Ape genetics won’t reveal what makes us human

spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Science & Tech
  • None of my best friends are chimpanzees or gorillas.

I have never had a problem seeing ‘our closest cousins’ as suitable subjects for scientific research that could improve the human lot. Better to be thought a ‘speciesist’ than be a specious sentimentalist.

Now scientists have mapped the genetic blueprint of the chimpanzee, establishing that we share almost 99 per cent of functional genes and 96 per cent of our wider DNA. Arguments about our genetic closeness were used to ban experiments on great apes in the UK in 1986. But look at things from the perspective of human liberation for a change, and we could draw the opposite conclusion.

Surely it is our genetic similarity to these great apes that could make it medically useful to experiment on them. And it is the yawning difference between us and them that should make it morally acceptable.

‘The philosophical goal is that we all want to know what makes us human,’ says one of the international research team that sequenced the chimp genome. ‘The pragmatic goal is that it will help us understand diseases and conditions that are unique to humans.’ No doubt genetic research will bring many benefits. However, studying the genetic make-up of great apes, or indeed of Homo sapiens, will never tell the full story of ‘what makes us human’.

Since the human and chimpanzee lines first separated several million years ago, the ‘lifestyle’ of the chimp has hardly altered. The human way of life, on the other hand, has changed quite a bit. Our genes are basically the same as they were more than 50,000 years ago. Yet our cave-dwelling ancestors would barely be recognised as human today.

We have developed into a special species, with unique abilities of consciousness, reason and reflection. ‘What makes us human’ is not ultimately determined by either our nature or our nurture, but by our capacity to rise above both – the potential to make history. I have never quite understood the argument that the ability of some apes to crack open a nut with a stone puts them on a par with the authors of the agricultural, industrial and other revolutions. But then, I am only human.

When the great apes can map their own genetic blueprint, we should treat them as equals. It wasn’t an ape who invented the notion of ‘speciesism’. Even our capacity for self-loathing is uniquely human.

It turns out that fruit flies share 50 per cent of their genes with humans. Should we start treating them as half-cousins too? Perhaps it is time in one respect to ape the animal rights lobby. When it comes to opposing ‘evil’ animal research, it does not distinguish between guinea-pigs and great apes. Neither should those of us who support such research as a power for good.

As for those worried about apes becoming extinct: what better way to ensure their future than a thriving chimpanzee farm?

  • It is not often that I agree with a psychopathic child killer, but Ian Brady has a point.

He has protested to Granada TV and the Government over a television drama about the Moors Murders, pointing out that coverage of the killings he carried out with Myra Hindley 40 years ago is ‘now rivalling Coronation Street in longevity’. Who exactly is supposed to benefit from endlessly digging up these horror stories and turning nasty little sadists into powerful folk devils? Can we look forward to the soap opera about Maxine Carr and Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer – ‘the new Hindley and Brady’ – still running in 40 years’ time? It’s enough to make EastEnders seem like light relief.

  • As the ‘Is cricket the new football?’ debate bores on with the approach of the final Ashes Test, sensible observers have pointed out: a) no, it isn’t and never will be; and b) cricket’s new popularity has been achieved largely through adapting to football culture on and off the pitch.

There is one other area, however, in which I sense a similarity. The way that they froze before the mesmerising Shane Warne in the final session at Trent Bridge suggests that England’s cricketers may well flatter but fail when it matters, just as the national football team have done so often. If the Australians are afraid of losing, England’s players look scared stiff that they may actually win.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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