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Not MY great grandmother......
May 20, 2003 9:31 PM   Subscribe

Eek eek! - Jennings Bryan spins in his grave: "Chimpanzees are so closely related to humans that they should properly be considered as members of the human family, according to new genetic research." [BBC] In the early 1900's, Jennings Bryan offered $100 in cash to anyone who signed an affidavit declaring that he personally was descended from an ape.
posted by troutfishing (45 comments total)

 
Rejected headline for the article: "Chimpanzees are Homos"
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:01 PM on May 20, 2003


Eek eek! - Jennings Bryan spins in his grave:

So does Dr. Zaius.
posted by nyxxxx at 10:04 PM on May 20, 2003


Why is it that all the Google text ads are about those preposterous "Iraqi most wanted cards"?

It appears some humans still aren't included in that family of mutual respect.

Iraqis everywhere, for one, welcome their chimpanzee overlord.
posted by crasspastor at 10:35 PM on May 20, 2003


At the risk of linking to Slashdot, the discussion on this topic there has been filled with thinly veiled racism. People suggesting this means different human races should be designated as different species. People who feel, apparently, that certain human races might be more closely grouped with chimps. Good ol' Slashdot.

I trust that the much more enlightened company on Metafilter will not even go there.

I would like to point out, however, the possible uselessness of taxonomic rankings like "genus", "order", "phylum" etc. - a system that some are advocating be replaced with a system based purely on phylogenetic relationships.

It goes like this. I study grasses, where within a genus like Austrodanthonia, species are fairly variable in their morphology and ecological attributes. They're all similar, but if you get out a hand-lens you can tell the difference.

Contrast with something in one part of the animal kingdom - Panthera - jaguars, leopards, lions and tigers. Massive differences in morphology, physiology, and ecology.

Contrast with, say, some annelid worms - Polycheates, inside a taxonomic grouping much higher than genus, but within which most variation can only be determined genetically. They all look and do pretty much the same things!

Taxonomic rankings are pointless - it doesn't matter whether chimps are in Homo or not, it just matters that we would out the overall evolutionary relationships.
posted by Jimbob at 10:40 PM on May 20, 2003


A slashdot poster made a similar argument, only to have another respond that for paleontologists, taxonomy is often the only thing they have. What about that point?
posted by tss at 11:17 PM on May 20, 2003


taxonomy is often the only thing they have

Maybe they should take up a hobby? Archery is nice.
posted by nyxxxx at 11:25 PM on May 20, 2003


IANAS, but as I understand these things as a layman, DNA creates enzymes which in turn control proteins in the body. These proteins, depending upon how they interact with the enzymes, become the structures of the body. I imagine that, like most things, there is a law or set of laws waiting to be discovered that describe how this process works. And if such a process could be mathematically described, then we could work it both ways - from DNA to the structure, and from the structure to DNA. I'm guessing that only certain features would work, because epigenetic factors might muddle things, but there would be the hope of being able to at least tentatively guess at the DNA of a fossilised organism. That would be in the far off future, of course, and is probably as reasonable as warp fields and energy shields, but it would be nifty if we could do that someday.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:32 PM on May 20, 2003


Yessir Jimbob. Yessir.

If we cannot save out enough of a feeble empathy for, I've gotta write it, Iraqi children, we simply will not do it for roving bands of, what's this I'm seeing? Chimpanzees? Nope no chance.

It's great for the scientists centuries from now who will venerate those who sought explanation in those dark, dreary, violent, relgious fundamentalist days of the early 21st century. But for us, it's too little too late. It appears the age of scientific enlightenment dies with us. And should Earth survive, some of us now will be looked back upon as courageous in an age of myth and miserably understood gadgets of personal technology. So close and yet so far I suppose.

Soooo. . .

What I'm trying to get across is that I agree with Jimbob. Taxonomic rankings are pointless especially now that an entire generation will never really accept that Chimpanzees and humans share the same genus, regardless of whether we do or not. And especially because the designation seems so, well, arbitrary.

Which isn't to say the findings and potential reordering of "the tree" isn't in the advancement of science's interest. I have no idea, I'm not an expert. Interesting development though.

(on preview) what tss said. . .
posted by crasspastor at 11:38 PM on May 20, 2003


Funnily enough, a recent report claimed:

Humans Not Descended from Neanderthals

Does this mean that monkey worshippers are just self obsessed?
posted by hama7 at 12:13 AM on May 21, 2003


Nope. It would mean we are "cousins" as the article you link to states itself quite plainly. We're all still homos bro.
posted by crasspastor at 12:27 AM on May 21, 2003


The thing tying this to racism in slashdot is really pretty idiotic, but i suppose you get a thousand members of the genus Homo on a thousand keyboards, they're gonna come up with some idiotic stuff.

Races are not species because last time I checked, a lapplander can get it on with a pygmy and make babies. And speciation is based primarily on the notion of a separate reproductive community.

This particular finding is not some great moment of truth for our species. But neither is it completely meaningless. For us laymen, it's just one of those things that make you go "huh", wonder at the majesty of the universe, and move on with your life. But please, don't throw out baby Darwin with the bathwater of the countless jerks who perverted his theories after him. That makes baby Darwin cry.
posted by condour75 at 12:48 AM on May 21, 2003


Well, tss, I'm an ecologist, and unfortunately it's "all I've got" as well. It's a pain in the arse, and we can only wish for something better. The present taxonomic system was designed 250 years ago to make memorising names easier. The hierarchy is almost completely evolutionarily mismatched, it is close to useless in ecology (do I sample within a species? a genus? or a family?) and taxonomists are constantly twisting it to suit their own ends.
posted by Jimbob at 12:52 AM on May 21, 2003


Welcome to the Genus guys. So, is there a wacky Jennings Bryan foundation that will give me the hundred bucks (or more considering inflation) if I sign that piece of paper?

Metafilter: suppose you get a thousand members of the genus Homo on a thousand keyboards, they're gonna come up with some idiotic stuff.
posted by skallas at 3:28 AM on May 21, 2003


hama7,

The most accepted view has been that humans are cousins, not descendants of neanderthals for quite a long time. So this new article is just providing further evidence to support this claim. I know that when I was a kid neanderthal and homosapiens were always listed in neigbouring but disjoint tracks, and I haven't been a kid for twenty years or so.
posted by substrate at 4:28 AM on May 21, 2003


*picks nits, flings poo*
posted by quonsar at 6:00 AM on May 21, 2003


quonsar - so, you're a politician then?
posted by troutfishing at 6:10 AM on May 21, 2003


see you need to deal in taxa, no one can pinpoint what a taxon is so you are bound to be consistently correct.
posted by johnnyboy at 6:25 AM on May 21, 2003


Chimpanzees are Homos

No, no, that's Bonobos!

Jennings Bryan spins in his grave

I assume by Jennings Bryan you are referring to William J. Bryan the presidential candidate and creationist speaker, the "Boy Orator of Platte," who went by William Jennings to alay confusion about which William Bryan people were speaking about, his father (William), great uncle (Willian T.), uncle who had been killed in an indian raid before his father's birth (William) or multiple cousins?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:26 AM on May 21, 2003


You mean humans are not descended from neanderthals, that is exciting but not as good as the wheel, now that is novel.
posted by johnnyboy at 6:27 AM on May 21, 2003


The most accepted view has been that humans are cousins, not descendants of neanderthals for quite a long time. So this new article is just providing further evidence to support this claim.

Was just going to say the same thing myself.

Recent chimp observation, primarily in Gombe National Park, Tanzania have shown remarkably human-like behaviors: tool production and use, coordinated territorial warfare, and killing for the sake of killing (I can get sources if you want). And bonobos (lesser chimpanzees) exhibit not only both male and female homosexuality, but also have sex for non-reproductive purposes, another distinctly human trait. After knowing this, the genetic evidence is far from shocking.

hama7, didn't you mean to link to this?
posted by The Michael The at 7:08 AM on May 21, 2003


This is all nothing new or particularly shocking.

Here's Jared Diamond from "The Third Chimpanzee":

"Biologists classify living things in hierarchical categories, each less distinct than the next: subspecies, species, genus, family, superfamily, order, class, and phylum. The 'Encyclopedia Brittanica' and all the biology texts on my shelf say that humans and apes belong to the same order, called Primates, and the same superfamily, called Hominoidea, but to separate families, called Homonidae and Pongidae. Whether Sibley's and Ahlquist's work changes this classification depends on one's philosophy on taxonomy. Traditional taxonomists group species into higher categories by making somewhat subjective evaluations of how important the differences between species are. Such taxonomists place humans in a separate family because of distinctive functional traits like large brain and bipedal posture, and this classification would remain unaffected by measures of genetic distance. However, another school of taxonomy, called cladistics, argues that classification should be objective and uniform, based on genetic distance or times of divergence. All taxonomists agree now that red-eyed and white-eyed vireos belong together in the genus Vireo, the various species of gibbons in the genus Hylobates. Yet the members of these pairs of species are genetically more distant from eachother than are humans from the other two chimpanzees, and diverged longer ago. On this basis, then, humans don't constitute a distinct family, or even a distinct genus, but belong in the same genus as common and pygmy chimps."
posted by dgaicun at 7:21 AM on May 21, 2003


To those who are shrugging this off as a minor academic development, the National Geographic version has an interesting way of putting it: This re-classification is similar to Copernicus saying our planet is not the center of the solar system: It's correcting an enormous unspoken bias that has existed since antiquity, derived from the common primitive belief of peoples (and, for all we know, animals) everywhere that their own kin are the center of the universe, in opposition to everyone else.

This article also implies that it's not just a question of how you want to slice it, but that by other measures with which we've grouped mammals, this would be the most consistent classification. I'll leave the taxonomists to rebut that, as I obviously don't have the expertise - I'm just relaying what the study's authors said.

One more quote: "Reclassifying chimps would also have 'political implications,' challenging our long-held view of the boundary between humans and other animals," said Cristophe Soligo from London's Natural History Museum. In other words, stuff like this may be forced out of existence as experimental scientists are increasingly challenged not by appeals to emotion (or common sense), but by the rigorous precepts of their own discipline. No, it won't happen overnight, but then again, it took till the 1990s for Copernicus' biggest opponents to admit that he was right all along.
posted by soyjoy at 7:44 AM on May 21, 2003


Interesting soyjoy, but reclassifying chimps doesn't suddenly change their cultural status. They will still be viewed by most as on a lower order than humans. Except for the roller skating, cigar smoking ones of course.

And bonobos (lesser chimpanzees) exhibit not only both male and female homosexuality, but also have sex for non-reproductive purposes, another distinctly human trait. After knowing this, the genetic evidence is far from shocking.

Homo- and Bi-sexuality is not a purely human nor Homonid trait, so I don't really see how it factors in at all to your views. Birds and otters use "tools" as well but I don't see any genetic links there.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:54 AM on May 21, 2003


Would there be any practical results of this? Like taking chimps out of zoos, or laws protecting them?
posted by amberglow at 8:50 AM on May 21, 2003


I don't really see much changing, ever, unless chimps start talking and demanding rights, and even if that happens, I'd give it another 50 years before they are recognized as anything other than circus performers, fun zoo exhibits and lab animals.
posted by agregoli at 8:54 AM on May 21, 2003


Homo- and Bi-sexuality is not a purely human nor Homonid trait, so I don't really see how it factors in at all to your views.

I thought it is purely human, save for bonobos (homosexuality requires a disconnect between intercourse and reproduction; the only exhibitors of this behavior have been humans and bonobos). Evidence otherwise?

Birds and otters use "tools" as well but I don't see any genetic links there.

Yes, but chimps actually produce tools (albeit in very crude ways), while birds and otters just use what's available. Regardless, in the quest to define humans as a seperate and distinct species, tool-use has been used as an example of uniquely human behavior. It certainly isn't uniquely human, though humans are the most conspicuous tool-users and -producers, and chimp tool behavior is closer to human tool behavior than is the tool behavior of any other animal.

I wasn't trying to say "Well, these behaviors are obviously genetic." I was trying to say that we (humans and chimps) are behaviorally very close, so it's not far-fetched to find out that we're genetically close as well.
posted by The Michael The at 8:57 AM on May 21, 2003


Yes, but chimps actually produce tools (albeit in very crude ways), while birds and otters just use what's available.

Crow Makes Wire Hook to Get Food

TMT, I'm not trying to mock you with this, but trying to show how exactly this kind of thinking has evolved - humans keep saying "THIS is what separates us from the animals" (or in this case, the non-primates), and then it later turns out that distinction was only maintained by the fact that we hadn't looked closely enough.

I'm suggesting that as we continue to look closer, our fundamental classification of ourselves as unique animals deserving unique ethical treatment is going to crumble. But no, agregoli, you're right, it will probably take a few decades for all of this to shake out.
posted by soyjoy at 9:07 AM on May 21, 2003


I like the hypothesis that our "humanity" is the result of a social arms race. For some time the biggest influence on human reproduction was social. Our intelligence is like the peacock's tail, an evolutionary runaway. Our fellow primates had other things to worry about, we had only ourselves. There's great debates about nature vs. nurture which totally ignore the evolutionary feedback loop between the two.

Among other things, this implies that we can and do co-evolve with other animals according to our social relationships with them. Consider the various domesticated animals we have. We have a social contract with them, providing them with food and shelter and protection, reproductive guarentees, in return for food, companionship, protection, labor, sport, or any of a number of things we use animals for.

For me, what this suggestion means is that perhaps we should reconsider our relationship with our nearest relatives on the family tree of life.
posted by wobh at 9:27 AM on May 21, 2003


...last time I checked, a lapplander can get it on with a pygmy and make babies.

condour75, let those two out of your basement! They're tired of making babies to prove your point, they want to date other people and eat some home cooking.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on May 21, 2003


Animal 'bar codes' to take over from Latin names
The names don't exactly trip off the tongue. But the official Latin monikers used to catalogue the world's animal species are about to be replaced – with the sort of bar code normally seen on a baked bean tin.
Full article here.
posted by piskycritter at 9:27 AM on May 21, 2003


Why are we all assuming that we should move chimps over to genus Homo? I would suggest that humans be reclassified as Pan sapiens.
posted by Guy Smiley at 9:58 AM on May 21, 2003


but i'm not done playing lambs!
posted by condour75 at 10:02 AM on May 21, 2003


I thought it is purely human, save for bonobos (homosexuality requires a disconnect between intercourse and reproduction; the only exhibitors of this behavior have been humans and bonobos). Evidence otherwise?

Homosexuality is actually widespread among animals. This book goes into great detail on the subject. We also spent some time discussing the issue in this thread.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:05 AM on May 21, 2003


TMT, I'm not trying to mock you with this, but trying to show how exactly this kind of thinking has evolved - humans keep saying "THIS is what separates us from the animals" (or in this case, the non-primates), and then it later turns out that distinction was only maintained by the fact that we hadn't looked closely enough.

I'm suggesting that as we continue to look closer, our fundamental classification of ourselves as unique animals deserving unique ethical treatment is going to crumble. But no, agregoli, you're right, it will probably take a few decades for all of this to shake out.


Gah. That's more or less what I was trying (but failing) to say. Yes, genetic relationships exist between animals, but that most humans believe our species to be something special is a ridiculous Linnaen idea and notions of "distinctly human behaviors" are crumbling.

Thank you for the crows, I had forgotten about them, but that only reinforces my point, that ideas about human uniqueness are wrong. At the same time, chimps still do more in the way of tool production than any other animal, including crows, yet observed: they've demonstrated systematic, rather than unique, behavior (with, again, the caveat that this is only what's been observed, but then we can also introduce a Schroedinger's Cat-eque problem: that our observations have irreperable impacts on the animals we're observing). As an aside, Have you ever read anything by Peter Singer?

On preview: Looks like I have some reading to do.
posted by The Michael The at 10:08 AM on May 21, 2003


Gah.

Hope I didn't sound like I was contradicting you - it's just that the "tool-making" distinction was too good an illustration to pass up. i.e. even when we say, they don't do that, but they do do this, it often turns out later that they do do that as well.

And here's the point I should've clarified: While the crow bent the wire in response to a human-created experiment (though note that this sprang up completely accidentally from the researchers' point of view), it's highly unlikely that crows just recently evolved this capacity since we started examining them - thus any earlier statement about what "other animals" could or couldn't do reflected not their limitations, but our inability to look at them in the right way - because (IMO) the science has been largely corrupted by a philosophical bias handed down from Aristotle and Descartes, and we're only now starting to examine that bias on a large scale. This reclassification should assist in that examination.

As to Peter Singer...
posted by soyjoy at 10:37 AM on May 21, 2003


the science has been largely corrupted by a philosophical bias handed down from Aristotle and Descartes

Are you referring to the "humans are the best" bias, or another? If so, I agree entirely, but at least in modern primatology and physical anthropology, this bias is, in my experience, now nonexistent (ironically, as those are the two studies most closely related to Homo sapiens itself).

it's highly unlikely that crows just recently evolved this capacity since we started examining them - thus any earlier statement about what "other animals" could or couldn't do reflected not their limitations, but our inability to look at them in the right way

Interesting that you put it this way: "capacity." It's very unlikely that they evolved this capacity since we started examining them, but it's very possible that the only reason the crow bent the wire was because of the human-created situation; hence we don't see the behavior in the wild. Now that it has happened, researchers can look out for it and we'll have a better answer in a few years. Just because the potential for a hehavior exists, however, doesn't mean that the behavior is ever performed, whether in a single instance or systematically.

Perhaps the better question, rather than "what can animals do and not do?" would be "what do animals do and not do?" For example, adult humans could walk around on hands and knees rather than upright, but while they do in unique circumstances, they don't in a systematic manner. Thoughts?
posted by The Michael The at 11:23 AM on May 21, 2003


Troutfishing and quonsar are very funny monkeys. They make me laugh screech loudly with their jokes!
posted by nofundy at 11:50 AM on May 21, 2003


dpoojvpsm m]
ws]-ith
a\epor- W
][P8ob[=8aqeaplkfTo be or not to be, that is the Quesaoibas oerowib];PEJDFSD2a;aauoia

Eek eek!
posted by troutfishing at 12:40 PM on May 21, 2003


Shouldn't that be mostly ssssssssssssssss, trouty?

And if we're going to be sticklers, chimps are not monkeys, they're apes, dammit.
posted by The Michael The at 1:03 PM on May 21, 2003


TMT - dunno if we're really far apart enough to keep drawing this out... but I'll try:

Perhaps the better question, rather than "what can animals do and not do?" would be "what do animals do and not do?" For example, adult humans could walk around on hands and knees rather than upright, but while they do in unique circumstances, they don't in a systematic manner. Thoughts?

Well, sure, the question of what animals tend to do is an excellent one for helping to classify them into general groups. However, the one that I think the crow story, and the larger humans-are-not-alone-in-genus-homo story, speaks to is the notion that animals should be thought of as utterly separate from us because they lack something we have (e.g. the capacity to make their own tools). It's that kind of long-assumed distinction that's being threatened by new discoveries, because if we're not so different, how do we justify treating the same action (e.g. killing or kidnapping) in opposite ways (condemning or actively funding) depending on which side of the "great divide" the victim falls on? I admit that on a gut level (as I mentioned in my "Peter" link above), it can be justified, but that's not a particularly scientific basis.

troutfishing, you may be entertained to know that when I first saw your gibberish I assumed it was computer code - a demonstration of something that still divides us from other primates. I know, that's where my head was at, but it's funny how the more sophisticated we get, the more we look like monkeys banging away at typewriters.
posted by soyjoy at 1:11 PM on May 21, 2003


The Smithsonian Human Origins Program ... see especially our primate origins.
posted by gudrun at 4:43 PM on May 21, 2003


Soyjoy - You're bringing up abstract thought or the use of abstract language as a dividing line, but I seem too remewber something about this.....(taps at keyboard for a bit)....Oh yeah, this: Baboons shown to have capacity for abstract thought.

"The researchers said the results suggest nonetheless that baboons are capable of analogical judgment—the kind of "this-is-to-that" comparisons that psychologists say is fundamental to reasoning.

Previously, chimpanzees were the only non-human primates to demonstrate similar skills in experiments. Baboons are Old World monkeys that split from humans and apes on the primate family tree 30 million years ago.

"Although discriminating the relation between relations may not be an intellectual forte of baboons, it nevertheless is within their ken," reported Joel Fagot of the Center for Research in Cognitive Neuroscience in Marseille, France. "


Meanwhile, that WAS computer code, channeled through me by a discorporate transdimensional entity as I "randomly" banged away at the keyboard. The entity's name is q'poijg q]395g
w

[BYTW - I ate my tofu tonight, I'll have you know]
posted by troutfishing at 9:13 PM on May 21, 2003


Baboons shown to have capacity for abstract thought.

Yeah, but can they use Google effectively? I ask you.

...reported Joel Fagot

Shyeah, like that's a non-made-up name. Stop monkeying around.
posted by soyjoy at 7:32 AM on May 22, 2003


Soyjoy - Joel Fagot's homepage

Joël FAGOT, Research Director, PhD, CRNC:

"The fundamental mission of the CRNC is the study of cognitive processes and their neural basis. By integrating the concepts, methods, and data from cognitive science with those from neuroscience, the goal of the CRNC is to arrive at a unified approach to the understanding of human behavior. Most experiments are conducted on human subjects. When necessary, nonhuman primates and rodents are used."

Eek eek!
posted by troutfishing at 8:37 PM on May 22, 2003


trout - Sorry to make you go to such lengths. I was just, um, monkeying around, and thought it would be obvious to someone as seasoned and insightful as yourself.
posted by soyjoy at 7:41 AM on May 23, 2003


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