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We're Just 95% Chimpanzee
Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 29 October 2002
Host: In daily conversation, we often mention how
closely related we are to other primates. "Don't make a monkey
out of me." "I'll be a monkey's uncle!" Indeed, it's become a
cliché that we're 98.5 percent chimpanzee. But is that
really true? Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, with
the straight scoop on our simian siblings.
Robert J. Sawyer: When Charles Darwin published his
Origin of Species in 1859, he barely mentioned what
evolution had to do with humanity, saying only that his theory
would throw "much light" on our origins.
Still, it was obvious who our closest relatives had to be: the
great apes we and they clearly shared a common ancestor.
But as Lady Ashley, a society woman of Darwin's day, said:
ACTRESS doing Lady Ashley: "Let's hope that it's not true; but if it is true,
let's hope that it doesn't become widely known."
Well, it did become widely known as did another discovery,
first revealed in the 1970s: you and I are 98.5% chimpanzee. Just
1.5% difference in our DNA accounts for everything that makes us
human: our large brains, our upright posture, our language, our
technology. That trifling degree of divergence was worked out by
scientists studying the chemistry of animal blood proteins.
Well, if we're that closely related to chimps, shouldn't we treat
them like family? A group of scientists including Jane Goodall,
plus the late Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author
Douglas Adams, certainly thinks so. They're behind the "The Great
Ape Project," lobbying for the extension of basic human rights to
our simian cousins.
A nice idea, no? Not to Jonathan Marks, of the University of
North Carolina. He published a book this year called What It
Means To Be 98% Chimpanzee, to which his answer is: not one
whole heck of a lot. As Marks points out, most of the humans
living in countries that are home to great apes don't yet have
human rights and if we can't guarantee such things for our
own kind, it's ridiculous to be talking about extending them to
The debate is fierce and a new monkey wrench has just been
thrown into the works. A study by David Nelson, a geneticist at
Baylor College, says we're only 95% chimpanzee, not 98.5%.
For Lady Ashley, this might provide some comfort but it's
bad news for the rest of us. See, there's a big difference
between being 98.5% the same and just 95% the same, at least in
the genetic world.
Despite Lady Ashley's misgivings, we desperately want chimps to
be close to us and not just so they can vote for who'll be
ACTRESS doing Lady Ashley: Harumph!
Chimps are immune to many diseases that afflict
humans, including AIDS. And if they're our kissing cousins, then
insights into their biology have a lot of applicability to our
own. But if they're more distant relatives the kind you
might send a Christmas card to, but would never actually invite
over for dinner then chimp studies have much less
relevance, and pinning hopes for AIDS and cancer cures on them
may be just wishful thinking.
Ironically, the call for chimpanzee rights might, in fact, be
strengthened by the revelation that we're not so closely related.
One of the rights demanded by the Great Ape Project is "freedom
from torture," including that which routinely accompanies medical
experimentation. Although it's true that chimps are still our
closest living relatives, we should perhaps think twice before
submitting them to painful, crippling, or potentially fatal
medical procedures, since, in light of the increased genetic
distance between us, what we learn might not apply to us anyway.
Voice Clip: [Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes] "To
suggest that we can learn anything about the simian nature from
the study of man is sheer nonsense!"
In other words, Alexander Pope just may have been right when he
said, "The proper subject of man is man."
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
More Good Reading
Rob's speculations about ape civil rights
Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
Rob's novel The Terminal Experiment, which deals with the Great Ape Project
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