Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Are we unique?

We live in an age of individuality- an age where, for the most part, it is good to be different. While there are always those few who would rather conform, who would rather be followers rather than leaders, who are scared to be different, or who simply see differences as strange (and not the good kind of strange), we for the most part live in an age that emphasizes, and even encourages, diversity.

This emphasis on, and encouragement of, diversity is not a bad thing. Personally, I view it as a very positive development. The more people experience diversity, hopefully the more they will learn to accept that being different can be good, and the less ignorance and intolerance there will be in the word, at least theoretically. What can I say? I tend to be optimistic about this kind of thing.

Really, the only down side about living in an age that emphasizes and encourages diversity, is finding out that, in reality, we are all the same.

As humans, we all share some basic characteristics that separate our species from the rest, even from those species with whom we shared a common ancestor, bonobos and chimpanzees, who are considered our closest living ancestors. Like other primates, we have grasping hands, forward-facing eyes, long learning periods, and large brains. However, we lack grasping feet, and compared to other primates, we are hairless. We also have a larger geographic range, longer learning periods, and larger brains than other primates. Perhaps our most distinguishing characteristic, though, is our ability to be continuously bipedal.

Our genetics, too, also contributes to our uniqueness as a species. While chimpanzees and bonobos, as well as other close relatives such as gorillas and orangutans, each have 24 pairs of chromosomes, we have 23. Interestingly, however, we may not be as genetically unique as this fact, and our differences in traits such as those listed above, lead us to believe. This is because we share as much as 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

What does this mean for human uniqueness? Essentially, it means that despite appearances, humans are really not that different from any other primates, and, in fact, primates are probably not that different from any other mammals.

Despite this, there is something to be said for the variation in our genetics and our appearances or traits that prevent us from being the exact same as every other mammal and primate. For if we are not the exact same, we must, at least to some extent, be unique. Right?

A similar situation arises when we look at ourselves not as humans, but as individuals. Each and every one of us has the same genes. Our differences arise from variations in the sequences of DNA within each of these genes, which produce versions of genes known as alleles. It is these different versions of genes, and the differences in how each of our genes is expressed, that makes us different from everyone else.

So what does all of this mean? Are we unique as humans, and as individuals, or aren't we? The answer to the question of human and individual uniqueness seems to be yes...and no. No, because to some extent, we are all the same, but yes because, thanks to variations in our genes, which result in variations in our appearance, we are all unique.

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