Planet of the Degenerate Monkeys

In John Huss (ed.), In Planet of the Apes and Philosophy. Chicago, IL, USA: Open Court Chicago. pp. 279-292 (2013)


In the words of Charles Peirce from 1901, “man is but a degenerate monkey, with a paranoic talent for self-satisfaction, no matter what scrapes he may get himself into, calling them ‘civilization…’” Peirce’s concept of degenerate monkey draws attention both to our neotenous or prolonged newborn-like nature as “degenerate” in the mathematical sense of a genetic falling away from more mature genomes of other primates, and also to our monkeying around with the long evolutionary narrative of foraging, through the advent of agriculture, settlement, and civilization. Homo sapiens, man the knower, is the way we humans like to distinguish ourselves from the rest of nature. But if we consider ourselves as degenerate monkeys, perhaps homo errans, man the blunderer, would have been a better term, calling attention to our softened instinctive intelligence, in contrast to the “unerring instincts of other races,” as Peirce put it. I take Peirce’s term “degenerate monkey” as not limited to moderns, but applicable to homo sapiens sapiens, anatomically modern humans, generally. Considering humans as degenerate monkeys is a key to understanding human development, in my view, precisely because we need to attune ourselves to the instinctive intelligence of the environment, drawing its intelligence into our dematured, blundering selves through abductive inference, and therein finding our maturity. Without that attunement to the Others, monkey goes mad, monkeying in its mirror of itself, fatally fixated, like Narcissus, and with similar results: planet of the degenerate monkeys, monkeying to mayhem. As Cornelius, the ape archaeologist and historian in The Planet of the Apes stated it, reading from the sacred scrolls: “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.” Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

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Eugene Halton
University of Notre Dame

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John Stuart-Glennie’s Lost Legacy.Eugene Halton - 2019 - In Christopher T. Conner, Nicholas M. Baxter & David R. Dickens (eds.), Forgotten Founders and Other Neglected Social Theorists. Lanham, MD 20706, USA: pp. 11-26.

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