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Of Mice, Chimps and Mankind

Describing why people aren't nude apes, why chimpanzee social structures tell us virtually nothing about their human equivalents, and why there aren't any “alpha males” in human society.


It looks to be among the most famous memes of recent times. “Human being are simply nude apes,” you say, nodding sagely and seeming shrewd. “There is just 1.5% difference between human DNA and chimpanzee DNA, you know.” In the event your crowd seems enough impressed and you've see the right pop science magazine article, it is possible to continue to talk knowledgeably about “alpha males” and “beta males.” If you're male and speaking to an attractive female, you could even attempt to suggest that you, of course, will be the alpha male of the group… though there are few recorded instances of this technique working. But just how much truth is there to all these things?


The very first time you hear it, it looks rather remarkable that there's just 1.5% genetic difference between humans and chimps: it sounds like we are nearly identical twins. In practice though, things aren't quite that straightforward. Genes code for proteins, all creatures share substantially the same proteins, and so all creatures share an awful bunch of DNA. Rather than chimps, attempt comparing us to mice, as an example. Mouse DNA is 2.5% distinct to human. People are really not substantially closer to chimpanzees than we are to mice. Rather than describing people as Nude Apes, humans could be accurately described by us almost as Really Large Mice.

The DNA comparison is flawed. Development isn't a slow, steady procedure: it continues in what's sometimes called “punctuated equilibrium.” Species which can be in a secure market often stay exactly the same. When a species alters its surroundings, or a group becomes isolated from the remainder of its species, then it evolves quickly before the situation stabilizes. This isn't always represented in the DNA of the species. Most DNA doesn't code for proteins, therefore a species which is secure in this manner will still be collecting significant DNA changes, although these changes have little result in the organism itself. Conversely, while a species is evolving swiftly, its DNA might not be transforming very much: a few miniature mutations can get a massive effect.

The percentage comparison is scientifically virtually pointless, except as a pointer to some common evolutionary history, while this is a pleasant solution to deflate human egotisms.


It's an occasional misconception that human beings evolved from now-existing apes. Truly people and apes possess a common ancestor who lived somewhere between 8 and 14 million years back. It's necessary to consider that we've been evolving separately because of this time. Our common ancestor may even have been more humanlike and less apelike than presently living apes: we understand hardly anything about any of it. This difference is comparable to one species evolving for twice that time, because we've been evolving individually. Even in evolutionary terms, it is a very long time. They're still not really, really close to people, while chimpanzees are our closest remaining relatives.

It might possibly be quite enlightening to examine the behaviour of critters which are close relatives to people, and it's a pity that no such creatures exist. Up until pretty recently they did. Neanderthals died out just 30,000 years in the past. Before that, various species of “plains apes” appear to have existed concurrently, like the several types of australopithecine . Sadly, our relatives were additionally our rivals, plus they appear to have now been “competed” into extinction.

The apes are such that were exceptionally conformed to rainforest settings. This isn't a coincidence: people are adjusted to life in the savannah, and until lately were content to leave the less-desired rainforest only. This revolutionary difference in habitat causes it to be even less likely that chimpanzee behaviour is comparable to that of human ancestors: the life of a hunter gatherer in the plains is different to that of a predominantly fruit eating life in the rainforest.

This also involves that even characteristics which apply to all out of the gorillas, orang-utans and chimps don't automatically apply to people. Each of these apes are forest-dwellers, quadrupedal, polygynous, and mostly fruit-eaters. Likenesses between their conduct may well be as a result of common aspects in their lifestyle; not natural qualities of our family group.

Society and Culture

In the past few decades some research workers, most notably the renowned Jane Goodall , have made an impressive number of studies to the social structures of apes, and chimpanzees particularly. Working for many years in states of extreme adversity plus some risk, they've revolutionized our knowledge of the creatures.

The social structure of chimpanzee groups is examined in certain detail. A rigid dominance hierarchy is established by male chimpanzees based mostly on fighting and threat displays. Females possess a more adaptive hierarchy, but are consistently subordinate to males. When a female is in the fertile phase of her menstrual cycle, her perineum becomes distended and thoroughly coloured, whereupon the dominant “alpha male” tries to isolate her from the remaining troop and mate together with her. Other apes have even more dominant alpha males. Gorilla alpha males command exclusive sexual use of the females.

While the terms alpha and beta male are trusted for other species, most notably wolves, it is apparently from the ape studies they have entered popular culture. Businessmen, politicians and all are told they must become “alpha males”. Geek culture, constantly at the ready to fully misunderstand some oversimplified science, has captured eagerly in the notion of the alpha geek. Look: computer nerds might be alpha males, also! However it's questionable how much all this applies to human beings.


There is often a size difference between the males along with the females, as is well known, in polygynous species, where the male has exclusive access to a number of females. It helps the male to be bigger, since it's a massive advantage to be competent fight off or intimidate opponents. While there's nearly always some competition between males, polygyny isn't the only basis for a size difference, however it is the most important. In powerfully polygynous species, including gorillas and elephant seals, there's a greater size difference, together with the males twice the size of the females. Chimpanzees are less polygynous than gorillas, along with the size difference between males and females is much less. In human beings, the size difference is even less than in chimps.

The issue with using all this to people is the fact that our sexual biology is completely different. It's notoriously hard to tell when a human female is in the fertile phase of her menstrual cycle. There's no helpful distended perineum, and human females will mate at any given phase of the cycle. What's much more interesting is the inclination of female menstrual cycles to synchronize together. Female people will all reach summit fertility at once, when they live in close proximity.

What this implies is the fact that human biology prevents the presence of chimpanzee-fashion alpha males. A fertile female can be isolated by an alpha male chimp from the remaining troop, but in a troop all of the females are likely to be fertile at once. Moreover, a human male cannot tell from just about any physical signals when the female is the most fertile. It seems that human sexuality has developed especially to exclude the chance of alpha males ruling mating.

I Have a Tremendous Member and Huge Testicles

Well. Possibly not compared to other people, but compared to the other apes, my genitals are massive. A male chimpanzee has an erect organ about 8cm (3 inches) long, and testicles weighing 120g. Gorillas are even worse off, with erect members just 3cm, and testicles of 35g (data).

The reason gorillas are so seemingly insufficient is straightforward: gorilla societies actually do have alpha males. The possibility a non-alpha male will mate using a fertile female is modest, thus there is no demand to get a male to get a competitive advantage in this manner. Human societies are far more egalitarian viewing accessibility to females, plus this is reflected by our relatively huge genitals.


Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are extremely much like chimps, and were simply identified as another species in the 1920's. Their social structure is completely different, although their lifestyle and look is virtually identical to chimps. They've a matriarchal society, where the alpha female controls, and also the alpha male is typically her son. Bonobos are noticed for being less violent and more sexually promiscuous than chimpanzees.

Some have tried to claim that human society reveal Bonobo society as opposed to chimpanzee society. A rather fundamental point is missed by this. There really isn't any reason to anticipate human society to reflect either, since chimps and Bonobos have such drastically distinct social structures, despite being so similar. As we've seen, our genes, our sexual biology as well as our habitat are drastically distinct to either species; any likenesses will probably be pure coincidence.

So In Conclusion...

Plato famously defined a human being as a “featherless biped”. Diogenes presented him with a plucked chicken, equally splendidly. The phrase “naked ape” is a wonderful with the objective of deflating the human egotism, and pointing out that people are merely another creature; but as a significant analogy is actually no better than Diogenes' chicken.

Science | Biology | Science in Society

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