It appears that the saying “well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” may actually be based on some level of scientific fact after all. A recent study of the red haired apes shows that orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans, making them much more genetically linked to people than was previously thought. While chimpanzees still share a greater percentage of our DNA, some parts of the genetic structure of orangutans were actually found to be more closely related to that of a human. This discovery is shocking and has led to discussion and debate over which animal shares closer ancestral ties to mankind.
Fuelling this debate is the common belief that orangutans share more physical, behavioural, and fossil characteristics with humans than chimpanzees or other apes in spite of a slightly reduced level of genetic similarity. Amongst the list of similar characteristics anthropologists often place features such as thick tooth enamel, the presence of beards on males, the way in which the apes smile, and a similar shoulder blade structure as chief indicators of their similarity to humans. When these features are combined with the new information suggesting a higher level of genetic similarity between people and orangutans than previously believed, however, it appears that these apes may just be mankind’s closest living relative.
This argument stands in the face of the accepted scientific wisdom of the past 30 years, and could help fuel increased efforts at protecting these endangered animals. While this may prove to be beneficial to the preservation of the species, many scientists still argue against this belief. Sceptics claim that physical characteristics are often subjective, and the apes may have developed these traits independently and not through a common ancestor. In other words, these physical similarities may simply be coincidence. On the flip side of this argument, proponents of the orangutan-human linkage claim that DNA similarities could also be a result of independent evolution, and may not necessarily point to a similar ancestor in their own right.
Regardless of the arguments for and against the evolutionary connection between humans and organutans, however, this study has done a fantastic job in drawing public attention to the fragile state of the species. With only 50,000 Bornean and 7,000 Sumatran orangutan remaining in the wild, public awareness is needed to prevent the extinction of this wonderful animal. While additional studies on the species will be required to fully discover the extent of its ancestral ties with homo-sapiens, these studies cannot be conducted if the species is pushed to extinction. In light of the recent discovery, it appears that orangutans are very similar to humans, and should be treated with the respect that they deserve!