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!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Researchers Crack "Splicing Code".

In my chapter ALADDIN'S CAVE I detail a number of genomic mechanisms that potentially can add up to greater genetic distance than that represented by DNA base substitution (point mutation) in the genetic code. One such mechanism is called "splice variation" where a gene can produce a whole range of mRNA intermediates between DNA and protein by selective splicing out of exonic and intronic DNA. In this way one gene can produce up to several thousand different, but related, proteins. It is becoming obvious that this is a potent way in which a limited number of genes can produce the complexity of structure and function of the brain, and, already, a number of differences between chimps and humans have been noted in splice variants. This article reports on a recent Nature paper by Brendan Frey and Benjamin Blencowe, of the University of Toronto, explaining how they have managed to decipher this splicing code.

Bonobos Shake Heads To Say "No".

Is this report from the BBC on some recent research at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig yet another piece of anthropomorphic licence - or not? Bonobo mothers have been recorded shaking their heads as if to say "no" when their infants ignore previous and other methods to reprove them. The researchers add this gesture to a list of communicative head movements which, in bonobos, is richer than in any other of the great ape species. The report comes from a research group headed by Josep Call and I am therefore prepared to take it more seriously than most reports of this nature - and the researchers are more cautious in their interpretation than the story's headline. As one of them, Christel Schneider, told the BBC, horizontal shaking of the head is not a human universal for "no", so it is a perilously long jump to see some evolutionary antecedent to human "preventative head shaking" in bonobo behaviour!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

When It Comes To Sex, Chimps Need Help, Too!

Continuing the torrent of anthropomorphic rubbish currently being talked about chimpanzees, here is an amusing little piece from John Tierney in the New York Times - commenting on a recent article in Science from Bill McGrew, a world expert on chimpanzee technology, currently at the University of Cambridge. Tierney was fascinated that McGrew included "sex" as one of the daily life functions for which chimps had evolved tool use. It turns out that McGrew was referring to the practice of male chimps in one Tanzanian colony, augmenting their full view erections with the harsh sound of leaf-ripping - repeated until the, presumably visually-challenged, female showed some interest in what he had to offer. Tool use and manufacture? Rather stretching a point, methinks! McGrew is easily impressed!! You only have to compare a few ripped leaves with the multi-billion dollar internet porn industry, with the fact that there are computers, cameras and internet, together with world-wide prostitution, a plethora of sex toys, and several billion vivid imaginations to realise that, right down to the act of "getting it on", the gulf between humans and chimps is ENORMOUS.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Why Chimps Are Not Us...BBC Focus Magazine

The paperback version of NOT A CHIMP is due out in late June so it is nice to see this advertisement feature for OUP in the BBC's Focus magazine, featuring a short article penned by me and a "Sneaky Preview" link to the paperback.

Can You Hurt A Chimp's Feelings?

I've posted twice already about a recent spate of anthropomorphism in the popular and scientific press concerning "grieving" chimps. The spate seems to be turning into a major outbreak! Reports of chimps grieving over the death of an elderly female, Pansy, at a Scottish safari park, and female chimps carrying around dead infants, seemingly reluctant to let them go, from Africa, have now been conflated with the idiotic assertions on animal behaviour by a lecturer in film and television studies, from the University of East Anglia, Brett Mills, concerning our infringement of animals' privacy through the act of natural history film-making! When we poke a specialised camera into an animal's den or nest to film, for instance, rearing behaviour, we do it, says Mills, without the animal's consent. We are invading its privacy - its very behaviour, sequestering itself away, suggests it does not want to be seen. Here again, Mills operates from the assumption that other animal species feel the same emotions, often to the same intensity and cognitive depth, as humans. His suggestion that, in the absence of informed consent, we resist such activities, in rather the same manner that we might delicately avert our gaze while our dog relieves himself in the park, is yet another example of the misguided and scientifically unjustifiable basis for according rights to animals. In this Guardian piece, the "epidemic" gets a gentle put down from Ros Coward. It deserves a much ruder repudiation!