Sunday, March 30, 2003


You're mostly a monkey
Robin McKie is impressed by Nature via Nurture, Matt Ridley's eloquent explanation of how we can be so different from other primates despite sharing 99% of their genetic material

Try this little literary exercise. Take the opening paragraphs of David Copperfield and compare them with those of The Catcher in the Rye. Note the similarities, some of which are intentional... Very different works can clearly be created from identical materials.

Which takes us, logically, to the chimpanzee. Scientists have recently shown these animals share all but a handful of the 30,000 genes that combine to create a human being. Yet the two species are not alike, despite superficial similarities. So how is this possible? baffled writers and pundits have asked. How can a creature that is 99 per cent genetically identical to ourselves be coated in thick pelts of hair, swing from the trees and live on a diet of raw termites and fruit?

Simple, says Ridley. It is just a matter of order, for just like words, genes come in an infinite variety of patterns. Change their sequence a little bit and you can turn Pan troglodytes into Homo sapiens, just as Dickens can be transformed into Salinger. There is no need to invent genes, he says, just as there is no need to invent words to write an original novel. 'All you need to do is switch the same ones on and off in different patterns.'...