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!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Boston Globe Scoop On Marc Hauser

Here's a link to the Boston Globe article on the Harvard University internal inquiry into goings on in Marc Hauser's laboratory at Harvard. It notes a number of amendments to and retractions of, papers coming out of Hauser's lab since 1995. Mike Tomasello, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, is quoted as being increasingly concerned because other papers, he says, are also currently under investigation. It is not clear whether he implicates other authors - or more woe for Hauser.

This is all very worrying stuff for comparative psychologists because Hauser's work has always gone to the heart of human cognitive evolution and, as John Hawks says in his blog (see side-bar), may have very worrying implications for the whole house of cards of comparative cognitive psychology and its experimental protocols, which, while often being fiendishly inventive, still require an amount of subjective interpretation of data.

Two Great Reviews By Bookreaders On

John Hawk's referred to NOT A CHIMP in his brief comment on accusations of irregularities in data interpretation in Marc Hauser's lab at Harvard, that have required Hauser to take one year's leave. This prompted me to re-visit Amazon's US website, following John's link, to find two really positive and thoughtful reviews I had not seen before - both disagreeing with the Publisher's Weekly review in the States last year that accused me of "bitter sentiments".

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding overview of what makes humans different from chimps, October 11, 2009
By Jeri Nevermind "loves to read" (Idaho) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human (Hardcover)
In 2005 Moe, a chimpanzee, turned 19. The couple who had raised him when he was young brought him a sheet cake with raspberry filling. As the couple stood outside his cage, two other nearby chimpanzees attacked the man. "He sustained severe facial injuries and his testicles and a foot were also severed" (p 7).

Taylor was interested enough to investigate just how close the ape family is to humans. He thought the story of man who had been attacked "graphically demonstrates the ambivalent world of chimpanzee-human relationships: huge emotional attachment of human to chimp; bizarre levels of anthropomorphizing; an animal species capable of thrilling us with its human-like behavior on the one hand and horrifying us with its brutal aggression on the other" (P 8).

This is a very timely book. Many people have proposed that since we are so close genetically to the great apes, they should be granted full human rights. Spain recently voted down such a law; New Zealand passed one.

Taylor wanted to learn the truth. And the result is this very thorough book. He appears to have included every single study over the last 20 years on the subject. And, while he leans slightly against the chimpanzees as being the equal of humans, even from the start, he gives a thorough, and apparently unbiased, investigation.

I found his chapter on "Clever Corvids" especially interesting. Corvids, which includes such birds as ravens and crows, perform quite well on tests designed to reveal their ability to use tools--and yes, they do use tools. Animal lovers will enjoy anecdotes and research that shows humor, cooperating at tasks, and planning.

Dog lovers will also be captured by his history of a "backwater Russian research institute (which) has not only succeeded in producing foxes so tame they behave just like dogs, they have also bred Norwegian rats, otters, and mink" (p 262). The domesticated foxes respond, like dogs, to the way people gaze at them, and they notice what people are pointing at. Wild foxes don't.

Taylor makes an exhaustive investigation of all aspects of human and chimp cognition. He talks about everything, from how variations in serotonin transporters and MAO-A activity affect behavior, from brain size ( humans have a brain about "four times larger than you would expect for a typical anthropoid primate of our body size" (p 221), to research by Povinelli that casts doubt on ape intelligence.

Then there are the television documentaries on apes like Washoe and Koko who 'learned' language. And in the end he concludes most of these documentaries show a "long and sorry history--almost a pathology of science--ridden with wishful thing, over-exaggeration, and even downright fantasy" (p 295)

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich overview, fascinating read, not particularly bitter., February 8, 2010
By D. Watson (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human (Hardcover)
"Not a Chimp" is a polemic of sorts, but the Publisher's Weekly critique (posted on this Amazon page) of its "bitter sentiments" is an exaggeration. I suggest the prospective reader take it with a grain of salt. It is fair to say that Taylor disagrees strongly with the anthropomorphizing scholarship and is mildly contemptuous of the political efforts to elevate chimpanzees, and perhaps other apes, to human status. Less than ideal, maybe, but I didn't find any of this "hard to swallow." I am not as interested in the uniqueness of humans as Taylor is - I take that as obvious and am more interested in the "animalness" of humans - but I do share his suspicion of anthropomorphizing and even more of the application of international human rights law to non-human primates. Since he is critical of such renowned and somewhat romantically venerated figures as Jane Goodall and Franz de Waal in this respect, it is perhaps not surprising that some might find his tone somewhat harsh.

Aside from the polemic, though, there are many more concrete pleasures here for the layman interested in human/primate evolution. Most of the book describes the methodology and results of a wide range of experiments attempting to test the similarities/differences between humans and chimps (or sometimes other animals) with respect to genetics, brain size, language, social behavior, etc. For those who have seen "The Human Spark" on PBS, you will find a lot of the same issues and experiments discussed here, although in greater detail and with more context of course. In fact, if that program appealed to you, I would strongly recommend you pick up this book for its broader and deeper treatment of the issues. The results of these experiments are fascinating, but other armchair students of human evolution like me might also be impressed with the ingenuity and limits of the types of experiments designed by scientists in this field. Taylor himself is careful to note that this work is still in its early stages, and while impressed with many of the experiments, I also often felt that many of these findings may be nuanced (perhaps in some cases overturned) in the near future as more, and more sophisticated, experiments are developed. That said, the work presented by Taylor in this book is compelling. As another reviewer noted, the chapter on corvids is quite good and rather surprising to the general reader who has heard so much about the experiments with chimps and other primates in the press. For me, the final discussion of the evolution of the genes implicated in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (and their possible beneficial contributions to those not stricken with mental illness) was an extra treat I was not expecting, and I'm anxious to read more on that subject.

If you are a fan of science books for the general public, you will find that Taylor does a good job of periodically summing up complicated information to allow you to synthesize what you've read. However, there are a few discussions of genetics that left me flailing a bit - no one's fault but my own, of course. Also, many of the experiments described in the book involve gadgets of various sorts. Written descriptions of these are sometimes tedious when a chart would have provided the necessary insight immediately.

All in all, I recommend this book highly. I certainly have a different view the genetic/evolutionary relationship between humans and other primates/animals after reading it. It has the additional benefit of introducing the reader to some of the political issues related to animal rights activism, albeit from a critical perspective.

A Dog's Eye View Of Morphological Diversity

Interesting article from science writer Liza Gross on the reflections in the dog genome of one major genetic bottleneck during initial domestication, and further bottle-necking due to intense selection and inbreeding for breeds with particular traits.