The close relatives who share 98 per cent of our DNA

It was David Attenborough who finally dispelled the myth about the aggressive nature of the gorilla when he was filmed rolling around the undergrowth with a mother and her playful offspring.

The greatest of the great apes are gentle, leaf-munching vegetarians who, by and large, will keep themselves to themselves unless they feel directly threatened - a far cry from the King Kong of cinema screens.

We humans may like to think of ourselves as set apart from the rest of the animal kingdom but when we look into the face of a great ape, such as a gorilla or a chimpanzee, we can see just how close we are to our nearest living relatives.

After all, we share more than 98 per cent of our DNA with the chimp.

We also shared a common ape ancestor with the chimpanzee about 5 or 6 million years ago; and we only have to go a few million years further back to meet the ancestor we shared with all the great apes, including the gorilla.

In fact, so similar are we in terms of our genes that the scientist Jared Diamond once called us the "third chimpanzee", the second chimpanzee being the pygmy species known as the bonobo, which enjoys a life of free love and operates a matriarchal social order.

The Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins once described how near we are to the rest of the living great apes by using the analogy of physical distance.

He asked us to imagine a chain of people holding hands, with each individual in the chain representing a different generation.

It would start with a teenager holding her mother's left hand, with her mother's right hand being held by her grandmother, who in turn would hold her mother's hand.

This chain continues back into ancestral time until finally we come to the common ape ancestor.

The question Dawkins posed was this: how far do we have to go until we reach that common ancestor we once shared with present-day chimpanzees?

The answer is surprisingly little - we would have to go just 300 miles, which is about equal to the distance from London to Edinburgh.

That includes all the generations of Homo sapiens that have ever lived, all the other members of the human family such as Homo erectus and Homo habilis, and, finally, the common ape ancestor itself.

In evolutionary terms this transition is minute. If the entire 3.5 billion years of life on Earth is measured over a 24-hour period, the evolution of humans and the rest of the great apes takes place in just the few moments that pass before midnight strikes.

Another clock is ticking now. It is time that we began thinking even more seriously about the survival of the rest of our living relatives in the animal world.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss