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Remember those days when debates on evolution vs. creationism were settled and we all rested on the assumption that science was nearing a final understanding of the forces that shaped life. Wait - past tense? Molecular biology is apparently entering a paradigm shift. I'm an avid follower of science, but even I was surprised to pick up the latest issue of The Economist and flip to its cover issue on RNA. Although a little off-topic for its typical reader, recent discoveries in molecular biology are turning notions of genetics on its side.

Apparently, scientists are discovering new functions for a hitherto misunderstood chemical in biological cells called RNA. RNA has till date, remained relatively plain in the long shadow cast by its more popular counterpart, DNA. Ever since Crick and Watson discovered the helix structure of the latter and the release of Jurrasic Park, these protein-creating genes have captivated every school-going kid's imagination. In contrast, RNA has always been seen as a "humble carrier and fetcher of building materials". Well, science textbooks are going to have to be revised again, because all clues point to RNA playing a more distinguished role. Apparently, RNA has been found to be instrumental in biological functions including fertility and gender determination, by regulating levels of proteins. The Economist compares it to discovering that our protein factories have management. And that management is possibly as important as the factories themselves.

Molecular detail aside, why is this important? Well, other consequences notwithstanding, it poses a huge obstacle to the "apes are sapient" argument. Much has been made of the fact that great apes and chimpanzees share more than 90% of DNA with humans (as high as 96% in chimpanzees) and the implications it poses for animal testing. Well, with RNA's elevation in status, the definition of the gene may broaden according to the article. And unless further research is done, a big question mark lies on exactly how much genetic resemblance, and by association, sapient resemblance, can be found between apes and humans.

What consequences do these developments have for supporters of human rights for apes? Uncertain, but it certainly cannot help them in the immediate future. But then apes and other primates never really required human rights. They deserve protection in terms of habitats safe from human encroachment. In any case, arguing for human rights for non-human species is pointless when even humans are threatened, particularly near ape habitats in Africa and Southeast Asia. We would be more successful in conserving ape habitats if we created financial incentives for local human populations to preserve and protect them. If we cannot grant primates "human" status, we could certainly grant them value in terms of their contribution to biodiversity. Or at least, in the name of being sentient?

Protecting ape habitats by itself may not bring a ban on animal testing. Humans are known to inflict harm on even other humans without the slightest motive of self-preservation. We must be the only sapient species that willingly inflicts pain for purely exploitative purposes. So, one could naturally ask, what does it mean to be sapient if we tolerate inflicting pain on sentient creatures? What does it mean to be sapient when we accumulate resources at the expense of all other species? What does it mean to be sapient in a single species world? Questions like these have for too long been relegated to second rate status besides purely symbolic and short-sighted gestures like claiming human status for apes. Our claim to sapience cannot come with granting human rights to other species. It begins with justifying ours.

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