Dear Rush Limbaugh: We Need To Talk About Harambe

The answer to your burning question

Dear Rush Limbaugh:

Since the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden where an endangered gorilla was shot after a 4-year-old boy fell into the enclosure, there have been many things to discuss. How long had the child been unsupervised? Why was it so easy for a small boy to enter the enclosure? Was killing the gorilla the only option? Why are western lowland gorillas endangered in the first place

You addressed the topic on your show on May 31. While your take on the issue was filled with all the race-baiting, non-sequiturs, name-calling, and factual inaccuracies the public has come to expect from you, one of your comments, in particular, has gotten the scientific community riled up:

"A lot of people think that all of us used to be apes. Don't doubt me on this.  A lot of people think that all of us used to be gorillas, and they're looking for the missing link out there.  The evolution crowd.  They think we were originally apes.  I've always had a question: If we were the original apes, then how come Harambe is still an ape, and how come he didn't become one of us?"

After reading the entire transcript of the show, the only trace of context seems to be you circling back to a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis; a belief system that is on the decline because of the overwhelming amount of evidence against it. Heck, even as-conservative-as-you-can-get Pat Robertson has called it "nonsense" to deny our evolutionary past, as the evidence is undeniable.

You claim that you've "always had a question" about the existence of great apes and humans in the context of evolution, and it just so happens that today is your lucky day because I'm going to explain it to you. 

"If we came from apes, why do apes still exist?" is a common question among those who don't understand anything about evolution, but it isn't exactly the checkmate in the conversation that it's intended to be. It's essentially like saying, "If we came from our grandparents, why do our cousins exist?" Instead of looking at two generations, take it a few hundred thousand steps further.

The most important thing to remember is that humans didn't just evolve from apes, humans are apes. We didn't diverge from chimpanzees alive today, but they are our closest living relative and we do share a common ancestor about 6-8 million years ago. 

The last common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees was a primate who lived in the African trees. As the climate changed and the forests declined, the species split into two groups. One remained in the trees while the other ventured into the grasslands. 

Though the group in the trees remained quadrupedal and arboreal, there were still many evolutionary adaptations that occurred, eventually giving rise to the chimpanzees and gibbons we see today.

The group that took to the grassland, however, changed significantly. Evolution selected for bipedality, as it was less energetically taxing to walk on land on two feet instead of four. The shape of the teeth also began to change to adapt to the food the grassland had to offer. Millions of years later, here we are.

Of course, if we want to explain the link between humans and gorillas, we need to go back 10 million years, but the same logic applies. As time goes on and populations fracture, different environmental pressures can cause different adaptations, resulting in completely different species over time.

Oh, and why didn't Harambe himself evolve into a human? Because only populations evolve; not individuals. The small genetic changes that occur from one generation to the next are what drive evolution.

Mr. Limbaugh, you sit in a very privileged position where millions of people listen to you, valuing what you have to say. Though you are free to express whatever opinions you like, no matter how abhorrent they may be at times, you shouldn't want to say things so factually inaccurate and easily disproven as you did by using Harambe's death to goad the scientifically literate about evolution.

Please let me know if any part of this was unclear, Mr. Limbaugh, and I'll be happy to send you a list of books to explain it more thoroughly. That is, if you're actually interested in learning, instead of continuing to build strawmen for the sake of a soundbite.


Lisa Winter

Cover image: WireImage/John Medina/Getty Images, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden