“From a scientific point of view, there is no need to rename the monkeypox virus”

Lhe name of the monkey pox virus should be changed, because it is considered “stigmatizing” by the municipality of New York, which asked the World Health Organization to think about a new name. The intention is to promote patient care and promote screening for this disease. Indeed, people who are infected or likely to be infected would feel ashamed to get tested. This viral disease owes its name to its discovery in 1958 in macaques in a Danish laboratory.

These debates reveal, once again, the problematic relationships that Western societies have with the term “monkey”. Indeed, monotheistic cultures have constructed the identity of the human in opposition to the animal. Among animals, monkeys have a unique place: humans have always perceived their great similarity with them and, for this reason, monkeys have aroused fascination and repulsion.

Read also: “Monkey pox”: it is urgent to change the name of the virus and the disease

In the West, the monkey is so problematic that we have a hard time seeing it for itself. In our culture, he is the animal of extremes. It can be humanized excessively, for example in the “singeries”, these paintings representing monkeys having an appearance, postures, behaviors and human clothing, in comic scenes of France of the XVIIIe century, but also the paintings of Gabriel von Max, The Planet of the Apesby Pierre Boulle [1963], and its film adaptations. Or else the monkey is excessively bestialized, as can be seen in the sculptures of Emmanuel Frémiet [1824-1910] or with the King Kong character.

No value judgment

In other cultures, the monkey is not especially devalued. It is, for example, a symbol of the wish for social success among the Chinese, it chases away evil spirits, and, let’s not forget, it is one of the animals of Chinese astrology. In Africa, monkeys are admired for their physical strength, intelligence and agility. Depending on the cultures and species of monkeys, their meat can be eaten to try to acquire these abilities, or they can be protected, because they are considered close to humans. Thus, chimpanzees and bonobos are, for some Congolese and Ugandans, from a human who, having made a mistake, would have gone to hide in the forest to escape punishment.

What does science say about the place of the monkey? For systematists, professionals in biological classification, “monkey” refers to the category of simiiformes. Among the nearly 500 species of primates, these are the ones that have the two dental bones fused together, as well as the two frontal bones between them. Monkeys also exhibit posterior closure of the orbit by a bony wall, as well as a whole series of common genetic signatures. In short, apart from lemurs and tarsiers, which do not have these characteristics, monkeys are primates.

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