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Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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Are human beings so much smarter than Chimps really?

Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson raised this point as a disturbing thought in one of his talks. I am taking it one step further.
Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor ∼5-7 million years ago. Their genomes now differ by ~4% (comprising ∼35 million single nucleotide differences and ∼90 Mb of insertions and deletions). That's the difference between the smartest of chimpanzees and dumbest of humans.
That incidentally is within which Beethoven and Bach, or Stephen Hawking and Einstein reside. Or LHC and Hubble Telescope if you like.
It looks like 4% is too little to make so much difference.
This puts us face to face with the following possibilities:
a) Most of human (or Chimpanzee) DNA are junk. That would lessen the denominator in the difference expression making 4% as wrong. May be the difference is not that little.
b) The perception of difference between a chimpanzee and human being (including all of Beethoven, Einstein and Hubble Telescope) as great is possibly flawed. Maybe in evolutionary scale we are just 4% smarter than Chimps.

So which is your best bet? Or do you have a better answer?

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    Jul 26 2013: P.M:
    (You are an actual chimp, right?)

    In any case, the difference depends on whether you calculate just the protein-coding genes or the entire DNA molecule, where much or most of the non-coding DNA seems to have a regulatory function. We know a lot of it is regulatory. It was earlier - humorously - called "junk DNA" when biologists hadn't yet identified its functions, though no one believed it was junk. It turns out now that the non-coding part - the "junk" - is what guides our development and maintenance, and turns the "blueprint genes" (the coding DNA) on and off.

    A 4% difference in DNA is evidently enough to account for our distinction from the chimpanzee, and it's interesting that this difference has appeared in only 5-7 M years. (Both the human and the chimp have changed.) Our difference from a cat's DNA seems to be about 10%, and we're said to be 20% different from a cow. But I hope we're more than 20% smarter, though I'm not always sure.
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      Jul 26 2013: Thank you Paul. A chimp's patience paid off then. :) With one day to go, I won't ask you to explain at length, just tell us what do you think is smartness in an interspecies and survival progression context.
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        Jul 26 2013: Smart is a pretty casual word, good when we don't need to be precise.
        I like this phrase about the human species: We're more clever than wise. There's no end to our inventiveness, but we seem to employ that in large part for self-destruction.

        Time will tell how "smart" we are as a species. Up to this point I think there's not much reason to be impressed with that. Not many other species have methodically destroyed their own habitat while fully understanding what they were doing. (We can forgive buffaloes for overgrazing.) If there's a Pearly Gate and Someone keeping a Great White Book upstairs, I think the human race will have some explaining to do when it comes to accounts.

        Cheers, PL
  • Jun 28 2013: Without getting into definitions, I think humans are way smarter that chimpanzees.

    Chimps may prove to be wiser.

    While humans continue to change and destroy our habitat, chimps continue to do what has worked for them for millions of years.

    For the human species as a whole, smartness may not be a positive survival characteristic.
  • Jun 29 2013: The limiting factor here is the physical appearance. Every lifeform is limited by physics, a fish can not build a mobile phone, because fishes do not have hands. If the would have hands, they might evolve to a species that could be able to build such things etc..

    A chimp has hands, but theres a diffrence in the thumbs lenght, so he can not use it like we can. He also is limited in communication, as he can not speak in such complex variant like humans do-it does not limit his intelligence, many studies show that under artificial scenarios chimps show a very complex understanding of their environment, which is simmiliar to our understanding.

    Same thing with lots of other animal races. Humans are not smarter when you compare them with animals, depending on the environment you put them in. Civilized people might appear smarter but in the end they just adapt, when you hand over a book to someone who has not been taught to read, he will probably do the same things with that book like a chimp would do. But it does not tell you about the intelligence, because there is no such human who has everything inside from the beginning, but is filled with what comes from outside.
  • Jun 28 2013: My best bet is that there's not a one-to-one relationship between DNA differences and phenotypic differences. Many differences in DNA might have little to no impact, then a few others might have huge effects. I just think that you are approaching this question the wrong way. Of course we are much smarter than chimps. It's significant enough that chimps are in danger of extinction while we are overpopulating the planet and might go extinct for completely different reasons. Now, I might get back a rhetorical: then chimps are smarter! Well, no, chimps just don't have the power to lead themselves to extinction the same way we might ... anyway, bottom line: there's no direct one-to-one relationship between DNA differences and phenotypic ones.
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      Jun 29 2013: " It's significant enough that chimps are in danger of extinction while we are overpopulating the planet and might go extinct for completely different reasons." I think the threat to chimps for extinction has, in large part, nothing to do with natural causes. Nature does not decrease the habitat of a species to less than 10% of its original size in a couple of centuries. Well it does, but out of extraterrestrial impact of meteors or large scale volcanic activities. Such activities are not known in the Holocene, I think. One can say that chimps are not smart enough to fight inter-species territorial dominance.
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    Jun 28 2013: I think a perspective on this depends on how much you value, say, facility with language and the processing and application of abstract ideas. Much of what our bodies do, and what chimps' bodies do, and what tigers' bodies do, and what rats do for our survival is intricate and perhaps magnificent but separate from the sort of deliberate processing usually associated with the word "smart."
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      Jun 28 2013: Good point. You seem to differentiate between relative biological smartness (I shall be interested to know how will you rate human beings in comparison to onions having six times larger DNA) and intellectual smartness based on linguistic and abstract idea processing capabilities. I think I get it.
      But whatever it is, it is nothing out of body capability. It is rooted in brain and part of biology, unless you would want to argue in favor of a super natural consciousness.
      That I can raise a question like this does not defy biology, does it?
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        Jun 28 2013: No, I had no thought of the supernatural. I was thinking only that it is not smartness that allows a mother to host a developing life in her body, but DNA definitely goes to such functions. A large proportion of our capability, and that of chimps, goes to such functions that are unrelated to "smart."
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          Jun 29 2013: Fritzie, one can see it entirely differently. For argument's sake one can say that hosting a developing life in a place that is safest in relation to environment (or in such numbers as to account for the loss of some under hostile environment) is a kind of smartness too, just that it's basis is different from what we normally understand as smartness. For humans it is inside the body, for birds its outside the body, for fish its huge in numbers - but all work magnificently.
          I just want everyone to introspect about the preferences we attach towards 'smartness' or 'huge differences' that are hot issues in this debate.
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    Jul 26 2013: For ones who do not know:
    Paul Lillebo is an expert in Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Earth History.
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      Jul 26 2013: In a human perspective of intelligence, yes. I am a 6 months old kid in the intelligence datum fixed at Richard Feynman.
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    Jul 4 2013: Ask a chimp!
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    Jun 30 2013: Well, thanks for the inputs guys.
    I shall add another twist in the discussion. Notwithstanding whether there is one to one correspondence between genotypes and phenotypes, how intelligent should a species you think would be who are just 4% different from humans but in the opposite end of the spectrum of that of chimps?
    How intelligent would they be? And if they come extra-terrestrially (for imagination's sake), will they be at all interested to communicate with us? Do we want to communicate with the worms?
    • Jul 5 2013: Actually many scientists would be willing to try and communicate with worms if they learned that they have some communication capacities. Most of us are quite willing to communicate with our dogs or pets, and understanding animal behaviour.
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      Jun 29 2013: Dear Deepak,
      If you are, under any average measure, what Indians are, I'd prefer to settle in Timbaktu. Thanks for your kind advice and please know that it is humbly rejected.
  • Jun 29 2013: I am still in amazement of the Ted Talk on the elimination of the Tasmanian Tiger. What a loss! Chimps too ? Why? They are so smart as to bed scary Brighter than some people. To me the Tasmanian Tiger could have served as fine pets and what problem would just a few cause But the speaker indicated they would have been easy to keep. Chimps are different but tghey exist too,
  • Jun 29 2013: If you take in to account that what makes us intelligent or smart like you say is the brain, the first thing we must know is how much of the human body represents the brain. If we know that in an average adult the weight of the brain is about 1.3 kg and we also know that the average weight of a human adult is about 60 kg, the brain then represents 2.2% of the human body. It is reasonable to assume that the amount of DNA instructions required to build each part of the body is about the same, so if this assumption is correct, %4 can make huge difference.