Carl Gierstorfer

Science & Nature SpecialThe chimp genome

Language, learning and logic

Everyone knows that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe and that mankind has descended from the apes. But what about this: according to the latest estimates, we share 98.8 per cent of our DNA with the chimpanzees. What distinguishes us from our closest living relative is due to a 1.2 per cent genetic distance.

Now the race is on to decipher the chimp genome, a draft of which will be published later this year. By superimposing the human genome on the chimp’s, researchers hope finally to shed light upon the genetic basis of human nature. In fact, some hints of genes underlying uniquely human traits, such as our big brains as well as our ability to use language, have already been discovered.

We shared our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee about six million years ago. This is a recent split in evolutionary terms, and thus the main reason for the genetic proximity between Pan troglodytes and Homo sapiens. Nevertheless, a lot has happened along the evolutionary road leading to mankind. We became bipedal and grew opposable thumbs; we developed speech and, of course, grew our absurdly large brains that outweigh a chimp’s three times over. The result is mankind’s most distinguishing feature: our use of culture based upon the extensive use of symbols to transmit ideas. We communicate through material artefacts, abstract symbols such as words or numbers, or, lately, information fired down a glass-fibre cable. Culture is an accumulative process that means everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants.

So why didn’t chimps go down that road? The simple answer is that evolution doesn’t care about whether you are smart. All that counts is to survive in your environment, and this is what chimps do. After all, they are able to perform quite complex tasks: they use stones to crack open nuts; they chew sticks into brushes and poke them into anthills to ‘fish’ for ants; some have even been seen using leaves as a plate to catch their own faeces which might contain undigested food items.

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