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Tim Blagg

Chimps ... our cousins

Rethinking their use in experiments

AP filephoto
This is an August 2004 aerial file photo of the 200-acre site in Caddo Parish near Shreveport, La., where the first phase of construction on Chimp Haven is under way. The NIH Council of Councils Working Group last week approved a proposal, which also calls for major cuts in grants to study chimps in laboratories and no return to breeding them for research. Government scientists have agreed that all but 50 of hundreds of chimpanzees kept for federally funded research should be retired from labs and sent to the national sanctuary.

AP filephoto This is an August 2004 aerial file photo of the 200-acre site in Caddo Parish near Shreveport, La., where the first phase of construction on Chimp Haven is under way. The NIH Council of Councils Working Group last week approved a proposal, which also calls for major cuts in grants to study chimps in laboratories and no return to breeding them for research. Government scientists have agreed that all but 50 of hundreds of chimpanzees kept for federally funded research should be retired from labs and sent to the national sanctuary.

In his ground-breaking book “The Third Chimpanzee,” Jared Diamond outlines the arguments for reclassifying our closest relatives in the animal world, the chimpanzees.

The two orders of chimps are common chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, found north of the Congo River in Africa, and Bonobos, Pan paniscus, found south of that boundary.

Diamond and others contend that they should really be Homo troglodytes and Homo paniscus, since they are virtually indistinguishable — biologically speaking — from humans ... Homo sapiens.

In fact, chimp DNA is nearly identical — 94 to 99 percent the same — as human DNA.

Chimpanzees are actually much closer to humans than they are to gorillas, and the two species only diverged some 4-6 million years ago. Our long-lost cousin, Homo neanderthalis, acknowledged as a human species, is located somewhere between us and chimps in DNA differences.

But if that change were to be made, Diamond writes, it would pose some troubling ethical dilemmas for us.

Today, we keep chimps locked up in zoos, and use them in experiments designed to improve medical treatment for humans.

If they are indeed of our same species, can we continue to do that? We shirk from using humans in such experiments, although the same arguments for the “greater good” can be made as are used to justify chimp labs.

The other day, National Institutes of Health scientists decided to send all but 50 of hundreds of chimpanzees which had been kept for federally funded research to a national sanctuary, “Chimp Haven” outside Shreveport, La., where they would be free to interact socially, play and climb in something resembling their natural habitat. A NIH committee also agreed to major cuts in grants to study chimps in laboratories and never to return to breeding them for research.

Under the new agreement, chimps should be used only if there is no other way to study a threat to human health, and the research would have to be approved by an independent committee with members from the public.

I think this is a giant step in the right direction, but only a first step. The fact is that although we humans pride ourselves on the fact that our big brains differentiate us from other animals, we are still basically only slightly changed, physically, from our primate ancestors.

Homo erectus was able, despite its relatively small brain (about half the size of ours), to survive and thrive for more than a million years, chipping out its signature, an all-purpose hand axe from suitable materials and using fire both for warmth and to cook food. These early humans probably migrated from Africa into Europe and Asia and only disappeared when confronted by their descendants — Neanderthals and modern humans.

Chimps, although they do sometimes use tools, are less sophisticated than Erectus, but are a very successful species — when humans don’t destroy their environment.

We owe them greater respect.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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