Monday, July 21, 2008

"Chimps Not Chumps"

I was on a radio show today and told about an op/ed piece in the NY Times by Steve Ross, who is involved with cognitive research of primates with the Lincoln Zoo, that, the host implied, seemed to go along with the ethics of the Great Ape Project. I hadn't read it, so I thought I should check it out.

Happily, at first it seemed not to be so. From the column:

A survey that I and several colleagues conducted in 2005 found that one in three visitors to the Lincoln Park Zoo assumed that chimpanzees are not endangered. Yet more than 90 percent of these same visitors understood that gorillas and orangutans face serious threats to their survival. And many of those who imagined chimpanzees to be safe reported that they based their thinking on the prevalence of chimps in advertisements, on television and in the movies. In reality, chimpanzees face a severe threat in the wild: their numbers have dropped to about 20 percent of what they were a century ago, as their habitat in equatorial Africa is deforested and they are hunted as bushmeat.
OK: so far so good. It is perfectly in keeping with human exceptionalism to defend the thriving of species and protect animal habitats.

But then Ross goes badly off the rails:
Consider that chimpanzees share as much as 98 percent of our genetic makeup. They make and use tools, recognize and identify hundreds of individuals in their groups and learn from others skills like termite fishing. Of course, the reverse is also true: we are 98 percent chimpanzee.
Nonsense. This is reductionism writ large. We are no more "98% chimp" then we are 40% lettuce because we share about that percentage of genes with radicio. As the Human Genome Project states:
In February 2001, scientists working on the project published the first interpretations of the human genome sequence. Previously, many in the scientific community had believed that the number of human genes totaled about 100,000. But the new findings surprised everyone: both research groups said they could find only about 30,000 or so human genes. This meant that humans have remarkably few genes, not that many more than a fruit fly, which has 13,601 (scientists had decoded this sequence in March 2000). This discovery led scientists to conclude that human complexity does not come from a sheer quantity of genes. Instead, human complexity seems to arise as a result of the structure of the network of different genes, proteins, and groups of proteins and the dynamics of those parts connecting at different times and on different levels.
In reality, chimps and human beings are altogether different species that, according to evolutionary theory, shared a common and now extinct ancestor that lived some 7-20million years ago. Moreover, the seeming genetic nearness is a vast chasm that actually represent tens of millions of biological differences.

The biological reality is we are not them and they are not us.



At July 21, 2008 , Blogger Johnson said...

We may not BE them, but many things that we recognize as evidence of having a human personality are also present in chimps. That counts for nothing?

At July 21, 2008 , Blogger Wesley J. Smith said...

Not what I said. We should view our human obigations toward chimps based on their capacities and what constitutes proper care for them. As highly sophisticated animals, we have greater obligations to them than we do, say zebra fish. This probably means using them only for crucial medical research and when we hold them in captivity, making sure their care is properly provided.

But they don't have rights.

At July 22, 2008 , Blogger Lydia McGrew said...

An absolutely smack-down response re. radicio, Wesley.

Quotable. Beautiful.

At July 23, 2008 , Blogger Joshua said...

I agree that we are not them and they are not us. And I am not you and you are not me. But we have a lot in common - the real question is whether what we have in common is morally relevant.

Genetic similarity is not morally relevant at all, otherwise my skin cells would need the same moral status that I have.


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