Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Razor-Thin Difference

Many people believe that Stephen Hawking is the most intelligent human being on the face of the earth. Dr. Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a chair once occupied by Sir Issac Newton. There he studies cosmology, the laws of physics and mathematics that define the universe. His goal is to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory and explain the mysteries of our lives.

My totally-made-up, fictitious cousin Sylvia is a lot like Stephen Hawking. Sylvia studies cosmetology at night. By day she has a chair at Dee Dee's "Curl Up and Dye" Salon in Jersey City that is occupied, the first Tuesday of every month, by Doris Newton. Sylvia helps Doris understand the mysteries of Days of Our Lives while she does her nails.

Stephen and Sylvia have more in common than just their professions. At a genetic level their bodies are very similar, even despite Sylvia's baggy arms. Indeed, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, who has created male transgenic mice with XX chromosomes, suggests that only two genes, called Sry and Sox 9, determine male gender. That's a razor-thin difference, but unfortunately one that has been, and continues to be, very large for some people. Many societies around the world still deny females fundamental rights, while closer to home the good-old-boys at Augusta National (the golf course where the Masters is played) flex their Sry and Sox 9 by denying membership to women. Too bad.

Stephen Hawking also has a lot in common with my totally-made-up, fictitious neighbor Dave. This is true even though Dave is black. The Human Genome Project has revealed that roughly 99.9% of the DNA of every person on the planet is identical, and that variations within a race are more significant than variations between races. Unfortunately, the razor-thin nature of the difference between races is lost on many people. Nearly 40 years after legislation supposedly eliminated all legal distinctions between people of different colors, racism—both overt and subtle—remains rampant in our society.

(My neighbor Dave is gay too. Isn't it ironic that, even as the scientific evidence mounts that sexual preference is also one of the tiny genetic differences that do exist between people, so many steadfastly refuse to consider that possibility, claiming instead that it is merely a moral choice?)

Finally, even though he may not like to admit it, Stephen Hawking shares a lot in common with Kanzi. Kanzi is an ape who lives at Georgia State University in Atlanta. On a genetic level, primates are very similar to humans indeed. We share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, our closest nonhuman relatives. Other animals aren't far behind. We share 95% of our genome with dogs, and an amazing 74% with microscopic roundworms.

Now, you may be the kind of smart aleck who would say, "Gee, a whole 1.6% difference between us guys and them dumb chimps? …Sounds like a lot to me!" Don't count on it. Actually, the difference is much smaller still. That's because, in actuality, none of us are very human at all. In our bodies there are more than 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Doing the math, that makes us mostly bugs and less than 9% Homo sapien, whereas our dog Phydeaux is mostly bugs and less than 8.55% (that's 9% x 95%) Homo sapien. Is there a big difference there? I don't think so.

Most people, of course, don't care that our fellow animals are so much like humans. In this country animals have no legal standing. Moreover, the vast majority of people eat meat, and participate, at least indirectly, in unthinkable agricultural, entertainment and medical atrocities against a wide variety of animals, from primates on down. Often this behavior is rationalized with arguments like, "they're not like us," "they don't really think," "they don't have souls," and "they don't feel pain the way we do." Even if casual observation didn't show these rationalizations to be ridiculous (and it certainly does), the genetic likeness we share with these animals also makes such arguments highly suspect.

Of course, one thing other animals don't share with us is our capacity for speech. Certainly some animals (whales, birds, dolphins) have their own languages that we have yet to decipher. Perhaps most do. But this doesn't seem to count. If more animals could speak to us in a way that we could understand, and tell us about their fears, their suffering, their emotions, would it make a difference? Nobody wants to eat Porky Pig, or send Mr. Ed to the glue factory. I think it would make all the difference in the world.

By the way, Kanzi can speak. As long as he has the aid of a computer he can communicate with us on our own terms. He uses a special keyboard with symbols that he associates with things and concepts. Using his keyboard Kanzi has a working vocabulary of over 200 words, and he can recognize over 500 words.

Just like Kanzi, Stephen Hawking also needs a computer if he wants to speak. He suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and must communicate through a portable computer fitted with a speech synthesizer.

The most intelligent man on earth and a "dumb" animal both "talking" in the same way? It's true.

Let me summarize… Cosmologist or cosmetologist, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, human or dog or ape—there's just a razor-thin difference between all of us, and it's just a genetic crapshoot that determines which side of the line we fall on. Given those facts, wouldn't you think we could manage to understand each other a little better? I would.

Too bad we can't isolate the genes for bigotry and intolerance and cruelty. Too bad we can't erase them from the genetic framework forever.

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