|This is post 6 of 6 in our part of the SSA Week Blogathon!|
Seth Borenstein (author of the piece) begins by comparing the genetic similarity of bonobos and homo sapiens (98.7%) to bonobos and chimps (99.6%). This is the foundation for the rest of his article, wherein he cites a geneticist from the Max Planck Institute: "Humans are a little like a mosaic of bonobo and chimpanzee genomes.” Right off the bat this makes no sense. We are a branch of the primate evolutionary path that happened far before bonobos and chimps differentiated, not some mix of the two species as the piece implies.
|Chimps and Bonobos on the left, humans on the center.|
Quite the mosaic right?
At this point, the article goes completely off the rails. Comparing the peaceful nature of bonobos to their more aggressive chimp cousins, Duke researcher Brian Hare tries to assert that by comparing the two genomes we can find the secret of the bonobos' more peaceful nature, asking “Is the bonobo genome the secret to the biology of peace?” The short answer is no.
The posing of this preposterous question in such a prominent newspaper highlights an issue I have noticed in the public perception of molecular biology: Once an organism's genome is mapped (as in, we have a big list of what all its DNA says in terms of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs) we now have all the information we need to know everything about that organism. This is very much not the case, and making claims to the effect that "bonobos are the secret to the biology of peace" is not just silly -- it's harmful to the advancement of scientific understanding.
The truth of the matter is that mapping the genome is just the first step. From there scientists need to consider gene expression, epigenetic factors, and many other steps before we can come close to linking bonobos' peaceful nature to a genetic cause. And even then, the author completely disregards the possiblity that this characteristic could be purely a cultural or social development.
Let this serve as a reminder to us all -- it's important for us as skeptics to be aware that some scientific discoveries may not have immediate and far-reaching effects by themselves. It takes years of supporting research before we can make any real judgements. When non-scientific journalists write about scientific topics, they tend to make conclusions that real science simply cannot confirm.