Skip to main content

Not a Chimp – Jeremy Taylor ****

Jeremy Taylor’s aim in this book is to show how a fashionable idea among scientists and science communicators – that the gap between human and chimpanzee cognition and behaviour is almost negligible – is in fact hugely mistaken.
The belief that there is little difference between humans and chimpanzees in terms of cognition and behaviour is significantly based on genetic studies of recent years which have appeared to show that the human and chimpanzee genomes are roughly 98.4% identical. But as Taylor points out in the earlier sections of the book, genetic similarities don’t necessarily entail cognitive and behavioural similarities, especially when only a small handful of genes can have the ability to make one species dramatically different from another. In any case, these earlier sections explain, there is good reason to believe that the 98.4% figure is misleading: when we study more closely the two species’ genomes, we notice, for example, that many of the genes we share with chimpanzees are active in chimps but are no longer active in humans; that identical genes are expressed differently in humans and chimps; and that some of the genes we share with chimps have been duplicated in human beings, increasing the effects of these genes in humans.
Added to this, we find out later in the book that there is no clear evidence that chimps possess a theory of mind like the human capability. This enables us to appreciate the hidden intentions, beliefs and desires of somebody else by merely observing their actions. We find, indeed, that crows are in many respects more cognitively advanced than chimps. All of these fascinating insights go to show how far we are set apart from chimps, and they mean that it is not difficult for us to account for unique traits in humans like artistic creativity and the ability to develop complex languages.
Throughout the book, Taylor presents the material in a way that is accessible to the general reader, and the amount of research he describes and brings together makes his arguments, by and large, very convincing, and means the book is likely to be appealing even to experienced primatologists.
There is one respect in which the book could have been a little stronger, and this is where the focus moves away from the science and on to the question of whether we should extend certain human rights to chimpanzees – the right to life and to protection from torture, for example – as some, like the philosopher Peter Singer, have suggested. Taylor criticises this view given the differences between the species mentioned above but, at times, gives the impression that people like Singer want us simply to view chimpanzees as fully human, which no one is suggesting. Ultimately, here, there is a slight tendency here not to appreciate the arguments and positions of the other side and to oversimplify the issues.
Only a small portion of the book is dedicated to that discussion, however, and Taylor’s clear and comprehensive coverage of the science more than makes up for any shortcomings elsewhere. There is much in the book we need to bear in mind when thinking about our relationship with chimpanzees and the rest of the animal kingdom, and I would recommend it.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…