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 books 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 dont 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
authors provocative style were to obscure the very real concerns expressed in
So whats the point? At the end of the book the reader might ask:
If were not related to chimps, so what?
The issue isnt really about chimps or to what degree were 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
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.