Pedro Pozas, a Spanish animal-rights activist, made international headlines in 2006 when he declared, “I am an ape.” Pozas was speaking as an advocate for the Great Ape Project (GAP), the brainchild of Princeton utilitarian bioethicist Peter Singer and Italian animal-rights philosopher Paola Cavalieri. GAP’s stated goal is to obtain a United Nations declaration welcoming apes into a “community of equals” with humans.
Genetics alone show the similarity between humans and other apes. There is only a 2 percent difference between chimpanzees and humans; this compares to approximately a 0.1 percent difference between any two random humans.
But does that genetic overlap really make us apes? Not at all. Indeed, evolutionary anthropologist Jonathan Marks calls such assertions “pop biology:” They are “used to bludgeon the creationists, who deny kinship with the apes,” but do not in fact make a “valid evolutionary” argument.
Wait a minute—don’t both of us, humans and apes, descend from a common ancestor? Yes, Marks says, but so what?
Science no more says that I am an ape because my ancestors were, than it says that I am a slave because my ancestors were. The statement that you are your ancestors articulates a bio-political fact, not a biological fact. And it is ridiculous and offensive in the modern era, in addition to being false.
Okay, then what are we? Simple:
Based on our physical features, we can readily classify ourselves as mammals, primates, and hominoids. But the Superfamily Hominoidea, as taxonomists have long noted, comprises “apes and humans,” not just “apes.” In other words, “human” is a contrast group to “ape,” not a subset.
“But,” would-be apes might protest, “What about the mere 2 percent difference? Doesn’t that mean that we are 98 percent ape or, at least, that apes are 98 percent human?” Absolutely not. We share many genes with lettuce, but that doesn’t make us part salad.
Moreover, the “2 percent difference” statistic obfuscates far more than it elucidates. Research comparing human and chimpanzee genomes, published in Nature, found that there are more than 40 million differences between the two species’ base pairs, which are the DNA building blocks. “Just what makes us human? Now, in a sense, we can answer that question,” wrote the research paper's lead author, Tarjei Mikkelsen of the Broad Institute, in the Harvard Gazette. “Any human-specific trait that's encoded in our DNA is caused by one or more of those 40 million changes.”
Forty million genetic differences at the foundational level, whence our form and function spring, is no mere crack in the pavement—despite what Coyne, Dawkins, and Singer would have us believe. Even if we came about through purely materialistic and Darwinian means, it is evident that something happened to make us so remarkably distinct from every other known life form—characteristics that the faithful would say suggest our being made in God’s image. For example, only we are moral beings: As the philosopher Hans Jonas put it, “an ‘ought to’ can issue only from man and is alien to everything outside him.” Only we create. Only we philosophize. Only we seek meaning and Truth.
So, what is really going on with the “we are apes” mantra? Ideology. Geneticist Svante Paabo told Science, in an article entitled “Relative Differences: The Myth of the 1 Percent,” “I don't think there's any way to calculate a number,” or at least a precise percentage, of differences between chimpanzees and humans. “In the end, it's a political and social and cultural thing about how we see our differences.”
Those calling us “apes” are making a moral claim. For varying motives—to subvert religious faith, support “rights” for animals, convince us to tread more lightly on the earth, reject the intrinsic dignity of human life—those asserting our putative apehood want us to define ourselves as merely another animal in the forest.
Time will tell whether society chooses to accept this radical course. Just don’t be fooled into thinking it is compelled by “the science.”
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. His most recent book is The War on Humans.
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