98% Chimpanzee and 35% Daffodil
The Human Genome in Evolutionary
and Cultural Context
One of the most overexposed factoids in modern science is our genetic similarity to the African apes, the chimpanzees and gorillas. It bears the precision of modern technology; it carries the air of philosophical relevance. It reinforces the cultural knowledge that genetics reveals deep truths about the human condition, that we are but a half step from the beasts in our nature.
But how do we know just how genetically similar we are to them? What is that estimate based on? What real significance does it have for our conceptions of ourselves in the modern world and for the role of genetic knowledge in shaping those conceptions? This is where genetics and anthropology converge, the gray zone of “molecular anthropology, ” technologically molecular and intellectually anthropological, in principle at least.
I attempt in this essay to do something that is classically anthropology. I take a well-known natural fact and show it to be a construction of the social and cultural order and, in that capacity, in need of deconstruction.
Our biological similarity to the apes was known long before there were geneticists. To eighteenth-century scholars, apes had roughly the same status as Bigfoot does today: they lived in remote areas and were seen only by untrained observers. Consequently, reports about them differed widely in quality and reliability.
These creatures were situated on the boundary between personhood and animalhood and, as a result, were immensely interesting. That boundary is of course the domain of powerful mythological motifs in all cultures, for the distinction between person and animal allows us to situate ourselves in the natural order, to make some sense of our place in it. And the mythology is