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Book Review - What It Means to Be 98 Percent Chimpanzee
What It Means to Be 98 Percent Chimpanzee
by Jonathan Marks
University of California Press, 2002
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D.
Oct 7th 2002

The popular press has long proclaimed that we share 98.5 per cent of our genetic material with chimps, which are said to be our closest relatives. Just this month new research by Roy Britten of Cal Tech reduced that estimate to less than 95 per cent of our genetic material, a three-fold increase in the estimated variation between humans and chimps. However, the actual amount of difference between our DNA and that of chimps is irrelevant, according to Jonathon Marks, professor and author of What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee.

With frequent digressions into the history and culture of science, Marks takes the reader on a somewhat rambling, sometimes polemic journey into - - and beyond - - the genetic similarity of humans and apes. 

The book’s central point (although the reader may need a reminder from time to time) is the conviction that there is no special significance in the degree of closeness between human and non-human genetic information.  “Ultimately, there is no self-evident meaning in the structural similarity of chimp and human DNA, any more than there is in the structural similarity of our phlegm or our little toes” (p. 261). 

However, in making this otherwise succinct point, the author pulls in many issues that are at first glance only tangentially relevant. For example, Marks takes on the concept of race (emphasizing its blatant misuses and its limits even as a concept), the animal rights movement, eugenics, the Human Genome Diversity Project, and even the very concept of biological kinship. (He seems especially annoyed by the symbolic use of blood to represent kinship, which habit he helpfully identifies as a form of the literary device called metonymy). 

The list of scientists and/or writers with whom Marks disagrees or finds distasteful is long, and includes Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, who are common targets in debates about genetic influences on behavior; the less infamous but “wide-eyed reporter” (p. 151) Lawrence Wright, author of the popular book, Twins; Richard Dawkins of selfish gene notoriety; and even the long-dead Linnaeus, who is reported to have bowed to politically-correctness in selecting the term mammalian for the class of creatures in which we find ourselves, and whose 18th century classification system labeled Africans as sluggish, lazy, and capricious by nature.

Interestingly, Marks even takes on science itself:  “[M]ost scientific statements turn out to be inaccurate, and rather few actually turn out to be accurate.  That is simply a consequence of the way science operates” (p. 279).  Nonetheless, apparently science does stumble forward and does make progress in the collection of facts, because Marks follows with:  “The problem is that science is very good at answering questions people don’t care about” (p. 281). 

Throughout the book Marks weaves in curious tales of historical errors, some of them deriving from the political climate of the times but others based in what was thought to be sound science in those days.  The implication is strong that such errors were not only numerous but commonly resulted in unpleasant (or worse) real-world consequences, and that science now has the special obligation to moderate, mitigate, or prevent such errors.  For example, the concept of race has a long tradition in anthropology and although essentially illusory, has produced countless problems for humans over the millennia.

One quality of Marks’ writing that may put off some otherwise receptive readers is his intentionally vituperative style.  Though some of his issues are indeed contentious, his comments occasionally seem hostile or demeaning. In contrast to the playfully quarrelsome style of H.L. Mencken (who even warrants a mention or two here), Marks’ style sometimes just seems disgruntled.  The reader may begin to suspect there was more fun in the writing of this book than there is in the reading of it.  It would be unfortunate indeed if the author’s provocative style were to obscure the very real concerns expressed in the book.

So what’s the point?  At the end of the book the reader might ask: If we’re not related to chimps, so what?  The issue isn’t really about chimps or to what degree we’re related to each other.  Rather, the reader should come away thinking deeply about what it means to be 100% human, and thereby perfectly related to all the others of our species.


© 2002 Keith Harris


Keith Harris, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and supervises the research section of the Department of Behavioral Health, San Bernardino County, California. His interests include the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.