Thursday, May 17, 2007


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.

"Preese, Missy."

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)
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.

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*.

More :
*Yes, I know Clyven isn't real, but it's a nicely done hoax.

Tags:, , , . The chimp in the photo is Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, from Great Images in NASA.


  1. Anonymous7:30 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Dear spammers,

    If you make a relevant comment it's much more likely I'll let your link stay up. Food for thought.

  3. Okay... so Clyven's fake, but there I was, looking at the situation with Mr. Lee, youtube video and all. What's your stance on the authenticity of that one?

    Also, on the subject of Uplift, chimps and dolphins notwithstanding, Mr. Brin also hinted that humanity was uplifting dogs to sapience. Considering dogs are one of the most modified animals humans have domesticated and many are disturbingly smart at times. What's your opinion of naturally* breeding high intelligence/self-awareness in one of them?

    *By naturally, I mean without gene splicing or more direct means of genetic engingeering. Not the selective breeding that makes Great Danes different from Chinese cresteds.

  4. mishal, I'm not sure which Mr. Lee you're talking about. Do you have a link?

    As for dogs, as you say humans have been breeding dogs with desirable characteristics for a long long time. I'm not sure how you are distinguishing "natural breeding" from "selective breeding," since all human-directed breeding for particular trait involves selection. The trick is that we can only select for traits that we can measure some how. The ability to round up sheep or retrieve game or catch foxes are easily observable behaviors. How would we recognize the beginnings of doggy self-awareness? Maybe there are sapient dogs already out there (a la Ralph von Wau Wau) that have no way of letting us know.

  5. (Sorry this is so tardy. Collegework and all, killed my blog-reading time.)

    Okay, Mr.Lee is on the same website as Clyven, on the same page and under the link of Male Pregnancy. However, the page will not come up as I try to get to it now.

    Anyway, on the dogs. In Brin's book there are mentions of selective breeding with direct genetic manipulation (fiddling with the genes themselves, like how they make transgenic animals now) to uplift. By natural selection I meant meant breeding sapience in dogs without the gene-splicing. [Though, not to be sarcastic or anything, there's not much natural left in your average purebred dog anyway to work from.]

    Because we're nowhere close to knowing how to directly modify genes to grow thumbs and not rampant bone cancer for instance. But we can physically put smart dogs with other smart dogs and cross our fingers on the litter results.

    As for testing sapience, that's half the trick I suppose. Perhaps they can follow in the wake of the mirror-and-paint tests they use with elephants, dolphins and great apes.

  6. Mishal: I would have been in big trouble if the internet had been around to distract me when I was in college.

    I found pregnant Mr. Lee. Another excellent spoof/piece of performance art (except for the CNN article about seahorses, which is real).

    I think that we can breed dogs for "intelligence," as long as that is something that can be measured. (Some would say we've already been doing that, such as the case of the border collie). The mirror + paint test for self-awareness would be one aspect that could be tested.

  7. Howdy,

    I have often thought that what we have bred in dogs is not intelligence per se, but rather socialization. Compared to their wild ancestors, dogs readily enjoy sharing their lives with us. Who is to say that domestic dog breeds are any more intelligent than wolves, foxes, and other dog-like wild animals? A wolf knows how to solve problems relavent to a predator living in the wild. Perhaps all humans have done is breed these animals to be less dangerous to us and more willing ot accept us as part of their pack.


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