Earlier this week, an open letter signed by 270 doctors and health professionals called on Spotify to establish clear rules on their platform regarding misinformation due to Joe Rogan’s lies and baseless conspiracy theories about COVID-19. With the spotlight on Rogan’s anti-science rhetoric, an article in Futurism magazine furnished an audio clip in which Joe Rogan was caught yelling at a female scientist. You might presume that this occurred last week on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, and he was belittling a scientist about vaccines. You would be wrong because I am the scientist and the year was 2006. I have known about the sexist and anti-science tendencies of Rogan for a long time.
In my experience with Rogan, he acted much like the common chimpanzees to which he was referring. At the time, he was the host of “Fear Factor” and appeared as a guest on the “Opie and Anthony” radio show. While listening to the show, I heard him spout out a number of completely false statements about giant hybrid gorilla-chimpanzees who killed lions, always walked upright, and lived terrestrially. These apes, apparently a popular source of myth, are known as Bili Apes or Bondo Apes. Having dabbled in cryptozoology, I was familiar with these stories and also knew that they are entirely fictional. As an educator, I felt compelled to call in to the show and present my perspective. I got one sentence out before I was screamed at, cursed at, demeaned, and reduced to a “vagina.”
Whereas most of Rogan’s rhetoric, in this case, can only be described as blustering-idiot-thinks-that-he-is an-animal-expert, he did get one fact right: Our DNA is approximately 99% identical to that of chimpanzees. Rogan demonstrates our common ancestry in his treatment of me in this radio segment. The common ancestor that we shared with chimps was probably aggressive, hierarchical, and male-dominated. I dared to point out Rogan’s inability to critically analyze information that he found on the internet, and his only recourse was to aggressively attack me. He would not even let me speak. It is clear that I struck a nerve being a woman — and an educated one, in particular, who challenged him. One can hear how agitated he became when I laughed at his response to me. He found it necessary to further exert his male dominance. In wild Ugandan chimpanzees, it was found that aggressive screams were made mainly by low-ranking males, females, and juveniles (Slocombe and Zuberbuhler, 2005). No wonder Rogan is so fascinated by these animals. He is still talking about these chimpanzees! I found a clip from his show in 2019 in which he relays the same myths. What is interesting about this clip is that he has a calm interaction with the male guest about the topic. Of course, the male does not challenge his assertions.
Rogan was completely unnerved or unimpressed with my credentials. What my 25 years of schooling (too much? well, you decide) culminating in a Ph.D. have taught me is that sources of information are important. Media literacy is sorely lacking among the greater population. One can find an untold number of popular websites regurgitating the information that Rogan passed off as fact. Published (i.e., scientifically valid) work on these apes has demonstrated that they are “behaviorally and morphologically typical chimps” (Hicks 10:2010). One actual fact that is interesting about these chimpanzees is that they sometimes eat estivating fish. Peer-reviewed, published studies from trained experts must be the source of our knowledge.
Rogan is, of course, only an example of a wider problem. I do not know if we can pinpoint the year that the American public grew more anti-scientific but the timing must correlate with the rise of an open, expansive, and available internet. In The Seventh Sense by Joshua Cooper Ramo, he details the new age of networks that we have entered. Old hierarchies have been dissolved. Who needs scientists and doctors telling us what to think and how to treat maladies? The knowledge is freely available! Anyone, such as Joe Rogan, can be an animal “expert” now. Sadly, this state of affairs has brought us to the age of misinformation, “fake news,” and incivility, as there is no respect for those who have spent their lives becoming educated.
I try to do my part to equip this generation with the tools to be discerning in what they accept as truth versus fiction. In all of the courses that I teach, I emphasize critical thinking and research skills. We are bombarded with so much information now that it seems we have to process it with supersonic speed. As an evolutionary anthropologist, I wonder how our brains will adapt to the ever-increasing speed of our world. Will all adapt, or will we have a new ignorant caste, easily led by fake news? The amount of disinformation out there will continue to increase and as a society, we will be faced with difficult choices. Do we keep the information open and accessible or do we need more gatekeeping, as Ramos discusses?
Perpetuating myths about chimpanzees is one thing, but during the pandemic, the anti-science rhetoric and misinformation is literally killing people. I keep hoping that we will have our Sputnik moment as a society, but if a pandemic is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what will be. In the end, will the chimpanzees look like the more intelligent beings?
Cooper Ramo, Joshua (2016) The Seventh Sense. New York: Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Co.
Hicks, T. C. (2010). A chimpanzee Mega-Culture? Exploring behavioral continuity in Pan
troglodytes schweinfurthii across northern DR Congo. University of Amsterdam. UvA-DARE.
Slocombe, Katie E. and Klaus Zuberbuhler (2005) Agonistic screams in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) vary as a function of social role. Journal of Comparative Psychology. 119:67-77.