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Chimpanzees: the grandparents of society

May 20, 2011

Did you know that Aspirin, Tylenol, and common birth control pills are as effective in chimpanzees as in humans? Are you aware that 96% of human & chimp DNA is the same? Chimps also develop diseases such as arthritis and diabetes, similar to humans. If we have so much in common with chimpanzees, doesn’t it seem logical to spend more time learning from them?

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On Wednesday April 27, Dr. Elizabeth Lonsdorf and Dr. Steve Ross–scientists from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago–presented information about the benefits of researching chimpanzees. Their talk (and book) was titled, ‘The Mind of a Chimpanzee.’ During the talk, organized by the Chicago Council on Science & Technology, these scientists provided information about new trends in chimp research and identified similarities between humans and chimps, with whom we share a common ancestor estimated to have lived 5 to 6 million years ago. The captivating talk enlightened my mind with a few facts about our ancestors:

  • Their poop can be analyzed to determine stress levels
  • Chimps have excellent short-term memory
  • They love blueberries as rewards
  • 2,200 chimpanzees live in the United States, 13% are in zoos and 15% are privately owned (The rest:
  • As a human would use a fishing pole to catch fish, chimps have taught themselves to fish for termites using sticks
  • The main threats to chimpanzee survival as a species: disease, bushman trade, and deforestation

During the Q&A portion of the talk, an interesting question was asked: What are the societal implications of chimpanzee research? As I pondered the question, neurons in my brain activated a memory unrelated to chimpanzees (or was it?):

Recently, my 92-year old grandma passed away. I struggled with what to miss most about her. Will I miss her presence–the idea that I can call or visit her whenever I want? Maybe I’ll miss watching The Price Is Right with her, or maybe reminiscing about my early childhood; she was a great resource for family history, like a time machine.

From time to time I flip through dusty photo albums, living in the moment preserved by the 3×5 inch photographs. One day I noticed a consistent marker in every photo with my grandma, as if someone had stamped a logo on her. This “logo” was the smile she always wore. Suddenly I realized what I miss most: her philosophy behind the smile. When I would ask how she was feeling, she would always say in her sweet, 92-year old grandma voice, “I’m alive.” She was always happy to be alive. These 2 words are an original ingredient to LETUBEU (the way I live my life), and I almost forgot where they came from. As I prepare for the future, conserving these photo albums, and ultimately my memories, has become a top priority.

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On The Origin of Species, the Art of War, the Bible, or, even, your own photo albums are books of information & documented memories. Societies have utilized these books for decades, centuries, and millennia to learn from history to better prepare for the future. Our identities as people and as a society are coded in these ancient texts. Imagine life without books, if slowly 1-by-1 we deleted all copies of them. We’d lose track of our history and how our society came to be in 2011.

As I see it, studying chimpanzees is similar to studying the Bible or looking through a photo album. Books preserve stories & memories (the code of societies) like chimpanzees preserve DNA (the code of life). If their species has survived Planet Earth for millions of years and humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, are we missing out by not studying the mind of a chimpanzee, like a grandparent or ancient text? Unfortunately, they are in danger of becoming extinct. Should conserving chimpanzees be a higher priority?

Being a fan of history and the lessons we learn from it, I believe society will benefit from the conservation of books as well as chimps, whose DNA is 96% similar to yours. Next time you open a photo album or Bible, remember that everyone you read about or see shares DNA similar to chimps’; they love, they communicate,
and they cuddle.

science chicago conservation

Come visit Kathy & Chuckie (right), a mother and daughter at the Lincoln Park Zoo, as they cuddle, communicate, and love. To learn more about chimp research, read or purchase “The Mind of a Chimpanzee,” edited by Drs. Lonsdorf and Ross. And click here to listen to their talk from April 27: WBEZ91.5.

To close out, here is a quote from Peter N. Stearns of the American Historical Association and thanks for reading, let you be you:

Consequently, history must serve, however imperfectly, as our laboratory, and data from the past must serve as our most vital evidence in the unavoidable quest to figure out why our complex species behaves as it does in societal settings. This, fundamentally, is why we cannot stay away from history: it offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of how societies function, and people need to have some sense of how societies function simply to run their own lives.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Geneless permalink
    May 26, 2011 3:01 PM

    Wow! I’m very surprised that only 13% of chimps in the US are in zoos; I would have expected that number to be much higher. It is saddening to see the percentage in labs…

    • May 26, 2011 6:12 PM

      It is sad. And a lot of those chimps at biomedical research facilities are sitting in a cage for “holding”, waiting to be used for future science experiments. There are no regulations that limit the amount of time these companies can hold the chimps. They just sit there. It’s a terrible life for any creature.


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