Why Are Humans So Smart – Human intelligence is one of evolution’s most consistent inventions. It is the result of a sprint that started millions of years ago, and which led to ever-larger brains and new abilities. Eventually, humans stood up, took up the plow and created civilization, while our primates remained in the trees.

Now, researchers in southern China report that they have attempted to close the evolutionary gap, creating several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

Why Are Humans So Smart

“This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model,” says Bing Su, the geneticist at the Kunming Institute of Zoology who led the effort.

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According to their findings, the modified monkeys performed better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop – as human children do. There was no difference in brain size.

The experiments, described on March 27 in a Beijing journal, the National Science Review, and first reported by Chinese media, are still far from finding the secrets of the human mind or leading to a rebellion of brainy primates.

Instead, several Western scientists, including one who collaborated on the effort, called the experiments reckless and said they called into question the ethics of genetically modifying primates, an area where China has seized a technological edge.

“Using transgenic monkeys to study human genes related to brain development is a very risky path to take,” says James Sikela, a geneticist who conducts comparative primate studies at the University of Colorado. He is concerned that the experiment shows disregard for the animals and will soon lead to more extreme modifications. “It’s a classic slippery slope problem and one that we can expect to repeat itself as this kind of research is pursued,” he says.

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Research using primates is increasingly difficult in Europe and the US, but China has rushed to use the latest high-tech DNA tools on the animals. The country was the first to create monkeys altered with the gene-editing tool CRISPR, and in January a Chinese institute announced it had produced half a dozen clones of a monkey with a severe mental disorder.

Su, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, specializes in looking for signs of “Darwinian selection” — that is, genes that have spread because they are successful. His quest has spanned topics such as the Himalayan yak’s adaptation to high altitudes and the evolution of human skin color in response to cold winters.

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The biggest conundrum of all, however, is intelligence. What we do know is that the brains of our human-like ancestors rapidly grew in size and power. To find the genes that caused the change, researchers searched for differences between humans and chimpanzees, whose genes are about 98% similar to ours. The goal, Sikela says, was to find “the jewels in our genome” — that is, the DNA that makes us uniquely human.

– the “language gene” in press releases – became famous for its potential link to human speech. (A British family whose members inherited an abnormal version had trouble speaking.) Researchers from Tokyo to Berlin soon mutated the gene in mice and listened with ultrasonic microphones to see if their squeaks changed.

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Or microcephalin. Not only did the gene sequence differ between humans and monkeys, but babies with microcephalin damage are born with small heads, providing a link to brain size. Together with his students, Su once used calipers and head wrenches to measure the heads of 867 Chinese men and women to see if the results could be explained by differences in the gene.

By 2010, however, Su saw a chance to perform a potentially more definitive experiment—adding the human microcephaly gene to a monkey. China had then begun pairing its substantial monkey breeding facilities (the country exports more than 30,000 a year) with the latest genetic tools, an effort that has made it a mecca for foreign researchers who need monkeys to experiment with.

To create the animals, Su and collaborators at the Yunnan Key Laboratory of Primate Biomedical Research exposed monkey embryos to a virus that carries the human version of microcephalin. They generated 11 monkeys, five of which survived to take part in a battery of brain measurements. These monkeys each have between two and nine copies of the human gene in their bodies.

Su’s monkeys raise some unusual questions about animal rights. In 2010, Sikela and three colleagues wrote a paper called “The ethics of using transgenic non-human primates to study what makes us human”, in which they concluded that human brain genes should never be added to apes, such as chimpanzees, because they are too similar to us .

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Thinking & Intelligence

“You just go to Planet of the Apes immediately in the popular imagination,” says Jacqueline Glover, a University of Colorado bioethicist who was one of the authors. “To humanize them is to cause harm. Where would they live and what would they do? Do not create a being that cannot have a meaningful life in any context.”

In an email, Su says he agrees that monkeys are so close to humans that their brains should not be changed. But apes and humans last shared an ancestor 25 million years ago. For Su, it eases the ethical concerns. “Although their genome is close to ours, there are also tens of millions of differences,” he says. He doesn’t think the monkeys will become anything more than monkeys. “Impossible by introducing just a few human genes,” he says.

Based on their experiments, the Chinese team expected that their transgenic monkeys might end up with increased intelligence and brain size. That’s why they put the creatures in MRI machines to measure their white matter and gave them computerized memory tests. According to their report, the transgenic monkeys did not have larger brains, but they did better on a short-term memory quiz, a finding the team considers remarkable.

Several researchers believe the Chinese experiment did not provide much new information. One of them is Martin Styner, a computer scientist at the University of North Carolina and an MRI specialist who is listed among the co-authors of the Chinese report. Styner says his role was limited to training Chinese students to extract brain volume data from MRI images, and he considered removing his name from the paper, which he says was unable to find a publisher in the West.

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“There are a bunch of aspects of this study that you couldn’t do in the United States,” Styner says. “It raised questions about the type of research and whether the animals were well cared for.”

After what he’s seen, Styner says he doesn’t look forward to more evolutionary research on transgenic monkeys. “I don’t think it’s a good direction,” he says. “Now we’ve created this animal that’s different than it’s supposed to be. When we do experiments, we need to have a good understanding of what we’re trying to learn, to help society, and that’s not the case here.” One problem is that genetically modified monkeys are expensive to make and maintain. With only five modified monkeys, it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about whether they really differ from normal monkeys in terms of brain size or memory skills. “They are trying to understand the brain’s development. And I don’t think they will get there, says Styner.

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In an email, Su agreed that the small number of animals was a limitation. He says he has a solution. He creates several of the monkeys and also tests new brain development genes. One he has his eye on is

Gave the African savannah to early humans. That gene has been called the “humanity switch” and “the missing genetic link” for its likely role in the emergence of human intelligence.

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Su says he’s added it to monkeys, but it’s too early to tell what the results are.

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This similarity extends, not surprisingly, to our brains. At a basic level, the similarity between a human brain and a chimpanzee brain is striking. To put it in perspective: There is more variation between different structures in the human brain than there is between parallel structures across human and chimpanzee brains.

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Take, for example, the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is involved in coordinating body movements, among other things. The molecular structure of a human cerebellum is closer to the molecular structure of a chimpanzee’s cerebellum than it is to the molecular structure of a human hippocampus, a separate part of the human brain that processes episodic memories.

Yet

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