Cracking the genetic code

By | Science & Technology
credit@chrisknight.co.uk Chimps are known to be very social creatures.

Humanity has come a long way since the first animal came out of the sea and walked on land. It has gone through a number of transformations. Human beings have become the dominant species on the planet. Mankind has developed at an astonishing rate from humble beginnings. Ancestors stand with us in the form of today’s primates. The connection between humans and primates is inextricable. Human and primate DNA is so tightly interwoven that our intelligence may spring from the same genes, as a recent study has potentially revealed.

Research has been carried out to assess the link between heritability and intelligence in chimps. The team has estimated that genetic differences in chimps account for roughly 54 percent of the range that is identified as “g” signifying ‘genetic intelligence’. It is measured in a series of cerebral tests and the percent is similar to humans. William Hopkins of the Yerkes National Primate Research in Atlanta Georgia is heading the team. He states that “our results in chimps are quite consistent with data from humans, and the human heritability in g”.

Chimps are among the most intelligent primates – they have been recorded using tools in order to gather food. Recent depictions in films like ‘Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes’ showcase their potential for learning. Separating fact from fiction ensures that the plight of the animals is taken seriously in the wild.

Hopkins and his team studied 99 captive chimps, all from various age groups and a mix of males and females. They encouraged the apes to do 13 standard tasks to gain an understanding of their mental capabilities. Four categories were established – communication, spatial memory, tool use and causality. One task involved the chimps recalling which beaker held food. This helped to measure spatial awareness. Challenging them to find food in the company of humans helped to understand their communication.

Gender, familial relationships and environment were all taken into consideration. The researchers ascertained that they determined the impact of heritability based on how the animals scored. They discovered that genetic background made up 52.5 percent in the variation of g scores. Hopkins summarizes that “smarter chimps might gain access to more food resources and mates”. These skills may be more heritable because of the link between foraging and survival.

This is a promising step towards finding out about the genes that affect chimp intelligence. The groundwork has been laid for whether the same genes in humans contribute towards intelligence. There’s a possibility of identifying other genetic factors that give people superior thinking power over primates.

Similar studies have been carried out such as the 2012 case by Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He compiled data on two groups of apes that included chimps, gorillas and bonobos. Call’s findings showed a similar manner of chimp intelligence. He said “the discovery that spatial skills have a strong genetic component is unsurprising” and that the link with communication will require “further investigation”.

Research of this calibre opens up new potential in understanding primates. They have the capacity to learn from their environment. Studying them helps broaden the gap between the evolution of humanity. It also offers an insight into the world of animal research and defines what is acceptable in terms of methods. The need to protect chimps, indeed all primates, has never been greater. Perhaps in the future scientists will have cracked the genetic makeup. Perhaps the link between human and primate intelligence will become clearer. Until such a time speculation will continue to keep the topic relevant.

What other avenues do you think could be opened for understanding primates? 

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