For over 30 years, the public have been led to believe that human and chimpanzee genetics differ by mere 1%. This 'fact' of science has been used on innumerable occasions to silence anyone who offered the thought that humans are special among the animal kingdom. "Today we take as a given that the two species are genetically 99% the same." However, this "given" is about to be discarded.
Apparently, it is now OK to openly acknowledge that those who are involved in this research have never been comfortable that the 1% figure was an accurate summary of the scientific information. But more recent studies have made it impossible to sustain the old orthodoxy. They have raised "the question of whether the 1% truism should be retired." One zoologist is quoted as saying: "Now it's totally clear that it's more a hindrance for understanding than a help."
"Researchers are finding that on top of the 1% distinction, chunks of missing DNA, extra genes, altered connections in gene networks, and the very structure of chromosomes confound any quantification of "humanness" versus "chimpness." [. . .] In the December 2006 issue of PLoS ONE, Hahn and co-workers reported that human and chimpanzee gene copy numbers differ by a whopping 6.4%, concluding that "gene duplication and loss may have played a greater role than nucleotide substitution in the evolution of uniquely human phenotypes and certainly a greater role than has been widely appreciated."" The diversity of relevant factors that are mentioned suggest that the problem has been one of oversimplification leading researchers to draw unwarranted conclusions from limited data.
The zoologist quoted above is also quoted as saying: "For many, many years, the 1% difference served us well because it was underappreciated how similar we were." Another researcher is quoted thus: "In the end, it's a political and social and cultural thing about how we see our differences." It is comments like these that can give sociologists of science a field day, for they reveal how social context influences what results are emphasised and what are overlooked. In this particular case, evolutionary biologists need to take full responsibility.
It is good to see a start being made in setting the record straight. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, writes: "DNA is beside the point. To concede so much to biology risks taking such privileges away from ourselves. [. . .] Chimps may resemble Homo sapiens in a tedious and literal sense, but in everything that makes us what we are H sapiens is unique indeed. Biology, in its proof of our physical similarity to other primates, underlines its own irrelevance."
It should be a "given" that humans are different from animals. If anyone struggles with this intellectually, then it may be appropriate to learn something from history. Let's be mindful that our knowledge of the relevant issues is limited.
Relative Differences: The Myth of 1%
Science 316, 29 June 2007: 1836.
Abstract: Genomewise, humans and chimpanzees are quite similar, but studies are showing that they are not as similar as many tend to believe
Jones, S., View from the lab, Daily Telegraph, 26/06/2007
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