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Listening to the BBC's radio program The Why Factor particularly poignant episode What Can Chimps Teach us About Politics? hosted by Professor James Tilley, I heard Professor Frans de Waal of Emory University's Yerkes Primate Research Center, and author of Chimpanzee Politics say:

The differences are so small; normally we would put humans and chimpanzees in the same genus, but because of sensitivities in the human species we’ve not done that.

I'm wondering if this is an opinion, or arguably correct. I understand that taxonomy is an "evolving" discipline, but are there scientific arguments or viewpoints that would suggest that chimps and humans would be in the same genus if not for public, social or individual sensitivity to the idea?

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  • $\begingroup$ To the silent, anonymous "primarily opinion-based" close-voter; I've specifically asked for "scientific arguments or viewpoints" that chips and humans would normally be in the same genus in order to rule out individual opinions. The source of the quote is obviously someone with academic standing in primatology, I'm now asking for the scientific basis behind it, ergo, only answers that are not primarily opinion-based would be appropriate. Let's first wait for the science-based answer instead of invoking the insta-close option. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 28 '17 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not the "opinion close-voter" but it seems to me assignment to a particular taxon level, such as genus, is usually (always?) a matter of opinion, and not something with a firm scientific, factual basis. That two species are related by common ancestry is subject to scientific assessment, but whether you designate that relationship as being within or outside a particular an arbitrary taxon level like genus is simply an issue of opinion and judgement and not of real-world fact. $\endgroup$ – mgkrebbs Nov 28 '17 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ The designation might not be a simple, bright line demarkaction, but the data might exist to allow one to say "In these branches of the animal kingdom, species with the same degree of genetic difference are indeed classified as the same genus". There might be enough examples to strongly suggest that human and chimps are treated in an exceptional manner. $\endgroup$ – swbarnes2 Nov 28 '17 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @mgkrebbs If I posted the question "is assignment of an organism to a given genus purely a matter of personal opinion, or is there some well defined science behind it, albeit somewhat subjective?" would you be interested in posting an answer and seeing how it flies? Or I could ask something like "Is the advent of fast, cheap whole genome sequencing turning traditional taxonomy on its head?" I like stackexchange's question and answer format, allowing for multiple answers as well as comments and voting on those answers. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Nov 28 '17 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ @swbarnes2: But how would a genetic criterion deal with extinct species, for which there isn't any genetic info? Also, if humans and chimpanzees were to share a genus, why shouldn't gorillas and orangutans be included? $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 28 '17 at 19:30
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I have not seen any research that synonymizes Pan and Homo, but that doesn't mean someone hasn't tried to propose it in the literature at some point. The proposal to synonymize the two genera of course would need to be based on accepted techniques and not emotion (such as just having a particular fondness for chimps). And such a synonymy would necessarily synonymize all the ancestors that existed since the most recent common ancestor of humans and chimps, or a new structure for the evolutionary relationships would have to be proposed.

I think it's important to note that while there is a right answer when it comes to the structure of the evolutionary history of species, there are no right answers when it comes to naming conventions. The names exist for our convenience. Phylogenetic trees themselves which show evolutionary relationships are utilized for other research such as understanding the evolution of traits. So I don't know if this researcher is thinking there is some need to re-evaluate the structure of the relationships between humans and chimps for the sake of advancing science, or if he's just trying to get his opinion across and/or cause discomfort.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very good answer +1. I added a bunch of related posts to your answer. $\endgroup$ – Remi.b Jan 4 '18 at 17:07

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