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February 27, 2009

Of chimps and men

Chimp Even though a certain segment of the population happily spent eight years comparing President Bush to a chimp, making such human/monkey comparisons suddenly has become a very naughty thing to do. As you may have heard, the New York Post recently published a cartoon that drew parallels between the economic stimulus plan and the chimp who went on a rampage and mauled a woman. Although the cartoon chimp showed no signs of being a direct representation of President Obama, this cartoon was taken by many as a racial insult. (There's an interesting conversation about this going on at Ed Gilbreath's Reconciliation Blog.) The scandal prompted a breathtaking display of obtuseness on the part of cartoonist Ted Rall -- who blogs at the Smirking Chimp blog (named "in dishonor of [Bush]") and who perpetrated this little gem of racism -- who declared himself a moral authority in these matters.

Of course the comparing of racial minorities to animals has a long and shameful history. (Thanks, Mr. Darwin!) That's why many made the leap that they made in viewing the cartoon, even though I sincerely doubt that any such meaning was intended.

But I think this controversy should get us thinking in broader terms about the way we talk about our fellow human beings, black or white. And along those lines, here’s a question to ponder: In recent years, as we're often reminded, we’ve found out that we and chimps have 99 percent of our DNA "identical in regions that we both share," as Regis wrote. So why are we still propagating negative stereotypes about our simian cousins? (The Washington Post has now apologized for running a chimp cartoon that had no racial implications at all!) Why aren’t we embracing them instead? Are we going to get all high and mighty over 1 measly percent?

Or is it possible that it really does make a difference after all?

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I'd like to extend your question somewhat, Gina, and ask why it's so insulting (and usually vulgar) to compare a human to an animal, if we are indeed so recently and only a short way removed from them per "The Descent of Man".

On the other hand, if we are indeed a unique creation, then the insult is valid because we're saying "in that person the Imago Dei does not exist". That would be the ultimate form of illegitimacy; not even the Father in Heaven claims you as His own (says the insult). Far worse than Edmund's complaint in King Lear.

Doing a bit of thread-weaving, I'll note that the founder of the Lutherans had some - uh, "colorful" - ways to describe the Pope and other members of the Vatican, and most of those ways involved various animals. I'm told they're even more pointed in German than in English.

And I'll vow to get really exercised over this issue when everyone stops buying rap music that compares women to female dogs (and ladies-of-the-evening). "Everyone" *especially* including minorities, for crying out loud.

Ted Rall

I am not "proprietor of the Smirking Chimp blog."

Why did you make that up?

Gina Dalfonzo

You're not? . . . Ah, I see what happened. The first time I saw that blog, I landed on your page, and thus got the impression that you were the proprietor. I see now that you're one of several bloggers. I will make the correction.

Steve (SBK)

LeeQuod asks, "why it's so insulting (and usually vulgar) to compare a human to an animal, if we are indeed so recently and only a short way removed from them per "The Descent of Man"."

Because! *splutter* Reason (er, of which, ignore that homo sapiens is the sole proprietor) dictates *hand-wave*...
Um, besides! What is a species? *ad hominem bestia*

Jason Taylor

Because in fact, the offense taken at insults does not necessarily corroborate with logic. Accusation of defauting at gambling debts was worthy of a duel and accusation of defaulting your banker was not. It was long considered perfectly logical for a dilliante to consider "bourgeois" an insult, and not vice-versa. And so on.

Jason Taylor

Maybe it's just that apes are rather ugly creatures. No one would be insulted to be compared to a lion. Although when you think about it, lions are lazy husbands and child abusers and apes have strong family values.



Perhaps you should read this...

Fortunately (for both the status of human beings and the status of genetics) we now know that the 98.5% figure is very misleading. In 2005 scientists published a draft reading of the complete DNA sequence (genome) of a chimpanzee. When this is compared with the genome of a human, we find major differences.

To compare the two genomes, the first thing we must do is to line up the parts of each genome that are similar. When we do this alignment, we discover that only 2400 million of the human genome’s 3164.7 million ’letters’ align with the chimpanzee genome - that is, 76% of the human genome. Some scientists have argued that the 24% of the human genome that does not line up with the chimpanzee genome is useless ”junk DNA”. However, it now seems that this DNA could contain over 600 protein-coding genes, and also code for functional RNA molecules.

Looking closely at the chimpanzee-like 76% of the human genome, we find that to make an exact alignment, we often have to introduce artificial gaps in either the human or the chimp genome. These gaps give another 3% difference. So now we have a 73% similarity between the two genomes.

In the neatly aligned sequences we now find another form of difference, where a single ’letter’ is different between the human and chimp genomes. These provide another 1.23% difference between the two genomes. Thus, the percentage difference is now at around 72%.

We also find places where two pieces of human genome align with only one piece of chimp genome, or two pieces of chimp genome align with one piece of human genome. This ”copy number variation” causes another 2.7% difference between the two species. Therefore the total similarity of the genomes could be below 70%.

This figure does not take include differences in the organization of the two genomes. At present we cannot fully assess the difference in structure of the two genomes, because the human genome was used as a template (or ”scaffold”) when the chimpanzee draft genome was assembled.


and this


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