Sunday, October 01, 2006

 

What Makes Us Different? (TIME Magazine)

A four-page article from TIME Magazine:

"You don't have to be a biologist or an anthropologist to see how closely the great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans - resemble us. Even a child can see that their bodies are pretty much the same as ours, apart from some exaggerated proportions and extra body hair. Apes have dexterous hands much like ours but unlike those of any other creature. And, most striking of all, their faces are uncannily expressive, showing a range of emotions that are eerily familiar. That's why we delight in seeing chimps wearing tuxedos, playing the drums or riding bicycles. It's why a potbellied gorilla scratching itself in the zoo reminds us of Uncle Ralph or Cousin Vinnie - and why, in a more unsettled reaction, Queen Victoria, on seeing an orangutan named Jenny at the London Zoo in 1842, declared the beast 'frightful and painfully and disagreeably human.'

It isn't just a superficial resemblance. Chimps, especially, not only look like us, they also share with us some human-like behaviors. They make and use tools and teach those skills to their offspring. They prey on other animals and occasionally murder each other. They have complex social hierarchies and some aspects of what anthropologists consider culture. They can't form words, but they can learn to communicate via sign language and symbols and to perform complex cognitive tasks. Scientists figured out decades ago that chimps are our nearest evolutionary cousins, roughly 98% to 99% identical to humans at the genetic level. When it comes to DNA, a human is closer to a chimp than a mouse is to a rat.

Continued at "What Makes Us Different?"
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In 2001 Matt Ridley, author of Genome (Amazon UK | US), wrote "Re-reading Darwin" (2nd entry - scroll down the page) in Prospect magazine:

The first great ape to reach Britain and survive for any length of time was a chimpanzee called Tommy, who was exhibited in London Zoo in 1835 before he died of tuberculosis. He was replaced in 1837 by an orang-utan called Jenny. She died in 1839 but was replaced by another, also called Jenny.

These apes caused a small sensation. Queen Victoria, who saw the second Jenny, typified the reaction of horrified fascination. Jenny, she wrote, was "frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human." It was disconcerting that an animal could look and behave so like a human. It posed uncomfortable questions about the distinction between people and animals, reason and instinct.

Charles Darwin visited the first Jenny in early 1838, less than two years after returning from the voyage of the Beagle. A few weeks later, he wrote in his notebook, "Let man visit the ouran-outang in domestication... see its intelligence... Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work... More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals." This was 20 years before he unveiled the theory of natural selection. It was several months before he had his main insight into the struggle for existence after reading Malthus's essay on population. [Science, Evolution, Biology, Anthropology]

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