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The U.N. Monkeys Around

The 'Great Ape Project' degrades humanity.

12:00 AM, Aug 22, 2008 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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THERE IS A CONCERTED advocacy campaign underway across several disciplines aimed at knocking human beings off our pedestal of moral exceptionalism and redefining us as merely another animal in the forest. Toward this end, elements of the natural world are being personalized by public intellectuals, even as they seek to strip personhood from some people. The point of this ideological drive is to degrade our perceived self-worth so much that we will readily sacrifice human prosperity and welfare "to save the planet" or "for the animals," while undercutting the power of theistic religion in general, and Judeo-Christian moral teaching in particular, to influence public policies.

Case in point: the Great Ape Project (GAP), which seeks a United Nations declaration that human beings, apes, chimps, bonobos, and orangutans are all members of a so-called "community of equals," and hence are all entitled to Declaration of Independence-type "rights" to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. Since its introduction in 1993, the GAP's radical agenda has gained support from some of the world's most notable public intellectuals and is on the verge of becoming the law of Spain. (See: TEXT, THE WEEKLY STANDARD, July 21, 2008.)

The effort to create human/chimp moral equality is distinctly ideological, though proponents often wrap it in a scientific veneer. Never mind that human beings and chimpanzees are different species that cannot interbreed. And never mind that we have 46 chromosomes (gene-carrying structures) in every cell and chimps have 48. Opponents of human exceptionalism like Jane Goodall, Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins assert that humans and chimps are genetically nearly identical, and hence their value should be viewed as akin to ours.

Steve Ross, a researcher at the Lester Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, in urging us to increase our zeal for protecting chimp habitats, put it this way in the July 21 op-ed section of the New York Times:

Consider that chimpanzees share as much as 98 percent of our genetic makeup. They make and use tools, recognize and identify hundreds of individuals in their groups and learn from others skills like termite fishing. Of course, the reverse is also true: we are 98 percent chimpanzee

Even if the "98 percent" figure is true--and as we shall see, it probably isn't--this is nonsense. We are no more "98 percent chimp" then we are 40 percent salad because we share approximately that percentage of genes with lettuce.

This and similar statements made by public supporters of the Great Ape Project badly distort the findings of genomic research. Rather than disclosing how close we are to chimps, recent published scientific studies actually reveal dramatic differences between our two species at our most fundamental biological levels (DNA, RNA, and proteins). For example, according to a 2007 article published in Science ("Relative Differences: The Myth of 1 percent"), the actual percentage of genetic differences that account "for the anatomical and behavioral disparities between our knuckle-dragging cousins and us" may be as high as 6 percent.

Moreover, the purported 94-98 percent similarity--whichever it is--doesn't compare total genetic makeup, but only the DNA that "encodes proteins," that is, that stimulates the production of the building blocks of our physical bodies and functions. But such "coding-DNA" makes up only a small fraction--perhaps 2 percent--of our genome, which is why the author of the Science article carefully referred to genes that explain "anatomical and behavioral disparities" rather than the entire genetic makeup of the two species. Looking past the small amount of our DNA that encodes for proteins to the bulk of our genes known as "repetitive" or "non-coding" DNA, we find some congruence, but mostly a wide genomic gulf of difference separating humans from chimpanzees.