Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > Getting Over the Code Delusion > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

Are chimps human?

WHEN IT EMERGED A FEW YEARS AGO that humans and chimpanzees shared, by some measures, 98 or 99 percent of their DNA, a good deal of verbal hand-wringing and chest-beating ensued. How could we hold our heads up with high-browed, post-simian dignity when, as the New Scientist reported in 2003, "chimps are human"? If the DNA of the two species is more or less the same, and if, as nearly everyone seemed to believe, DNA is destiny, what remained to make us special?

Such was the fretting on the human side, anyway. To be truthful, the chimps didn’t seem much interested. And their disinterest, it turns out, was far more fitting than our angst...After all, the Human Genome project revealed that the defining role of genes was not so defining after all. For example, compared to the 25,000 or so genes in complex human beings, researchers have turned up a pea aphid with 34,600 genes and a water flea with 39,000 genes. And we share a lot of our DNA with bananas. If genes account for our complexity and make us what we are — well, not even the "chimps are human" advocates were ready to set themselves on the same scale with a water flea...

Cells of the mature heart and brain have inherited entirely different destinies, but the difference in those destinies was not written in their DNA sequences, which remain identical in both organs. If we were stuck in the "chimp equals human" mindset, we would have to say that the brain is the same as the heart...

As for the differences between humans and chimpanzees, the only wonder is that so many were exercised by the question. If we had wanted to compare ourselves to chimps, we could have done the obvious and direct and scientifically respectable thing: we could have observed ourselves and chimps, noting the similarities and differences. Not such a strange notion, really — unless one is so transfixed by a code abstracted from human and chimp that one comes to prefer it to the organisms themselves — the organisms that are the only possible source for whatever legitimacy and physical meaning the abstraction possesses.

I’m not aware of any pundit who, brought back to reality from the realm of code-fixated cerebration, would have been so confused about the genetic comparison as to invite a chimp home for dinner to discuss world politics. If we had been looking to ground our levitated theory in scientific observation, we would have known that the proper response to the code similarity in humans and chimps was: "Well, so much for the central, determining role we’ve been assigning to our genes".

bullet Locate this passage inGetting Over the Code Delusion: Biology’s Awakening