“It’s obvious that humans are unlike all animals. It is also obvious that we are a species of big mammal down to the minutest detail[…]That contradiction is the most fascinating feature of the human species.” – Jared Diamond
The genetic distance separating us from chimps is roughly 1.7%. Let me put this in another way for you to appreciate the significance of that figure. The genetic difference separating humans from chimps is less than the genetic distance between two related species of birds: the red-eyed vireos and the white-eyed vireos. As a matter of fact, humans and chimps share more DNA than do chimps and gorillas (98.3% as opposed to 97.7%). But try referring to someone as an animal and you are most likely to be fed a knuckle-sandwich.
If we were to design an experiment, whereby we would take a human being, strip his clothes off, add a little body hair, reduce his speech to grunts, and throw him into a cage. Chances are that passers-by will offer him a banana.
Yet most people consider worms, elephants, and chimps to belong to the same one category of animals, while humans hold a category of their own.
Why do people cling so tenably to that established unbridgeable gulf between us and other species? Are the differences really that conspicuous?
Let’s try an experiment that is actually feasible this time. If we go about asking people what distinguishes us from animals, chances are we will end up with the following attributes: language, religion, agriculture, aesthetic appreciation, reasoning, technology, etc… Some darker features (which will probably be overlooked by the interviewee) would include drug abuse, genocide, and war.
That seems like a lot for us humans to develop in such a short time (approximately 7 million years since we and chimps parted ways, unless of course, non-Homo sapiens hominids are also being considered animals).
A mere 1.7% difference in DNA couldn’t have been responsible for all of this, at least not from scratch.
You do not colonize every corner of the Earth, invent the internet, and paint the Mona Lisa because of a couple of mutations.
There must have been a pre-cursor to each and every one of these attributes found in the animal kingdom, a pre-cursor that developed, little by little, by evolution. Under the constant inspection and interference of natural selection, undesirable traits would have been carefully filtered out while good ones were preserved, ultimately giving rise to the final and perfect version- that which is mistakenly thought to have spontaneously arisen in humans.
The following was an introduction to a series of articles I plan to write. Each article will carefully examine the precursors of the aforementioned attributes in the animal kingdom, in the hopes of conveying a clear picture about who we were, who we are now, and how the corresponding transition took place.
For my next article, I will attempt to explain the underlying genetic mechanism that drives the whole of evolution, mutation.
Reference: “The Third Chimpanzee” – Jared Diamond