NOT A CHIMP

NOT A CHIMP
Click on the cover to link to OUP's e-catalogue then turn to the biology section.

Interview Podcast with George Miller

Interview Podcast with George Miller
Click on the pic to link to the NOT A CHIMP podcast on Blackwell's Website

Preface to "Not A Chimp: The Hunt For The Genes That Make Us Human"

In many ways, this book is born out of frustration for a professional career in popular science television where ideas about comparative primate cognition, and the similarities and differences between us and our primate relatives, have continually circled me but constantly evaded my grasp in terms of the opportunity to transform them into science documentary. On the plus side, keeping a watching brief for over a quarter of a century on subjects like comparative animal cognition and evolution allows you to watch a great deal of water flow under the bridge. Fashions come and fashions go - specifically, perspectives on the similarity - or otherwise - of human and ape minds.

I remember the first Horizon science documentary about the chimpanzee Washoe, the great ape communicator, using American Sign Language to bridge the species barrier. And, later, Kanzi the bonobo jabbing his lexicon. These were the apes, as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has put it, that were "on the brink of the human mind".

I remember when the pre-print of Machiavellian Intelligence, by Andrew Whiten and Dick Byrne, plopped onto the doormat of the BBC Antenna science series office in 1988. Suddenly primatology had become a great deal more exciting. Could primates, and especially higher primates like chimpanzees, really be as full of guile, as dastardly, as cunning, and as manipulative as the eponymous Florentine politician? Could they really reach deep into the minds of other individuals to see what they believed and what they wanted, and turn that information into deception?

I remember discussing primate cognition with a young Danny Povinelli, as we sat finger-feeding ourselves shrimp gumbo and new potatoes out of plastic Tupperware containers in a Lafayette restaurant surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, before returning to his kingdom - the New Iberia Research Centre - where the University of Louisiana had lured him back to his native deep South by turning a chimpanzee breeding centre for medical laboratory fodder into a primate cognition laboratory with one of the largest groups of captive chimpanzees in the country. He looked like a kid who had just been thrown the keys to the tuck shop.

In those days Povinelli shared the zeitgeist - spread by Whiten's and Byrne's work, and started by Nick Humphrey and Alison Jolly before them - that, since the most exacting and potentially treacherous environment faced by chimpanzees and other primates was not physical, but the social environment of their peers, they had evolved a form of social cognition very much like our own, in order to deal with it. This was further elaborated into a full-blown "social brain" hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, who related brain neocortex size to social group size throughout the primates and up to man. Povinelli's early work reflects this optimism for the mental life of apes, but both ape-language and ape-cognition research was subjected to a cold douche of searching criticism during the 1990s, and misgivings set in regarding the effectiveness of the experiments that had been constructed to guage ape cognition. Now the worm has turned again, with a number of research groups emerging with bolder and bolder claims for the Machiavellian machinations of primate minds, only to be powerfully countered by the curmudgeonly skepticism, chiefly by Povinelli, that these researchers are merely projecting their mental life onto that of their subjects; that, rather in the frustrating manner of Zeno's arrow that could never quite reach its target because it continually halved its distance to it, no experiment constructed thus far can actually get inside the mind of a chimp and show us exactly what it does and doesn't know, or how much, about the minds of others or the way the physical world works. One influential part of the world of comparative animal cognition talks of a continuum between ape and human minds and shrinks the cognitive distance between us and chimps to almost negligible proportions, while another returns us to the unfashionable idea that human cognition is unique, among the primates, after all.

When I began writing this book the working title was "The 1.6% that makes us human". My aim had always been to scrutinize the impression put about in the popular science media that humans and chimps differ by a mere 1.6% in our genetic code - or even less - and that it therefore makes complete sense that this minuscule genetic difference translates into equally small differences in cognition and behaviour between apes and man. However, contemporary genome science and technology, over the last few years, have dramatically advanced the power and resolution with which scientists can investigate genomes, eclipsing the earlier days of genomic investigation that gave rise to the "1.6% mantra".

As with comparative cognitive studies, conclusions on chimp-human similarity and difference in genome research depend crucially on perspective. To look at the complete set of human chromosomes, side by side with chimpanzee chromosomes, at the level of resolution of a powerful light microscope, for instance, is to be overwhelmed by the similarity between them. Overwhelmed with a sense of how close our kinship is with the other great apes. True, our chromosome 2 is a combination of two chimp chromosomes - giving humans a complement of 23 chromosome pairs to 24 in chimps, gorillas and orang-utans - but even here you can see exactly where the two chimp chromosomes have fused to produce one. The banding patterns you visualize by staining the chromosomes match up with astonishing similarity - and that banding similarity extends to many of the other chromosomes in the two genomes. However, look at a recent map of the chromosomes of chimps and humans, aligned side by side, produced by researchers who have mapped all inversions - end-on-end flips of large chunks of DNA - and the chromosomes are all but blotted out by a blizzard of red lines denoting inverted sequence. Now you become overwhelmed by how much structural change has occurred between the two genomes in just 6 million years. True, not all inversions result in changes in the working of genes - but many do - and inversions might even have been responsible for the initial divergence of chimp ancestor from human ancestor.

The extent to which you estimate the difference between chimp and human genomes depends entirely on where you look and how deeply. Modern genomics technology has led us deep into the mine that is the genome and has uncovered an extraordinary range of genetic mechanisms, many of which have one thing in common. They operate to promote variability - they amplify differences between individuals in one species. We now know, for instance, that each human is less genetically identical to anyone else than we thought only three years ago. When we compare human genomes to chimpanzee genomes these mechanisms magnify genetic distance still further. I have tried, in this book, to follow in the footsteps of these genome scientists as they dig deeper and deeper into the "Aladdin's Cave" of the genome. At times the going gets difficult. Scientists, like any explorers, are prone to taking wrong turnings, getting trapped in thickets, and covering hard ground, before breaking through into new insights. I hope that those of you who recoil from genetics with all the visceral horror with which many regard the sport of pot-holing will steel yourselves and follow me as far as I have dared to go into Aladdin's Cave. For only then will you see the riches within and begin to appreciate, as I have, just how limited popular accounts of human-chimpanzee genetic difference really are. Let me try and persuade you that this is a journey, if a little arduous at times, that is well worth taking.

There are a number of scientists around the world who have the breadth and the vision to have begun the task of rolling genetics, comparative animal cognition, and neuroscience into a comprehensive new approach to the study of human nature and this is part, at least, of their story. They strive to describe the nature of humans in terms of the extent to which we are genuinely different to chimpanzees and the other great apes. Somehow, over 6 million years, we humans evolved from something that probably resembled a chimpanzee (though we cannot yet be entirely sure) and the answer to our evolution has to lie in a growing number of structural changes in our genome, versus that of the chimpanzee, that have led to the evolution of a large number of genes that have, effectively, re-designed our brains and led to our advanced and peculiar human cognition.

If you don't believe me, hand this book to your nearest friendly chimpanzee and see what he makes of it!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Idiot Is Still In The Zoo

http://phys.org/news/2015-03-lawyer-chimps-people.html

Steven Wise won't go away.  As this article on the back of his recent TED talk in Vancouver shows. By taking the writ of habeas corpus to chimps, orcas and whales he is determined they shall have human rights. But until he can show me that all these highly intelligent non-human species are able to appreciate the concept of rights and are mentally capable of entering into the two-way social contract being a member of society with rights requires, he ain't going to convince me. 

Monday, 9 March 2015

Researchers map 'switches' that shaped the evolution of the human brain

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-03-evolution-human-brain.html

The main reason - as I pointed out in NOT A CHIMP - for the obvious differences in physiology, morphology and cognition between us and the rest of the higher primates lies not in mutations in genes, or de novo genes, per se (although these can occasionally prove vitally important) but in the differences in the activity of genes - called gene expression. This article shows just how important changes in the regulation of genes has proved in the evolution of the human cerebral cortex.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Small DNA changes separate chimp and human brains

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-02-small-dna-chimp-human-brains.html

In not a chimp I documented the work of Katherine Pollard's lab in identifying rapidly evolving regions of DNA called HARs that exist outside known genes and are thought to enhance neighbouring gene activity. Here is a report on the HAR5 region by a lab influenced by Pollard's path-breaking research.

A gene for brain size only found in humans

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-02-gene-brain-size-humans.html

Interesting account of the discovery of one of 58 de novo human specific genes that are involved in increase in brain size.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

WHITEWASH FOR BLACK CROWS


Source: Alphagalileo


Bad reputation of crows demystified

23 January 2015 Plataforma SINC
In literature, crows and ravens are a bad omen and are associated with witches. Most people believe they steal, eat other birds' eggs and reduce the populations of other birds. But a new study, which has brought together over 326 interactions between corvids and their prey, demonstrates that their notoriety is not entirely merited.

Corvids - the bird group that includes crows, ravens and magpies - are the subject of several population control schemes, in both game and conservation environments. These controls are based on the belief that destroying them is good for other birds. They are also considered to be effective predators capable of reducing the populations of their prey.

However, a study published recently in the journal 'Ibis' analysed the impact of six species of corvid on a total of 67 species of bird susceptible to being their prey, among which are game birds and passerine birds.

The project, which compiled the information of 42 scientific studies and analysed a total of 326 interactions between corvids and their prey, shows that they have a much smaller effect on other bird species than was previously thought.

As Beatriz Arroyo - author of the study and a researcher at the Institute of Research in Game Resources (IREC), a joint centre of the University of Castilla-La Mancha, the Castilla-La Mancha Community Council and the CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) - tells SINC: "In 81% of cases studied, corvids did not present a discernible impact on their potential prey. Furthermore, in 6% of cases, some apparently beneficial relationships were even observed."

Greater impact on reproduction

To find out what impact corvids have on their prey, the researchers - in conjunction with the University of Cape Town (South Africa) - conducted several experiments in which they isolated crows, ravens and magpies, among other predators, to observe how they affected the reproduction and abundance of other birds.

According to the works analysed, when crows were taken away from their habitat, the survival rates of chickens and the number of eggs of other species were higher in most cases. Nevertheless, with respect to abundance, without corvids an increased size of the populations of other birds was observed only in a small number of cases.

According to the study, when crows were removed from the environment, in 46% of cases their prey had greater reproductive success, while their abundance fell in less than 10% of cases.

Additionally, these experimental studies carried out in nine different countries (Canada, France, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA) revealed that, if corvids are eliminated but other predators are not, the impact on the productivity of their prey would be positive in only 16% of cases; whilst without corvids and other predators, including carnivores, the productivity of other birds improves in 60% of cases.

This suggests that crows, ravens and magpies, amongst others, have a lower impact on prey than other threats. "Compensatory predation can also occur," the researcher explains.

In the study they also compared the effects between different groups of corvids. In these results it is striking that "magpies had much less impact on prey than other species," Arroyo claims.

Comparing crows and magpies, the scientists showed that in 62% of cases crows impacted negatively on the reproduction of their prey, whilst magpies had a negative effect in 12% of cases. "But no differences related to the abundance of prey were noted," the scientist affirms.

For the authors of this piece of research, given the results it is necessary to "be cautious" when drawing conclusions on the impact of magpies or crows on the populations of their prey. "This method of managing populations is frequently ineffective and unnecessary," Arroyo finishes.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Unexpectedly speedy expansion of human, ape cerebellum

http://phys.org/news/2014-10-unexpectedly-speedy-expansion-human-ape.html

Two British researchers - Rob Barton and Chris Venditti have moved the spotlight, in the brain, from the neo-cortex to the cerebellum. They show how the cerebellum, in real terms, has expanded mightily in the apes, and on into humans. The neuronal density in the cerebellum is greater than that throughout the neo-cortex. "In humans, the cerebellum contains about 70 billion neurons—four times more than in the neocortex," Barton says. "Nobody really knows what all these neurons are for, but they must be doing something important."

As time goes by, the cerebellum has been found to have more sophisticated roles than previously thought. These include "the temporal organization of complex behavioral sequences, such as those involved in making and using tools, for instance. Interestingly, evidence is now emerging for a critical role of the cerebellum in language, too."