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January 28, 2007

How Much Does Species Genetic Commonality Matter?

Donald Pittenger writes

Dear Blowhards --

I'm not a biologist -- just a foolish Blowhard.

But I get irked when I see "news" articles gushing over how much genetic / DNA commonality there is between humans and other species. Especially when the article goes on to include a homily pooh-poohing our tendency to think of ourselves as being "superior" to other creatures. You know, our slavish devotion to that non-scientific rot found in the Book of Genesis.

It is sort of a numbers game. Here Scientific American mentions a study asserting that chimps have only 94% overlap with humans instead of higher percentages proposed elsewhere.

As for silly me, everywhere around me I see how immensely different humans are from the rest of the species. Just pop into a Subway shop, place your order, munch the sandwich. Then contemplate the totality of what it took to place you there with that food in your hand. Other species don't come remotely close. No matter how much DNA we share.

Differences count -- far more than the similarities.



posted by Donald at January 28, 2007


I was thinking much the same thing, Donald, reading R.Landes'reply to a commenter
my guess is that the gene pool between jews and arabs is pretty much identical, and nothing could be more dramatically different than their education/socialization processes.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 28, 2007 3:02 PM

I agree. It's kinda like reading "band-aids and duct tape are both very sticky!"

And, so?

Posted by: yahmdallah on January 28, 2007 3:03 PM

People are certainly very different from chimps. The point is that, like chimps and bacteria, we have certain innate tendencies thanks to our biological heritage.

Scientists still aren't sure why we evolved the ability to make and appreciate art, but that doesn't mean there's no reason for it. Or it might simply be an outgrowth of other innnate tendencies; we have a tendency to prefer a savanna to a barren plain, because we can find food in the savanna. We have a tendency to enjoy looking at well-formed members of the opposite sex, because they are more likely to give us lots of kids and less likely to have diseases. Conversely, feces and corpses are disgusting because they are full of dangerous bacteria. Etc.

Posted by: SFG on January 28, 2007 3:22 PM

Imagination. That's what we humans have. That's what animals lack. The quantifiers, the materialists, will never get it. Imagination. Which leads to aspiration. Which eventually leads to Subway. Though Subway is not necessarily the best example. Quizmos! Now you're talkin'.

Posted by: ricpic on January 28, 2007 4:57 PM

I think the point of repeating the discovery the high percentage of genetic commonality is that it proves Darwinian evolution and disproves the religious premise that humans are divinely created.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on January 28, 2007 6:41 PM

One strange thing is that despite their genetic closeness to humans, chimps are utterly incapable of being domesticated. Even the ones with remarkable sign language vocabularies are dangerous wild animals that must be kept caged. Yet we have no trouble taming far different, "lower" animals.

Posted by: Peter on January 28, 2007 7:01 PM

The other thing to remember is that genetic effects are extraordinarily nonlinear. A single DNA base change can alter one amino acid residue in a single protein, and that can kill you. Meanwhile, millions of other single-point changes can go on silently, with no effects at all.

So these homology figures are pretty useless. The genetic changes needed for our increased brain size and complexity are probably quite small, if you're just counting base pairs.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 28, 2007 7:32 PM

Journalists & other popular sources could easily figure out by themselves that the 94% figure (or whatever it is between humans and some other species) must be misleading, given how different we obviously are from chimps. But then, most journalists are lazy and devoid of curiosity, so confusion perpetuates.

my guess is that the gene pool between jews and arabs is pretty much identical, and nothing could be more dramatically different than their education/socialization processes.

This is pretty much true for non-Ashkenazi Jews & Arabs, but clearly false for Ashkenazim & Arabs w.r.t. intelligence and everything related to intelligence (crime rates, etc.). Of course, given the Israeli cheerleading at that website, he's certainly not going to point out that the Ashkenazim have far higher IQs than non-Ashkenazi Jews (by about 1 SD), mostly an effect of natural selection -- no, that would be politically incorrect!

Of course, this foolishness could be easily predicted given the overall idiocy of the essay. Without going into it in depth, consider just one claim: that Israelis are just now beginning to wake up & see that they need to defend themselves -- right, they've only been occupying the Occupied Territories for about 40 years, or about 67% of the nation's existence. During the 1980s, they were spending almost one-quarter of their GDP on war and defense. "Are beginning to realize" -- moron.

Neo-con faux iconoclasts tick me off just as much as their liberal counterparts, and are as worthless. Now I remember why I stay away from policy blogs.

Posted by: Agnostic on January 28, 2007 7:39 PM

Donald - RE: everywhere around me I see how immensely different humans are from the rest of the species.

Hmm. Scientists used to think that there were immense differences between supposedly brutish Neanderthals and early modern humans, but now some speculate that the two populations were busily and happily interbreeding. Scientists used to think that chimps lacked the ability to recognize themselves, to learn complex tasks and pass them along to their comrades, to make and use tools, to communicate in any degree. All these tasks were supposedly the sole domain of humans. And we have had to eat crow as evidence of these behaviors were clearly documented in chimps and other primates.

I think that even for lay people, the idea of difference or similarity should be more about context than comfort zones. That we share many genes with chimps and other primates is just a matter of fact, but the amazing thing is how small differences, even at the level of proteins, can result in apparently large and significant differences. And obviously the similarities between chimps and humans emphasize their common evolutionary heritage, another fact which is deniable only to fundamentalists. But even though chimps and bonobos, for example, are even closer than humans and chimps, they are still two distinct species with some relatively huge differences in morphology and behavior, so again, the question of the importance of the degree of similarity is more about context than any hard and fast rule about “them” and “us.”

We are even finding out that very small differences, such as missing or duplicated pieces of DNA can distinguish species, or within humans and other animals, spell the difference between being healthy or having potentially life-threatening illnesses. Researchers in Canada recently found six families where an extra set of chromosomes caused a narrowing of the aorta in some of the families’ children, affecting the largest artery that brings oxygenated blood to the body. More details on the story can be found here

By the way, this year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, who created the system of classifying living organisms that has become the international standard, and one of the most elegant ways ever devised of understanding the natural world. His home country Sweden has begun began yearlong celebrations of the event.;_ylt=AgkItklTKF_yZFc1wM2JQX1vieAA;_ylu=X3oDMTA5aHJvMDdwBHNlYwN5bmNhdA--

Posted by: Alec on January 28, 2007 9:51 PM

Peter, chimps and almost all animals are capable of being TAMED, at least in their early years (think of Jane Goodall sitting among the whole group of chimps, quite peacefully), but for an animals to be DOMESTICATED it takes so many generations that a whole new species has evolved. Even domesticated animals are not entirely dependable, nor are humans, eh? Even humans can go feral.

Some of this is genetic and some of it is not. Some of it is latently genetic and only becomes actualized under certain circumstances.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 28, 2007 10:48 PM

Wait a darn minute! If we're so different from monkeys, which species will the evolutionary biologists hold up for us to emulate! I thought all our morality was just gussied-up evolution. And who better to show us our true nature than the monkey!

Who are these idiots? Why can't they just leave well enough alone? I feel so lost. Whenever I sat pondering a tricky moral problem, or just needed a new way to throw poop, I could always count on my ancestors for a solution. Now it turns out that they're a lot less like me than we all thought. Damn scientists! Troublemakers!

Where o' where can I go now for the meaning of life? I wish there were some sort of alternative. Now I'm left alone, adrift. How I wish I were more like a monkey! It sure would make life a lot easier!

Posted by: BIOH on January 29, 2007 12:36 AM

Mary Scriver – RE: Peter, chimps and almost all animals are capable of being TAMED.

Chimps cannot be tamed, nor can most animals. Zebras, for example, can neither be tamed nor domesticated (see Jared Diamond on this), and can never be used liked camels and horses as mounts or pack animals.

Louis Leakey chose Jane Goodall, Diane Fosey, and Birute Galdikas, to observe chimps, gorillas, and orangutans, respectively, not only because of their talents, but because he correctly theorized that human females would not be viewed as challengers to primate groups as males might be. There was a recent documentary of Julia Roberts in the wild with a frisky orangutan who viewed her as a sexy redhead, and who had to be “persuaded” to let her hand go because he viewed her as a potential mate. Had Roberts been male, the orang would likely have either ignored “him” or attempted to beat the crap out of “him” had she got too close. And there is also the recent news story of the man who was almost killed by chimps because he foolishly insisted that a chimp that he had raised and was forced to give up to a chimp sanctuary was really “one of the family.” These chimps, some previously raised by humans, tolerated humans until they appeared to interfere with their group.

BIOH –RE: Wait a darn minute! If we're so different from monkeys, which species will the evolutionary biologists hold up for us to emulate!

Chimps ain’t monkeys. Neither are gorillas, bonobos, gibbons, orangutans or other higher primates. And any notion of a “true nature” is more about philosophy or religion than science. On the other hand, scientists who have sought “peaceful” or “good” primates or other animal species to offer as models for human behavior have always been disappointed.

Posted by: Alec on January 29, 2007 4:56 AM

"I think the point of repeating the discovery the high percentage of genetic commonality is that it proves Darwinian evolution and disproves the religious premise that humans are divinely created."

But it doesn't do that either, any more than it proves or disproves racial notions. A deity that zapped species into existence with a giant magic wand might plausible carry over genetic patterns from one act of creation to another, just as a car manufacturer carries over design elements from one model to another.

The real value of this claim is that it suggests the writer may not be worth your time.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on January 29, 2007 9:36 AM

I am afraid, dear Agnostic, that particular name you've been calling Landes should boumerang back to you.
Yes, the Israelis are "occupying" the Territories - after the united Arab agressors lost their unprovoked wars against Israel, remember? In this sense, every, but every single one European country is occupying pieces of someone else's territory - and not by this morally impeccable reason. I wish the Israeli stop looking for foreign approval and annex those damn territories already - just like Europeans did numerous times. Oh, and I wish they would kick their 5th column, Arab Muslims, out of the country, for their trecherous anti-Israeli activities. Glad you revoked the 80's when Israel was spending their money on defense: that was the time of no suicide bombings in pizzerias and no 9/11s; have you ever wondered why?

Maybe before you open your mouth and say something as ignorant as "overall idiocy of the essay" you should make an exception on your own "policy" and start reading political blogs; then maybe - maybe I said- you would realised the reason this summer's Israeli-Hizbollah war was unsuccessful for Israel exactly because of the leftist pro-European politics of the current government, and their counterproductive defence line.

Posted by: Tat on January 29, 2007 9:48 AM

We share 82% with lettuce leaves.

Posted by: dearieme on January 29, 2007 10:34 PM

Excuse me, I'm heading out back with my fellow bonobos. We're gonna smoke some reefer and talk about peace ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 30, 2007 11:44 AM

I wish the Israeli stop looking for foreign approval

No offense, but you're in outer space here: Israel has been commanded by every country in the UN to vacate the Occupied Territories for close to 40 years now. Early on, the US actually signed on with the rest of the world -- now it's just Israel, plus perhaps the US and a few other tiny countries, who consistently veto such resolutions.

The idea that Israel is looking for "foreign approval" is bonkers, else they would comply with the UN resolutions. They have the political, financial, and if need be military support of the US: that's all they need. You're only saying the Israeli government is shackled by seeking foreign approval so that you can portray the current government as a bunch of wimps, the implication being that we need someone who will rule with an iron fist. If you're in favor of that, fine: just don't make stuff up in order to make the situation sound urgent (i.e., that the current Israeli government is a bunch of castrated wimps).

Again, that's why I stay away from policy blogs -- everyone distorts reality or makes shit up in order to maximally arouse the audience to immediate action. Who cares if they're lying? I keep far away from those who try to pander to my emotions rather than appeal to my reason.

Posted by: Agnostic on January 30, 2007 12:50 PM

Agnostic, you bore me. Go read this or simply google *Israel UN resolutions* - and read on the real history, not something cooked in your poor echo chamber of a head. And turn away from that mirror for 3 sec. There are things more important in the world than the cut of your shirt and the question why the girls don't like you.

Posted by: Tat on January 30, 2007 1:10 PM

Here's another link, Agnostic, for your education. Took me all of a 1/2 min to find - apparently you're occupied by more pressing matters - which does not prevent you from insisting on spouting fundamental leftist nonsense.

Posted by: Tat on January 30, 2007 1:34 PM

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