Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: Beyond Human

AUTHOR: Barrett Golding

February 27, 2007: Same Difference

The topic I'm tracking for the DNA Files is Comparative Genomics. What are the differences between species? And especially, what on the DNA-level distinguishes us humans from other species? To rephrase: Why are we special?

I've thumbed through the voluminous pile of research papers assembled by our outstanding science-writing staff. I can now conclusively state the results -- drum roll, please... What makes us different? The answer is: nothing, nada, or at best, not much; i.e., we ain't so special.

Our DNA is just about identical (99%) to chimps, and nearly the same (85%) as mice. Nor can we flatter ourselves with our gene count: Sure, our 25,000 genes beats out a roundworm's 19,500, but it's only about half of corn's 40,000.

I wonder how much our need to show how special we are drives religion and even science. Scientists are smart, right? Much smarter than chimps. I mean, what chimp would devote hunks of his existence to, say, sequencing an entire genome.

And religion molds us into G-d's image, with a human-only immortal soul attached. I was talking about this over coffee with my friend, writer David Quammen. He postulated this circular-logical desire for a hereafter: "We've gotta have an afterlife, because we've gotta be different than worms; and worms don't have an afterlife, so we've gotta have an afterlife."

Maybe our urge to prove ourselves different IS what makes us different.