trajectories and can include major changes, minor changes, no change, or extinction.  The survival of an evolutionary line is dependent upon the ability of its members to live and reproduce in their environment. 

The figure below illustrates the primate “family tree”:

Sometimes, separate species will evolve such that they will be in direct competition with each other, and the one with the evolutionary advantage will tend to survive.  Other times, seperate species will evolve so that each is well suited to their own particular niche.  In this case, the species’ will coexist, and will evolve independently.  Such is the case with humans, apes, and other existing primates.

One of the reasons early human-like ancestors were able to survive was because they were better adapted to the emerging grassland environments than the ancestors of modern apes, which were predominantly tree dwellers. Therefore, the grassland-adapted species would not conflict with the tree-dwellers and they could coexist.

Basically, the question “if humans evolved from apes, why do apes still exist?” is analogous to “if North Americans came from Europe, why are there still Europeans?”.  Seems obvious, right?

For further reading, please check out Steven Novella’s article on the Skeptic Blog.

This infographic explains it in layman’s terms:



  • Hitch

    Shit, this is all we need, yet another pseudo-scientific Darwinist, atheist, steven Novella style bull shit and propaganda site.

    Get off the web for pete’s sake you Darweenie twits.

  • Relative Interest

    Let’s look deep into your comment:

    “Shit” – Well placed expletive, unnecessary on this forum, but let’s continue.

    “pseudo-scientific” – Actually, quite the opposite. The articles are referenced, as any scientific research should be.

    “atheist” – I don’t think it is fair to assume one’s belief by reading an article that focuses on one tiny portion of evolution.

    “steven Novella” – He runs a great podcast called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Univers. I highly recommend it.

    “bull shit” – Second expletive, which certainly adds value to your point…

    “propaganda” – How so? The article is not calling people to do anything. It’s just passing along scientifically verified information.

    “Get off the web…” – The Ad Homonym attack, once again, well placed for emphasis.

  • Anonymous

    This article brings up good points however the answer cannot be that simple. The arguement that is used, “If north Americans came from Europe, why are there still Europeans?” does not at all apply to this situation. Humans are not apes that were moved from one area of land to another. If you’re going to say something like this, use ACTUAL evidence, not just something you pulled out of your ass.

    • http://www.relativelyinteresting.com Relatively Interesting

      Actually, the answer is quite simple, and I didn’t “pull it out of my ass”, as you have implied so delicately.

      Humans, apes, and monkeys are only distant evolutionary “cousins.” We come not from apes but from a common ancestor that was neither ape NOR human that lived millions of years in the past. In fact, during the last seven million years many human-like species have evolved; some examples include Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo neanderthalensis. All of these went extinct at different times, leaving just us humans to share the planet with a handful of other primates.

      The use of the European analogy was not presented as “evidence” for the argument, but as a cheeky way of presenting the the argument.

      • wildlifer (@thewildlifer)

        I prefer, “if you ‘evolved’ from your grandparents, why do you still have cousins” …. 😀

    • otto

      If I were going to jump in and out of every issue flinging opinions I’d probably want to stay anonymous too.
      I thought this article was cool like coolio’s hair. The original shift to evolutionary thought was a reaction to wacky dogma …then it became a wacky limiting dogma itself. Now mysticism and science are meeting and people who still suffer reactionary visceral freak-outs (like this)from perceived enemies are going to miss out on all the cool sh*t.

    • wildlifer (@thewildlifer)

      Actually, humans are a species of ape, great ape, precisely. So we didn’t evolve from apes.

  • Anonymous

    The amount of times I have heard this from people almost make me not want to bother with an answer anymore.

    I’m going to start carrying around that diagram with me.

    Love the site, just found it, and I am enjoying it very much!

  • Kerrie

    Thank you so much for having this information online and easily accessed. I am so tired of religious people asking that question, it really is getting a bit old. If only they would just do some learning of their own about evolution.

    And in reply to Hitch? Thanks for showing how tolerant and clever some people on the net people can be :-)

  • sicktwistedfernando

    That’s a fantastic summary of it. Did they prove in the end, whether the ‘Ida’ discovery was related to us or not? Just curious. Thanks for the blog.

    • http://www.relativelyinteresting.com Relatively Interesting

      I don’t believe there is direct proof that Ida is specifically related to humans (homos sapiens). Perhaps a distant cousin, or cousin of the aforementioned ancestor. The discovery – while incredible – has been met with some skepticism. Dr. Jens Franzen said “She belongs to the group from which higher primates and human beings developed but my impression is she is not on the direct line.”. So, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  • http://www.carloscalient.com Carlos Caliente

    All speculation, absolutely no proof what so ever for any of this. And Steven Novella is a liar and just another toady for James Randi as is Michael Shermer. All run like cockroaches from the Bill Perron honesty challenge. Randi lied to weasel out of the Perron challenge after first accepting Perron for the publicity stunt Randi million then when Randi realized Perron could as he said he could Randi lied to weasel out and Novella ran as well when Perron offered the ten thousand dollar honesty challenge to Novella as well. Perron has offered ten thousand dollars to anyone who can prove otherwise. So far after five years not one cowardly skeptic taker, obviously those phonies are afraid because when they lose the game they have been playing with the truth will be over.

  • JustKidding

    Carlos, how is it speculation? How is there no proof for evolution? And why the attack on Randi, Novella, and Shermer… and how does Bill Perron have anything to do with this? What are people supposed to prove? That God doesn’t exist? You know it’s impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist, and that ther burden of proof is on the person who claims it does? Very confusing… The bottom line is that humans did not evolve “from” apes but from a common ancestor alongside apes. I don’t think Bill Perron was that common ancestor :)

  • Boom-Goes-the-Dynamite

    I like the infographic – it’s nice and simple. And I agree, the problem is with the question itself: if humans evolved from apes then why to apes still exist… You can apply it to any animal that evolved from another and make the same analogy, right? The problem is that evolution is not a straight line, but a actually a very tangled bush with branches going in all sorts of directions. Using this model, it permits animals that evolved from a common ancestor to co-exist. And boom goes the dynamite.

  • Jeff

    Even if humans HAD evolved from apes, the question wouldn’t make any sense. Why should all apes cease to exist just because a small portion of them spawned a line of descendants that eventually became another species? You might as well ask, if dogs evolved from wolves, why do wolves still exist?

  • Rohan

    Excellent, one minor correction, you state that Darwin called the process “survival of the fittest”. This expression is often attributed to Charles Darwin and, although it appears in the fifth edition of his Origin of Species, 1869, it is there attributed to Herbert Spencer:

    “The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the survival of the fittest is more accurate…”

    • Relative Interest

      @ Rohan – thank you for the correction, you are absolutely right!

  • Dumb Geek

    And how do you explain the “cell mutation” here. If the body did create any abnormal cell, 1) they’d be killed by the antibiodies or 2) cause cancer.
    You might need to explain HOW that cell mutation is taking place out of no where.

  • Kevin

    For your argument to hold (Author), one substantially major global climatic event I can name locally~ is the ice age whenever you guys think that happened with certainty-that’s one that we can at least cite within modern scientific/Darwin themed theory in accordance to common educational platforms. Knowing what we do about that today (Vs Darwin himself 200 years ago), how on earth can you explain for the ongoing existence of apes and gorillas HERE TODAY after one like that? Here, too, remember, the ice age itself is simple, scientific and human designed THEORY-nothing more, nothing less. YOU REQUIRE, LITERALLY, YOUR NEATHENDERAL bloodline to have literally been “Godzilla” and survived science’s own CERTAIN EVENT, as described, IN ADDITION TO this/that volcano eruption, this/that solar flare eruption (How many times now, by your count), meteorite wipe outs, on and on, over 250 million years-IMPOSSIBLE, period. Here yet, apes and monkeys are among us TODAY, those of which you people can do no better but theorize we originated from in the beginning.

    • http://www.relativelyinteresting.com Relatively Interesting

      @Kevin – thanks for your comment.

      The last ice age – and likely many before that – did not extend far enough south to wipe out apes/humans/human ancestors that were living in the southern regions of the planet. In fact, you can see that Africa and most of the south was completely spared: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_age#mediaviewer/File:Iceage_north-intergl_glac_hg.png So it’s completely plausable that both humans and apes survived a major event like that. If we go back further to the extinction of the dinosaurs…. way before humans OR apes, it is known from the fossil record that mammalian (and other) species survived extinction events. For almost all known extinction events, animals survive. Neither apes or humans existing 250 millions years ago, but a common ancestor did and survived. To be clear, humans did not evolve from apes – they shared a common ancestor (a very, very long time ago), and different “branches” led to both species – each adapting to its environment and each succeeding well enough to survive to this date. It’s not unlike fish and sharks both existing at the same time: they evolved from a common ancestor too, a long, long ago, but both exist today.

      Also, you seem to be using the word “theory” in the colloquial sense, not the scientific sense. In the scientific sense, a theory represents fact, whereas in the colloquial sense, it could mean “a hunch”. In the scientific sense, “gravity” is a theory, but no one would argue that gravity is not a fact – you can clearly feel its effects on you at all times. How gravity works is not completely understood, but it’s undeniable that gravity is a force – and that is a fact. Evolution is a theory as well, and certainly exists, though scientists don’t completely understand exactly how every part of the process works. But, like gravity, evolution can be tested and is falsifiable, and has yet to be disproven without invoking faith or religious arguments (which, by their very nature, are untestable and not falsifiable). How to disprove evolution? Find just one fossil in rocks that don’t match the evolutionary timeline (example: if you found a canine fossil in a layer of jurassic aged rock).

      So, while it would be awesome to have a powerful Godzilla-like human or ape that survived through the ages, unfortunately evolution is not that glamorous – it boils down to common ancestors being able to survive major (extinction-ish) events, and then branching out to multiple species that can live on Earth simultaneously.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for the respectful reply, “Relatively interesting.” As you can read into, sir/ma’am, I am an agnostic citing and/or hopeful regarding Christianity- hopefully a pretty sane minded one at that (IE-don’t think I haven’t thought through all of this, too), in the end. Bottom line is that despite holding a BA, I’m probably not as smart as you are, but do also fervently hold to a certain degree of common sense. Point to all of this is that in your own way, too, per modern atheist theory, we all originated from Teilhandina Magnolia across “The original land mass globe,” though right, which in turn now several of those far smarter than me establish the Neanderthal themselves originated from. Shit man, seriously-I’ve been to a zoo three or four times, and I swear these things were hanging out of one of the trees, dude. Bottom line is that I’m the least bit disrespectful person out there, but I also know that as ridiculous as much of this sounds TO ME, from the beginning, you and NASA know today that the Bible’s truths COULD VERY WELL BE REAL-100% FACT. There’s a lot about the OT I don’t like, either, dude, but it’s all good, holmes, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have the scientific mind to the extent by which (Clearly here, per your kindness/response, not addressing u here), to sniff down this/that potential elemental part of a fart release per one released by a bystander this this major city. I essentially don’t care if I’m right or wrong about everything at the end of my life decades from now. Speaking of the former, though, I DO know of one literal longstanding NASA pro, per his degree, that’s convinced Jesus is real. Knowing what type of soul he had (Kindness, humility-simply), that’s all I need, holmes. You, personally, meant well by this, and here again I’ve been in that same place across the stages of faith. Thank you for this open forum and your earnest work, as I won’t fault you for that end of it. Good luck, bro

  • sol666 .

    I don’t accept the darwinian theory of evolution for humans. It makes no sense that we evolved from apes and yet apes still exist. If we evolved from apes then by theory apes should have all evolved down the same path in the same time period as humans and the old species should have gone extinct due to competition for same food resource with their evolved counterparts along with the alleged ancestors of humans (Scientist theorize cro-magnon man and Neanderthal came into direct competition and the neanderthal lost as they were more primitive). that means no chimps (considered closest to humans in DNA make)should exist today, no gorillas and no orangutans, just their human descendants. But that is not the case. If the ideological narrations (scientifically interpreted) hold true in some way then humans came into existence or forced evolution due to influence of an unknown external force (not of this earth). Scientist still cannot link humans directly to primates by fossil records due to massive convoluted time lines and gaps. I am inclined to believe humans are an artificial species on earth not part of and mostly independent of earth’s natural eco system.