The U.N. Monkeys Around

Original Article

There is a concerted advocacy campaign underway across several disciplines aimed at knocking human beings off our pedestal of moral exceptionalism and redefining us as merely another animal in the forest. Toward this end, elements of the natural world are being personalized by public intellectuals, even as they seek to strip personhood from some people. The point of this ideological drive is to degrade our perceived self-worth so much that we will readily sacrifice human prosperity and welfare “to save the planet” or “for the animals,” while undercutting the power of theistic religion in general, and Judeo-Christian moral teaching in particular, to influence public policies.

Case in point: the Great Ape Project (GAP), which seeks a United Nations declaration that human beings, apes, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans are all members of a so-called “community of equals,” and hence are all entitled to Declaration of Independence-type “rights” to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. Since its introduction in 1993, the GAP’s radical agenda has gained support from some of the world’s most notable public intellectuals and is on the verge of becoming the law of Spain. (See: TEXT, THE WEEKLY STANDARD, July 21, 2008.)

The effort to create human/chimp moral equality is distinctly ideological, though proponents often wrap it in a scientific veneer. Never mind that human beings and chimpanzees are different species that cannot interbreed. And never mind that we have 46 chromosomes (gene-carrying structures) in every cell and chimps have 48. Opponents of human exceptionalism like Jane Goodall, Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins assert that humans and chimps are genetically nearly identical, and hence their value should be viewed as akin to ours.

Steve Ross, a researcher at the Lester Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, in urging us to increase our zeal for protecting chimp habitats, put it this way in the July 21 op-ed section of the New York Times:

Consider that chimpanzees share as much as 98 percent of our genetic makeup. They make and use tools, recognize and identify hundreds of individuals in their groups and learn from others skills like termite fishing. Of course, the reverse is also true: we are 98 percent chimpanzee.

Even if the “98 percent” figure is true—and as we shall see, it probably isn’t—this is nonsense. We are no more “98 percent chimp” then we are 40 percent salad because we share approximately that percentage of genes with lettuce.

This and similar statements made by public supporters of the Great Ape Project badly distort the findings of genomic research. Rather than disclosing how close we are to chimps, recent published scientific studies actually reveal dramatic differences between our two species at our most fundamental biological levels (DNA, RNA, and proteins). For example, according to a 2007 article published in Science (“Relative Differences: The Myth of 1 percent”), the actual percentage of genetic differences that account “for the anatomical and behavioral disparities between our knuckle-dragging cousins and us” may be as high as 6 percent.

Moreover, the purported 94-98 percent similarity—whichever it is—doesn’t compare total genetic makeup, but only the DNA that “encodes proteins,” that is, that stimulates the production of the building blocks of our physical bodies and functions. But such “coding-DNA” makes up only a small fraction—perhaps 2 percent—of our genome, which is why the author of the Science article carefully referred to genes that explain “anatomical and behavioral disparities” rather than the entire genetic makeup of the two species. Looking past the small amount of our DNA that encodes for proteins to the bulk of our genes known as “repetitive” or “non-coding” DNA, we find some congruence, but mostly a wide genomic gulf of difference separating humans from chimpanzees. So why hasn’t this far larger genetic difference been considered important? We need only look at the scientific process that gains knowledge incrementally over time for an explanation. When the human genome was first explored, it was thought that non-coding DNA was a mere vestige of evolution that no longer served a purpose—hence the term “junk DNA.” But more recent studies have surprised scientists, showing that junk DNA isn’t really junk, but has a function. Research continues as to its exact purposes, but given the significant differences between human and chimp non-coding DNA, even if the purported 98 percent similarity of coding-DNA is true, it actually applies to only a small percentage of our total functional genetic makeup.

Non-coding DNA aside—whether we share 94 or 98 percent of coding-DNA, these numbers gloss over the profound biological differences between humans and chimps contained within these seemingly insignificant statistical differences. First, according to physician William Hurlbut, Stanford professor and member of the President’s Council on bioethics, “Even where genes are similar, the timing and degree of gene expression (making proteins) can result in dramatically different adult body structures and functions.” This means that areas of genetic similarity between us and chimps do not necessarily produce the same outcomes.

More to the point, whether we share 94 percent or 98 percent of coding-DNA, the numbers gloss over the profound and obvious biological differences between humans and chimps. An article published in the Scientific American in 2006 (“Scientist Identifies Gene Difference Between Humans and Chimps”) stated, “The DNA sequences of humans and chimpanzees are 98 percent identical. Yet that 2 percent difference represents at least 15 million changes in our genome since the time of our common [evolutionary] ancestor roughly 6 million years ago.” (Recent fossil finds suggest the evolutionary paths of chimps and humans probably diverged about 20 million years ago.)

Beyond that, the 15 million “biological changes” may itself be a vast understatement. After the coding-DNA of the chimpanzee was fully mapped and compared with that of Homo sapiens, research published in Nature by an international consortium found that there are actually 40 million identifiable basic biological distinctions between the two species. This research was summarized in the Harvard Gazette in 2005: “Among the 3 billion base pairs [DNA building blocks] in the DNA of both humans and chimpanzees, researchers found differences in 40 million sites. It is in those sites where the differences between the two species lie.”

Forty million biological differences at the most fundamental biological level of life from whence our form and function spring is no mere crack in the pavement, as the likes of Goodall, Dawkins, and Singer would have us believe. No wonder geneticist Svante Paabo, a chimp consortium member based at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told Science, “I don’t think there’s any way to calculate a number [of similarities between chimps and humans]. In the end,” he said, “it’s a political and social and cultural thing about how we see our differences.”

Exactly right. Ideology—not science—is the nub of the matter, reflecting a fervent desire among the “all we are is apes” crowd to destroy the cultural values explicitly upholding the highest moral worth of human beings. Society may choose to go the ape route, of course. But it is perfectly clear that the proposed radical changes in morality and law are not justified by current scientific understanding.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.