biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow experiments science tet


Experiments that shouldn’t be done, can’t be done or can but won’t be done

I remember a part of that hilariously silly Monty Python series, in which someone wanted to jump across the Channel and dig a tunnel from England to Australia. And of course my children asked me if that was really possible. Well, they were children, but even now I sometimes get unusual questions, but they’re from adults. One of the more common ones is whether humans can mate with chimps and produce offspring. The interest in that probably stems from the suggestion by someone that the original source of the HIV-infection (i.e., AIDS) in humans were chimps. Let’s examine then.

Chimps and humans share approximately 98.5% of their DNA. Although that sounds a lot, I think the small difference must have been quite important especially when I look at myself in the mirror. Besides, we share nearly a quarter of all our DNA with yeast. So, let’s take a look at the chromosomes. Humans normally have 46 and chimps 48. Although different, that doesn’t mean hybridization isn’t possible: after all donkeys (62 chromosomes) and horses (64) can interbreed and produce mules or hinnies (depending on whether the father was a donkey or a horse). Closest to what a “humanzee” might have looked like and behaved was possibly ‘Oliver’, a celebrated and unusual chimp that was paraded around the world as a hybrid between a human and an ape, but in the end turned to out to be just an oddball of the chimp family.

Another interesting suggestion came from a dog enthusiast, who wondered what might happen if one released one pair each of dog breeds like the Great Dane, Schnauzer, Poodle and Dachshund on a sizeable island with a healthy rabbit population in a temperate climatic zone. What would have happened in 50-100 years? Since dogs of all breeds do recognize each other as dogs and can interbreed, the question is whether after 50-100 years a new kind of racial mix would have been present on the island or whether there would still be dogs around that possessed features of their pedigreed ancestors. Perhaps dormant ‘wolfish’ genes would have come to the fore? Who knows.

I was also asked once by a sportsman if it was possible to confirm that his method of a rapid weight loss, for example during the weigh-in just prior to a boxing fight, was better than the one recommended by his coach. It is common practice to enter the sauna for hours and sweat away as much liquid as you can in order to qualify for a lower weight class, but my interlocutor felt taking a prolonged bath in very warm saltwater would allow him to lose more weight more quickly and more pleasantly than sitting in the sauna. What we need to prove this, I suggested, is identical twins with the same weight. One of them would be sent to spend time in the sauna and the other could relax in a hot bath of salt water. After a certain time, they would be weighed again and their weight losses would be compared. Thanking me for the advice he assured me he was searching for identical twins.

Actually, my students gave me an interesting idea, too. I could tell in more than 50% of the cases whether the person who knocked at my office door was a female or a male student. And even better: in more than 50% of all knocks I predicted correctly that the knocker hailed from central or northern Europe, from East Asia, South America, the USA, South Asia or Africa. Could it be that knocks on the door were gender specific and that people from different geographic regions employed different ways of knocking on a door? I was working at that time at an international university with students from 102 nations. What a pity I never followed this up. It could have led to another ig-Nobel prize.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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