Brief thought exercise: have you ever stopped and realized that the reason you’re not a chimp is 1/50th of your DNA?

I read Guns, Germs and Steel on the first intercontinental flight I ever took (which sadly didn’t happen until I was 28), and while that’s maybe not the best flying-over-the-Atlantic reading material, it was pretty captivating (it has sold millions of copies). I came across this interview with Jared Diamond in Mother Jones (and there’s a podcast!) and was intrigued by this quote:

“The reason why you and I are talking, and we’re not locked up in cages—whereas chimpanzees are not talking, and are locked up in cages—all that lies in 2 percent of our DNA,” explained Diamond on Inquiring Minds.

I’ve thought about this stuff before just in passing, but it’s kind of insane if you think about it: 1/50th of your DNA profile is essentially all that separates you from an animal that our society typically places in cages. If you get a 98 on a test vs. a 96 on a test, chances are that’s still an A. Those two percent mean nothingthese two percent mean everything. Kinda crazy, right?

A common question people ask off of this is “If we evolved from chimps, why don’t all current chimps evolve into humans?” At points in my life, I’ve wondered this. This might be explained by the fact that a couple of science classes I had when I was younger were hijacked by dudes in my class putting pornos in the video player, because apparently I straight-up missed the boat: when we talk about two percent differences, that doesn’t necessarily mean we evolved directly from a chimp; it’s more nuanced than that. Your view on this might shift as regards science and religion, but evolution is essentially a trial and error process rooted in context. Put more directly:

Humans did not evolve from monkeys. Humans are more closely related to modern apes than to monkeys, but we didn’t evolve from apes, either. Humans share a common ancestor with modern African apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees. Scientists believe this common ancestor existed 5 to 8 million years ago. Shortly thereafter, the species diverged into two separate lineages. One of these lineages ultimately evolved into gorillas and chimps, and the other evolved into early human ancestors called hominids.

So, evolution is a magical thing. (Not everyone necessarily believes this.) But in the grand scheme of your life, stop and think for a second — you’re only considered not an animal because of two percent of your genetic makeup. That’s gotta be somewhat sobering, yes?

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. You can have the same DNA and society will still throw you in a cage….the only up side is at least we can talk to each other…

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