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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

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 other species.

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 prime minister.

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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