TED Conversations

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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    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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