Synopses & Reviews
Humans are primates, and our closest relatives are the other African apes - chimpanzees closest of all. With the mapping of the human genome, and that of the chimp, a direct comparison of the differences between the two, letter by letter along the billions of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts of the DNA code, has led to the widely vaunted claim that we differ from chimps by a mere 1.6% of our genetic code. A mere hair's breadth genetically! To a rather older tradition of anthropomorphizing chimps, trying to get them to speak, dressing them up for 'tea parties', was added the stamp of genetic confirmation. It also began an international race to find that handful of genes that make up the difference - the genes that make us uniquely human.
But what does that 1.6% really mean? And should it really lead us to consider extending limited human rights to chimps, as some have suggested? Are we, after all, just chimps with a few genetic tweaks? Is our language and our technology just an extension of the grunts and ant-collecting sticks of chimps? In this book, Jeremy Taylor sketches the picture that is emerging from cutting edge research in genetics, animal behaviour, and other fields. The indications are that the so-called 1.6% is much larger and leads to profound differences between the two species. We shared a common ancestor with chimps some 6-7 million years ago, but we humans have been racing away ever since. One in ten of our genes, says Taylor, has undergone evolution in the past 40,000 years! Some of the changes that happened since we split from chimpanzees are to genes that control the way whole orchestras of other genes are switched on and off, and where. Taylor shows, using studies of certain genes now associated with speech and with brain development and activity, that the story looks to be much more complicated than we first thought. This rapidly changing and exciting field has recently discovered a host of genetic mechanisms that make us different from other apes.
As Taylor points out, for too long we have let our sentimentality for chimps get in the way of our understanding. Chimps use tools, but so do crows. Certainly chimps are our closest genetic relatives. But relatively small differences in genetic code can lead to profound differences in cognition and behavior. Our abilities give us the responsibility to protect and preserve the natural world, including endangered primates. But for the purposes of human society and human concepts such as rights, let's not pretend that chimps are humans uneducated and undressed. We've changed a lot in those 12 million years.
"Taylor, a science writer and documentary producer, has a serious beef with scientists and activists who want to equate chimps and other apes with humans, claiming that the fundamental distinctions between the biological and social development of men and chimps is consistently overlooked by anthropomorphizing primatologists and comparative biologists. Taylor's arguments are generally well-reasoned, supported by clear analyses and ongoing genetics research, and he's adept at explaining complex molecular processes and their study for non-geneticists (though more illustrations would have helped). Taylor also describes studies of chimp behavior in the lab, for example, attempting to discover if chimps are able to link cause and effect in daily events ('folk physics'). Taylor also compares lab-based tool-use in chimps with that of birds, particularly New Caledonian Crows (the geniuses of the corvid clan). Unfortunately, Taylor's tone is frequently abrasive; his criticisms are generally valid, but scientists who agree with him get off easy, while those who disagree are subject to severe examination. Taylor certainly has more than a few worthy points, but it's hard to swallow them with so much bitter sentiment in the mix." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
It is one of the best-known pieces of scientific trivia--that human DNA and chimpanzee DNA differ by a mere 1.6%. But are we then just chimps with a few genetic tweaks? Are our language and our technology just an extension of the grunts and ant-collecting sticks of chimps?
In Not a Chimp, Jeremy Taylor describes one of the great scientific quests of our times--the effort to discover precisely what makes humans different from other primates, especially our closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee. Drawing on state-of-the-art science, Taylor convincingly debunks the assertion that our two species are nearly identical genetically. He sketches the picture now emerging from cutting-edge research in genetics, animal behavior, and other fields to show that the so-called 1.6% difference is effectively much larger, leading to a profound divergence between the two species. Indeed, he explains that the evolution of the human genome has accelerated since the split of chimps and humans from a common ancestor more than six million years ago. In fact, at least 7% of human genes--almost one gene in ten--have accumulated changes within the last 50,000 years. Some of the genes that have changed orchestrate entire sets of other genes, and recent studies show that it is this complex interaction--rather than the action of individual genes--that underlies speech processes, brain development, and a host of other mechanisms that make humans unique.
We humans are far different, genetically speaking, than chimps. More than that, we have been the architects of our own evolution through the same processes that have produced our farm animals and crop plants. We are the apes that domesticated themselves.
"Should be mandatory reading for journalists who often reinforce the general public's misconception that chimps are practically human."
A science documentary film producer delivers this fascinating account of the genes that make people human--and much different from their nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee. 15 halftones & line drawings.
About the Author
is a science documentary film producer. His films have been aired as part of the televisions series "Nova" and the BBC's "Horizon," as well as on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic television.
Table of Contents
1. The language gene that wasn't
3. The riddle of the 1.6%
5. More is better
6. Pandora's box
7. Povinelli's gauntlet
8. Clever corvids
9. Inside the brain - the devil is in the detail
10. Playing with madness
11. The ape that domesticated itself