“I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

I taught my first undergraduate anthropology class seventeen years ago, which is sometimes hard for me to believe. In that time, I’ve had over two thousand students enrolled in my courses, many of whom have left an impression on me. I hope I make a good impression on them too, though sometimes I have my doubts. A few years ago, a student asked me what my name was as they started to fill out the line after “Instructor” on the front page of their exam blue book. That was about halfway into the semester. You can’t reach them all, I suppose.

During my fourth year of teaching “Introduction to Biological Anthropology,” we got about two-thirds into the semester, and I paused to take the class’ pulse on how things were going. I asked them if they had any general thoughts about the class, such as what ideas they found interesting (or not), things they wished we could discussed more in depth, etc. I have since forgotten most of the students’ comments, except for one.

I remember that he wasn’t exactly the best student, and that he had struggled with most of the graded assignments. Nonetheless, I still learned something from him that day. He told the class that he thought evolution was an interesting idea, but he was skeptical about it applying to humans because, as he said, “Well, I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey.” This all occurred a long time ago, but I remember that at first I was puzzled by what he meant. And then it clicked.

I realized that, in his mind, if humans had evolved, then it must have worked by “Chinese” (or East Asian) monkeys evolving into Asian apes, which then evolved into Asian hominins, and eventually Asian modern humans. This was completely bizarre to me, but I pried a bit more to understand his perspective.

Again, this was not the best student. It was also disappointing to think of how much he had forgotten, or misunderstood, or never bothered to learn earlier. Although we still had some time before the semester ended, we’d already encountered many concepts that could have clarified things, including human biological variation, parts of the fossil record, and the fact that evolution was not about progress with humans appearing inevitably at the top rung of the ladder. 

I quickly thought of all the implications of this mental picture he must have had. First, what would an Asian monkey look like to him? Did he remember that there were in fact “Chinese monkeys” (or, rather, monkeys that are found in China)? Did he wonder what came before Asian monkeys? How far back did his Asian evolutionary ladder go? Did it extend to Asian prosimians, and then to other Asian mammals before primates? Asian bacteria? Or did his schema start with monkeys, under which it was just Asian turtles all the way down?

I also thought of what this probably meant for how he saw modern-day human variation. If, in his mind, human evolution worked by Asian monkey-ape-human, then by extension he must have thought similarly about other parts of the world (European monkey-ape-human; African monkey-ape-human, etc.). So I asked him if that was indeed what he thought, and he confirmed that it was. I don’t know any more of the details of this evolutionary scenario he concocted. Did each country have their own separate evolutionary lineage, or was this primarily a continental-wide phenomenon? Were there only Chinese monkeys, or was this for each Asian country? Were there Russian and Japanese monkeys too? (There are! But not in the manner that he perceived things). Later, I thought about the statistical probability that evolution could ever run in parallel lockstep on different places in such a scenario. The odds must be near zero.


Primate family tree. National Museum of Natural History (source)

Still, he provided a teachable moment. I reiterated a few things to the class: the basics of primate taxonomy, the fact that all humans are members of a single species (Homo sapiens), and that most of the genetic variation we see within our species today first evolved within the last two hundred thousand years (with some exceptions).

Most importantly, I later realized that he must have come to the classroom with the idea that populations – or races – of humans had an “essence” to them (in a Platonic/ Aristotelian sense) that persisted across taxonomic categories which they retained throughout their evolution. To him, human races were his default, or his starting point. He must have viewed races as clear-cut, naturally occurring categories that never touched or intersected, at least not since the first anthropoids (or monkeys) evolved.


Human expansion across the Old World (Source: AMNH)

I don’t mean to pick on him, as we all have much to learn. No one is born understanding evolution, or most other subjects. We pick it up along the way. Nor is he here to defend himself. But I wondered how many other people think the way he did. To some extent, his views on Chinese monkeys were probably somewhat unique. Yet in another sense my guess is there are elements of this thinking that are common to many people, including the fact that we have a tendency to think in terms of categorical essences.

In his 1991 book One Long Argument, the famous biologist Ernst Mayr noted that Darwin’s thoughts on evolution by natural selection faced several obstacles by the basic beliefs of his time. It wasn’t simply that Darwin faced religious opposition. While it’s true that some obstacles to evolutionary thinking were rooted in religious tenets (belief in a benevolent creator; belief in a young, constant and specially created world; belief in special creation for humans). But Mayr saw other, more secular, challenges as well. One of these was essentialist thinking.

Virtually all philosophers up to Darwin’s time were essentialists… They considered species as “natural kinds,” defined by constant characteristics and sharply separated from one another by bridgeless gaps. The essentialist philosopher William Whewell stated categorically, “Species have a real existence in nature, and a transition from one to another does not exist [1840, 3:626]. For John Stuart Mill, species of organisms are natural kinds, just as inanimate objects are, and “kinds are classes between which there is an impassable barrier.”

Essentialism’s influence was great in part because its principle is anchored in our language, in our use of a single noun in the singular to designate highly variable phenomena of our environment, such as mountain, home, water, horse, or honesty.  Even though there is great variety in kinds of mountain and kinds of home. […]

In daily life we largely proceed essentialistically (typologically) and become aware of variation only when we compare individuals. He who speaks of “the Prussian,” “the Jew,” “the intellectual” reveals essentialistic thinking. Such language ignores the fact that every human is unique; no other individual is identical to him.

It was Darwin’s genius to see that this uniqueness of each individual is not limited to the human species but is equally true for every sexually reproducing species of animal and plant… And variation, which had been irrelevant and accidental for the essentialist, now became one of the crucial phenomena of living nature.”  (Mayr, 1991: 41-2)


Mayr raised an important point, but I would go one step further. Essentialist (or typological) thinking wasn’t just some long-standing philosophy that lasted from Plato until Darwin’s time. Instead, to some extent it seems to be built into us. We are uncomfortable with fuzziness and prefer to put things neatly into boxes that help us make sense of the world around us. Robert Sapolsky described part of the process that occurs within our brains – or at least within the brains of monkeys – when we are figuring out how to categorize fuzzy objects:


“Our propensity to break continua into categories on a neurobiological level was shown in a beautiful study in which monkeys looked at pictures of a dog or a cat, while the electrical activity of neurons in their frontal cortexes were recorded. There would be neurons that solely responded to dog, others to cat. Then, the scientists morphed the dog and cat together, producing pictures of an 80 percent dog/20 percent cat, a 60 percent dog/40 percent cat, 40/60 and 20/80. Remarkably, neurons responded categorically. For example, a “dog” neuron would respond equally robustly to 100 percent dog and 60 percent dog, and hardly at all to 40 percent dog. In other words, the drive toward categorizing is so strong that in this circumstance, these neurons consider 60 to be closer to 100 than to 40. So we think categorically.”


Contrast that with how anthropologists think. In a recent paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Jennifer Wagner and colleagues (2016) surveyed 1,918 professional anthropologists about how they viewed human variation. This included professionals of different sub-fields of anthropologists (cultural, biological, archaeologists, linguistic, medical). Overall, 93% of anthropologists disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “There are discrete biological boundaries among races.” Conversely, 89% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “The distributions of physical traits overlap among races.”

In other words, anthropologists tend to shun essentialist thinking when it comes to human variation. Instead, they see variation as messy and fluid, recognizing that while variation certainly exists, they understand that it is statistical rather than categorical and that it occurs within – and overlaps between – groups. Furthermore, the boundaries between groups are never absolute, but are permeable and gradually flow into each other.

This is a different way of approaching the problem, what Mayr called “population thinking.” Population thinking and essentialist thinking were exact opposites, according to Mayr. Whereas essentialist thinkers focused on the essence of a species (the grasshopper, the oak tree, the monkey) and viewed internal variation as an illusion or aberration, the populationist saw the essence of a species or population as an abstraction, while the variation was real.

In other words, essences of species, races, populations, or ethnicities do not exist, and they certainly do not transfer indefinitely across evolutionary time. While monkeys do in fact reside in China, “Chinese monkeys” only reside in people’s heads.



Mayr E. 1991. One Long Argument. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Link

Sapolsky R. 2015. Caitlyn Jenner and our cognitive dissonance: While biology shows us gender can be fluid, our brains struggle to see it that way. Nautilis Sept 3. Link

Wagner JK, Yu J-H, Ifekwunigwe JO, Harrell TM, Bamshad MJ, Royal CD. 2016. Anthropologists’ views on race, ancestry, and genetics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23120


4 thoughts on ““I’ve never seen a Chinese monkey” (Essentialism & Human Variation)

  1. Thanks, Patrick — that was a great read! I feel like I now have better words to explain my disquiet over recent ancestry testing service TV ads in which people enthuse over discovering that they are “16% Italian but 40% Eastern European” or whatever. Maybe there’s all sorts of nuance in the explanatory materials that accompany the DNA results, but the shorthand in the ads marries celebration of mixing in the recent past with reification of an essentialist view of the deeper past. It beats showing people crowing about their purity, I guess, but it still seems to imply that “essences” are real and measurable….

    • The ancestry testing service ads also conflate genetic heritage with cultural heritage — drives me nuts. Especially the woman who supposedly find out she is part “Native American” and therefore is eagerly exploring her newly-discovered “heritage.” Can you hear me yelling at the TV?

      • That framing of ancestry always left me a bit uncomfortable too. Some people interpret this as essentialist, as if there were pure races or nationalities at the start of humanity, from which we get different combinations in living people.

  2. “We are uncomfortable with fuzziness and prefer to put things neatly into boxes that help us make sense of the world around us.” I think Claude Levi-Strauss had some thoughts on this, a while back! And “Asian turtles all the way down.” — I laughed out loud. Another great essay. Also reminds me of a quote that I put on my “Anthropology and Human Nature” syllabus — “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.” [Mark Twain, maybe].

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