Click on the cover to link to OUP's e-catalogue then turn to the biology section.

Interview Podcast with George Miller

Interview Podcast with George Miller
Click on the pic to link to the NOT A CHIMP podcast on Blackwell's Website

Preface to "Not A Chimp: The Hunt For The Genes That Make Us Human"

In many ways, this book is born out of frustration for a professional career in popular science television where ideas about comparative primate cognition, and the similarities and differences between us and our primate relatives, have continually circled me but constantly evaded my grasp in terms of the opportunity to transform them into science documentary. On the plus side, keeping a watching brief for over a quarter of a century on subjects like comparative animal cognition and evolution allows you to watch a great deal of water flow under the bridge. Fashions come and fashions go - specifically, perspectives on the similarity - or otherwise - of human and ape minds.

I remember the first Horizon science documentary about the chimpanzee Washoe, the great ape communicator, using American Sign Language to bridge the species barrier. And, later, Kanzi the bonobo jabbing his lexicon. These were the apes, as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has put it, that were "on the brink of the human mind".

I remember when the pre-print of Machiavellian Intelligence, by Andrew Whiten and Dick Byrne, plopped onto the doormat of the BBC Antenna science series office in 1988. Suddenly primatology had become a great deal more exciting. Could primates, and especially higher primates like chimpanzees, really be as full of guile, as dastardly, as cunning, and as manipulative as the eponymous Florentine politician? Could they really reach deep into the minds of other individuals to see what they believed and what they wanted, and turn that information into deception?

I remember discussing primate cognition with a young Danny Povinelli, as we sat finger-feeding ourselves shrimp gumbo and new potatoes out of plastic Tupperware containers in a Lafayette restaurant surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, before returning to his kingdom - the New Iberia Research Centre - where the University of Louisiana had lured him back to his native deep South by turning a chimpanzee breeding centre for medical laboratory fodder into a primate cognition laboratory with one of the largest groups of captive chimpanzees in the country. He looked like a kid who had just been thrown the keys to the tuck shop.

In those days Povinelli shared the zeitgeist - spread by Whiten's and Byrne's work, and started by Nick Humphrey and Alison Jolly before them - that, since the most exacting and potentially treacherous environment faced by chimpanzees and other primates was not physical, but the social environment of their peers, they had evolved a form of social cognition very much like our own, in order to deal with it. This was further elaborated into a full-blown "social brain" hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, who related brain neocortex size to social group size throughout the primates and up to man. Povinelli's early work reflects this optimism for the mental life of apes, but both ape-language and ape-cognition research was subjected to a cold douche of searching criticism during the 1990s, and misgivings set in regarding the effectiveness of the experiments that had been constructed to guage ape cognition. Now the worm has turned again, with a number of research groups emerging with bolder and bolder claims for the Machiavellian machinations of primate minds, only to be powerfully countered by the curmudgeonly skepticism, chiefly by Povinelli, that these researchers are merely projecting their mental life onto that of their subjects; that, rather in the frustrating manner of Zeno's arrow that could never quite reach its target because it continually halved its distance to it, no experiment constructed thus far can actually get inside the mind of a chimp and show us exactly what it does and doesn't know, or how much, about the minds of others or the way the physical world works. One influential part of the world of comparative animal cognition talks of a continuum between ape and human minds and shrinks the cognitive distance between us and chimps to almost negligible proportions, while another returns us to the unfashionable idea that human cognition is unique, among the primates, after all.

When I began writing this book the working title was "The 1.6% that makes us human". My aim had always been to scrutinize the impression put about in the popular science media that humans and chimps differ by a mere 1.6% in our genetic code - or even less - and that it therefore makes complete sense that this minuscule genetic difference translates into equally small differences in cognition and behaviour between apes and man. However, contemporary genome science and technology, over the last few years, have dramatically advanced the power and resolution with which scientists can investigate genomes, eclipsing the earlier days of genomic investigation that gave rise to the "1.6% mantra".

As with comparative cognitive studies, conclusions on chimp-human similarity and difference in genome research depend crucially on perspective. To look at the complete set of human chromosomes, side by side with chimpanzee chromosomes, at the level of resolution of a powerful light microscope, for instance, is to be overwhelmed by the similarity between them. Overwhelmed with a sense of how close our kinship is with the other great apes. True, our chromosome 2 is a combination of two chimp chromosomes - giving humans a complement of 23 chromosome pairs to 24 in chimps, gorillas and orang-utans - but even here you can see exactly where the two chimp chromosomes have fused to produce one. The banding patterns you visualize by staining the chromosomes match up with astonishing similarity - and that banding similarity extends to many of the other chromosomes in the two genomes. However, look at a recent map of the chromosomes of chimps and humans, aligned side by side, produced by researchers who have mapped all inversions - end-on-end flips of large chunks of DNA - and the chromosomes are all but blotted out by a blizzard of red lines denoting inverted sequence. Now you become overwhelmed by how much structural change has occurred between the two genomes in just 6 million years. True, not all inversions result in changes in the working of genes - but many do - and inversions might even have been responsible for the initial divergence of chimp ancestor from human ancestor.

The extent to which you estimate the difference between chimp and human genomes depends entirely on where you look and how deeply. Modern genomics technology has led us deep into the mine that is the genome and has uncovered an extraordinary range of genetic mechanisms, many of which have one thing in common. They operate to promote variability - they amplify differences between individuals in one species. We now know, for instance, that each human is less genetically identical to anyone else than we thought only three years ago. When we compare human genomes to chimpanzee genomes these mechanisms magnify genetic distance still further. I have tried, in this book, to follow in the footsteps of these genome scientists as they dig deeper and deeper into the "Aladdin's Cave" of the genome. At times the going gets difficult. Scientists, like any explorers, are prone to taking wrong turnings, getting trapped in thickets, and covering hard ground, before breaking through into new insights. I hope that those of you who recoil from genetics with all the visceral horror with which many regard the sport of pot-holing will steel yourselves and follow me as far as I have dared to go into Aladdin's Cave. For only then will you see the riches within and begin to appreciate, as I have, just how limited popular accounts of human-chimpanzee genetic difference really are. Let me try and persuade you that this is a journey, if a little arduous at times, that is well worth taking.

There are a number of scientists around the world who have the breadth and the vision to have begun the task of rolling genetics, comparative animal cognition, and neuroscience into a comprehensive new approach to the study of human nature and this is part, at least, of their story. They strive to describe the nature of humans in terms of the extent to which we are genuinely different to chimpanzees and the other great apes. Somehow, over 6 million years, we humans evolved from something that probably resembled a chimpanzee (though we cannot yet be entirely sure) and the answer to our evolution has to lie in a growing number of structural changes in our genome, versus that of the chimpanzee, that have led to the evolution of a large number of genes that have, effectively, re-designed our brains and led to our advanced and peculiar human cognition.

If you don't believe me, hand this book to your nearest friendly chimpanzee and see what he makes of it!

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Travis The Chimp Had "Form".

In my intro top right of the blog I mention the case of Travis the chimp who recently attacked a Connecticut woman, went on the rampage, and had to be shot dead. This AP piece reports that action to send Travis to an animal sanctuary might have been taken earlier because he had previously gone on the rampage in 2003, leading police a merry dance in downtown Stamford, for hours. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection had received a load of concerned emails from Stamford citizens over the intervening years but had never acted on them. Charla Nash, whom he attacked last February is still in Cleveland Clinic where she is recovering from injuries which included her hands, nose, lips and eyelids being ripped off. She is suing Travis's owner, Sandra Herold, for $50 million. Chimpanzees do not make perfect pets. How many times......

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Second Bonobo?

A curious piece this, about the work of long-time heretic Jeffrey Schwartz (together with John Grehan) in claiming that molecular taxonomic evidence (based on similarity of DNA sequence) gives a false picture of the family tree of the higher primates - the great apes and us. In fact, Schwartz rejects the DNA evidence that we humans are more closely related to the chimpanzee and bonobo in favour of his interpretation of a more classical taxonomic approach which suggests to them that both orangs and humans evolved from an orang-like ancestor with a huge geographical range spanning Africa to South-East Asia. According to Schwartz this ancestral population dwindled and split, leaving rump populations in both Africa and Asia, the former giving rise to hominins, the latter to modern-day orangutans. New Scientist also publishes, in the same edition, an almost apologetic editorial which acknowledges widespread scorn and rejection of Schwartz's hypothesis before special pleading that the voice of heresy must he heard because, every once in a while, orthodox science is proved wrong and a new Galileo emerges. I would always run with the molecular data which accords Schwartz an emphatic "Non!!" However, read it and decide what you think......

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Tactical Deception By Capuchin Monkeys?

Primatologist Brandon Wheeler, from Stony Brook University, New York, set up an experiment, using platforms baited with food, to test the idea that subordinate individuals utter a certain type of distress call with the intention to deceive dominants that danger had been spotted - thereby alerting them to leave the area, leaving the path to food open. But, of course, the ever-present problem with observations of "tactical deception" in the wild continues to bug this kind of research. In order to tactically deceive the deceiver must know that he is seeding a false belief in the mind of another. How can you prove it? There is always stress evoked in competition for food, and this stress naturally evokes what Wheeler calls resource-related stress calls. Simple association could do the rest. The subordinate monkey could simply learn that other monkeys tend to be scared away from food whenever it utters these distress calls. Their apparently deceptive behaviour would then not be intentional in any way.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Unique-ier, Unique-ier-est, Unique?

This nice little piece is about this year's Class Day address to Stanford University by neuroscientist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky wrote a lovely book, "A Primate's Memoir" a few years ago about his adventures in Africa in the high-risk arena of baboon colonies. Here he bends over backwards not to accord unique cognition to humans - citing chimpanzees' ability to empathize and cuddle and comfort individuals who have been set upon. He also stresses the things we share with a host of other species. Many other species kill their own kind in anger or cold blood, he says. Bat females share food with the progeny of other bats, because, if they do not, their young will not get altruistically fed. Humans operate the same "tit-for-tat" rules. Women in college dorms synchronize ovulation in the same way as do rodents...etc. etc. So, while we are basically just another "off the rack" mammal, argues Sapolsky, there are some things we are capable of that simply have no direct equivalent in the rest of the animal kingdom. He cites the case of a nun who ministered to a bunch of the most frightening and lethal humans on the planet - on death row in a Louisiana prison. "The less forgivable the act", she had said, when questioned why she had spent most of her life on such low-life, "the more it must be forgiven. The less lovable a person is, the more you must find the means to love them." As a strident atheist, says Sapolsky, "this strikes me as the most irrational, magnificent thing we are capable of as a species". Then why does it not make us unique, Bob. Why teeter on the brink of calling us so?