Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Do Chimps Belong in Genus Homo? The Associated Press is reporting that recent comparisons of human and chimpanzee genomes show them to be even more similar than previously thought. The AP report is available here.

As a result of this similarity, Wayne State University professor Morris Goodman, one of the primary researchers in the AP report, is proposing that humans and chimpanzees be reclassified into the same genus. In the taxanomic hierarchy, genus is the level just above species. The standard Latin name for any given organism takes the form Genus species. For example, human beings are in genus Homo and species sapiens. The common house cat is Felix domesticus.

Species are the only level of the hierarchy that are rigorously defined. Two sexually reproducing organisms are in the same species if they are capable of mating with one another. All other levels of the hierarchy represent a human attempt to impose some order on nature's chaos. Thus, the decision of whether to put two organisms in the same genus is partly arbitrary, based on the considered opinion of experts in the field. However, taxonomists try to classify organisms in ways that reflect their degree of relatedness in evolutionary terms.

Currently, human beings are the only representative of genus Homo. Chimpanzees and bonobos occupy a different genus, Pan. Gorillas represent a third genus. It has been known for some time that humans and chimpanzees are more closely related to each other than either is to the gorilla.

This is mostly an academic dispute, but it does have some implications for the public debate over evolution and creationism. Creationists go to great lengths to deny the relatedness of humans to chimpanzees. Placing them in the same genus, while largely symbolic, would make their argument seem even more absurd than it currently does.


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