SUNDAY TIMES - Mirror, mirror, am I human?
Sunday Times STLive By Lifestyle Magazine, 2011-03-05 23:42:58.0

Mirror, mirror, am I human?

WHO IS THE FAIREST? Suma contemplates her reflection, just as human beings do

Character portraits explore the 'human' side of animals that share our DNA

In the opening shot of Jane's Journey, a new documentary on the work of chimpanzee conservationist Jane Goodall, the primatologist bemoans the fact that people are forever thinking she is Dian Fossey - the gorilla activist who was killed 26 years ago and whose life was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the film Gorillas in the Mist, which makes one wonder why, for three weeks in a row, a local movie reviewer has described Jane's Journey as a "fine documentary about Jane Goodall and the gorillas in the mist".

While it's hard to understand how anyone who has seen a full-length feature on common chimpanzees could confuse them with gorillas, the genetic difference between the great apes - which includes man - is, in fact, so small, that animal rights activists are increasingly calling for primates to be classified as human.

Environmentalists may now be wielding science as a tool to campaign for the rights of the great ape, but this is an idea that goes back to the 1960s when Goodall's research patron, Louis Leakey, suggested we "redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human" soon after Goodall discovered that chimpanzees also make and use tools.

"Humans differ from either common chimps or pygmy chimps in about 1.6% of their (our) DNA, and share 98.4%. Gorillas differ somewhat more, by about 2.3%, from us or from either of the chimps," writes Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee. "Put another way, the chimpanzees' closest relative is not the gorilla but humans."

Pictured here, Suma, a 32-year-old female orang-utan from Melbourne Zoo in Australia, forms part of "97 Percent Human", a project that seeks to explore the "human" side of baboons, gorillas and orang-utans through character portraits by Arthur Xanthopoulos. Is Suma really gazing at the ripples of her own reflection in the pool of her enclosure - or are we anthropomorphising her behaviour?

Perhaps, but science has, in fact, found that humans are more closely related to the natural world than we had thought - even slugs share 70% or our DNA.