She did not answer but moved further along the fence to where one old neo-chimp was pressed up against the wire, staring at them with soft, tragic eyes, like a child at a bakery window. He had taken no part in the jostling demand for tobacco and had been let alone by the strawboss. "Would you like a cigarette?" she asked him.As our closest biological cousins, chimpanzees seem to be a natural target for genetic engineering, whether the goal is a class of worker-slaves or human companions. The best example is David Brin's Uplift universe, in which humans have "uplifted" both chimpanzees and dolphins to sapiency.
She struck one which he accepted with fumbling grace, took a long, lung-filling drag, let the smoke trickle out his nostrils, and said shyly, "Sankoo, Missy. Me Jerry."- "Jerry Was a Man" by Robert Heinlein (1947)
In real life, however, we're still in the early stages of understanding why humans are more intelligent than chimps. Several years ago Chinese scientists discovered that humans make a unique variant of the neuropsin, a protein involved in learning and memory that is expressed in the brain's frontal lobe. It turns out that the variant form is due to the change of a single base in the human DNA code, a "T" replaced by an "A" . So far, the human variant neuropsin protein has only been studied in the test tube, so it's not clear whether it's responsible for all or even part of the difference between human and chimp intelligence (correlation is not causation, and all that). It's a tantalizing notion, though.
Peter Watts wonders "how many months away we are from building chimps with human-scale intelligence?" I don't think he should hold his breath. It's not just an issue of demonstrating that our unique neuropsin is the single source of our smarts (unlikely since whole networks of genes are uniquely expressed in human brains). There are both ethical and financial limitations on the use of chimps and other non-human primates as experimental animals. It's hard to imagine an ethical scientist performing such a long-shot experiment that is unlikely to have immediate implications for the understanding or treatment of human disease.
What is likely to happen is that transgenic mice expressing the human protein will be engineered and run through a battery of intelligence tests. We'll have to wait and see if they can match Clyven, the mouse with human intelligence*.
- David Brin shares two free Uplift universe stories on his web site: "Aficianado" and "Temptation"
- You can read Robert Silverberg's tale of chimpanzees bred for intelligence, "The Pope of the Chimps," at SciFiction.com
- Listen to Mike Resnick's touching story of a smart but lonely ape, "Barnaby in Exile," at Escape Pod.
- Read the essay "From the Island of Dr. Moreau to Lives of the Monster Dogs: Uplifted Animals and Original Sin" and the Annotated Bibliography of Fiction with "Uplifed" Animals by Syracuse University librarian Wendy Bousfield.
- For technical discussion about creating transgenic chimps, see Chan AW "Transgenic nonhuman primates for neurodegenerative diseases" Reprod Biol Endocrinol 2:39 (2004)"
Tags:science fiction, chimpanzee, intelligence, neuroptin . The chimp in the photo is Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, from Great Images in NASA.