Know Your Stuff

“Roughly 150,000 chimps and around the same number of gorillas are living today, compared to some seven billion humans. Yet humans have less genetic diversity than these monkeys, significantly less.”


From The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean, Little, Brown and Company, 2012


Sam Kean writes about science. His book The Disappearing Spoon, about the periodic table, was a best seller, as was The Violinist’s Thumb. Unfortunately, he does not know the difference between an ape and a monkey. Until the 16th century, the word “ape” was used to refer to monkeys as well as anthropoid apes. The word “monkey” was never used to refer to apes. Monkeys have tails. Apes do not.


It is not clear why a writer of books about science would not know such a basic fact. What is even less clear is why a publisher such as Little, Brown would not notice the mistake and correct it. And yet one such blunder can throw a shadow of doubt over everything else in the book.