MARKS, Jonathan. What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes. Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA & London, England: University of California Press, Ltd. 2002, 312p. Resenha de: GOULET, Jean-Guy. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.1, p., 2004.
Imagine a Planet of the Apes on which a single specie, over seven million years, evolves into three related but distinct species: Homo, Pan (chimpanzee and bonobo), and Gorilla. Unique among them are human beings who ask What does it mean to be 98% chimpanzee? The answer is found in Jonathan Marks’s witty, insightful and critical essay.
In this book Marks accomplishes two important tasks. First, he convincingly argues that the reduction of important things in life to genetics is a recent cultural, non-scientific, phenomenon that calls for serious critical analysis. In a stance that some may find polemical he states unambiguously that technical sophistication and intellectual navet have been the twin hallmarks of human genetics since its origins as a science in the early part of the twentieth century (p. 2). Second, he challenges a wide range of taken-for granted views on race, inequality, sexual orientation, funding for research projects, and many other salient topics of public interest. In the process Marks offers refreshing insights into the fallacy of arguments put forward by authors, some of them scientists, who inappropriately use science to promote their social agenda.
While reading this book one comes to appreciate the kinds of questions and statements Marks come up with to get the reader to think. Consider the following: When a human skull encases 1400 cubic centimetres of brain, a chimp is luck to have a third of that. Is that 67% different? (p. 23); If we are similar but distinguishable from a gorilla ecologically, demographically, anatomically, mentally indeed every way except genetically does it follow that all the other standards of comparison are irrelevant, and the genetic comparison is transcendent? (p. 43); We are apes, but only in precisely the same way we are fish (p. 45); The overwhelming bulk of detectable genetic variation in the human species is between individuals in the same population. About 85% of it, in fact (p. 82); Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants are indistinguishable genetically, but they know who they are and who they are not, by virtue of their cultural difference (p. 87).
Observations such as these cut to the heart of the matter. In the same vein Marks reminds his readers that Races aren’t there as natural facts, they are there as cultural facts, which overwhelm and redefine the relatively minor biological component they have (p. 136). He writes: I’m always astonished to find it asserted in the sociobiological literature that humans have a deep hereditary propensity for ‘xenophobia,’ fear or hatred of others, or more grandiosely, a genetic basis for genocide (p. 141). Marks, who notes that the simplest answer to such assertions is to point out that genocide policies are carried out between people biologically very similar but culturally very different, such as the Hutu and Tutsi, Bosnians and Serbs, Israelis and Palestinians, Huron and Iroquois, Germans and Jews, English and Irish (p. 142). It is cultural values and social agendas that shape human lives as historically situated humans strive to promote this or that social and political agendas to create a world more to their liking.
Of the twelve chapters in the book, four are based on previously published papers and three, chapters 6, 7 and 8, are based on published reviews of books. These are: Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It by J. Entine (2000); Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by R. Wrangham and D. Peterson (1996); and, The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity by P. Cavalieri and P. Singer (1993).
From one chapter to the next, Marks continuously keeps his sight on the ambiguous relationship between science and society. To illuminate the pitfalls of the uncritical and unwarranted misuse of poorly understood scientific knowledge he engages in lively discussions of the sociobiological view of males as naturally inclined to violence (chapter 7), of the Great Ape Project which promotes extending human rights to the great apes (chapter 8), of the Human Genome Project (chapter 8) and the Human Genome Diversity Project (chapter 9), of the controversy around the cloning of human beings (chapter 10), of the Creationist agenda (chapter 11), or of the eugenic movement (chapter 12).
In brief, this is a great book for all interested in contemporary debates in which claims are made about the social and cultural significance of genetic markers in humans and non-humans. The range of topics covered is wide. The writing is lively and thought provoking. The quest for sorting out science from pseudo science is relentless. In this way Marks accomplishes his purpose which is to challenge not science but scientism, an uncritical faith in science and scientists (p. 279).
Jean-Guy Goulet – Faculty of Human Sciences. Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Ontario.