online: 12 august 2004
modified: 12 august 2004

10 august 2004 daffodils, fish, apes, people

Look (!) what Google found when I asked it to search for "daffodil 33" (the title of my most recent newsletter) :

What It Really Means To Be 99% Chimpanzee

a paper by Jonathan Marks, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

His opening paragraph:

I want to do something that is classically anthropology. I want to 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 de-construction. I've worked on this question both as a geneticist and as an anthropologist. That is to say, both as a technologist, using machines with flashing multicolored lights; and as an ethnographer, extracting meaning from words and acts.

[To me this is welcome evidence that when someone becomes skilled in two or more disciplines he or she is likely to see beyond the limitations, or blinkers, of specialisation!]

...excerpts from the paper:

...The point is that to say we are one-third daffodils because our DNA matches that of a daffodil 33% of the time, is not profound, it's ridiculous. There is hardly any biological comparison you can make which will find us to be one-third daffodil, except perhaps the DNA.

...In other words, we are phylogenetically apes, but only in precisely the same sense that we are phylogenetically fish.

Doesn't sound quite so profound now, does it?

The claim that we are apes is not a fact of nature, but an artifact of the way we organize and divide nature.

The gist of the paper, as I understand it, is that all species have fairly similar DNA patterns (within 25 or certainly 33%) but they can differ greatly in other physical characteristics. The popular view of people being 'almost the same' as apes etc comes of focussing only on DNA differences while discarding other evidence as being 'non-scientific' or otherwise irrelevant.

Reading through this paper again I copy and paste an additional remark:

the zero mark of a DNA comparison is not zero percent similar, but 25% similar.

I am sending this digital diary entry to Jonathan Marks in case he wishes to correct or to add to this account of his paper.

*a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Biological Anthropology Today: Topics For Non-Biological Anthropologists

(Presidential Symposium), Saturday, November 20, 1999

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